Cicero was born on January 3rd, 106 BC in Arpinum, a hilltop settlement located southeast of Rome. His father was part of the equestrian order, which was the second most elite group of property-based classes in Rome. Little is known about Cicero’s mother, Helvia, though it’s likely that she was responsible for managing the home. Quintus, Cicero’s brother, would become a Roman statesman and military leader.
Since Cicero came from a wealthy family, his education was top notch. He spoke Greek, Latin, and studied the teachings of Greek philosophers, poets, and historians. Cicero used his knowledge of Greek to translate many of the theoretical concepts of Greek philosophy into Latin, thus translating Greek philosophical works for a larger audience. Cicero’s interest in philosophy figured heavily in his later career and led to him providing a comprehensive account of Greek philosophy for a Roman audience, including creating a philosophical vocabulary in Latin. Cicero’s primary schooling in philosophy came from Philo of Larissa, one of the great teachers of Platonism.
According to Plutarch, Cicero was an extremely talented student. He studied Roman law under Quintus Mucius Scaevola, an authority on Roman law at the time. It was during this era that Cicero would also make life-long friends with the likes of Titus Pomponius (more famously known as Atticus). In 79 BC, Cicero left Rome for Greece, Asia Minor, and Rhodes. There he would continue his study of Platonic Philosophy and hone his skills as an orator.
As wealthy and respected as Cicero was, even he couldn’t escape life without periods of heart-wrenching tragedy. Cicero married his wife, Terentia, in 79 BC. Their marriage would last for nearly 30 years before divorcing in 51 BC. While it’s unknown exactly why the divorce occurred, Cicero confided in close friends that it was a betrayal that split them apart. Just six years later, Cicero’s beloved daughter Tullia would become ill shortly after giving birth to her first child. The experience of losing his first-born child was the hardest Cicero had ever endured. After the death of his daughter, he spent time with Atticus in an attempt to lift himself from the depressed state he was in. Cicero famously read everything in Atticus’ library from the ancient Greeks, most of which had to do with overcoming grief. Some of those works possibly belonged to the Stoics. After reading everything he could, Cicero would still admit, “my sorrow defeats all consolation.”
Cicero would go on to become one of the most influential political figures in Roman antiquity. As consul, he suppressed an attempted overthrow of the Roman government by executing five of its primary conspirators. During the erratic latter half of the 1st century BC, which was characterized by war and the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, Cicero campaigned for a return to the traditional republican government. Following Caesar’s death, Cicero became the mortal enemy of Mark Antony in a very public power struggle, attacking him in a series of speeches. He was deemed an enemy of the state and consequently executed by soldiers.
Notable Works & Suggested Readings:
Cicero’s wide variety of responsibilities in ancient Rome makes his work that much more interesting. Politician, Philosopher, Orator—it’s no wonder he was one of the most recognizable figures at the peak of his career. Fortunately, much of Cicero’s original works have survived the ages. It is believed that eight works of philosophy, six on public speech, and 58 of his orations survive today. Here are a few of our favorites from Cicero:
On Old Age (How to Grow Old) is a beautifully written rebuttal to the ideas that old age 1) withdraws us from active pursuits; 2) makes the body weaker; 3) deprives us of almost all physical pleasures, and 4) is not far removed from death. On Old Age presents aging as a gift rather than a curse—because it is. Even Cicero the platonist (Who was heavily influenced by Stoicism) knew the value of Memento Mori. He knew that while the youth maintained their physical vigor, the elderly held wisdom. While the youth enjoyed the excitement of physical pleasures, the elderly find joy in watching youth chase after such pleasures, just as they once had. Young or old, wise or fool-hearted—death comes for us all. It’s our duty to be prepared for it, and On Old Age does just that regardless of the age of the reader.
On Duties (On Obligations) is divided into three books, in which Cicero brilliant expands on the best way to live, behave, and observe moral obligations or duties. The work discusses what is honorable (Book I), what is advantageous (Book II), and what to do when honor and personal gain conflict (Book III). For the first two books, Cicero was almost entirely dependent on the Stoic philosopher Panaetius but wrote more original content in the third book. On Duties is filled with nuggets of wisdom and has become a popular read for those who wish to enter leadership positions or politics.
On Friendship (How to Be a Friend) is a humble reminder of what it means to be a good friend. When Cicero’s first-born child died shortly after she gave birth, Cicero was beyond distraught. It was his dear friend Atticus, though, that was the first to offer him a place to stay and heal in the weeks following Tullia’s death. The best part about works of wisdom is that a thousand years can go by, and if the work was truly wise, it will remain relevant today. Such is the case with On Friendship (get the version by Princeton University Press).
3 Stoic Exercises From Cicero:
Death is an Achievement
“Therefore, when the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this “ripeness” for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.” — Cicero
Stoics are familiar with the idea of facing death, no doubt. But to view death as an achievement—that’s something else entirely. Cicero uses the example of ripe apples to illustrate this point. When our time comes, we shouldn’t fight it. Otherwise, we’re fighting what nature demands. When death knocks at our door and tells us it’s time to go, we should simply go. Like a ripe apple, there will be no unnecessary resistance or difficulty. We’ll simply fall, for no other reason than it is time to do so.
Death, when not properly thought about or prepared for is terrifying. Just as anything we’re not prepared for is terrifying. But in facing this truth, in approaching death as an achievement or, as Cicero calls it, the anchoring after a long voyage, we’ll find peace rather than anxiety in the end.
The Power of Virtue
“Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief” — Cicero
It was Cicero who coined the term Summum Bonum, which is Latin for “the highest good”. What is the highest good? While the Stoics believed that goodness was comprised of four cardinal virtues, Cicero pointed out that quality friendships were also characterized by how present these virtues were. We need these virtues not only in our everyday life but also in every interaction. Every friendship, every relationship, it doesn’t matter. The beauty of virtue is that it enriches our lives while simultaneously enriching the lives of others. This is why the cultivation of virtue is worth it.
The Six Mistakes of Man
“Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.” —Cicero
And those words still ring true today. It’s fair to acknowledge that mankind has progressed quite a bit since Cicero’s time. People live longer. Slavery is no longer common practice, and tyrants are harder to come by. But as they say, the more things change—the more they stay the same. Despite our advances, some of us still try to crush others for personal gain. We certainly worry about things that can’t be changed, and we definitely attempt to compel others to believe the things we believe.
Even in Cicero’s time, he labeled these things as mistakes made century after century. Well here we are more than 2000 years later, and we still repeat these mistakes. Why? Is it ego? Is it human nature? The answer is it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t make those mistakes. That you lead by example and show the world what mastery looks like.
Cicero’s life and the lessons he left behind bring us one step closer to such mastery. In the same way that rock patterns show us which direction water once ran through them, the ideas of those who lived before show us which direction we ought to guide our lives.
So that we can be great and show others, long after we’re gone, how to do the same.
“Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goest out. The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.”
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
“If we are not ashamed to think it, we should not be ashamed to say it.”
“For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.”
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
“Non nobis solum nati sumus (Not for ourselves alone are we born.)”
“Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labours of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.”
“The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”
“The life given us, by nature is short; but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.”
“What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage. The mere act of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious.”