De Officiis (On Duties or On Obligations) is an essay by Marcus Tullius Cicero divided into three books, in which Cicero expounds his conception of the best way to live, behave, and observe moral obligations.
De Officiis was written in October–November 44 BC, in under four
weeks. This was Cicero’s last year alive, and he was 62 years of age.
Cicero was at this time still active in politics, trying to stop
revolutionary forces from taking control of the Roman Republic. Despite
his efforts, the republican system failed to revive even upon the
assassination of Caesar, and Cicero was himself assassinated shortly
The essay was written in the form of a letter to his son with the
same name, who studied philosophy in Athens. Judging from its form, it
is nonetheless likely that Cicero wrote with a broader audience in mind.
The essay was published posthumously.
De Officiis has been characterized as an attempt to define ideals of
It criticizes the recently overthrown dictator Julius
Caesar in several places, and his dictatorship as a whole.
Although Cicero was influenced by the Academic, Peripatetic, and
Stoic schools of Greek philosophy, this work shows the influence of the
Stoic philosopher Panaetius. The essay discusses what is honorable (Book
I), what is expedient or to one’s advantage (Book II), and what to do
when the honorable and expedient conflict (Book III). Cicero says they
are the same and that they only appear to be in conflict. In Book III,
Cicero expresses his own ideas. Michael Grant tells us that “Cicero
himself seems to have regarded this treatise as his spiritual testament
Cicero claims that the absence of political rights corrupts moral
virtues. Cicero also speaks of a natural law that is said to govern both
humans and gods alike.
Cicero urged his son Marcus to follow nature and wisdom, as well as
politics, and warned against pleasure and indolence. Cicero’s essay
relies heavily on anecdotes, much more than his other works, and is
written in a more leisurely and less formal style than his other
writings, perhaps because he wrote it hastily. Like the satires of
Juvenal, Cicero’s De Officiis refers frequently to current events of his
The work’s legacy is profound. Although not a Christian work, St.
Ambrose in 390 declared it legitimate for the Church to use (along with
everything else Cicero, and the equally popular Roman philosopher
Seneca, had written). It became the moral authority during the Middle
Ages. Of the Church Fathers, Saint Augustine, St. Jerome and even more
so St. Thomas Aquinas, are known to have been familiar with it.
Illustrating its importance, some 700 handwritten copies remain extant
in libraries around the world dating back to before the invention of the
printing press. Only the Latin grammarian Priscian is better attested
to with such handwritten copies, with some 900 remaining extant.
Following the invention of the printing press, De Officiis was the
second book to be printed—second only to the Gutenberg Bible.
Petrarch, the father of humanism and a leader in the revival of
Classical learning, championed Cicero. Several of his works build upon
the precepts of De officiis. The Catholic humanist, Erasmus, published
his own edition in Paris in 1501. His enthusiasm for this moral treatise
is expressed in many works. The German humanist, Philip Melanchthon
established De officiis in Lutheran humanist schools.
T. W. Baldwin said that “in Shakespeare’s day De Officiis was the
pinnacle of moral philosophy”.Sir Thomas Elyot, in his popular Governour
(1531), lists three essential texts for bringing up young gentlemen:
Plato’s Works, Aristotle’s Ethics, and De Officiis.
In the 17th century it was a standard text at English schools
(Westminster and Eton) and universities (Cambridge and Oxford). It was
extensively discussed by Grotius and Pufendorf.Hugo Grotius drew heavily
on De officiis in his major work, On the Law of War and Peace. It
influenced Robert Sanderson and John Locke.
In the 18th century, Voltaire said of De Officiis “No one will ever
write anything more wise”.Frederick the Great thought so highly of the
book that he asked the scholar Christian Garve to do a new translation
of it, even though there had been already two German translations since
1756. Garve’s project resulted in 880 additional pages of commentary.
It continues to be one of the most popular of Cicero’s works because
of its style, and because of its depiction of Roman political life under
..and brave he surely cannot possibly be that counts pain the supreme
evil, nor temperate he that holds pleasure to be the supreme good. (No
man can be brave who thinks pain the greatest evil; nor temperate, who
considers pleasure the highest good.) (Latin: fortis vero dolorem summum
malum iudicans aut temperans voluptatem summum bonum statuens esse
certe nullo modo potest) (I, 5)
We are not born, we do not live for ourselves alone; our country, our
friends, have a share in us. (We are not born for ourselves alone.)
(Latin: non nobis solum nati sumus ortusque nostri partem patria
vindicat, partem amici) (I, 22)
Let us remember that justice must be observed even to the lowest.
(Latin: Meminerimus autem etiam adversus infimos iustitiam esse
servandam) (I, 41)
Let arms yield to the toga, the laurel defer to praise. (Latin: cedant arma togae concedat laurea laudi) (I, 77)
It is the function of justice not to do wrong to one’s fellow-men; of
considerateness, not to wound their feelings; and in this the essence of
propriety is best seen. (Justice consists in doing no injury to men;
decency in giving them no offense.) (Latin: Iustitiae partes sunt non
violare homines, verecundiae non offendere, in quo maxime vis
perspicitur decori) (I, 99)
Is anyone unaware that Fortune plays a major role in both success and
failure? (Latin: Magnam vim esse in fortuna in utramque partem, vel
secundas ad res vel adversas, quis ignorat?) (II, 19)
Of evils choose the least. (Latin: Primum, minima de malis.) (III, 102)
Time heals all wounds. (Latin: Diem adimere aegritudinem hominibus.) (I, 30)