Cicero and the Psychology of Honor

On 15 February the project was very fortunate in having Professor Margaret Graver (Dartmouth), one of the world’s foremost scholars of ancient (especially Stoic) thought, as visiting speaker. Her talk raised a number of crucial questions about the conceptualisation of honour in the political works of Cicero, especially in On the Republic (De re publica).

In particular, Professor Graver showed how Cicero can maintain that honour remains a genuinely social notion, connected with one’s image in the eyes of others, and yet also function not just as a reason for pursuing virtue, but as an intrinsic quality of virtue itself.

Douglas Cairns


Like shame, our concern for honor and esteem can easily be connected with important issues of self-concept and the assessment of our character by other people, but also with questions of fairness and truth. We seem to care who honors us, and for what reason: praise from a trusted advisor is far more precious than from a random passerby, and that in itself gives reason to think that motivations relating to honor have some relevance to ethics.

What’s less clear is how the honor motive ought to be understood, and how we ought to regard it. Is it just an irrational or primitive behavior pattern that we need to get past, or does it have a role to play in a good life? In a talk given recently at Edinburgh, I explored some of Cicero’s thinking on these questions, looking especially at his major political treatise On the Republic.

Cicero is an interesting case. As a member of Rome’s ruling elite and one who had quite recently been lauded as the savior of his country, he had more personal experience of honor than most of us will ever know. And On the Republic, more than any other, was the book that conveyed to his public – and often also to himself – what sort of public servant he meant to be.

So while his thoughts about the honor motive can also be traced in his ethical writings of the 40’s, it’s especially significant to find a coherent set of ideas in this earlier work, despite its poor state of preservation.

At least some of the time, the desire for honor turns out to be merely a destructive emotion, unredeemed and unredeeming, “a kind of insurrection in the mind” that reason has to bring under control (1.60). In contrast to the tripartite psyche of Plato’s Republic, whose honor-loving middle part often aids reason against the base desires, this gloriae cupiditas is essentially similar to anger, avarice, and lust. Like them, it is entirely misguided and serves no useful purpose. A conscientious public servant, or indeed any human being, would be better off without it.

In place of Plato’s two-horse-chariot soul, whose noble horse assists the driver, Cicero images reason as the Indian or Carthaginian mahout, astride a single powerful beast – though the emotions, he says, are more disparate and far more unruly than any elephant.

But it may be that this morally suspect love of glory is merely a perverted version of something else. We know that by the time Cicero wrote On the Republic, he had already made a distinction between glory in the usual sense – that is, a good reputation among people in general – and a nobler object that is “the only thing that can rightly be called glory.” The difference lies in the validity of the assessment. True glory, as Cicero speaks of it in the Defense of Sestius, is the “good report of the good,” or words of praise spoken by those who are themselves meritorious. In contrast to that “solid and real” glory, the applause of the untutored multitude is not a worthy object of pursuit.

It must be the solid and real form of honor that Cicero has in mind in Book 3 of On the Republic, where it turns out that honor can, after all, be a motivator for the virtuous agent.

Virtue clearly does want honor, nor is there any other reward for virtue. Yet it accepts that reward graciously, rather than making a strenuous demand for it. What riches, what commands, what kingdoms would you offer such a man? To him, all such things are merely human, while his own goods are divine. But if virtue is deprived of its rewards by the ingratitude of all, or by the enmity of many, or by the power of enemies, still, I tell you, it has many consolations to satisfy it; above all, it sustains itself with its own distinction. (3.40)

Here honor comes as the reward for virtue, and a far better reward than money or power. But it is not only the nature of the object that is different here. The attitude of the virtuous agent is quite different from the emotional desire for glory. This agent wants honor, but makes no strenuous demand for it, and if at the end of the day the reward is lacking, the goodness inherent in right action itself will be satisfaction enough.

From there it is only a step to that crucial moment in the dream-vision of Book 6 when the youthful Scipio is urged to transfer his concern to right action itself.

