The Corn-Sale Dilemma was included in Cicero’s philosophical work De Officiis, aka On Duties. It was written in 44 BC, specifically addressing his son Marcus. It deals with problems of moral behaviour, drawing on the opinions of different sects of ancient philosophy. The Corn-Sale Dilemma exemplifies the main problem of the treatise, namely, finding the right balance between what is “honourable” (honestum) and what is useful. The passage may read like a page from a course on Business Ethics, but in fact Cicero’s focus is primarily moral in the philosophical sense: the emphasis is on the character of the hypothetical seller. This individual is assumed to be a good man1 and, therefore, would not increase the price of his corn if he knew it would be unethical. Cicero goes on to talk about the differences in opinions that the Stoic school of thought had in approaching the problem. Through the exchange between the two Stoics, Diogenes of Babylon and Antipater of Tarsus (both flourished in 2nd century BC),2 it becomes clear that the crux of the argument is centred around the relationship between legitimate self-interest and philanthropic other-concerned obligations. This is a moral dilemma, a probelm that is open; the person has a choice over what to do according to their own morals.
The story reflects a rich spectrum of historical and ideological contexts. Cereals were the staple foods in Greco-Roman antiquity;3 still, food shortages were endemic. Prejudice against profiteering merchants dates back to Homer’s Odyssey (Bk 8.163-4). Generous giving by the affluent elite, on the other hand, was both expected and celebrated. For instance, in the anonymous Latin romance Story of Apollonius King of Tyre4 the hero’s donation rescues a city from famine; the citizens repay his gift of grain with an inscribed statue (ch. 10). Such generous spending in the interests of the community was known as euergetism. Often the elite would give money and/or food generously as a tactic of political advancement – for example, Julius Caesar (Plutach, Life of Caesar ch. 4): his generosity is driven by ambition, rather than by genuine philanthropy.
1 On Duties, 3.50. 2 For critique of Cicero’s account of the two Stoics’ views, see Annas, 1989. 3 Wilkins and Hill, 2008, ch. 4. 4 Kortekaas, 2004.
Page 3 of 9
In Cicero’s scenario political ambition is not even considered as a possible motive, the seller must reach a decision based on a moral rationale, this is a philosophical dilemma first and foremost. Out of two Stoic solutions related by Cicero, Antipater’s argument about “common benefit” dovetails with the Stoic idea of natural solidarity among manking. The mainstream Stoic theory proposed that as rational beings all humans are naturally programmed to respect and support each other. Such an attitude is imagined by the Stoic Hierocules as concentric circles of affection; the smallest circle is our self, next our family and kin, then friends, the wider community, and so forth;...