Cicero and Christian Virtue in the NT

In On the Good Life (New York: Penguin, 1971) Michael Grant has translated and assembled five works of the famous Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC). Three of these are individual books, or more accurately volumes, from larger books; the other two are freestanding and complete. Save, On Duties, each of the works presented in On The Good Life is written in conversational form, usually involving Cicero’s companions or outstanding figures from previous generations. Grant’s compilation provides a window for understanding the famous Senator Cicero, and the Roman esteem of virtue. The review below is intended to provide a framework for understanding especially Paul’s argument for Christians to live virtuously in light of Christ, as he states in Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared, with salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way int he present age, while we wait for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for Himself a special people, eager to do good works.”

In Discussions at Tusculum [Book V], On Duties [Book II], Laelius: On Friendship, On the Orator [Book I], and The Dream of Scipio, Grant helps the reader to understand Cicero in his historical context: a disgruntled Senator who, like the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, watched as his beloved country was taken captive. In the case of Cicero however, the captivity of his homeland was not by the Assyrians or Babylonians or some other foreign power, but by an Emperor—from within. These five variegated works cohere around what may be Cicero’s life thesis: The Good Life is to be found in the application of moral philosophy to the present situation of the state; ‘salvation’ in the Christian sense was to be attained in Rome as one sought to live virtuously for the sake of the Empire. This review will briefly survey how each of the five works in On the Good Life contribute to this thesis, giving special attention to On the Orator [Book I].

While many of the virtues in Cicero’s writings parallel those of the New Testament (he even proposes that love for one’s neighbor is a universal law), Cicero proposed that it was within human ability to love, do justice, and practice benevolence; for him these were not the fruit of the Spirit of God, but within the ability of every man. Cicero was thus not in agreement with the Apostle Paul concerning matters of human inability. Grant notes that Augustine’s City of God “was written to oppose Cicero’s conception of Providence” (33).

In the first four volumes of Tusculum, Cicero argues that humans are capable of living the good life (i.e., consistent with the virtues of morality and rationalism), despite being human and living in a world where people and elements may oppose them (49). Introducing Discussions at Tusculum [Book V] (49-117), Grant writes: “The entire work is gathered up in the single thought that moral goodness is in itself sufficient for a happy life. But one of the principal points that remains at issue is whether it is the only good or whether there are others as well” (italics in original, 49). The fifth book, thus concludes the whole by arguing that, in parallel with Stoic philosophy, even the greatest unhappiness(es) a human could experience are not sufficient to rob a man of happiness, namely the pursuit of morality and reason. These alone, proposes Cicero, are grounds for The Good Life; these of themselves are capable of eliciting happiness even when the circumstances of one’s health, family, or political situation were unfavorable.

Grant writes that On Duties [Book II] (117-172) “has generally been the most popular of Cicero’s writings, and has perhaps exercised more influence on the thought and standards of the western world than any other secular work ever written” (117). Cicero composed three volumes under this title, the first details the duties which accord moral uprightness, the second the duties concomitant with expediency or personal advantage, and the third analyzes the appropriate course to take when moral obligation and personal advantage seem to be opposed in a particular circumstance (118).

Cicero’s analyses of the duties which accord expediency or personal advantage are grounded in his broader understanding of both theology and anthropology. Stated ever so briefly, Cicero argues that since the gods do not pose a threat to man, but rather “the greatest source of harm to man is man” (125), then it follows that for one to pursue his own interests, he must win the affection of his fellow man. While not neglecting the role of fortune in one’s circumstances, Cicero nevertheless states that by seeking to persuade one’s fellow-men to adopt his cause and collaborate in his efforts, he will secure his own advantage and that which is expedient for him. He writes: “There is not a shadow of doubt that man has the power to be the greatest agent both of benefit and of harm towards his fellow-men. Consequently it must be regarded as vitally important to be able to win over human hearts and attach them to one’s own cause…to gain the goodwill of our fellow human beings, to convert them to a state of active readiness to further our own interests, is a task worthy of the wisdom and excellence of a superman” (128).

Cicero proposes that one can most effectively win the affection and devotion of his contemporaries by being a man of moral virtue and character. By promoting principles of justice and mercy, responsibility and compassion, and advancing the good of the majority and standing up for the disadvantaged, Cicero argues, one will gain the sympathy of his countrymen—and place himself in an advantageous position, The Good Life.

