Each year of my forty teaching Latin I would tell my students the same moral tale. It is the once well-known legend of Marcus Atilius Regulus, the Roman senator and general who was captured by the Carthaginians during the First Punic War (264–241 BC), the first of three seminal wars between the superpowers of Rome and Carthage that would determine the character of western history. The story was still being told and cited two centuries later by Cicero, no less, and testifies to the enduring power of its message.
Cicero (106– 43BC) is our surviving voice and moral compass of the Roman republic. He wrote 106 orations, 900 letters and many political and philosophical essays. For two millennia, up until about the middle of the last century “every educated European and American read Cicero… Cicero became the symbol of the statesman who sacrifices popularity, a short-term benefit that could be purchased only by vice, for fame, an everlasting glory that could be secured only through virtue.” His De officiis (On Duties, 44 BC), a work once considered central to a liberal education, concerns the moral duties and obligations of a good citizen. As the arbiter of Roman character, however, Cicero was not immune from opposition. He was both banished from Rome and ultimately assassinated for speaking his mind.
I related to my students that Regulus was sent by his captors back to Rome to negotiate an exchange of prisoners with the Senate. He gave an oath to his enemies that once he delivered the terms he would return to Carthage. The interesting part, I said, is that Regulus delivered the message, but also advised his fellow senators not to return the prisoners. He then went back to his captors.
He had weighed the pros and cons, I explained, of an exchange of several high-ranking and fit enemy warriors that would return to the war to fight the Romans, for himself, an old man at the end of his fighting days. Certainly, I conceded, Regulus would have enjoyed living out his final days in his country and with his family. He had given his word, however, to return after delivering his message. I emphasized that Regulus knew that if he failed to secure the exchange, he would himself face a certain and excruciating death; however, he had to keep his promise to maintain his integrity.
Throughout the four decades of telling this story I would invariably be asked in shocked disbelief the same question over and over: “Why did he return?”
I recently retired after 18 years at a US prep school whose motto is “Scholarship, Community, Integrity.” While I was there, much was made of the first two ideals which are relatively easy to reference in the context of the daily life of a school. The third element, “Integrity”, however, was more difficult to illustrate and one not often celebrated today in popular US culture. Common usage tends to associate integrity with honesty, which is often equated with a type of moral goodness; but integrity is something else, and is measured on a more intimate and personal scale. You can have honesty without integrity, but you cannot have integrity without honesty. Integrity is a virtue that is infrequently invoked and indeed all but lost in today’s contentious politicized climate.
It is not so much ironic as hypocritical that behaviors that go unchecked in wider society remain unacceptable in schools. It is dishonest for a student to lie, cheat, or plagiarize. They know that these are punishable offenses that become part of their high school record; the consequences will impact the course of their future. High schools are required to report cases of academic dishonesty to colleges, along with other egregious offenses. A suspension for cheating or some other serious infraction of the school culture can be a deal breaker. I once had a student whose acceptance to an Ivy League college was rescinded after he was suspended for drinking a beer. I have taught at another school which has an honor code where lying is an expellable offense.
As every student knows, the fear of being caught is often the only motivator for being honest. This expedient behavior, however, does not have anything to do with integrity. Dishonesty frequently goes undetected, unpunished, and even rewarded. Ironically, integrity may also remain unnoticed, often goes unrewarded and could also have severe consequences.
In each of my eighteen years at this school, I would define and explain the etymology of the word to my freshmen Latin students. “Integrity,” I told them, comes from the Latin integritas, which means “wholeness” and gives us the word “integer”. When I asked what an integer is, they all knew it is a whole number. Asked, however, to define a “person of integrity”, they would reply, “honest” and “good”. I next would try to separate “integrity” from the moral charge or bias that this word seemed to hold for them. A person with integrity, I explained, is not de facto an honest or a good person. Tony Soprano, the fictional mafia don from the TV show The Sopranos, for example, egregiously breaks many laws and kills people, yet he notably demonstrates integrity when dealing with his children and his friends. Conversely, someone lacking integrity is not necessarily bad, e.g., one who cheats on a diet.
