Cicero on How to Treat One’s Neighbor

Cicero, who lived from 106-43 BC and who is considered the greatest of the Roman orators, often has some pretty good things to say. In book 3 chapter 5 of his On Duties, for example, he writes that it is better to spend one’s time in the service of others instead of spending it in the service of one’s self. Here is the passage: 

There he is. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

[I]t is more in accord with Nature to emulate the great Hercules and undergo the greatest toil and trouble for the sake of aiding or saving the world, if possible, than to live in seclusion, not only free from all care, but revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth, while excelling others also in beauty and strength. Thus Hercules denied himself and underwent toil and tribulation for the world, and, out of gratitude for his services, popular belief has given him a place in the council of the gods. The better and more noble, therefore, the character with which a man is endowed, the more does he prefer the life of service to the life of pleasure. Whence it follows that man, if he is obedient to Nature, cannot do harm to his fellow-man. (Loeb 30; 1913, 132)

Pretty good, right? I like it because it inspires me to want to work at making the world a better place instead of trying to make my own life as easy and extravagant as possible. I think it is true that the best human beings who have lived on this earth, the most respected and the ones who have done the most good, often “underwent [much] toil and tribulation” when they could have spent a life “revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth.” 

This certainly doesn’t mean entirely neglecting one’s own duties to one’s self. But it does mean not letting what I want distract me from recognizing that the most important things in life are not things: having a bunch of awesome stuff that I keep for myself doesn’t really make me happy. The most important things, on the contrary, are other members of the human family. They are brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and even strangers. After all, strangers to us are not strangers to themselves. Strangers have lives similar to our own, and their lives are certainly not strange to themselves. Doing things for these people–even strangers–is what makes me happy, and it is also what makes the world a better place.

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