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Topic #I68

Cicero, Discussions at Tusculum  Book V

20 March 2002
Scribe: Gwen Bradford


These minutes were spoken on 22 March; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



                  Revisiting Monday’s material, Cicero’s image of a charioteer illustrating the restraining of base impulses (“Any sensible person, then, will behave like a charioteer applying the reins to his team, and will check the vigorous impulses of his affections”[1]) is likely a reference to the Phaedrus (246a ff), where Plato employs a chariot image to illustrate a similar notion.  So, not only did the Romans borrow philosophical content from the Greeks, but they also lifted analogies. 


                  The Dream of Scipio can also be seen as a “cover version” of the dream sequence in the Phaedrus (247a ff), where the soul rises up in the theatre of the gods.  Scipio, however, differs in that it concerns one particular soul whereas Plato discusses souls in general.  Evidently, Cicero studied the Phaedrus in the Academy and made use of it richly throughout his work.


                  The Discussions at Tusculum, as well as Laelius, also had a large influence during the Renaissance, and are well-studied today, not, however, as a representative of Cicero’s thought, but rather they are fruitfully mined by scholars for valuable nuggets of Greek sources no longer existing. 


                  It is important to ask what genre the Discussions at Tusculum is.  It is a fictional dialogue between Cicero and a “friend” (or student) offered as a literary gift to Brutus in return for a now-lost work Brutus dedicated to Cicero.


                  Since this is fiction, it is not Cicero The Writer who is making these claims, but rather “Cicero” The Character.  So we should no more attribute the claims made by the character “Cicero” to the writer Cicero than we should attribute the claims made by the interlocutors in Plato’s dialogues to Plato himself.  This observation explains the seeming inconsistencies throughout Cicero’s works:  his different voices allow him to remain sceptical while appearing dogmatic. 


                  There is a similar distinction between Boethius The Prisoner and Boethius The Philosopher.  While writing in prison he describes himself as desolate, until he is finally consoled by philosophy.  Boethius The Prisoner changes palpably over the text, increasing in  power and vision.  The two layers of 1) the prisoner who learns and 2) the philosopher who knows represent the two facets of the thinker as temporal and eternal.  As an author knows his work in its entirely from the onset and must unfold it over time, Boethius The Prisoner experiences the passage of time while Boethius The Philosopher remains knowing and unaltered.


                  Hence, we should be wary in our position papers of the multiplicity of Ciceros and, rather than claim “Cicero says…,” we should say “ ‘Cicero’ says…”.  Thus, Cicero’s texts are sceptical in structure, rather than being the content expressed by a sceptical spokesman.


                  A further note for position papers:  Cicero did not write a book called “On The Good Life”.  This title was given to this collection of separate works by Cicero by the editor, or the publisher, or marketing director, and does not indicate any unity of these texts by Cicero.  Hence, do not cite “Cicero, On The Good Life” with a page number.


                  Student:  But the reference numbers given in the book seem useless.  The editor ought to have put the reference numbers in the body of the text.  Academically, this is a badly designed book.  The best way to cite this frustrating tome is to write, e.g., “in Discussions at Tusculum, Bk. V, Cicero claims…” and then give a full citation for this book (with publishing information and page number) and remember to be on guard about who the speaker or character is. 


                  The lecture then shifted to a discussion of a series of ideas and criticisms that arose in a number of position papers.  The first position paper criticized Cicero for appearing to change his mind and contradict himself within Discussions at Tusculum and Laelius.  While this may appear to be the case, as we learned earlier, Cicero employs different voices or characters within his work, allowing him to make opposing claims in different contexts and remain undogmatic. 


                  The second point we took up was a criticism of Cicero’s view of courage.  Cicero suggests that the courageous person will lack fear, but this student argued that it is reasonable to be afraid of some things, so as not to be foolhardy or rash.  Prof. Hutchinson replied that the Stoics had a notion of a rational form of fear, free of emotion, generally translated as “caution”.  Hence, it is correct to be cautious about serious dangers, and the additional emotion of fear would not be an improvement. 


