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Topic #I68

Cicero, Discussions at Tusculum  Book V

20 March 2002

Scribe: Claire Binks


 These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes.



                  The lecture began with a flash-back to Monday’s lecture about Cicero’s account of friendship.  The professor illuminated for us another account of Cicero’s plagiarism.  “Cicero” speaks of the importance of selecting friends and says, “any sensible person, then, will behave like a charioteer, apply the reigns to his team and will check the vigorous impulses of his affections,” (Laelius:  On Friendship, trans Grant, pg 208).  This is a very nice sentiment, however it is not an original thought, for one will see this exact image from Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus.  Another image lifted from Phadrus is the dream/vision sequence that we will see in the “Dream of Scipio.”  Cicero, who studied the Phadrus in the Academy in Athens, seems to have been greatly influenced, though not necessarily in a good way, by this piece. 


                  Our discussion then moved onto Cicero’s “Discussions at Tusculum (v).”  While this piece was an enormous influence in the 16th and 17th centuries, it is also a piece that is well studied today, though not as a continuing work of philosophy but rather as a piece of recycled Greek philosophy.  Cicero is seen as a passive reporter of philosophy and his works provide a window for us into Greek philosophy. 


                  The genre of this piece is fiction.  It was offered as a gift to Brutus.  It is a book that reads like letters which is meant to be an unrealistic fiction that wears its own transparency.  Of importance is the fact that it is not Cicero the writer who is speaking, but rather “Cicero” the character.  Thus this piece is an account of a dialogue between “Cicero” and a friend, which took place over five days.  By writing this piece with himself as a character, Cicero is letting the reader know that the things that are said by Cicero the character are not necessarily attributable to Cicero the writer. Cicero seems to be a determined sceptic about certain things thus this way of writing allowed him to be a dogmatic spokesman in a literary context.


                  Boethius, like Cicero, is someone who writes in a similar fashion.  Boethius the writer should be distinguished from Boethius the prisoner, for it is Boethius the prisoner who may change over time.  This split between the two layers allows the author to write a fiction that can change over time.   


                  The point of this discussion was to illuminate to us how important it is to distinguish the author of a piece from the character portrayed.  Thus “Cicero” is the one who should be referred to.  It was also noted that the scepticism in this piece comes from its structure rather than from the speakers involved.  The professor likes to think of this work as a dialogue between teacher and student rather than between “Cicero” and a friend because he thinks that no one would be a friend with “Cicero” after some of the things he said.


                  Next the design of On the Good Life was discussed and it was noted that Cicero was not the author of this title, which many students thought.  It was most likely the translator Michael Grant or the publisher who gave this grouping of works the title.  In the ancient world there would often be works that had double titles, however the title of this book is simply a modern merchandising title.  Another complaint about this book is the fact that the referencing is done very poorly.  The references at the top of the pages do nothing for the reader and should be put within the text so as to be better followed. 


                  Our discussion next turned to some of the position papers that were written about the “Dicsuccions at Tusculum (v).”  The professor thought that reading some of the thoughts in the papers would be a good way of illuminating some of the most interesting and important aspects of this piece.  The professor read from five different position papers.  Each student had something interesting to say about what they had read.


                  The first paper criticized Cicero for changing his mind between works and noted that he was being inconsistent with his views. The professor noted that it was not Cicero the writer who was changing his mind but Cicero the character who was being inconsistent.  Next the student turned her discussion to that of courage.  She critiqued Cicero’s notion of courage, which stipulates that one should not be afraid of anything whatever it is.  The student disagreed with this notion and said that there are some things that we should be afraid of and if this were not the case then we would be living in somewhat of a dream world.  The professor responded to this by saying that the Stoics re- christened the notion of rational fear and called it caution.   Thus the Stoics believe that it is okay for one to be cautious about something but not fearful. The student then noted that groups should find it less difficult to die for their convictions because people tend to find strength and courage in numbers.  However, the professor noted that it is more likely the case that if the cause is a good one then it will be easier to find an individual who is more willing to die rather that a group.  With the group mentality we run into convictions that are not always good such as those sometimes found in cults. 


                  The next position paper discussed “Cicero’s” notion of the moral good being the only kind of good there is.  While she agrees that what is morally right is good, she is not convinced that it is the only kind of good there is.  For example, there are other pleasure producing activities such as lying in the sun or having fun with a friend.  These activities make people happy simply by engaging in them.  The professor replied by using the idea of Aristotle who says that the value of a pleasure is parasitic to the value of the event.  Thus the pleasure from a valuable activity is better than the pleasure from a mundane event.  With this notion, it is possible for a pleasure to be both good and bad, thus there can be good lying outside the sphere of moral goodness.


                  The next paper discussed the same issue as in the first paper.  “Cicero” says that the happy man is “safe, secure, inconquerable, impregnable: a man whose fears are not just insignificant but non-existent” (Discussions at Tusculum (v) trans. Grant, pg. 74), however the student suggests that maybe it is better to be open and more vulnerable to fear.  Unlike “Cicero”, the student believes that we should not behave like ostriches that find a dark environment for their heads.  The professor’s response to this is that the wise person though not fearful will nonetheless be cautious for he says that invulnerability to disaster is not very admirable. 


                  The fourth paper spoke about chance.  The student had a problem with “Cicero’s” definition of happiness, which claims that the wise man will always be happy.  The student suggested that while the wise man may be content, he is not supremely happy. The student was thus in agreement with Aristotle’s interpretation that all wise men can be content but it takes good fortune to be supremely happy. 


                  The last paper was a defence of a point made by “Cicero”.  He speaks of “extravagant pleasures and crazes for things that are mistakenly interpreted as good.” (Discussions at Tusculum (v) trans. Grant, 75).  The student agreed with this and gave examples such as computer games, cocaine and syndicated television, which are completely devoid of any intellectual significance thus people get bored with them easily and thus the need to fill the desire returns.  Desire should not be fed in this way.  It is as though one is escaping from fear and responsibility.  One has to analyze one’s desires and if one cannot figure out how to satisfy a desire then one should eliminate it all together. Finally it was suggested that travelling is pointless to someone who does not know how to satisfy one’s desires for one will always have to take themselves with them.  The professor noted that Seneca exemplifies the same idea, which is basically travel isn’t a remedy if the problem is with the self.  A student then remarked that it is possible for someone to realize this while traveling and the professor remarked yes this is true and it is also true that you can discover the same notion about a partner you are traveling with.