“On Obligations” by Cicero

On Obligations

[Original Latin Title: De Officiis]

The Roman Book of Proverbs

Cicero, in this letter to his son Marcus, discourses on the four cardinal virtues, wisdom (prudence), justice (beneficence), courage (greatness of the soul), and temperance (concept of the fitting). He reflects on Roman politics and history, draws on the writings of philosophers and poets, as well as personal experience, and stipulates how an individual should conduct himself in his private life and in a social context, as a statesman. He maintains that the honorable and the expedient are in essence inseparable, and condemns those who forsake the honorable in pursuit of the ostensibly useful, most notably Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.


Private property has been endowed not by nature, but by long-standing occupancy in the case of those who settled long ago on empty land; or by victory in the case of those who gained it in war; or by law or bargain or contract or lot.

As the Stoics have it, all that the earth produces is created for men’s use, and men have been begotten for men’s sake to be of service to each other. Therefore we should follow nature as our guide in this sense of making available shared benefits by exchange of our obligations, by giving and receiving, and in this way binding the community and its individuals closely together by our skills, our efforts, and our talents.

There are two kinds [of injustice]: the injustice of those who inflict it, and that done by those who do not protect victims from injury when they have the power to do so.

The concept of the fitting is to be observed in every act and every word, and also in every movement and posture of the body. It consists of three elements: beauty, due arrangement and adornment as applied to action.



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