Common Interest By Cicero: Reading and Meditation

July 28, 2020  • Todd Breyfogle

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Common Interest, Cicero


Cicero asks that we regard as an established principle that individual and collective interests are identical. The context of his argument is that we cannot profit at the expense of others. How do we know what transactions are exploitative and which are mutually beneficial? We are, he says, to keep two things in view. First, that nature prescribes that we should desire the increase of another person’s good simply because the other is a person. Second, that human fellowship is a definitive criterion—actions that diminish the bonds of human fellowship are impious, they violate what is most divine in us. The expectations of virtue that we have, ideally, within the family should, Cicero insists, be extended to the whole of the human family. Goodwill, kindness, justice are goods in themselves, but particularly because they serve the “common sodality [association or brotherhood] of the human race”. We are meant, says Cicero, by nature and the gods, to be in solidarity with one another. When I compromise those bonds of association, I damage myself, the other, and the whole. This is a high standard, particularly in a modern society in which, in contrast to ancient Rome, so many of our transactions derive from anonymous structures of complex production rather than local and personal relationships. How do I know that my gain does not contribute to someone else’s loss? How might I find out? What might I need to change in my patterns of consumption to be reassured that I strengthen rather than rend the fabric of human society? When, in those relationships that are local and personal, do I shade the benefit toward myself to the disadvantage of another? Even at the cost of physical or mental discomfort, Cicero insists, we are called to leave room for justice.

Todd Breyfogle, Denver, Colorado

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