Cicero, Marcus Tullius (106–43 BCE)

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(10643 BCE)

The Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, of Arpinum, had a lifelong interest in philosophy and wrote a number of philosophical works during periods of forced retirement from public life. He was well ac-quainted with the four main Greek schools of his time and counted among his friends and teachers the Epicureans Phaedrus and Zeno, the Stoic Posidonius, the Peripatetic Staseas, the Academics Philo and Antiochus, and many others. He identified himself primarily with the Academy, though he found much to admire also in the Stoa and Lyceum. He rejected Epicureanism.

In a famous passage in a letter to Atticus (xii, 52, May 21, 45 BCE), with reference to some of his books on philosophy, Cicero calls them copies ("apographa"), written with little effort; he supplied only the words ("Verba tantum adfero, quibus abundo"). A week earlier he had written: "It is incredible how much I write, even at night; for I cannot sleep" (Ad Atticum xiii, 26). Modern scholars have found in such passages support for the view that these writings are chiefly valuable for the reconstruction of lost Greek originals, which Cicero in his haste sometimes misunderstood or jumbled together. The search for sources has been a major preoccupation of Ciceronian scholars for almost a century.

A more generous view is that in spite of his own statements Cicero's philosophical writings are more than hasty copies of Greek originals; they present a fairly coherent and modestly original system of thought. At a minimum Cicero took from the Academy a framework for his views. The Platonism of the New Academy had abandoned the search for truth and was occupied, rather, with the confrontation of conflicting opinions. Carneades, its leading spokesman, had even devised criteria for preferring one opinion to another. Within such a framework Cicero examines alternative views and makes his selection (though not necessarily in terms of Carneades' criteria). The views examined extend to all three commonly accepted branches of philosophylogic, physics, ethicsand the presentation follows an orderly plan. Within this broad coverage, however, are many unresolved conflicts; clearly, Cicero's primary purpose was to offer to his Roman readers a wide range of philosophical opinions rather than to construct a well-integrated system.

Philosophy and Rhetoric

Whatever originality Cicero's views possess is not in their components (he believed that the Greeks had already exhausted the varieties of possible opinions) but in their combination. The most conspicuous feature of his thought is the union of philosophy with rhetoric. This union carries with it some criticism of Socrates, who was blamed for their separation (see De Oratore iii, 61), and appears to align Cicero with Isocrates rather than Plato; yet he does not consider the union incompatible with Platonism. Carneades had prepared the way for a reconciliation between rhetoric and the Academy when he made philosophy a contest between opinions, and Greek theoretical rhetoricians had long since sought to implement Plato's prescription in the Phaedrus for a scientific rhetoric. Cicero could also point to the literary excellence of the dialogues as evidence that Plato was a master of the rhetorical art (ibid. i, 47).

The union of rhetoric and philosophy gave Cicero the materials for construction of his humanistic ideal. The highest human achievement lies in the effective use of knowledge for the guidance of human affairs. Philosophy and the specialized disciplines supply the knowledge, and rhetorical persuasion makes it effective. Each is useless without the other, and the great man is master of both. Cicero associates this ideal with a free societythat is, a constitutional republic in which persuasion rather than violence is the instrument of political power. He believes that Rome has the essential features of such a state but that unless a great man is found to guide it, its freedom is in jeopardy.

Commitment to the union of eloquence and knowledge led Cicero to the view that if the statesman-philosopher is to speak persuasively on all subjects, he must have knowledge of all subjects. But recognizing the impossibility of such a requirement, Cicero advocated liberal education as the best approximation. An important part of liberal education is the study of philosophy, and Cicero's philosophical works provided materials for this study. Thus, in his philosophical writings no less than in his great public orations, he was combining wisdom and eloquence in the service of the Roman people.

Philosophical Works

The literary form that Cicero used emphasizes his didactic intent. Most of the philosophical works are dialogues, preceded by an introduction in defense of philosophical studies. The speakers are distinguished Romans, including Cicero himself, and frequently the listeners are young men just beginning their political careers. Conflicting views are presented in long speeches, with few interruptions. Sometimes the clash of opinions leads to insult and denunciation, especially when Epicureans are involved, but personal abuse of one speaker by another is avoided. There is hardly a vestige of dramatic conflict in such dialogues as Tusculanae Disputationes, where the conversation is between a young man and his preceptor. In two late works, De Officiis (On Duties, addressed to Cicero's son) and Topica (addressed to a young lawyer, Trebatius), the dialogue form is discarded.

