Negotiating Honor in Cicero’s De Officiis

Maccari-CiceroThis is the third in a series of four essays on core texts connected to the educational goal of developing wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.

Concordia University Irvine’s Core Curriculum seeks an ambitious vision set forth in the words of Martin Luther: “to develop wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.” One danger in running with a vision that’s so catchy is that the virtues these words espouse may eventually become confused, diluted, or even meaningless. The hazard is compounded when the word “honorable” enjoys center stage in that vision, a word that for many has eluded a simple definition distinguishable from a kind of vanilla “moral uprightness.” One purpose of this essay, then, is to seek whether clarity can be at least provisionally attained about what we mean by “honor.” To do this we will aim at a discrete delineation along the lines suggested by one core text, Cicero’s De Officiis (“On Obligations” or “On Duties”).

In ancient Rome, cursus honorum was the political career track of the Roman politician. And the political rise to the top in a legal career was a journey of ambition through the offices of aedile, quaestor, and praetor (to name a few); a number of a host of tribunates and priesthoods; and, finally, the pinnacle of the Roman citizen’s political career, an election to the consulship, one of two annually elected “chief executive officers” in the mixed constitution of the Roman republic. The cursus honorum was a race track of sorts, and political ambition was the name of the game, which is why the other word in the idiom might seem jarring in this association: honos, honoris. This is a word that looks like its English cognate “honor,” but in this context means “public office” or “magistracy.” The dissonance between “honor” as public office to be strived after, and what we usually think of as “honor” in the abstract, i.e., a virtue, or in the more concrete as a bestowal of reward, forms the basis of our question about honor. Does honor denote a virtuous way of life, or does it denote a reward, a prize to be won?

These distinctions are at play in Cicero’s De Officiis as he waxes eloquent on the subject of the honorable and the useful, though his task is not to arrive at a definition. Honestas is the usual word Cicero employs to denote “honor” in the abstract, and the thesis of Book 1 is that all that pertains to honestas, the sense of the honorable, derives from four sources: wisdom, justice, temperance, and magnanimity. In Book 2 he describes the useful, utile, and deals with what actions position one for political advancement, resolving in Book 3 apparent conflicts between the just and the useful, asserting that what is utile is always what is honestum (3.20). Indeed, Cicero’s sense of “honorableness” (honestas) does not point to individual honors and matters of personal glory as much as a way of life, a morality deriving from classical virtues.

But Cicero also employs the noun honos, both in a way consistent with the cursus honorum phrase, as well as in the sense of something less tangible, something between political office and honestas, or honorableness. While the Latin words honestas and honestus occur with greater frequency in the De Officiis (boasting about 150 passages), we focus our study only on the word honos, and its cognate adjective honoratus, to examine the freight this word carries in Cicero’s argument.

The noun honos and the adjective honoratus occur in only 26 passages. Of these, 11 passages refer to this cursus honorum sense of “magistracy” or “public office.” The noun functions in contexts of both commendation and complaint: on the one hand, we should respect those who have attained such high office (1.149); on the other, ambition for office can turn ugly (1.87). Though encouraging his immediate audience, his son, to seek office, the tenor of Cicero’s treatise is arguably neutral about public office as something that is useful (3.43) and comes by fortune (1.115, 2.20), and he naturally refers to the offices he has held (2.4, 2.59, 3.6). Connected with this sense of honos as an office of political service, then, is the relative prestige involved with achieving such honors, which leads us to a consideration of the other meanings of the term in the De Officiis.

In the remaining dozen and more instances of the term honos, Cicero employs it in a sense that gets closer to our word “honor.” In these passages Cicero outlines three distinct emphases with the term: honor is something to get, is given through a token, and is something to be defined by. Let us take them in order.

First, honor is something to get.

It is perhaps true that all men do not need honour and glory and the goodwill of citizens to the same extent, but if these accrue to an individual, they are of considerable help both in general and in forging friendships in particular. . . . Glory at its highest and most complete depends on these three factors: the affection of the commons, the trust they feel, and their belief mingled with admiration that recipients are worthy of honour (2.31; cf. 2.36, 2.42, 3.80).

