Cultural Psychology

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Cicero on the Bonds of our Common Human Nature

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OF ALL the things which are a subject of philosophical debate there is nothing more worthwhile than clearly to understand that we are born for justice and that justice is established not by opinion but by nature. That will be clear if you examine the common bonds among human beings.

[29] There is no similarity, no likeness of one thing to another, so great as the likeness we all share. If distorted habits and false opinions did not twist weak minds and bend them in any direction, no one would be so like himself as all people would be like all others. Thus, whatever definition of a human being one adopts is equally valid for all humans.

[30] That, in turn, is a sufficient proof that there is no dissimilarity within the species; if there were, then no one definition would apply to all. In particular, reason, the one thing by which we stand above the beasts, through which we are capable of drawing inferences, making arguments, refuting others, conducting discussions and demonstrations — reason is shared by all, and though it differs in the particulars of knowledge, it is the same in the capacity to learn.

All the same things are grasped by the senses; and the things that are impressed upon the mind, the rudiments of understanding which I mentioned before, are impressed similarly on all humans, and language, the interpreter of the mind, may differ in words but is identical in ideas.

There is no person of any nation who cannot reach virtue with the aid of a guide.

[31] The similarity of the human race is as remarkable in perversities as it is in proper behavior. All people are ensnared by pleasure; and even if it is an enticement to bad conduct it still has some similarity to natural goodness: it gives delight through its fickle sweetness. Thus through a mental error it is adopted as something salutary; by a similar sort of ignorance death is avoided as a dissolution of nature, life is sought because it keeps us in the state in which we were born, and pain is considered one of the greatest evils both because of its own harshness and because the destruction of our nature seems to follow from it.

[32] . . . Trouble, happiness, desires, and fears pass equally through the minds of all . . . What nation is there that does not cherish affability, generosity, a grateful mind and one that remembers good deeds?

What nation does not scorn and hate people who are proud, or evildoers, or cruel, or ungrateful? From all these things it may be understood that the whole human race is bound together; and the final result is that the understanding of the right way of life makes all people better. . . .

[33] It follows, then, that we have been made by nature to receive the knowledge of justice one from another and share it among all people. And I want it to be understood in this whole discussion that the justice of which I speak is natural, but that such is the corruption of bad habits that it extinguishes what I may call the sparks given by nature, and that contrary vices arise and become established. But if human judgment corresponded to what is true by nature and men thought nothing human alien to them (to use the poet’s phrase), then justice would be cultivated equally by all. Those who have been given reason by nature have also been given right reason [recta ratio], and therefore law too, which is right reason in commands and prohibitions; and if they have been given law, then they have been given justice too. All people have reason, and therefore justice has been given to all; so that Socrates rightly used to curse the person who was first to separate utility from justice, and to complain that that was the source of all ills. . . . (Translation: Zetzel, 1999, pp. 115−117).

Additional fragment found in Lactantius, Divine Institutes 5.8.10 (Translation: Keyes, 1928, p. 519):

As one and the same Nature holds together and supports the universe, all of whose parts are in harmony with one another, so men are united by Nature; but by reason of their depravity they quarrel, not realizing that they are of one blood and subject to one and the same protecting power. If this fact were understood, surely man would live the life of the gods!

Source: Cicero, Laws (De legibus) 1.28−33.

Latin text here.


Keyes, Clinton W. (Tr.). Cicero. On the Republic. On the Laws. (Loeb Classical Library 213). Harvard University Press, 1928, p. 519.

Zetzel, James E. G. Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 115−117; cf. second edition, 2017.




Written by John Uebersax

August 9, 2017 at 7:04 pm