Cicero: Clear Your Head So You Can Serve the Community

We do not exist for ourselves. We are made to serve the community. Serving the community is not always easy. The community does not always appreciate such service, but we should be willing to bear all sorts of hardships and all sorts of toil to serve the community. For, “justice is the single virtue which is mistress and queen of all virtues” (Cicero, On Obligations, 93). This is the opinion of Cicero, as he describes it in his book On Obligations or On Duties.

The key to understanding our obligations is to understand that we are not just an isolated individual. We are created for community and for service to the community:

I have often made the point earlier, but it must be repeated again and again: there is a bond of fellowship which in its widest sense exists between all members of the entire human race, an inner link between those of the same nation, and a still closer connection between those of the same state (107).

We are made for each other. Our destiny is not an individual one. It is to use our resources in service of those around us. As Cicero says, the interest of the individual is the interest of the community and vice versa.

So, why do we not do this? Because our head is full of anxiety and addicted to pleasures, says Cicero. So, our first obligation is to clear our heads. This is what courage, fortitude, and temperance is all about. Here’s what he says:

A spirit, which is utterly courageous and noble is conspicuous especially for two features. The first of these is disregard for external circumstances, springing from the conviction that a man ought to revere or aspire to or seek nothing except what is honourable and proper, and should not lie down before any man or emotional disturbance or twist of fortune. The second is that once you have attained this case of mind which I have mentioned, you should embark on activities which are of course important and highly useful, but are in addition extremely taxing, full of toils and dangers which threaten both life and the many strands that compose it (24).

First, clear your head. Second, embark on significant and difficult activities.

What Cicero is after is a noble and lofty spirit. When someone has a lofty spirit, they can let go of things that please or annoy other people. “[F]or we must consider it characteristic of the brave and noble spirit to think little of the things which most men reckon special and glorious and to despise them with the steady and unflinching eye of reason” (24). This same spirit does not get ensnared by pleasures. What good does it do to look down on things many people are scared of, if we can’t look down on the pleasures that would keep us from pursuing what is best?

The same lofty spirit that can look down on dangers and pleasures enables such a person to seek greater things. Such a spirit is not satisfied with small things. It wants to serve the community to the greatest degree possible and achieve something significant.

Some will object that they have let go of the concern for fame and fortune, and so they have devoted themselves to study and pursuit of the higher things of the spirit. Cicero has a certain admiration for this, but he asks them to examine themselves as to whether or not they have really let go of such concerns. “It is difficult not to approve their stance in so far as they claim to despise fame as worthless, but they give the impression of fearing the toils and troubles, together with the apparent disgrace and dishonour of setbacks and rejections” (25). The fact is that engagement with the community is hard. Such a life will face many blows, setbacks, and discouragements. Is a person who refuses to engage in this difficult life really above these things or afraid of such a difficult and hard life? This is a crucial question, Cicero says, because we are not made for ourselves.

Cicero’s On Obligations is a powerful book on leadership. It challenges each of us to deal with our inward demons, but it also challenges us to do so with an eye toward the community. Clear your head so you can serve the community, Cicero says, for this is what we are made for.


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