                  Later in the same paper the student responded to Cicero’s idea that it would be easier to find one person dying intrepidly for their convictions than a whole community.  The student argued that people would in fact be more likely to be fatally courageous in groups, since people often find strength in numbers.  However, in the opinion of Prof. Hutchinson, groups of people may be willing to sacrifice themselves, but these groups tend to have less authentic causes, and result instead from communal hysteria, or the “stampede” effect.  There are a few examples of groups sacrificing themselves for good causes, such as the Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae, who held up in a lengthy battle and fought to the death.  On the whole, however, it would be easier to find a single person willing to make such a sacrifice than a group. 


                  The next position paper examined Cicero’s claim that moral goodness is the only true good.  This student reminded us of other goods things that are not associated with moral choices, such as basking in the sunlight, or enjoying a good time with a friend.  Prof. Hutchinson leaned on Aristotle in his response, claiming that the value of pleasure is parasitic on the value of the activity.  That is, enjoying something fine is a better pleasure than enjoying a mundane pleasure.  Or, moreover, enjoyment can also make an action worse, if, for example, someone were to set fire to a cat and enjoy it.  Hence, the goodness of the pleasure depends on the value of the activity.  Further, some good things lie outside the sphere of moral goodness, such as basking in the sun, which is enjoyed by people and animals alike -- there is nothing wrong with this activity, all things being equal, so enjoying it is good, and it need not be assessed as a moral good. 


                  The author of the next position paper made a claim similar to the first topic we examined.  He also claimed that it might be good to be more open to fear, rather than behave like ostriches and bury our heads in the sand at the sight of danger.  Prof. Hutchinson reminded us that the wise man is not fearful, but cautious.  Hence, it is possible to be wide open with caution, rather than fear, and still feel less vulnerable without burying one’s head in the philosophical sand.


                  The next position paper was a criticism of Cicero’s view of chance.  In response to Cicero’s claim that moral goodness is sufficient for happiness, this student seemed to agree with Aristotle that the wise can be “content”, but need fortune in order to be “blessed”.  


                  The final position paper we discussed was vigorously pro-Cicero.  This student claims that “pointless amusements and stupid crazes” such as computer games, cocaine, and syndicated television programmes are devoid of intellectual content, signifying that these activities become boring, and desire returns.  The student urged us to analyze our desires and deal with these types of cravings by eliminating them.  Further, the enjoyment of these activities is a kind of escapism, allowing us to shirk away from fears of death and responsibility.  Seneca also draws on this idea.  Travel, in this respect, is useless because, as well as your valise, you have to pack yourself.  Hence, if you are miserable at home, you will be miserable on your trip. 


                  Student:  But it’s not useless if you discover this fact by traveling.  This is true --  we can discover things about ourselves when we travel, and also discover things about our fellow travelers.  However, you only need one trip to make these discoveries, and the restlessness of compulsive travellers can also be seen as a manifestation of a fear of death. 


                  As a last point, the quotation that can be found on the label of a particular type of sparkling wine (“either drink or leave”), recommended to us earlier this year, can be found in the Discussions at Tusculum:


“My own opinion is that we ought to model our lives on the rule which the Greeks follow at their banquets:  let him drink, or let him go.  That is fair enough.  For either you should be content to keep on drinking with the others, or else, in order to avoid the predicament of the sober man surrounded by noisy drinkers, you had better leave.”[2]


That is, if you don’t like life, just kill yourself -- and this is a marketing slogan on a bottle of wine!

[1] Cicero.  “Laelius:  On Friendship” in On the Good Life, tr. Michael Grant (London:  Penguin, 1971), 208.


[2]Cicero, “Discussions at Tusculum (V)” in On The Good Life, tr. Michael Grant (London:  Penguin, 1971), 115.