As this series continues on exploring these paradoxes by Cicero, I endeavour to uncover and mine out the topics of each paradox. The next we come across is Paradox III – All the vices and all virtues are equal.
The measure of crime
At the beginning, Cicero, being the statesman he is, tells us what the measure of a crime is:
“The matter it may be said is a trifle, but the crime is enormous; for crimes are not to be measured by the issue of events, but from the bad intentions of men”
As Rome’s best lawyer, Cicero knows what he is talking about. Let’s elaborate on this passage, the harm done to another judged by itself will only be considered a crime if the act was done intentionally or not. Do we call something done without malicious intent a crime? Are accidents a crime? No because to reiterate the intentionality of a crime is its measure.
Seneca was of the same mind:
“we cannot call anything a wrong unless it be done intentionally – De Ira”
The vice of guilt is the same in all crimes
Here Cicero is giving us, or rather Brutus, examples of vices through his lense as an experienced lawyer:
“A pilot oversets a ship laden with gold or one laden with straw ; in value there is some difference, but in the ignorance of the pilot there is none. Your illicit desire has fallen upon an obscure female. The mortification affects fewer persons than if it had broken out in the case of some high-born and noble virgin; nevertheless it has been guilty, if it be guilty to overstep the mark.”
“That which is unlawful is limited by this sole condition, that it is shown to be wrong. If this guilt can neither be made greater not less than the vicious acts which spring out of that which is ever one and the same must necessarily be equal”
Reading this paradox it appears that, irrespective of the magnitude of the crime, the importance is focused on only the quality of the vice that ensues. The vice of guilt is the same for all crimes, Cicero argues. To reiterate, no matter what magnitude the crime is; guilt is guilt; vices include crimes and the varied types of misdeeds that reults from them.
Vices and Virtues? Not one triumphs over the other!
“Now if virtues are equal among themselves, it must necessarily follow that vices are so likewise; and it is most easy to be perceived that a man cannot be better than good, more temperate that temperate, braver than brave, nor wiser than wise”
Here the focus is on the quality of the vices and virtues of one man and not a comparison with other men in their magnitudes. We can assign to someone the virtues of being brave or wise but not braver or wiser because the later are relative terms compared to something else.
What if one were to possess a virtue and its opposing vice?
“Will any man call a person honest, who, having a deposit of ten pounds of gold made to him without any witness, so that he might take advantage of it with impunity, shall restore it, and yet should not do the same in the case of ten thousand pounds?”
“Can a man be accounted temperate who checks one inordinate passion and gives a loose to another”
So according to Cicero’s logic here, in some situations the person engages in honest conduct (the virtue) and then in a different situation, in deception (the vice), what then results? The result then is these two contradict and cancel each other out because, as the logic goes, they are both equal. If you posses both honesty in some situations and deceptions in others; can you be described as still being an honest person and vice versa as deceptive! It seems in these passages, to possess the quality of being honest one must be purely honest, purely virtuous; an addition to it cannot be made as Cicero explains further here:
“Virtue is uniform, conformable to reason, and of unvarying consistency; nothing can be added to it that can make it more than virtue: nothing can be taken from it, and the name of virtue be left.”
How can the vice of parricide be equal to killing a slave?
Cicero justifies equating parricide with the killing of a slave by employing moral relativism.
“But some one will say, what then? does it make no difference , whether a man murders his father or his slave? If you instance these acts abstractly, it is difficult to decide what quality they are. If to deprive a parent of life is in itself a most heinous crime, the Saguntines were then parricides, because they chose that their parent should die as freemen rather than live as slaves. Thus a case may happen in which there may be no guilt in depriving a parent of life, and very often we can not without guilt put a slave to death.”
His conclusion for parricide and killing a slave rests in relation to ‘the circumstances therefore attending this case, and not the nature of the thing, occasion the distinction.’
On the section about parricide Cicero did rightly condemn it as lawfully deserving of greater punishment in the state of Rome:
“There is this difference – that in killing a slave, if wrong is done, it is a single sin that is committed; but many are involved in taking the life of a father. The object of violence is the man who begat you, the man who fed you, the man who brought you up, the man who gave your position in your home, your family, and the state. This offense is greater by reason of the number of sins (involved in it), and is deserving of a proportionately greater punishment”
One of Cicero’s most famous trials in his career was as the defendant of Sextus Roscius who was falsely accused of parricide, as reported in the work Pro Roscio Amerino in 80BC.
I have mixed views on this paradox. If I were to argue for this, from a self-developmental perspective, I think viewing vices and virtues as equal would contribute in developing an equanimity on the outlook of things, it would be part of a self-improvement programme which would be in line with the goals of Zen philosophy; in keeping the mind still, making sure it does not lean, all for inner peace. Other than that I cannot salvage anything more from this! The ideas in this paradox, I doubt, were practised by Cicero in public life because he was a lawyer frequently involved in the law and order of the Roman state which evaluated crimes and judged them by the degrees of the misdeeds commited! Well, Cicero did say he wrote this for amusement and this paradox feels like a rushed notebook to be honest.