If honor is gotten, honor is given, and Cicero points to fellow citizens as giving honors, which can also be translated with the synonyms “glory,” “distinction,” and “prestige” (1.138, 2.58, 2.65). These givers of honor are not simply inferiors, these are peers; not slaves, but citizens (it will be remembered that Cicero was himself a nobleman of the plebs). Honor is distinct, then, from obedience or a levied tax, and is instead a respect from fellow-men and a tribute, which Cicero also calls achieving “with honor” the affection of citizens (2.30).

Honors are not just intangible benefits, however. They can also come in the form of concrete rewards.

The fact is that any contribution by men to further an individual’s prospects and distinction is made for a variety of reasons. It is either a mark of goodwill, when for some reason they show him affection; or to honour him, if they respect a person’s merits, and consider him worthy of outstanding distinction; or because they trust him, and think that he is promoting their welfare; or they fear the resources he brings to bear; or they anticipate benefits from people like him, as when kings or “people-pleasers” offer handouts; or finally they are swayed by payments or reward for their services. This last is the most despicable and disgusting of motives, both for those attracted by it, and for those who seek to exploit it; for things have come to a pretty pass when money is used as the bait for what should be achieved by merit (2.21).

What this giving of honor produces is a chief citizen of “repute,” one who is identified as an honorable person. Honor is given, honor is gotten, and honor defines a person as honorable. So this word also comes to mean something synonymous with “high regard” and “fame” (1.138, 2.69).

Honor, glory, prestige, distinction, repute, and high regard. These sound like the kinds of things that are given, gotten, and exchanged. One’s identity wrapped up in an exchange? This sounds rather dangerous, and more importantly doesn’t map well on to reality. Not everyone considers themselves recipients of glory and not everybody ends up being of high repute and great fame. Indeed what rolls out of this is that there is a wide chasm between honestas and honos if what we are talking about is honor (=honorableness) and fame (=repute, famousness, report, reputation).

This final Ciceronian category of honos resulting in a man of repute sits uneasily. After all, the seeking after fame and repute lends itself to ambition of the corrupting kind, taking us back to the beginning of Cicero’s talk about offices when he says that, “Canvassing and scrambling for offices is an utterly wretched business. Plato again provides a splendid commentary on this when he says that those who struggle with each other for government of the state behave like sailors vying with each other to see who will be the best helmsman.” Cicero is aware of the disconnect between a “life of honor” (honestas) and a striving after “honors” that can lead to corruption (honos). And if he can make such a distinction with the language, if he divides and distinguishes, while maintaining the connection between them, why shouldn’t we?

What student doesn’t offer “goals” she or he has when asked about “vocations”? Talk of “callings” often reduces to career exploration and expectations of money and fame. We need to be able to call this what it is—shortsighted at best, noxious at worst. A good dose of honestas instead of honos is what we are called as professors to deliver and impress upon our students, as Cicero did for his own son. This is the kind of honor that we are called to, for whatever we are called to, we are called to it in the realm of civil and civic righteousness, that is, honor before men. And that is how conduct toward one another is emphasized ultimately in the De Officiis: Cicero’s honorable citizen is respected among peers and lives not in a scrambling acquisition of distinct honors, but lives a life of service to fellow men, a life of service that derives from wisdom, justice, magnanimity, and decorum.

Virtue is insufficient if private. Private virtue is no virtue at all. Indeed Cicero’s call eschews the life of contemplation for the life of considered action. As we challenge students to wrestle with questions and concepts of truth, goodness, and beauty to become more informed and responsible citizens in the realms of reason and faith, the overarching educational vision we lay out for “wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens” needs at least to apply reason to a life that seeks vocations that are honorable, which results from a life lived honorably.

C. J. Armstrong is Associate Professor of Theology and History at Concordia University Irvine