Ancient and modern

Could Cicero help MPs who can’t govern?

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

MPs are not exactly attracting plaudits for their recent attempts at governing. Perhaps Cicero’s three-book work On Duties (De Officiis) might be of assistance. It was written in 44 BC, a few months after the tyrant Julius Caesar was assassinated. Seeing life as a complex of obligations to others and oneself, Cicero picks apart the challenges this raises. Book III is of particular interest, where he tackles the problem of how to resolve a situation in which there is a clash between what is advantageous and what is right. He is not looking for the perfect solution, he says — no one is perfect — but for a working solution that ‘comes within the range of our comprehension’ and is ‘relevant to all mankind’. His example is Caesar’s assassination. Surely, he says, nothing could be worse than murder, especially of a friend? But Caesar was a tyrant, and Romans saw it as a noble deed. So has advantage trumped right? No: advantage has derived from right.

Cicero’s argument is that doing what is right will always be advantageous, but no advantage can arise if that advantage is not right too. Indeed, ‘the only yardstick of advantage is moral right’. Here nature — the way things must be — comes in. If it is natural (and it is) that every human helps every other human simply because they are human, then all have identical interests, and from that it follows that we are subject to the same natural law. So a man who thinks it natural to harm someone else for his own benefit is simply taking away from man all that makes him man, and violating the laws of nature. To do so is to degrade one’s own humanity. But the man who obeys the laws of nature cannot wrong his fellow man.

Cicero enunciates the overall principle underlying this line of thought as follows: ‘This one thing should be everyone’s objective, to identify the interest of each with the interest of all.’ Not a bad way for government and MPs on all sides to think about their responsibilities. Voltaire thought no one would write a wiser, truer or more useful book.

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