Maybe Cicero Was Right

The topic of this post is happiness and the goals of education, but we’ll get to it a bit circuitously.

I have been reading Cicero these days, and recently I came across his well-known comment that glory “follows virtue like a shadow.” The full sentence, in my admittedly questionable translation, is “For there is nothing about glory itself that would merit our pursuit of it, yet it follows virtue like a shadow.” (Tusculan Disputations I, XLV) We do not talk much these days about glory, but there are contemporary equivalents that we desire as the Romans may have desired glory: praise, recognition, appreciation, etc. Cicero’s point seems to be that though we desire it, glory, or for us our equivalents, are not themselves worth very much. Maybe they are too ephemeral, or even untrustworthy, because the praise could simply be flattery, or someone could be acknowledging us for cynical reasons. But still, we want them. We shouldn’t worry, Cicero tells us, because if we aspire to more substantive achievements and conditions, for example virtue, glory will follow. This is a point that many contemporary political leaders around the world might do well to take to heart. But I digress.

It isn’t clear on the face of it that Cicero is right about this, especially if he means to be making empirically confirmable predictions. It is possible, after all, to achieve virtue, or some other valuable end, and it go entirely unnoticed by anyone. But maybe he does not mean to be making a prediction, but rather a logical point, in the sense that virtue is a necessary condition of glory, or anything worthy of the name. On this reading, without virtue, all there can be is flattery or cynical recognition, but not genuine praise or appreciation, or glory. Glory and its equivalents may not automatically follow virtue, but without virtue there will be no glory. If we may be described as having accomplished virtue, and if the sun shines and it be noticed, the shadow of glory and praise will appear.

It occurs to me that the relation of happiness to the goals of education may be comparable to Cicero’s relation of glory to virtue. We all desire to be happy, but if the goal of education is to pursue happiness, it is likely to fail and we are likely to be disappointed. Happiness, though desirable, on a bit of reflection appears to be potentially as fleeting and untrustworthy as Cicero says glory is. What brings us happiness one day may bring us sadness the next, or what we thought would make us happy turns out not to. We might say, with Cicero, that if we achieve something more plausibly valuable, for example a life well-lived, whatever that means, happiness will follow as glory follows virtue.

It is interesting to note that the great thinkers about education, at least those in the western tradition, have not posited happiness as a goal of education. Why is that, one wonders, especially since we can assume that they were as likely to desire to be happy as the rest of us are? Plato thought that education should seek a harmonious and balanced person and society (The Republic), Rousseau thought that it should enable the development of a natural person and citizen (Emile), Dewey posited the enrichment of experience as the primary end of education (Democracy and Education), and Freire wanted it to pursue humanization and liberation (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). They mention happiness from time to time in their analyses, but they do not propose it as the end toward which education should strive. Curious.

Maybe they did indeed share Cicero’s idea. Perhaps happiness will follow like a shadow if we achieve a Platonic balance and harmony, or a fully natural life, or the conditions for enriched experience, or humanization and freedom from oppression. These outcomes, analogous to Cicero’s virtue, have been proposed as the achievements most proper to the human condition, and if a result most proper for the human condition is achieved, all other things being equal, then happiness will surely follow.

I think we are on to something here, as were our forebears. One problem, of course, is that they disagreed about what the circumstances most proper for the human condition are, and consequently about what ought to be the goal of education. As with so many important matters, we are left to struggle with this ourselves. It is not clear that any of our great philosophers were right about their proposals for the goal or goals of education. Maybe Plato was wrong about the constitution of the psyche, and Rousseau about the relation of nature and society, and maybe Dewey and Freire both overestimated the ability of education to correct the economic and social ills of our times. We cannot, then, slavishly adopt one or another of their proposals concerning the purposes of education.

But we cannot ignore the question either. The issue of the general goal of education, at any level, is something all of us who participate in the education of our children and students must keep in mind. It may seem to be remote from the push and pull of a classroom on any given day, or in the midst of a debate in a meeting of a local school board, but if we do not have some defensible sense of the direction in which we are going, our classrooms and school board meetings are more likely to be chaotic than educative. There is no choice but to face the issue directly, though presumably we would be able to do so with our colleagues, and with the stakeholders in the educational enterprise.

So, if we cannot ignore the question, and if we cannot simply take a ready-made answer off the shelf, what are we left with? The answer, I am afraid, is that we are left with the responsibility of thinking carefully through a very difficult topic. The good news is that Cicero does point us in a valuable initial direction: do not posit the fleeting and unreliable conditions of glory or happiness as the goals of education, because they are not sufficiently substantial to sustain us through our lives. If we can identify a feature of our lives that is richer in the possibilities of further growth and development, and if we can imagine how education might enable us to achieve such a condition, then the educational process through which we guide our children and students will have accomplished something genuinely worthwhile. Other goods, like happiness, or a job, or maybe even a bit of glory, will follow like shadows.

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Que sera, sera, and we would be far better served by thinking about what it is we wish to accomplish in our teaching, and in education generally, regardless of the post-pandemic details. It is only then, assuming we can carve out opportunities to influence the future of higher education, that we will exert such influence toward justifiable ends, and that que sera will be something we value.


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