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Cicero on being true to one’s own nature while respecting the common nature of others (c. 50 BCE)

The Roman lawyer and Stoic philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) advises that the task of living requires that we respect the common nature which all humans have while at the same time following our own individual nature in the best way we can:

Every one ought to hold fast, not his faults, but his peculiarities, so as to retain more easily the becomingness (propriety) which is the subject of our inquiry. We ought, indeed, to act in such a way as shall be in no respect repugnant to our common human nature; yet, holding this sacred, let us follow our individual nature, so that, if there are other pursuits in themselves more important and excellent, we yet may measure our own pursuits by the standard of our own nature. For it is of no avail to resist nature, or to pursue anything which we cannot reach. … Let us therefore bestow our diligence chiefly on those concerns for which we are the best fitted. But if at any time necessity shall have forced us to undertake things outside of our specialty, we must employ all possible care, thought, and diligence, that we may be able to dispose of them, if not becomingly, yet with the least degree of unbecomingness; nor ought we in that case to endeavor to attain capacities not our own, so much as to avoid mistake or failure.

Every one ought to hold fast, not his faults, but his peculiarities, so as to retain more easily the becomingness (propriety) which is the subject of our inquiry. We ought, indeed, to act in such a way as shall be in no respect repugnant to our common human nature; yet, holding this sacred, let us follow our individual nature, so that, if there are other pursuits in themselves more important and excellent, we yet may measure our own pursuits by the standard of our own nature. For it is of no avail to resist nature, or to pursue anything which we cannot reach. It is the more apparent of what quality is the becomingness under discussion, when we consider that nothing is becoming that is done, as the phrase is, without Minerva’s sanction, that is, with the opposition and repugnancy of nature. In truth, if anything is becoming, nothing surely is more so than uniform consistency in the whole course of life and in each separate action, which you cannot preserve if, imitating the nature of others, you abandon your own. For as we ought to use our native tongue, and not, like some who are perpetually foisting in Greek words, incur well-deserved ridicule, so we ought not to introduce any discordance into our conduct and our general way of living. This difference of natures, indeed, has so much force that sometimes one person ought, and another under the same circumstances ought not, to commit suicide. For was the case of Marcus Cato different from that of the others who surrendered to Caesar in Africa? Yet had they killed themselves, they might perhaps have been worthy of censure, because their mode of life was less severe, and their characters were more pliant; while, since Nature had given Cato an incredible massiveness of character, and he himself had strengthened it by undeviating self-consistency, and had always been steadfast in the purpose once conceived and the design once undertaken, it seemed fit for him to die rather than to look upon the face of a tyrant. How many things did Ulysses endure in his long wandering, while he submitted to the service of women, — if Circe and Calypso are to be called women, — and while he strove to be affable and pleasant to all in his whole social intercourse! At home, also, he bore the jeers of slaves and maidservants, that he might attain the object of his desire. But Ajax, with the temper which he is said to have had, would have faced death a thousand times rather than have borne such insults. In view of these things, it will be each man’s duty to weigh well what are his own peculiar traits of character, and to keep them in serviceable condition, and not to desire to try how far another man’s peculiarities may be becoming to him; for that is most becoming to each man which is most peculiarly his own. Let each of us, then, know his own capacities and proclivities, and show himself a discriminating judge of his own excellences and defects, lest performers on the stage may evince more discretion than we do. For they choose, not the best plays, but those the best adapted to their respective abilities, — those who rely on voice, the Epigoni and Medus; those who depend on action, Menalippa or Clytaemnestra; Rutilius, whom I remember, Antiopa always; Aesopus, not often Ajax. An actor, then, will look to this fitness on the stage; shall not the wise man have equal regard to it in life? Let us therefore bestow our diligence chiefly on those concerns for which we are the best fitted. But if at any time necessity shall have forced us to undertake things outside of our specialty, we must employ all possible care, thought, and diligence, that we may be able to dispose of them, if not becomingly, yet with the least degree of unbecomingness; nor ought we in that case to endeavor to attain capacities not our own, so much as to avoid mistake or failure.

About this Quotation:

Cicero recognises that one of the great difficulties of living in a society is how individuals can balance their desire to pursue their own selfish and personal interests against the equal desire of others to pursue their own, possibly very different, goals and interests. The first step in his view is to determine what one’s own nature is, what are one’s own “peculiarities” as he put it, and to endeavour to live one’s own life accordingly. The second step is to recognize that everyone else also has their own peculiar nature which they wish to live by. Peaceful co-existence is only possible when each person acknowledges and respects “our common human nature”. The third step in Cicero’s plan for good living, is that we step back now and again to reassess whether the goals we have chosen to pursue are in fact consistent with our own nature, to see what other people have chosen for their goals and whether or not they might suit us better, and to adjust our behaviour accordingly. He concludes with the sound advice, “Let us therefore bestow our diligence chiefly on those concerns for which we are the best fitted.”

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