For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

On Duties

by Cicero (1991)

Key Passage

Of the things which concern the preservation of human life, some are inanimate, gold and silver, for example, the produce of the earth, and so forth, and some are animate, having their own drives and impulses. Of the latter, some do not share in reason, but others do use it. Horses, cattle and other herd animals, and bees, all of whose efforts contribute something to the needs of human life, are without reason. There are two groups which use reason: gods and men. The gods are placated by devoutness and sacred obvservance. Next to the gods, and close after them, it is men who can bring most benefit to other men. Things that are harmful or disadvantageous can be divided in the same way. But here the gods are excepted because they are not thought to do harm. Therefore, it is reckoned, the greatest source of disadvantage to mankind is other men. The things we have called inanimate are generally produced by man's efforts; we should not have them without the application of craft and manipulative skills, nor should we enjoy them without human organisation. Neither medical care, nor navigation, nor agriculture, nor the harvest and storage of fruits and other crops could have existed without the effort of man. Then, there would surely be no exporting of that which we have in excess, nor importing of that which we need, if these services were not performed by men. Nor, by the same reasoning, would the stones required for our needs be quarried from the earth, nor the iron, copper, gold and silver hidden deep within be dug out unless by the labour of men's hands. Consider our houses, which repel the biting frosts and abate the oppresive heat: how could they have been provided for the human race in the first place? And how afterwards, if they collapsed through storm, through earthquake, or through age, could they have been repaired, had not a common way of life taught us in such cases to seek assistance from other men? You may add aqueducts, diversions of rivers, the irrigation of fields, breakwaters, artificial harbours: how could we have those without the work of man?From these and many other instances, it is clear that without the labour of men's hands we could not in any way have acquired the fruits and benefits that are culled from inanimate objects. Finally, what fruit or advantage could be culled from animals, unless men gave us assistance? For those who were foremost in discovering what use we could make of each beast were, without doubt, men; and even now we could not feed them nor tame them nor protect them nor take from them their fruits in due season without human labour. By man too, are harmful animals killed and those which can be of use captured. Why do I need to enumerate the multitude of arts wihout which there could be no life at all? What assistance would be given to the sick, what delights would there be for the healthy, what sustenance or comfort, if there were not so many arts to minister to us? It is because of these that the civilized life of men differs so greatly from the sustenance and the comforts that animals have. Nor indeed could cities have been built or populated if men did not gather together. As a result, laws and customs were established, and a fair system of justice and a regular training for the business of life. These led to a softening of men's spirits and a sense of shame; the result was that life became less vulnerable, and through giving and receiving, through sharing our abilities and advantages, we came to lack nothing.I have dwelt longer on this point than is necessary. But is there anyone to whom the facts that Panaetius related at great length are not obvious — that no one, whether a general in war or a leading statesman at home, could have accomplished deeds of great service without the support of his fellow-men? He recalls Themystocles, Pericles, Cyrus, Agesilaus, and Alexander, denying that their great achievements would have been possible without other men's co-operation.  (p.66–68)


Cicero, Ancient Rome, Ancient World, History, Skepticism, Stoicism, Craft, Liberty, Duties, Theology


Cicero Citations


E. T. Griffin, E. M.



How to contribute.