The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 28 Cicero: Classical Skepticism on the Brink of Empire

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Cicero: Classical Skepticism on the Brink of Empire

For seventeen hundred years, if you did not have Cicero (106–43 BCE) on your bookshelf, you simply did not intellectually count. The elegance of his Latin was so potent that, in the sixteenth century, a millennium and a half after his death, there was an entire movement which had as its central proposition that Ciceronian language should be declared the ultimate in verbal expression, and all advances beyond its conventions outlawed. His was the voice that communicated Greek philosophy to the Roman world and Middle Ages, and provided a model of religious and philosophical skepticism so respectable and revered that the most ardent Christians couldn’t bring themselves to send him to Hell, but rather carved out a special place in Purgatory for antiquity’s most eloquent doubter.

CiceroCicero was one of the very few philosophers in the Western tradition who was also actively engaged in shaping public policy. He was as important in the abstract realm as in the political and had to deal with ethical practicalities that most philosophers airily brush away from the comfort of their metaphysical systems. Aquinas never had to vote on a land redistribution measure. Abelard never had to make a decision between preserving an individual’s life and preventing civil war. Cicero regularly did, and the particular grayness of those situations colored his philosophy, preventing him from ascribing to easy theoretical imperatives which existed only on paper.

His whole life was a challenge to the traditional notion of how philosophy and religion were to be done.  Like Bertolt Brecht during a later age, he thought it was irresponsible for a human being not to be politically engaged, that the worst crime was social apathy. As humans, our first duty is to each other and to the maintenance of the dreadfully fragile thing we call our government. To say that politics is too dirty a concern to involve yourself in is nothing more than to say you consider your own ethereal purity more important than the good of your fellow citizens, and that is something of which to be ashamed rather than proud.

He lived during the worst of times. The Roman Republic, which had stood and expanded steadily for seven centuries, was in a state of lingering governmental paralysis, as elite Senators jealously guarded their privileges in the face of an urban population united behind Tribunes whose power of veto effectively guaranteed gridlock and corruption as the unvarying way of things. When he was an adolescent, he watched Sulla and Marius march armies on Rome in a bloody civil war that gutted the Senatorial class in an orgy of vengeful executions. Armies were determining legislative policy, and organized street terror was recognized as the most effective way of pushing policies through the Senate.

The Senate’s incompetence at dealing with the threats of Sulla and Marius, and the chaos and tragedy that followed in the wake of that rudderlessness formed the crucial memories of not only Cicero, but Pompey and Caesar, Brutus and Antony, all of whom would have their share at desperately and drastically changing the way Rome functioned. While most of the future revolutionaries found places in the army, Cicero took up work as an advocate, using his phenomenal oratorical skill and conscientious thoroughness to win several important cases against long odds. In a sliver of time, he’d become the most famous orator of his age and then, just as suddenly, he left Rome to go on a philosophical tour of Greece, placing himself at the feet of the greatest thinkers and orators of each tradition in a grand attempt to hone his own mind and technique. He devoured the works of the great Attic tradition and perfected the style that would soon change the course of Rome and very nearly save the Republic from the clutches of Empire.

Back at Rome, he enjoyed every elation of success and shudder of ill-fortune that public life has to offer.  He was lauded as an ethical and competent administrator in Sicily and wildly cheered as a consul (the highest administrative post of ancient Rome) when he foiled the Catilinarian conspiracy against the state. But he was also exiled, his beloved villas ransacked and destroyed, and his property confiscated, when his enemies in turn rose to power. His oratory was unbeatable, but his first books, which heaped lavish self-praise on his abilities as a consul, were ruthlessly and deservedly mocked by the literate public.

When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Cicero sided with the Senate. In Spain, Egypt, Africa, and Greece, Caesar was triumphant, while Cicero, as one of the few Senators of any importance left, was assiduously courted to make his peace with the unstoppable general and so lend legitimacy to the new regime. Over the next six years, Cicero engaged in the most dangerous game, playing all sides at once in a desperate attempt to save the last vestiges of the old Republic and its institutions. When Caesar was assassinated, Cicero championed the cause of Julius’s declared heir, Octavian, believing the young lad to be as thoroughly dedicated to the restoration of the Republic as he declared. At the height of his power, Cicero led the Senate in valiantly resisting the dictatorial trends of Marc Antony, pushing him into exile and nearly into total defeat until Octavian saw his moment, switched loyalties, and joined with Antony to restore Caesar’s order. As an offering to Antony, Octavian offered the life of the man who had been his mentor and friend.

