The Four "Roles" We Play:
Cicero's On Duties 1.107-115

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Posted August 10, 2003

In his On Duties (De Officiis), the Roman orator-politician-philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero provides the following moral guidance to a young person starting out on adult life. He makes reference to four "personae," roles or morally relevant descriptions. They are

the universal;
the individual;
the accidental or situational;
and the self-chosen.
It may be worth our time to try to understand each of these and how they fit together in Cicero's general moral advice.

1. "One of the personae [or morally relevant descriptions "with which nature has clothed us"] is universal, deriving from the fact that we all participate in the intelligence and superiority by which we [humans] surpass other animals." (1.107)

Cicero is here speaking of the faculty of rationality or reason, the common possession of which among humans requires us to observe duties of justice toward other humans as well as to do appropriate acts roughly corresponding to admirable qualities such as courage, generosity, and moderation.

2. "The [second persona] is the [set of natural tendencies and talents] bestowed separately on each individual." (1.107)

To illustrate what he has in mind, Cicero remarks (107-109) how some are endowed with quickness, others with strength, some have an imposing presence, others are attractive; some are mentally brilliant, others are mentally slow; some are very serious, others disposed to gaiety; some are witty and indirect in conversation, others get to the point without humor, some are clever and devious, some are ruthless in pursuit of whatever goals they have, others are of open disposition.

Of these diverse individual natural tendencies Cicero says that "each man should retain his particular qualities, though not the harmful ones. We have the obligation to act in such a way that we do not put ourselves in opposition to nature in general" (110), that is, we should not do anything that would be inappropriate or reasonably judged as unjust, cowardly, greedy, or immoderate.

Cicero maintains that this "individual nature" can give concrete shape to one's duty. Thus, he claims (111) that Marcus Cato, the severe, incorruptible (and Stoic) defender of the Roman Republic was probably correct to commit suicide rather than submit to the dictator Caesar, whose armies had defeated Cato's forces in battle. (This event occurred about ten years before On Duties was composed.) Cato's ending his life in this way was appropriate, Cicero implies, given how he had shaped his life up to that point. By contrast, other opponents of Caesar whose individual qualities and prior history were different, were not necessarily wrong in surrendering to Caesar when it became clear that Caesar was likely to be victorious and taking the chance that he would spare them, giving them a chance to perform services to their country and humanity in the future.

"Let each man come to know his own ability," writes Cicero (114). "If we have a choice we shall work faithfully at those things that are most suitable to us. If necessity pushes us into affairs . . . alien to our [individual nature], complete care, forethought, and application must be brought to bear . . . we should act with as much fitness as possible."

3. "A third role [is that which] chance or opportunity thrusts upon the individual . . . when it comes to kingdoms and commands, nobility and high offices, wealth and property, chance governs all and accidents rule the world." (115)

4. "A fourth [role is] that [which] we freely adopt for ourselves by a personal decision." (115) Cicero has in mind a selection of a career or the education and training corresponding to such a long-term activity. He mentions as examples paths familiar to educated Romans: philosophy, civil law, oratory, and military affairs. His point is that those who can should seek "stability within themselves for the whole duration life and no failure in any [morally appropriate action] whatever."

Cicero does not discuss in this passage more traditional roles such as son, daughter, brother, father, mother, husband, wife, friend, fellow-citizen, etc. No doubt he believes that there are appropriate actions associated with each. They partly derive from universal human nature: humans are such as to have some such relationships. But they also partly depend upon events beyond one's control, i.e. "chance." Who one has for a father or brother does not depend upon his own individual nature or his choice, much less his universal nature. While a Roman male of Cicero's time might choose to ask a woman's father to give her in marriage, the availability of the potential spouse and the consent of the woman's father to the arrangement were not in the asker's power.

It appears that our universal (human) nature then sets (strict moral) limits to what we may do: We may not rob or cheat or assault or give false witness about our neighbors. We must do our part to support the communities of which we are part. We must return favors so long as doing so does not involve anything inappropriate. We must follow the law of the state so long as it is not radically contrary to moral principle.

But there is more to choice than this: we must also try to harmonize our universal nature, our individual nature, the external events that chance (or, as the Stoics would say, Fate) dishes out, with our chosen arena of work.

* * * * *

A note for critical reflection: As we read Cicero's political and philosophical writings we need to bear in mind when he is more or less speaking for himself and when he is trying to teach educated Romans about the diverse philosophical perspectives developed by the various Greek schools, perspectives with which he may disagree or only agree partially. Especially when he is speaking for himself, his political allegiances are likely to affect what he says. Cicero was a defender of the Roman Republic against the rise of supreme political bosses exemplified by Julius Caesar. Cicero idealized the Roman state that he thought existed before his own lifetime (that is, in the second century B. C. and earlier). And he also defended the interests of the wealthy landowning class, an elite that controlled the Roman Senate. These commitments subtly affect other parts of his On Duties, but this section seems relatively immune to such distortions. Where it does affect this section, I think, is that Cicero does not include among his examples of "callings" that might be chosen the vocation of reformer of the state to alleviate injustice. Cicero himself was opposed to what he took to be pervasive injustice in the state, but he thought the solution lay in rallying around remnants of the ancient institutions, which at best was only a part of a solution. Cicero could conceive of assassinating a tyrant (such as he took Julius Caesar to be) but not reforming the state in such a way as to make it more just and at the same time in tune with present circumstances.

For further reading, see A. A. Long, "Greek Ethics after MacIntyre and the Stoic Community of Reason," Ancient Philosophy 3 (1983), 184-97; reprinted in A. A. Long, Stoic Studies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). I bought the book for a reasonable price this summer from For a general study of Cicero by a scholar of political theory, see Neal Wood, Cicero's Political and Social Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).