Cicero on Man, Society, and Nature
Following the Stoics, the core driver of ethical concerns was self-preservation. “Nature has endowed every species of living creature with the instinct of self-preservation.” … [T]he most marked difference between man and beast is this: the beast, just as far as it is moved by the senses and with very little perception of past or future, adapts itself to that alone which is present at the moment; while man — because he is endowed with reason, by which he comprehends the chain of consequences, perceives the causes of things, understands the relation of cause to effect and of effect to cause, draws analogies, and connects and associates the present and the future — easily surveys the course of his whole life and makes the necessary preparations for its conduct ...”
Society offers opportunities to flourish. One can’t possibly produce all of one's needs. Trade is the cornerstone of a just and prosperous social order. “Why should I recount the multitude of arts without which life would not be worth living at all? For how would the sick be healed? What pleasure would the hale enjoy? What comforts should we have, if there were not so many arts to master to our wants? In all these respects the civilized life of man is far removed from the standard of the comforts and wants of the lower animals. And, without the association of men, cities could not have been built or peopled. In consequence of city life, laws and customs were established, and then came the equitable distribution of private rights and a definite social system. Upon these institutions followed a more humane spirit and consideration for others, with the result that life was better supplied with all it requires, and by giving and receiving, by mutual exchange of commodities and conveniences, we succeeded in meeting all our wants.”
Cicero also notes a dark side of human society. As we’ve seen in the 20th century, the state can be the greatest source of human suffering. While we join societies to increase our mastery over the elements and further our personal well being, Cicero notes that the state has been a greater source of pain and death than any natural disaster. “He was a famous and eloquent Peripatetic, and he gathered together all the other causes of destruction — floods, epidemics, famines, and sudden incursions of wild animals in myriads, by whose assaults, he informs us, whole tribes of men have been wiped out. And then he proceeds to show by way of comparison how many more men have been destroyed by the assaults of men — that is, by wars or revolutions — than by any and all other sorts of calamity. Since, therefore, there can be no doubt on this point, that man is the source of both the greatest help and the greatest harm to man, I set it down as the peculiar function of virtue to win the hearts of men [that] the cooperation of men, on the other hand, prompt and ready for the advancement of our interests, is secured through wisdom and virtue [in men of superior ability].”
While celebrating the human potential, Cicero, a man of action and a public intellectual, writes as the Republic disintegrates. Corruption seems more certain than regeneration. Once a great liberator of mankind, Rome’s disintegration leaves Cicero despondent: “And so in Rome only the walls of her houses remain standing — and even they wait now in fear of the most unspeakable crimes — but our republic we have lost for ever.” As our Founding Fathers looked across the Atlantic, they described Europe in similar language. The Roman Republic stood in their minds as an object lesson.