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Cicero on Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism in De Officiis

Jed W. Atkins

Cicero’s De officiis is a foundational text for two important but seemingly opposed traditions: republicanism and cosmopolitanism (see respectively Viroli (1995) and Nussbaum (1997)).  The former tradition identifies the res publica as the object of one’s greatest allegiance and thus sees patriotism as an important virtue for citizens; the latter holds that one’s greatest allegiance should be to the world community of justice and reason, and views patriotism as a potentially dangerous impediment to this wider community of human beings.  Both traditions find ample support in De officiis.  Passages like Off. 1.50-51 and 3.27 clearly articulate a society of all human beings united by justice and common advantage, whereas 1.51-57 suggests that a citizen’s greatest allegiance should be to his own res publica.  How, if at all, does Cicero try to square these seemingly irreconcilable ideas?  Given the existence of a society of all human beings, on what grounds does Cicero argue for the priority of a patriotic allegiance to one’s res publica

Little work on these fundamental questions has been done, perhaps in part because readers suppose with Atkins (1990: 274) that “Cicero does not so much argue for patriotism as assume it in his reader.”  More recently, Nussbaum (2000) suggests that ultimately the priority Cicero gives to the res publica depends on a dichotomy between the duties of justice and those involving material aid—a dichotomy that in turn rests on an important unargued assumption.  In this paper, I suggest that Cicero in fact identifies two features of the res publica that account for its priority in politics: its status as the locus for meeting, first, natural human loves and, second, human need.  Consequently, he argues that the res publica is the society that best fosters human sociability. 

The first part of the paper examines Cicero’s arguments for the res publica as the locus for the fulfillment of human loves, focusing especially on Off. 1.53-57.  Like Stoics such as Hierocles, Cicero in this section provides an account of degrees of human fellowship.  However, whereas Hierocles holds that the standpoint of reason allows us to collapse the distance between those most distant from us and to treat all human beings with an “impartial fairness” (to metrion; cf. Stobaeus, Anthology 4.84.23), Cicero argues that a “rational outlook” (ratione animoque; Off. 1.57) confirms that our most weighty obligation is to the res publica.  The res publica, Cicero argues, is the form of human fellowship that encompasses two natural human loves: the love of one’s own and the love for other human beings.  It reconciles these two loves by broadening the former and lending shape and intensity to the latter.  By mediating between and reconciling these two natural loves, the res publica aids a human being’s natural inclination to enter into society.

The second part of the paper examines Cicero’s presentation of the res publica as the locus for meeting human need.  Here I draw mainly on a selection of passages from the end of Book 1 (1.157-158) and Book 2 (2.15, 2.74).  These passages show that Cicero believes that the res publica is the form of society that gives special weight to the natural human drive to fulfill basic human needs, and in fact is uniquely equipped to meet these needs.  However, Cicero suggests that the laws, customs, and habits developed to meet human need also transform human nature and in so doing enhance the natural human social drive.

The paper concludes by briefly suggesting how Cicero’s defense of the priority of the res publica may be reconciled with his acceptance of a community among all human beings.  In most instances, one can best benefit the society of all human beings indirectly by making the res publica the object of one’s primary allegiance.  This, at any rate, is the best that those of us who are not perfectly wise (1.46, 3.14-16) can manage.                   

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Judgment and Obligation in Roman Intellectual History

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