by Mike Fontaine
Note: This article was originally published by Classical Wisdom at https://classicalwisdom.substack.com/p/ciceros-six-mistakes-of-man.
There’s an amazing list all over the internet, and it’s been around a long time. Called “Cicero’s Six Mistakes of Man,” it’s huge with bodybuilders and business types, it’s in books and videos, and it’s incredible. It’s not authentic – more on that in a minute – but when I came across it in a martial-arts book (!) the other day, my jaw dropped. Take a look:
Cicero’s Six Mistakes of Man
1. The delusion that individual advancement is made by crushing others down.
2. The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.
3. Insisting that a thing is impossible because we ourselves cannot accomplish it.
4. Attempting to compel other men to believe and live as we do.
5. Neglect in developing and refining the mind by not acquiring the habit of reading fine literature.
6. Refusing to set aside trivial preferences in order that important things may be accomplished.
My jaw dropped because Cicero doesn’t give a list like this anywhere in his works – that I knew – but it seems authentic. Cicero does say these things, if not in these exact words.
The six points look like a perfect summation of his practical wisdom.
And it’s not a crazy idea. Ancient philosophers did issue lists like this. The one I know best is the “fourfold remedy” by Epicurus: memorize the four tenets and you’ll never freak out.
So I bought it – hook, line, and sinker.
Who on earth (I wondered) had put it together? It had to be someone with a deep knowledge of Cicero’s philosophical writings. And I mean really deep – much deeper than the average Classics or Latin professor has. The list looked like the product of many years spent reading and reflecting on his various works.
No, I decided, it had to be someone “out there.” An independent. A mystery man or woman.
I know such people are out there because I’ve met a few.
I was wrong.
In reality, the list was compiled in 1914 by an American businessman named Bernard Meador. I’ll come back to him below, but first, let me explain here why the list seems so Ciceronian.
Late in life, in just two years, Cicero published three profound treatises on personal development, grit, and success: On Duties, Tusculan Disputations, and On Moral Ends.
All six ideas can be found in them. Let’s consider the list in reverse order. (The following quotations each come from the outstanding new translations by Quintus Curtius.)
Point 6: Refusing to set aside trivial preferences in order that important things may be accomplished.
This – cooperation and great projects – are the two leitmotifs of On Duties, a book Cicero wrote for his college-age son. Over and over, he emphasizes the importance of cooperation and endeavor. For example,
No one, either as a leader in war or in civilian affairs, can do great and beneficial things without the enthusiastic participation of other men. … Since there can be no doubt on this point—that man is to his fellow man both the greatest help and the greatest harm—I say that the special characteristic of virtue is the winning over of the hearts of men and the joining of them together in one’s useful purpose.
Goodwill and persuasion, says Cicero, rather than fear and coercion, are the way to win hearts and minds. (Machiavelli, of course, would eventually say the opposite.)
And you have to set aside trivial preferences if you want to win those hearts and minds and get the job done.
Point 5: Neglect in developing and refining the mind by not acquiring the habit of reading fine literature.
Cicero makes this point in the very first sentence of On Duties. He praises Marcus Jr. for studying philosophy and encourages him to continue doing so. Later, he points out that wisdom resides in books—so we should read them:
Not only do [philosophers] instruct and teach willing students while they are alive and present, but they continue to do so after their deaths by virtue of the literary monuments which they leave behind. … Through their devotion to instruction and dedication to knowledge, these same men bring their most acute prudence and intelligence to the general benefit of humanity.
Even better, Cicero illustrates this principle in his philosophical works. He constantly cites fine literature – epic poetry, tragedy, and comedy – to illustrate life lessons, insights, and decision making.
Point 4: Attempting to compel other men to believe and live as we do.
Tolerance was typical in ancient Rome. Edward Gibbon summed it up best: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”
[Photo: Gibbon/Decline & Fall]
Moreover, Cicero extended this attitude to all kinds of personal preferences. On the first page of On Moral Ends, he notes that some people dislike philosophy and others dislike philosophy in translation. “Okay,” he says. “I don’t.”
If we find pleasure in writing, who would be so hateful as to discourage us from it? Even if we find it a chore, who would impose boundaries on the efforts of others? Probably a person similar to Terence’s rude character Chremes, who wanted his new neighbor “neither to dig, nor cultivate, nor finally to produce anything at all.”
(Note how Cicero illustrates his point by quoting a comedy of Terence – that’s point 5 in action.)