A death warrant was put out for Cicero, and a team of professional bounty hunters soon caught up with him as he attempted to escape to Greece. With stoic resolve, he pulled back his collar, stuck out his neck, and told them to get about their business of ending his life. His hands and head were lopped off and brought back to Rome to Antony’s great joy, Octavian’s sorrow, and Rome’s permanent detriment.

But he had left behind more than a political legacy. During the last decade of his life, he wrote books with a frenzy approaching madness. These included towering summaries of all the schools of Greek thought, much of which we still only know about because Cicero was so good as to write it down for us.  There were also treatises on oratory, statesmanship, and the phenomenon of grief, all of which were read and commented upon with rapt attention by Europe’s intellectual elite for centuries. For the humanist, the most important of this literary legacy is doubtlessly his On the Nature of the Gods (45 BCE), a work which contains all of the contemporary arguments as to the existence and nature of the gods and provides devastating rebuttals of each, all in the name of a reasonable skepticism which admits the limits of what humans can meaningfully talk about.

It’s ostensibly a dialogue, but it is mainly a series of set speeches and rebuttals between an Epicurean, a Stoic, and a skeptic who is essentially Cicero’s stand-in. The Epicurean and Stoic are both given their chances to argue (a) that gods exist, (b) what those gods are like, and (c) what those gods do with themselves. Their positions are, essentially, those that we still hear today offered by Christians and other theists: the Goldilocks argument, the First Cause argument, the All Men Believe It argument, the Moral Source argument, several variations on the ontological argument, all trotted forth in words that the most extreme Southern Baptist would feel entirely at home uttering and all smashed utterly by the common sense of Ciceronian skepticism. By the end of the book, nothing is definitively said about the gods except that everything asserted so far by philosophy and religion is almost definitely wrong.

Active gods and retiring gods, gods that are the world and that are utterly other to it, gods that listen to men and those who are indifferent to them, every shade of god offered up is shown as a tissue of contradictions supported by an unwise abundance of faith in linguistic devices and common assent. In addition, we are treated to the following anecdote about a famous Greek atheist which might have a claim to be the first story told in the Western tradition where a nonbeliever is the good guy:

Good men have sometimes success. They have so; but we cannot, with any show of reason, attribute that success to the Gods. Diagoras, who is called the atheist, being at Samothrace, one of his friends showed him several pictures of people who had endured very dangerous storms; “See,” says he, “You who denies a Providence, how many have been saved by their prayers to the Gods.” “Ay,” says Diagoras, “I see those who were saved, but where are those painted who were shipwrecked?” At another time, he himself was in a storm, when the sailors, being greatly alarmed, told him they justly deserved that misfortune for admitting him into their ship; when he, pointing to other ships under like distress, asked them “if they believed Diagoras was also aboard those ships?” 

Those are still both pretty solid slams, in a book teeming with wry Ciceronian humor in the face of philosophico-linguistic posturing. We see in this slim book how devastating an opponent Cicero could be on the debate floor and why a man such as Antony took such particular joy in his removal from Roman public life. Reading his oratory might no longer be part of our common cultural practice, but for humanists seeking an example of philosophy engaging with the real world, and of skepticism’s deep ancestry, an evening alone with Cicero will always be a fruitful thing.


Further Reading

Anthony Everitt’s Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (2001) is a very good introduction to Cicero’s life, wittily written and easily available. Its focus is definitely, as the title implies, on Cicero the politician rather than Cicero the thinker, and his written work is disposed of more or less in a single chapter, while his role in the ongoing Civil Wars is examined in minute detail.  For Cicero the thinker there’s really no current substitute for his own works. Because half of the experience of Cicero is in his beautiful Latin phrasing, this is one of those cases where reading in English is to miss a large chunk of his work’s impact. If you pick up the Loeb edition of On the Nature of the Gods, you can enjoy both the original and H. Rackham’s English translation of it on facing pages. Loeb editions are great resources and look lovely on a shelf, but they’re also pricey, even for used copies, so if you want just English, you can pick up C.D. Yonge’s old 1877 translation on your favorite electronic device for one or two dollars. Hot tip: If you’re super familiar with ancient Greek philosophy, you’ll probably enjoy the depth of presentation that Cicero gives to the Epicurean and Stoic positions. If not, and you just want to watch him dismantle terrible religious arguments, skip straight to the Cotta sections and enjoy!