Quintus Curtius has achieved a most-sought after goal with his new translation of On Duties by Cicero. He has seamlessly blended the world of academia and erudite learning with prose that can be digested by a modern audience.
This is not to say that he ‘dumbs down’ Cicero’s work, rather the language he uses reads smoothly and pleasantly—whereas with many translations of ancient texts, scholars think little of their audience and how they may perceive the writing. Nor do they position themselves in the mind of the writer, who may have certain predilections which can be glossed over in the translation process.
some of the existing translations confront the reader with such a hopeless mass of semi-colons, stacked clauses, archaic nineteenth century diction, and knotted sentences that reading them is a chore rather than a pleasure. Cicero was an eloquent stylist, always conscious of his audience, and a faithful translation should strive to do justice to the original.
The translation is rife with many welcomed footnotes—256 to be exact. Cicero’s work is full of ancient Roman names which the modern reader will be oblivious to, so these notes help to clue us in. Moreover, each book (there are 3 books with On Duties) is followed by commentary from Quintus, giving a summary and some additional thoughts as to what Cicero has just discussed.
The Wisdom of Cicero
On Duties was written at the end of Cicero’s life. This was a troubling and unstable time for Rome, as Caesar had seized power years earlier, consolidated it, and was ultimately assassinated in 44 B.C.—the year when On Duties was likely written.
Cicero fought adamantly to retain the Roman Republic in his time as a lawyer, orator and Consul. Despite his best effort, the future looked bleak. Cicero wanted to create a lasting impact, and On Duties was a final opportunity for Cicero to bestow upon his son (and the world) all the wisdom and virtue that he had garnered over the years.
The three books are broken down into ‘The Nature of Moral Goodness’, ‘Advantageousness’, and ‘When Moral Good Comes into Conflict with Advantageousness’. The book’s sub-title is ‘A Guide To Conduct, Obligations, And Decision-Making’ which gives a good idea of what to expect.
Within these books are numerous chapters on a variety of topics. Cicero discusses everything from oratory to business dealings to proper etiquette. You will surely find, however, his take on judgement, morality and wisdom to be of great interest.
There are too many topics to discuss all in one article, but I’d like to highlight some of the topics and quotes that stood out to me.
All moral goodness originates from four sources: (1) it is developed in the skilled examination of the truth; (2) in the protecting and developing of the society of man, with faithful observance for the rights of each man and his counterpart; (3) in a lofty and invincible spirit, possessing greatness and power; or (4) by the order and method in all things which happen and are debated, in which modesty and temperance are involved.
There are two questions in discussions on duty. One question is: what is related to the “ultimate good” and its purposes? The other question is: what general rules can be laid out by which one’s life may be shaped? These are examples of the first type of question: whether all moral duties are complete in themselves, whether one moral duty is greater than another, and what are the various categories of these duties. As for the duties for which general precepts are proposed, although these are related to knowledge of the “ultimate good,” nevertheless it is less obvious, because they seem to deal with the rules of everyday life.
Not Giving into Base Instincts
A strong and great soul is altogether distinguished by two features. One is the contempt for the external things of this world. The great soul is persuaded that no man ought to wonder at, hope for, or seek after anything except those things related to goodness and virtue, and that he should succumb to neither another man, nor a disturbance of the spirit, nor a trial of Fortune. The second feature is that, when you have molded your soul with this sort of attitude, as I said above, you perform great achievements of the highest utility which are extremely arduous, laborious, and full of danger to life and to many other things related to one’s livelihood.
A great and noble spirit has two features: (1) it will be contemptuous of the baser things of this world, and (2) it will seek to challenge itself through arduous activities.
Those who inspire admiration are those who are thought to exceed others in virtue and are lacking in all types of misbehavior as well as those vices that others cannot easily resist. Physical pleasure, that most addictive of mistresses, deflects the souls of the majority of men from the path of virtue; and, when the firebrands of sorrow draw near, most of such men are quite paralyzed with terror.
Every action ought to be free from rashness and carelessness; and we should never do anything which cannot be traced to a reasonable purpose. This, indeed, is practically a definition of duty.
In every action undertaken, three things must be adhered to: first, that our appetite submits itself to reason (for nothing is more conducive to carrying out one’s duties than this); second, that we take notice of the effort we will need to expend, so that we expend neither too much nor too little energy than the case requires. The third principle is that we take care to control those things that pertain to the bearing and dignity of a gentleman. The best way to grasp this same honor is to employ ways we have described above, and not to depart too far from this. Of these three principles, however, the most important is to condition the appetite to obey reason.
But those things that deviate the most from proper gentility, like singing in the market-place or some other type of bizarre perversity, are easily noticed. They do not usually merit overt admonition or a specific teaching point. However, what are considered “minor” sins, indistinguishable from the many other actions we do, must still be more diligently culled out from our other actions. Even if a harp or flute is out of tune only a little bit, it will still be noticed by the practiced ear. So we must be vigilant in life, lest something by chance be out of alignment. In fact we should be more vigilant, since harmony in life resides much more and much better in actions than in musical notes.
The Pursuit of Wisdom
Those who think that they can attain glory by deceit, inane ostentation, or by inventing words and facial expressions, are seriously wrong. True glory has roots which are widely spread out; all fake things quickly fall away like little flowers, and nothing false can pass itself off as long-lasting.
For what, by God, is more worth learning than wisdom? What is most outstanding, or better for a man, or more worthy? Those who seek wisdom are called philosophers; and philosophy itself is really nothing more— if you want it to be defined— than the study of wisdom. Wisdom, however, as it was defined by the old-school philosophers, is the knowledge of human and divine matters and of the causes which sustain them. And if someone should criticize the study of philosophy as something pointless, I would like to know what he believes to be worth praising.
This resonated with a lot of people, and it’s easy to see why:
“…if someone should criticize the study of philosophy as something pointless, I would like to know what he believes to be worth praising.”
— Masculine Books (@MasculineBooks) July 6, 2016
A Practical Guide to Moral Conduct
Like many ancient works, On Duties is full of wisdom. It is not only a lot to digest and study, but it also provides a lot of actionable insight. It’s the type of book that you want to buy in paperback, and turn it into a dog-eared, inked up text,
This isn’t a book you can simply read once, but doing so is a good start.
Click here to get your copy of On Duties by Cicero (With translation by Quintus Curtius) on Amazon.
Further Reading and Resources
Below is some content from Quintus that will give you more insight into the book. Additionally, attached are my 3 previous reviews of Quintus’ works.
- Conduct, Obligations, And Decision-Making: Details Of My New Book “On Duties” (Podcast) via QCurtius.com
- The Details on My Upcoming Book “On Duties” via QCurtius.com
- Pantheon by Quintus Curtius (Review)
- Pathways by Quintus Curtius (Review)
- Stoic Paradoxes by Cicero (Translation from Quintus Curtius) (Review)