Cicero in his "A Practical Code of Behavior" wrote as if writing a letter to his son telling the boy ways to live and be a proper person. In truth, this was only a literary device, and Cicero was actually writing a moral code for the aristocracy of his time. This is indicated as he cites a number of aristocratic authorities in the beginning of his letter, holding up Publius Cornelius Scipio as the ideal to be emulated and the man who conquered Hannibal at Zama in 202 B.C. Clearly, Cicero is speaking to the educated class, for he expects his readers to be familiar with philosophy and with the tenets of philosophic inquiry, for "every part of philosophy is fruitful and rewarding, none barren or desolate" (160). Moral philosophy in particular is "indispensable" (161) and it is a moral philosophy that Cicero is developing and communicating in this letter.
Cicero calls this "A Practical Code" because he wants to tell the reader what to do in order to live a moral life. This is, then, not merely a theoretical treatise but a guide to be followed. He says that moral philosophy has been classified under three headings, and he will follow these headings in the rest of his letter:
1) Is a thing morally right or wrong?
2) Is it advantageous or disadvantageous?
3) If apparent right and apparent advantage clash, what is to be the basis for making a choice between the two?
Cicero's source for this is Panaetius, who wrote a three-part treatise about part of this list, but he never got around to dealing with the last question. The last question is the practical application of the ideas from the first two issues. Cicero considers at length why Panaetius never managed to finish his treatise, but he says there is no doubt in any case what Panaetius intended to say. Cicero says that the two camps can be divided into the Stoics, who believe "that right is the only good" (162) and the Peripatetics, who "hold that right is the highest good" (162). Cicero says that based on this, it is apparent that "advantage can never be in conflict with right" (162). The actual ideal for the Stoics, says Cicero, is "to live consistently with nature" (163), and this means that we should always aim at morally right courses of action and select only those actions which do not clash with such courses.
Cicero further concludes that there is more to the matter than that because moral goodness in the truest sense of the word can "only be found among those hypothetical people who are endowed with ideal wisdom" (163). Anyone who falls short of this perfect wisdom will cannot claim perfect goodness. Cicero says it is these men, the ones who fall short, who are the subject of this letter, which seems to mean virtually everyone, since he has already said that no one can achieve the ideal. These moral obligations are called "second-class" obligations and are "incumbent upon everyone in the world" (164). There is also "that ideal, unlimited obligation" (164) called the perfect obligation "which none but the ideally wise man can fulfill" (164).
What Cicero wants to discuss are the second-class obligations, the obligations that apply to everyone in the world. In considering these obligations, Cicero states that it is simply unnatural to do wrong. He says that this is natural law. Cicero's Stoic philosophy is an example of natural law because of its emphasis on moral content. Natural law is nature's law, or God's law, and not the law made by the state. It is thus more the governing principle of life than anything that can be passed by man. Cicero links it to the rational principle, or "the law that governs gods and men alike" (167). Anyone who wrongs another for his own benefit has violated natural law. Cicero says this can be explained in one of two ways: 1) either the wrongdoer does not see that what he is doing is unnatural, or 2) the wrongdoer refuses to agree that "death, destitution, pan, the loss of children, relations, and friends are less dependable than doing wrong to another person" (167-168). Under natural law, everyone should have the same purpose, which is "to identify the interest of each with the interest of all" (168). Human society will collapse if every man only looks out for himself. In truth, though, we all have the same interests because we are all human beings, and this also means that "we are all subject to one and the same law of nature" (168).
In fact, Cicero says that there is a natural bond of community between all human begins precisely because we are all human beings, with the same basic interests. Those who argue, as dome so, that they would never rob their parents or brothers for their own gain but that they would rob other compatriots are not making any sense: "For that is the same as denying their common interest with their fellow-countrymen, and all the legal and social obligations that follow therefrom" (168).
Under the heading of difficult moral decisions, Cicero considers possible objections to his idea of natural law and of the obligations placed on all of us. First, he postulates a man of great wisdom who is starving to death and asks if it would not be permissible for this man to take food belonging to someone else who was completely useless. He second asks if a man who is honest and who had the chance to steal the clothing of a cruel and inhuman tyrant and needed them to avoid freezing to death, would it not be permissible to do so?
He says these questions are easy to answer, for to rob anyone is unnatural and inhuman. However, if you had qualities such that, if you stayed alive, you could render great services to our country and to mankind, then it would not be blameworthy to take something from another person for that reason. In every other case, though, "every man must bear his own misfortunes rather than remedy them by damaging someone else" (169). In terms of the question about the tyrant, Cicero says this is a different matter because we have nothing in common with autocrats: "There is nothing unnatural about ribbing -- if you can -- a man whom it is morally right even to kill" (169). Cicero would indeed kill all dictators and those who might become dictators. While all human beings may have much in common and be part of the community of man, it is evident that dictators are not part of that community, for they lord it over that community and do so in order to take from others. Anyone who seeks an apparent advantage and does so apart from the question of what is right and wrong "shows himself to be mistaken and immoral" (171).
Cicero notes how Plato illustrates his truths with stories and so uses stories of his own to accomplish the same task. He uses the story he tells about Pythius and Canius to illustrate his discussion. Canius was a "quite witty and cultured man" (180) who went to Syracuse on holiday. He often talked about buying a small estate where he could invite his friends and enjoy himself without being interrupted. A Banker of Syracuse heard about this and said that he owned just such a property, though it as not for sale. However, he also sand that Canius could treat the place as his own if he wished, and he invited Canius to dinner. Pythius had people of all classes who would do what he wanted whenever he asked, so he called for some fishermen and asked them to fish in front of his house the next day, giving them full instructions. When Canius arrived, Pythius entertained him well, and they watched the fleet of fishing boats before the house. As each fisherman brought in his catch, he deposited it at the feet of Pythius, and Pythius claimed that this was only natural because without this house for the ships to amass I front of, the fishermen could do nothing. This impressed Canius, who now wanted more than ever to buy the property, Pythius eventually gave in and asked for a high price, but Canius was wealthy and so paid it. The next day, Canius invited his friends to the house, but they did not see a single fishing boat that day. He asks a neighbor if it is a holiday, and the neighbor says it is not and that fishermen never fish in this area. Canius had no recourse, for at that time the later established law had not yet been set forth; namely, the forms of pleading involved in criminal fraud.
This story illustrates precisely the actions of a man (Pythius) who seeks to hurt another for his own advantage, making him the sort of…