More accurately, I noted, when integrity is absent, something in the person is missing or incomplete. I explained that we want our students to be whole and complete individuals, in addition to being good scholars and contributing members of their community. Integrity and justice are intertwined, I said, illustrating with the familiar example: integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching. If your “good” actions are dictated solely by what someone might think of you, that is neither integrity nor honesty; you are merely trying to look good. A lapse of integrity is a breach of Cicero’s concept of Natural Law. Its punishment was “not by ‘penalties established by laws, for these they often escape’ but rather by ‘their own degradation’.”
Integrity, the seed of virtue planted in one’s inner voice, so easily drowned out by the din of social media and peer pressure, speaks in just a whisper. I wanted my students to strain to hear that voice, to listen to it and to nurture it. Sometimes it means being uncomfortable or unpopular. A lapse of integrity, however, is a moment of incompleteness, but one, nonetheless, that is recoverable. Unlike honor which once breached can never be completely restored, integrity can be regained. We all have the capacity for being whole, as well as for replenishing lost integrity. We can do the right thing when no one is watching. It is never too late to recover integrity. The reward of integrity is self-respect and the respect of others.
I recall a former student from years ago who was caught cheating during his freshman year. His punishment led to his subsequent remorse, but also the restoration of both his integrity and his respect by the school community. Over the next three years he became a devoted and contributing member of the school community. By his senior year his peers held his character in such high esteem that he was elected president of the student senate where his primary responsibility was to hear and try judicial cases of violation of the school’s honor code.
Integrity is the sine qua non, the essential ingredient, of civic virtue and a litmus test for our times. Cicero said that a civil servant puts the interests of the greater good ahead of their own. That is what we try to teach our students. We want them to be good citizens and good public figures.
“Why did Regulus go back?” Not an unreasonable question; even the Romans of Cicero’s time had trouble with this decision to choose integrity over self-preservation. Cicero explains Regulus’ choice:
nam quod rediit, nobis nunc mirabile videtur, illis quidem temporibus aliter facere non potuit; itaque ista laus non est hominis, sed temporum.
For the fact that he returned seems amazing to us now; indeed, he was not able to do otherwise in those times; and so, that laudable act was not of the person, but of the times. (Off. 3.111, emphasis mine)
With his famous plaint, O tempora! O mores! (In Catilinam 1.2), Cicero famously bemoans how far the Romans had drifted from the times of their ancestors, their “Greatest Generation”. Was there once a time of universal virtue? Probably not. There have been, however, times and places where there was greater societal aspiration toward it. Cicero, one outstanding example, devoted and subsequently gave his life to defending and serving the democratic principles of the Republic. His writings on duty and democracy are not just expository rhetoric. He believed in the integrity of the human spirit. “Our nature compels us to seek what is morally right.” He also knew that it takes work. “Therefore, it is our task… to supplement those mere beginnings by searching out the further developments which are implicit in them, until what we seek is fully realized.” 
Decades ago, as an idealistic young teacher I used to say that I wanted to be still teaching when no student had to ask why Regulus returned to Carthage. Now retired, I must sadly acknowledge, most of them still do not get it. Integrity is not a concept that is a part of today’s youth culture. Integrity is not a virtue that is of today. We live in “unprecedented times”, but if we look back far enough, there are precedents for when justice and integrity were “of the times”.
The year following my retirement, Latin was dropped from the curriculum as a required course and relegated to the status of elective along with art and music. In what was once a Latin Department we used to exhort one another to continue to “fight the good fight” of teaching a quickly vanishing language and the lessons of its culture in an age that increasingly wants to cancel the wisdom of the past. Like Cicero, however, I am optimistic about human nature. As Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Cicero might add, “and it takes intention to ensure that.” We must teach this next generation what makes a great generation. What better place to start than with Cicero himself. Integrity is a civic virtue whose time has come again. Cicero claims it is an integral component of natural law. He believed that the merely seminal elements of virtue are instilled in us by Nature; they must be nurtured to be fully actualized. Like Cicero, we must reinvoke and reclaim our integrity and work toward a new age whose times will not just foster in our youth the honest and the good, but also demand the whole and complete.
John Roth has taught Classics for 40 years at various US prep schools. He has a Ph.D. in Classics from New York University.