Ambrose models his text on the three books of Cicero's De officiis, written by Cicero to his son Marcus in 44 BC, under the influence of the Stoic philosopher Panaetius (with some further debts to Posidonius and other thinkers). Ambrose highlights the parallels between Cicero's work and his own, retaining a comparable three–book structure and addressing himself to his clerical ‘sons’. He discusses the honourable in Book 1, arranging this around the classical scheme of the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage, temperance); the beneficial follows in Book 2; and Book 3 addresses the relationship between the honourable and the beneficial. The honourable is defined with reference to knowing and pleasing God, and the beneficial as that which contributes to the attainment of eternal life. The two cannot be in tension since both relate to the purposes of God, though the honourable is depicted as the supreme good.
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