On the Good Life - by Marcus Tullius Cicero

It was a feature of the times to stress the need for self-sufficiency, and Cicero admired the autonomous, proud, impregnable, passionless sage of the Stoics, echoing their conviction that the good life, in order to be secure, must be independent of chance and circumstances. By such means it is possible to attain human perfection: human nature is not unavoidably flawed, as the Jewish and Christian doctrines insisted. Nevertheless, Cicero found many of the Stoic tenets too rigid and inflexible--absolute virtue, for example, is an unrealistic and unrealizable ideal.

"Ah, you're trying to refute me by quoting things I've said or written myself. That's confronting me with documents that have already been sealed! You can reserve that method for people who only argue according to fixed rules. But I live from one day to the next! If something strikes me as probable, I say it; and that is how, unlike everyone else, I remain a free agent."

Consider what [Socrates] said in his Funeral Oration, 'The man who is entirely self-sufficient as regards all the necessary ingredients for leading a happy life, so that these do not in any way depend on other people's good or bad luck or dangle at the uncertain mercy of someone else's fortune--he is the person who has found the right way to live. He has done so by making himself an exemplar of moderation, courage and wisdom. Such a man, as his possessions wax and wane and his children are born and die, will obediently submit to the ancient maxim which directs him to avoid extremes either of joy or grief: for he will always limit his hopes to the things his own unaided efforts can achieve.' That is the doctrine formulated by Plato. It is like a venerated, holy fountain; and everything I shall have to say will flow from it.

This is the sort of person a truly wise man has to be. He will never do anything he might regret--or anything he does not want to do. Every action he performs will always be dignified, consistent, serious, upright. He will not succumb to the belief that this or that future event is predestined to happen; and no event, therefore, will cause him surprise, or strike him as unexpected or strange. Whatever comes up, he will continue to apply his own standards; and when he has made a decision, he will abide by it. A happier condition than that I am unable to conceive. The belief of the Stoics on this subject is simple. The supreme good, according to them, is to live according to nature, and in harmony with nature. That, they declare, is the wise man's duty; and it is also something that lies within his own capacity to achieve. From this follows the deduction that the man who has the supreme good within his power also possesses the power to live happily. Consequently, the wise man's life is happy.

Socrates was perfectly right when he declared that there is a direct short-cut to winning a reputation: 'Make yourself the sort of man you want people to think you are.' For to suppose that any permanent reputation can be won by pretence, or empty display, or hypocritical talk, or by putting on an insincere facial expression, would be a serious misapprehension. A genuine, glorious reputation strikes deep roots and has wide ramifications, but pretences of every kind wither away like wilting blooms; nothing counterfeit has any staying power.

On Friendship

Among the rules of friendship this ought to come first of all. Never ask your friends for anything that is not right, and never do anything for them yourself unless it is right. But then do it without even waiting to be asked! Always be ready to help; never hang back. Offer advice, too, willingly and without hesitation, just as you yourself, if you have a friend whose advice is good, should always pay great attention to what he says. But when you yourself are the adviser, use your influence, as a friend, to speak frankly, and even, if the occasion demands, severely. And if you are the recipient of equally stern advice, listen to it and act as you are advised.

A friend in need is a friend indeed. There are two opposite charges on which most men stand convicted of fickleness and unreliability. When they are doing well, they forget their friends; and when a friend is in difficulties they desert him. Anyone who proves himself a serious, reliable and steadfast friend in both these sets of circumstances clearly belongs to an extremely rare and indeed almost superhuman class of person.

A particularly important point between one friend and another is this. The superior must place himself on an equality with his inferior. A man's wish must be that all his friends should gain, not lose, in stature because their association with himself. If an individual happens to be superior in character or intellectual qualities or wordly wealth, it is his duty to pass on this advantage to his kinsmen and friends, thus making sure that the people who are closest to him have their share. For whatever gifts of mind and character we may possess, we only reap their finest fruits when we are able to share them with our nearest and dearest.