Point 3: Insisting that a thing is impossible because we ourselves cannot accomplish it.
More than any other, this is the point that convinced me the list was authentic. Why? Because it’s the central lesson of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations book two. He distinguishes between very hard (like, say, losing weight) and impossible. Athletes, soldiers, gladiators, and even old women show us the way:
Elderly women often bear hunger that lasts for two or three days. But carry off an athlete’s food for only one day, and he will shout prayers to Olympian Jove, the deity for whom he is training. He will whine that he cannot bear the deprivation.
Out in the mountains, hunters spend the night in the snow; Indians tolerate their flesh being subjected to intense heat; the pugilist pounded by his opponent’s wrapped fists moans hardly at all. … And gladiators, who are either desperate men or barbarians—what terrible beatings they absorb! … So, then, can the seasoned soldier behave this way, but the educated wise man cannot?
For Cicero, endurance is a learned behavior.
Point 2: The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.
This, of course, is a central tenet of Stoicism, and Cicero makes it the focus of Tusculan Disputations book 3. For him, stress, anxiety, and grief are a choice we make – a choice to wallow in our misery instead of toughening up and pulling ourselves out of it:
When grief has run its course, and it is understood that further lamentation accomplishes nothing, doesn’t it become clear that such mourning is completely voluntary? … It is within one’s power to shake off sadness when one wants to, as the situation requires. And since this is something within our power to do, should we let ourselves miss any chance to unload burdens of care and sorrow?
Cicero cites verses from Homer, Euripides, and Terence to make his case. (Point 5 again.)
If a person can shake off grief, it is also possible not to gratify it in the first place. We must conclude, then, that mental anguish is a choice, something adopted voluntarily and derived from a sense of internal obligation. This is made clear by the patience of those who, once they have lived through many hardships and can more easily endure whatever happens, believe themselves to be somewhat protected from fortune’s wiles.
Many people fall to pieces when a loved one dies, he adds. But not everyone. That’s the difference between difficult and impossible. (Point 4.)
Point 1: The delusion that individual advancement is made by crushing others down.
This arresting sentence is the key insight, the main takeaway, of On Duties – a book Cicero wrote in response to the assassination of Julius Caesar. He’d just watched the most powerful man in human history cut down by a small group of friends. For Cicero, the lesson was obvious: crushing others down doesn’t work. Not in the long run. As he puts it:
To believe that a morally corrupt thing can be expedient is truly a ruinous concept.
The only way to safeguard ourselves and our happiness in the long term, says Cicero, is to win the hearts and minds of men through goodwill. (Point 6.) Bring them along, don’t step on them. Or, as he’d put it earlier,
Of all possible things, nothing is more felicitous in gaining and safeguarding the hopes of men than to be held in high esteem, and nothing is more alienating to those hopes than to be feared. … No amount of resources can withstand the hatred of the majority.
This observation recurs like a refrain throughout the book. And since On Duties was Cicero’s last will and testament—he martyred himself only months later—this is his central lesson for humankind. It makes sense as point #1 on a list of “Cicero’s Six Mistakes of Man.”
No wonder the attribution caught on!
But what of the author of the list, Bernard Meador? In New York in 1914, Meador published an extraordinary book – it’s well worth reading – titled Secrets of Personal Culture and Business Power. His list appears there as “The Seven Mistakes of Life” (p. 150).
(The seventh mistake is “The failure to establish the habit of saving money,” which is not something Cicero ever emphasized.)
Interestingly, Meador emphasizes that his list of mistakes apply to “all men and women” and not just “men.”
Meador’s list is the capstone to his whole book. It sums up everything he’s said before.
What happened? It seems his list got excerpted in scores of contemporary magazines and journals, typically anonymously. By the early 1940s, it had been pared down to six and attributed to Cicero. From then on, Cicero’s authorship was taken for granted. Meador himself was forgotten.
Nothing is known of Meador except that he lived in West Virginia at one point, and in the foreword he credits a sister with helping him through a rough patch. He never published another book. Yet he was obviously well-read and a brilliant thinker. (He deserves his own article in due course.)
Meador does mention Seneca once, but never Cicero, so there’s no reason to think he got his wisdom directly from him. On the contrary: to judge from the commentary Meador offers on his list, Cicero is the furthest thing from his mind.
No matter, though. Despite the established backstory, I suggest we retain the name “Cicero’s Six Mistakes of Man”—not to indicate authorship, but to honor the towering Roman thinker who shared its values.
And that we put the list to use.