In logic Cicero wrote Academica, in two versions (45 BCE), on the dispute between dogmatists and Academic skeptics about the criterion of truth; only portions of these are extant. Topica (44 BCE), though usually grouped with the rhetorical works, is also on logic. The title is from Aristotle, but the treatment is not. Cicero compiles a single exhaustive list of kinds of argument without distinction between the philosophical and the rhetorical.

There are three works, planned as a unit, on physics: (1) De Natura Deorum, (2) De Divinatione, and (3) De Fato (4544 BCE). They present Epicurean, Stoic, and Academic arguments and counterarguments about religion and cosmology. Cicero himself was inclined to accept the Stoic arguments for a divine providence, but he rejected the Stoic doctrine of fate.

The major ethical writings are De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (45 BCE), in which Epicurean, Stoic, and Peripatetic ethical views are examined; Tusculanae Disputationes (45 BCE), on fear of death, on pain, on distress of mind, and on other matters; and De Officiis (44 BCE), a practical ethics based on Stoic principles.

On political theory Cicero wrote two dialogues with titles taken from Plato. There is De Re Publica (51 BCE), from which the famous "Dream of Scipio" is an excerpt. The subject matter of the "Dream" ensured its preservation; it portrays the virtuous soul enjoying a more perfect existence after death in the region above the moon. The rest of the work is fragmentary. The other political dialogue, De Legibus (date uncertain), depicts Roman law as a very nearly perfect realization of Greek (chiefly Stoic) theory.

Some of the rhetorical works, especially the first book of De Oratore (55 BCE), discuss the relation of philosophy to rhetoric and present the ideal of the great man in whom both are united.

Minor works on philosophical themes include Paradoxa Stoicorum, De Senectute, De Amicitia, and the lost Consolatio and Hortensius. Cicero also translated two Platonic dialogues, Protagoras (lost) and Timaeus (W. Ax, ed., Leipzig, 1938).

See also Ancient Skepticism; Antiochus of Ascalon; Carneades; Greek Academy; Hellenistic Thought; Philo of Larissa; Stoicism.


texts and translations

The standard Latin editions for most of Cicero's works are published by Teubner (various editors). New critical editions of the philosophical works are being published by Oxford University Press; two have appeared (more are imminent): De Finibus, edited by L. D. Reynolds (1998), and De Officiis, edited by Michael Winterbottom (1994). Texts and facing translations of the entire corpus, including all philosophical works except a partial Latin translation of Plato's Timaeus, are published by the Loeb Classical Library, various editor-translators (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 19141949). Superior translations of philosophical works include:

Academica : Brittain, Charles. Cicero: On Academic Scepticism. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2005.

De Amicitia : Powell, Jonathan G. F. Cicero: On Friendship and The Dream of Scipio. Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1990.

De Fato : Sharples, Robert W. Cicero: On Fate, and Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy IV.57, V. Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1991.

De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum : Annas, Julia, and Raphael Woolf. Cicero: On Moral Ends. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

De Legibus : Zetzel, James E. G. Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

De Natura Deorum : Walsh, Patrick G. Cicero: The Nature of the Gods. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

De Officiis : Atkins, E. Margaret, and Miriam T. Griffin. Cicero: On Duties. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

De Oratore : May, James M., and Jakob Wisse. Cicero: On the Ideal Orator. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

De Re Publica : Zetzel, James E. G. Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Topica : Reinhardt, Tobias. Cicero: Topica. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Tusculanae Disputationes : Graver, Margaret. Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Dyck, Andrew R. A Commentary on Cicero, De Legibus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Dyck, Andrew R. A Commentary on Cicero, De Officiis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Gawlick, Gunther, and Woldemar Görler. "Cicero." In Die Philosophie der Antike, Vol. 4, edited by Helmut Flashar. Basel: Schwabe, 1994. A comprehensive survey of his philosophical work and thought, with extensive, analytical bibliographies.

Inwood, Brad, and Jaap Mansfeld, eds. Assent and Argument: Studies in Cicero's Academic Books. Leiden: Brill, 1997.

MacKendrick, Paul. The Philosophical Books of Cicero. London: Duckworth, 1989. Useful synopses of each work.

Powell, Jonathan G. F., ed. Cicero the Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Articles on diverse aspects of his thought.

Powell, Jonathan G. F., and John A. North, eds. Cicero's Republic = Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, suppl. 76. London: University of London, 2001. Articles on his political thought.

Rawson, Elizabeth. Cicero: A Portrait. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983. A thoughtful and engaging biography emphasizing his intellectual life.

P. H. DeLacy (1967)

Bibliography updated by Stephen A. White (2005)