"The Supreme Good"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: After a career as a defense lawyer for the victims of political injustice, with his defense of the poet Archias as a high point, and his few appearances as prosecutor, especially against Cataline for conspiracy, Cicero ended his life in writing treatises on philosophy, government, old age, friendship, and the like. "De Officiis," a manual of ethics, remains the most readable and most popular. It was written close to the end of his life, probably for his son studying in Athens. Cicero also wrote letters which, edited and published after his death by his secretary Tiro, mark him for brilliance of style as one of the world's great letter writers. In his philosophical thought, Cicero tried to reconcile imperialism with liberty, progress with prosperity, intellectual culture with morality, and social and political discipline with wealth and luxury. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar and the bitterness of civil war, he saw certain disaster for Rome ahead. Thus he penned this manual of ethics, avowedly based on the work of Panaetius, a Greek Stoic philosopher of the second century B.C., and on the memorandum of another Stoic of a century later, Athenodorus. The Stoics, so-called because they originally gathered at the Painted Porch (Stoa) in Athens to listen to lectures by the philosopher Zeno, believed in living "consistently with Nature." As a Stoic, Cicero's avowal of a universal force that pervades all things and becomes the reason and the soul in the animate creation, gave him a basic identity with Christianity. The ethical creed of the Stoics accepted virtue as life's "summum bonum," which can be translated as "supreme good," or "highest good."

". . . who would presume to call himself a philosopher, if he did not inculcate any lessons of duty? But there are some schools that distort all notions of duty by the theories they propose touching the supreme good and the supreme evil. For he who posits the supreme good as having no connection with virtue and measures it not by a moral standard but by his own interests–if he should be consistent and not rather at times over-ruled by his better nature, he could value neither friendship nor justice nor generosity; and brave he surely cannot possibly be that counts pain the supreme evil, nor temperate he that holds pleasure to be the supreme good."