Reading Cicero for the Good Life in 7 Days: Day 2 (Achieving the Common Good)

Reading Cicero for the Good Life in 7 Days: Day 2 (Achieving the Common Good)

To live according to divine providence:

“The Stoics believe that right is the only good. Your Peripatetics, on the other hand, hold that right is the ‘highest good’–to the degree that all other things collected together scarcely begin to weight down the balance on the other side. Now, according to either doctrine, there can be no doubt whatever about one point: advantage can never conflict with right. That is why Socrates, as the tradition goes, uses to curse men who had first begun to differentiate between these things which nature had made inseparable. The Stoics agreed with him; for their view is that everything which is morally right is advantageous, and there can be no advantage in anything which is not right.”

“The Stoics’ ideal is to live consistently with nature. I suppose what they mean is this: throughout our lives we ought invariably to aim at morally right courses of action, and, in so far as we have other aims also, we must select only those which do not clash with such courses…There ought never to have been any question of weighing advantage against right, and the whole topic ought to have been excluded from any philosophical discussion.”

Commentary: Cicero, an enthusiastic champion of Stoic worldview and way of life, believed that human beings and politicians should live up to high moral standards and should exercise self-restraint when making moral choices. When Cicero talks about nature or the Law of nature, he is referring to the things that have been (pre-) ordained in nature by the gods, what we call in philosophy and theology (divine) providence. For him, divine providence is a global human experience because every human being has been marked with the divine imprint and that the gods have universally distributed this divine spark among all people. Similarly, the Stoics held the same view.

To address the issue of right and advantage, Cicero discusses the two dominant views of his time: that of Peripatetics and the Stoics. For the former, doing what is right in life is to achieve the highest moral goodness. That would benefit all people, even one’s enemy. This is a moral obligation. For the latter, to act rightly is to do good because nature calls every man to live consistently to what is morally right. In other words, the highest good is always to do what is right that will push forward the project of human cooperation and understanding.  From both perspectives, something that is morally good will be advantageous to all people. To put it simply, when someone does the right thing, it will benefit someone’s else and contributes to the common good in society. What is morally right is always almost advantageous to society and individuals. To act contrary, that is,  to do what is morally wrong or “not right” is to act contrary to nature and divine providence. In such a case, such action will harm others, be disadvantageous to others, and defer human cooperation and flourishing in the world.  For Cicero, the aim of life is to do good always and to act rightly consistently, which is aligned with divine providence in human history.

Source, Cicero, “Selected Works,” trans. with an introduction by Michael Grant, pp. 12,  162-3

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