Humanitas in Cicero's Moral Philosophy and Its Christian Reception

By Scheck, Thomas P. | Ave Maria Law Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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Humanitas in Cicero's Moral Philosophy and Its Christian Reception

Scheck, Thomas P., Ave Maria Law Review


I recall hearing a story about two Hopi Indians in the deserts of New Mexico, sitting miles apart from each other on opposite mesas. They were sending smoke signals to each other. The first Indian laid his blanket over the fire and sent up a smoke signal into the sky. And as he was waiting for the reply from the other Indian, suddenly a mushroom cloud from a nuclear test in the desert rose up into the sky from behind the mesa of the second Indian. The first Indian sat there staring and said, "Well, I wish I would have said that!"

When I consider that I am giving the first paper on the first panel at this conference on the Foundations of Human Rights, and then look at the names of the other speakers who will be presenting, something tells me that by tomorrow night, I will be saying to myself, "Well, I wish I would have said that!" But in any case, my colleague Maria Fedoryka has asked me to send up a smoke signal on the classical foundations of Human Rights and so I shall do so to the best of my ability.

In this Article I want to examine, all too briefly, the contribution of the Roman statesman and moral philosopher Cicero to the question of human rights. Cicero is considered to be the greatest orator and Latin prose stylist of all time. He died in 43 B.C., having been put to death by Mark Antony's assassins, as a political victim of the civil war that ensued, following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. (1) He was decapitated and his right hand was cut off. (2) Through his philosophical treatises, which he wrote in retirement, and especially through his work, De Officiis, On Duties, Cicero played a seminal role in the formation of morality and virtue in Western Europe. Cicero champions the doctrine that humanity is a brotherhood that shares a divine spark and is cared for by a divine providence. (3) He advocates an active existence characterized by the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. (4) Above all, he champions "justice" as morally obligatory to human beings and intrinsically useful. (5) In doing so, he foreshadows and indeed lays foundations for the modern concept of "human rights." In this Article I will highlight some of the key ideas of Cicero's On Duties. I will also briefly discuss the reception and purification of Cicero's moral philosophy in the Christian tradition, especially with respect to his Christian emulators and admirers, St. Ambrose, and Erasmus of Rotterdam.


To my knowledge Cicero does not use the term ius humanum or iura humana, "human rights," in his written works. What we might consider as the equivalent term for him would be human officia, "obligations" or "duties." (6) These duties arise as a consequence of our shared humanitas, "humanity," that is, from our being homines, "human beings." (7) The term homo addresses the question: What unites all human beings and separates us from the beasts? How are we obligated to live as human beings? For Cicero, then, it is not a question of human "rights"; it is a question of human "obligations" or "duties." (8) To begin with, however, we should acknowledge that whatever heights Cicero attained in his moral vision for humanity, we would object to some of the ways Cicero applied his principles in the real world. For example, Cicero accepted the cultural institution of slavery, with all its harsh treatment. (9) But as we all know, so did the founders of our own country, and the latter were concerned with a far more inhumane form of slavery. (10)

Moreover, we should concede that Cicero's law court orations and the recommendations for justice found there stand in significant tension with his abstract discussions of justice and virtue in his moral treatises and dialogues. Even Cicero's contemporaries accused him of excessive application of the death penalty, for instance, in connection with the Catilinarian conspiracy. (11) Strange to say it, but in some circles Julius Caesar may have had a greater reputation for clemency toward his enemies than did Cicero.

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