Thus if you will turn your eyes upward and gaze upon this dwelling, this eternal home, you will not devote yourself to what the common people say, nor will you let the expectation of your achievements reside in human rewards. Virtue itself with its own enticements must attract you toward true distinction. What others say about you is their affair. They will still say it, but all such repute is bounded by those regions that you see. It is never everlasting about anyone; rather it is buried with men’s passing and extinguished by the forgetfulness of subsequent generations. (6.25)

Even here we retain the notion that right action merits some form of approbation. The word ‘distinction’ (decus) that appears in both passages could equally well be translated ‘seemliness’ or ‘attractiveness’, with an implicit reference to the perspective of some observer. And in fact honor is still accorded to good leader who acts in the interests of the community. “They will still say it.” 

But for Scipio and others like him, that fact ceases to matter. They know that virtue is honorable, but what motivates them to act is just the rightness of what they do.

Thus we can discern three possible ways of being motivated toward the approval of others.

  1. a flat-out desire for glory in the ordinary sense, to be well spoken of by people in general;
  2. a wish for praise and honor from knowledgeable observers, which comes necessarily as a reward for behaving well;
  3. a motivation to behave well without consideration of reward, coupled with the awareness that right action is praiseworthy.

Cicero’s point in On the Republic is that these three attitudes differ not only in the objects they have in view but also in their internal structure. In the first, praise is an end in itself – wrongly, since praise is not always a good thing, and hence this desire is counted as a destructive passion. In the second, a different form of praise is the motivator, and motivates only insofar as it accompanies something else, namely right action. In the third, praise and honor are of no consequence; they are merely anticipated. They have been displaced from the motivational system in favor of right action itself.

Is the honor motive then an irrelevancy, with no role to play in a just society? Cicero doesn’t think so, since he gives both honor and shame an important role to play in the education and training of citizens. To be sure, the applause of the crowd can be a dangerous thing. A passage from the Tusculan Disputations tells a rich and dark story of how the encounter with “the people, who with one accord give approval to our faults,” (3.3) can corrupt the mind of the most talented young politician. A striking resemblance between that passage and On the Republic 4.23 [9] gives reason to believe that On the Republic included an earlier version of that account.

But merited honor and shame, such as might be distributed by a knowledgeable ruler, is another matter entirely. An important fragment, that has recently been reassigned by Zetzel to the beginning of Book 4, tells how such a ruler would modify the educational system in such a way as to amplify the citizens’ instinctive fear of shame and wish for honor. In fact the best rulers would themselves have been “nurtured upon glory” in their youth. A modest addendum notes that such was the case for Cicero’s own ancestors.

How original are Cicero’s thoughts on honor? Something, at least, is owed to Plato’s Republic. A passage from near the end of Book 7 observes that while the philosophers who rule Plato’s ideal state care nothing for “these present honors,” they care very much for right action and for the honors that attend it (7.540d-e). Cicero must have sat up in his chair. But he also read other books, many of them no longer in existence today. I make a case for the writings of the Hellenistic Stoics, especially as concerns the corruption of the young but for other elements as well. Works by the Stoic leaders Cleanthes (On Honor) and Chrysippus (On the Honorable) may have been important to him, and at least one work by the Peripatetic author Dicaearchus of Messana. From a modern perspective, though, it is the expression Cicero himself gave to this complex of ideas that is most important. And it is likely enough that what we read in him represents his independent engagement with the older tradition, inspired in no small degree by his personal experience as a public figure.

For further reading on honor as a social and philosophical issue, try Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. For Cicero’s On the Republic, the best recent edition is by James Zetzel, under the title On the Commonwealth and On the Laws (2nd edition Cambridge 2017). My own earlier study of Cicero’s treatment of honor and the honorable in his later ethical writings is included in a volume called Cicero's De Finibus: Philosophical Approaches (Cambridge 2015).

Margaret Graver (Dartmouth College)

March 4, 2018

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