In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Ciceronian Officium and Kantian Duty
  • Andree Hahmann and Michael Vazquez

One of the characteristic markers of the advent of modern moral philosophy is the conceptual distinction between morality and one's own happiness.1 Nowhere is this innovation more visible than with the concept of "moral duty," which in modern terms is often defined precisely by its opposition to prudential self-interest or one's own happiness.2 It is generally assumed that the Stoics are ancient precursors to this decidedly modern concept.3 The concept of duty, or [End Page 667] something like it, plays a central role not only in their account of the psychology of human action but also in their prototypical conception of natural law ethics.4 Yet as recent commentators have emphasized, while the commonalities are tantalizing, appearances are misleading. The Stoics are, at bottom, eudaimonists in the Socratic tradition for whom the modern distinction between morality and prudence would be incoherent.5 No historian of philosophy will deny the vast expanse that separates Stoicism from modern moral philosophy, but the picture [End Page 668] remains largely obscure. It has long been suspected that Cicero played a decisive role in this development due to his crucial role as a translator and mediator of Greek philosophy. After all, Cicero is responsible not only for giving Greek philosophy a Latin dress, but also for shaping the linguistic and conceptual resources of Western philosophy for centuries to come. Scholars have offered varying explanations for Cicero's role in the movement away from eudaimonism: Cicero's Antiochean and syncretizing tendencies,6 the Roman and juridical cast of his appropriation of Stoic ethics and natural law,7 his emphasis on moral progress and the performance of officia by nonvirtuous agents (a [End Page 669] feature of middle Stoicism),8 his anti-Epicurean polemics,9 or some combination thereof. Most important from the point of view of the history of ethics is the fact that Cicero's ethics of officia, although articulated in a decidedly eudaimonistic framework, eventually formed the basis of an ethical system in which moral principles function to place limits on and constrain one's pursuit and maximization of happiness. Furthermore, when we arrive at Kant, whose radical reconception of moral philosophy is a watershed moment in the history of philosophy, we find a direct reference to Cicero at a crucial point in which he explicitly carries out the separation between morality and happiness.

In this article, we would like to unpack this story about the history of ideas and look more thoroughly at the ways in which Cicero could have contributed to the development of the modern understanding of moral duty. In so doing, we also shed new light on the intellectual context within which Kant worked out his first major contribution to moral philosophy. [End Page 670]

The remainder of the article is divided into four sections. In the second section we outline basic features of the Stoic concept of καθῆκον. In the third section we examine Cicero's translation of the notion into Latin as officium. While Cicero problematized and deliberated over his translational decision, we do not find an adequate basis to conclude that his translation of the Stoic doctrine into Latin and into a Romanized context led to the sort of development some commentators have suggested. Instead, we find that Cicero's translation largely preserves the basic core of the Stoic doctrine of καθῆκον. In the fourth section, we examine important developments in the meaning of "duty" between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, with a particular focus on Pufendorf's reworking of Ciceronian officium in ways that anticipate Kant's critique of Garve's Ciceronian ethics. While it is not Cicero's translation and appropriation of καθῆκον into Latin as such that shapes the modern understanding of moral duty, we argue that Cicero did play a decisive role in this notion's development. In particular, we argue in the fifth section that Cicero's impact is indirect but substantial: Kant's Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten and some of the central theses contained therein are formulated as a direct response to Christian Garve's Ciceronian ethics. Kant, foreshadowed by his predecessor Pufendorf, rejects the Ciceronian...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 667-706
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.