Grant notes that Laelius: On Friendship (172-228) was composed during the period following the assassination of Caesar—when it became apparent to the Senator that the Roman Republic would not be restored. On Friendship is Cicero’s account of a (possibly fictitious) discussion between historical figures, including one of his teachers, which if actual would have had to have taken place more than 20 years before Cicero was born. Here Cicero weaves a philosophical analysis of human relations within the historical fabric of his own situation, notwithstanding the strains contemporary political events placed upon his relationships with Roman officials.

On the whole, Cicero’s discussion of friendship displays his concern of the greater principle of goodness: he argues that friendship is the result of mutual recognition of goodness of character. Goodness of character attracts friends; goodness of character maintains a friendship; goodness of character inspires and assists a friend to become all that he can be, apprehending The Good Life. The Senator notes that at times friendships may wane—and even in the occasion that a friendship should be dissolved, in light of one’s pursuit of goodness, the pursuit of goodness should guide the way for ceasing the bond. Here the Christian reader finds not a few parallels to Scripture. The margins of this reviewer’s volume is littered with references—both Old and New Testament—which accord the words of the Senator.

Grant points up the significance of On the Orator, [Book 1] (228-337), stating Cicero’s concern not with merely the form or even content of moving speeches, but the broader significance of the task of the speaker; “For ‘orator’ means the same as ‘statesman’, and what the book deals with is a very urgent question: how must we train the men who govern us as that they will be efficient but will refrain from abusing their power?” (228). Grant proposes that “Book I of On the Orator ranks at the very top of those works which give us an insight into how Rome and Romans functioned at their best” (235). While Cicero wrote later works on Rhetoric, including a textbook titled On Invention, this seminal volume was influenced by his observance of the erosion of the Roman Republic in 55 BC. Grant notes that Cicero departed from the teachers of his day in that he emphasized not only doing, but being; perhaps it was Cicero who influenced Quintilian to later propose that Rhetoric ‘is the art of good men speaking well’ (from the Preface to Book 1 in The Institutio Oratoria, ca 95 A.D.).

Cicero’s thoughts concerning the formal discipline of rhetoric parallel those of Aristotle, not Plato, seeing it as valuable despite the abuses of it (which inspired Plato to discard rhetoric nearly outright, favoring instead ‘pure’ philosophy). In On the Orator [Book I] Cicero again places his treatise in the frame of a (imaginary?) discussion between historical figures, this time between Lucius Licinius Crassus—Cicero’s teacher and the mouthpiece of his argument, and Marcus Antonius Orator—one who rivaled Crassus in skill, but opposed him in method, opting for a less theoretical, more practical, rhetorical education.

Here Crassus (Cicero) argued that Rome enjoyed few excellent orators because few were naturally gifted for the work—possessing among other characteristics keen wit and memory, and few were up to the great demands of becoming an excellent persuasive speaker—acquiring a liberal knowledge of history, law, human emotion, and skilled delivery. Besides these factors an orator needed to be an honorable man—one whose moral standing and character would advance his words, and the empire. Crassus proposed: “In my opinion, he (the excellent orator) will merit this splendid designation provided that, whatever the topic of discussion, he is able to display sound knowledge, and proper arrangement of his material, and a good style, and a retentive memory, and an impressive delivery” (259). These five have come to be known as ‘the five cannons of rhetoric.’

Cicero gave the final word to Marcus Antonius Orator, who argued that Rome enjoyed such few men who were able to meet Crassus’ standards because no one could! In his view, the most persuasive were those who could excel at delivery and ethos, securing knowledge of various subjects from experts only as necessary. While it is clear that Cicero placed his bent on the lips of his teacher Crassus, Antonius’ comments serve as more than a foil for the former; the dialogue is presented in such a way that the reader gets the feel that Cicero had some measure of sympathy for the practicality of Antonius.

The Dream of Scipio (337-356) is the shortest of Cicero’s works presented in On The Good Life. Here Cicero presents the dream of Scipio Africanus in which the latter is taken up into a heavenly transfiguration. In this state he meets his adoptive grandfather, the elder Africanus. The climax of the dream occurs when the older Africanus assures the younger that each man is a god, having a capacity to be like God, and that salvation to a heavenly state is possible for those who pursue moral philosophy and good citizenship. While some of the structures of Cicero’s thought parallel Christianity (i.e., heaven, afterlife, salvation), the definitions of these find few parallels between the two.


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