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Topic #I69

Cicero, Discussions at Tusculum  Book V

22 March 2002
Scribe: Andrew Chiang


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



            Professor Hutchinson started the lecture by talking about the progress the class had made so far in the course.  He said that the class was in the proverbial seventh-inning stretch and so he wanted to touch on what the class would be studying for the remainder of the year as well as the final exam.  Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy would be the last work that the class would study and was one of the most ‘hip’ works of ancient philosophy.  In his book, Boethius made implicit references and allusions to the Roman philosophers Lucretius, Seneca, and Cicero, as well as the Greek and Christian philosophers.  As a Christian, he wrote the book as a Christian work, but performed a sleight of hand trick to make the book understandable to both Christians and non-Christians.  Boethius’ book was a sort of Janus, or a door between the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the medieval world.


            Professor Hutchinson then moved on to the final exam.  He mentioned that it would be taking place on May 3, 2002 from 9am – 12pm in Wetmore Hall.  The professor said that the exam’s late date would provide a chance for students to review all the works and that it would be best to review steadily and without too narrow a focus.  Professor Hutchinson said that the first question would involve a previously unread text and that students would be asked to comment on it in relation to the material learned in the course.  The second and third questions on the exam would focus on second semester material and revert back to the familiar essay form of question.  The professor then stated that he proposed to invite students to a party after the exam where Greek savoury snacks, beer, and the class’ mascot sparkling wine would be served (see the spoken minutes).


            Next on the list of topics was next Wednesday’s lecture which would be a change from the norm as there would be a reading of a play in a fresh translation the professor was doing.  In the play, the professor would play Zeus while David Bronstein would play Hermes.  When asked whether or not this play should be made into a public event, a student responded that she would only feel comfortable volunteering for a part if the play were a private affair for members of the class only.  Professor Hutchinson decided that the play would be for the class only and that if it was successful, a public staging could be planned for the future.


            The topic of the lecture was Cicero’s Discussions at Tusculum, which was a successful dialogue in both the ancient world and in the Renaissance.  Michel de Montaigne wrote several essays which allude to or quote the dialogue.  Our attention was drawn to a particular passage beginning on page 82 of the book that was about the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse.  (Dionysius enjoyed philosophy and summoned philosophers to his court.  Among those summoned were Aristippus and Plato.  While in Syracuse, Plato had one of his most intense pedagogical relationships with Dionysius’ nephew, Dion.  Plato’s relationship with Dion was most probably sexual as well.  Cicero wrote about Dionysius as an example to illustrate that a growth in power would not always be followed by a growth in happiness.)  Professor Hutchinson then read a passage from book V of Cicero’s “Tusculans” a passage that could be labelled “The Sword of Damocles”.


Indeed, Dionysius himself pronounced judgment on whether he was happy or not.  He was talking to one of his flatterers, a man called Damocles, who enlarged on the monarch’s wealth and power, the splendours of his despotic regime, the immensity of his resources, and the magnificence of his palace.  Never, he declared, had there been a happier man.  ‘Very well, Damocles,’ replied the ruler, ‘since my life strikes you as so attractive, would you care to have a taste of it yourself and see what my way of living is really like?’  Damocles agreed with pleasure.  And so Dionysius had him installed on a golden couch covered with a superb woven coverlet embroidered with beautiful designs, and beside the couch was placed an array of sideboards loaded with chased gold and silver plate.  He ordered that boys, chosen for their exceptional beauty, should stand by and wait on Damocles at table, and they were instructed to keep their eyes fastened attentively upon his every sign.  There were perfumes and garlands and incense, and the tables were heaped up with a most elaborate feast.  Damocles thought himself a truly fortunate person.  But in the midst of all this splendour, directly above the neck of the happy man, Dionysius arranged that a gleaming sword should be suspended from the ceiling, to which it was attached by a horsehair.  And so Damocles had no eye for those lovely waiters, or for all the artistic plate.  Indeed, he did not even feel like reaching out his hand towards the food.  Presently the garlands, of their own accord, just slipped down from his brow.  In the end he begged the tyrant to let him go, declaring that his desire to be happy had quite evaporated. (20, 59 – 21, 61)[1]


The passage illustrated the notion that anxiety was a poison to happiness.  Dwelling too much on death took away Damocles’ lust for life. This was a point stressed by Epicureans, too


            Seneca felt that people should think about death because they only had one shot at life and one chance to do everything right.  Professor Hutchinson then read a quote from Letter LIV from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.


            There’s one particular ailment, though, for which I’ve always been singled out, so to speak.  I see no reason why I should call it by its Greek name, difficulty in breathing being a perfectly good way of describing it.  Its onslaught is of very brief duration – like a squall, it is generally over within the hour.  One could hardly, after all, expect anyone to keep on drawing his last breath for long, could one?  I’ve been visited by all the troublesome or dangerous complaints there are, and none of them, in my opinion, is more unpleasant than this one – which is hardly surprising, is it, when you consider that with anything else you’re merely ill, while with this you’re constantly at your last gasp?  This is why doctors have nicknamed it ‘rehearsing death’, since sooner or later the breath does just what it has been trying to do all those times …

            Even as I fought for breath, though, I never ceased to find comfort in cheerful and courageous reflections.  ‘What’s this?’ I said.  ‘So death is having all these tries at me, is he?  Let him, then!  I had a try at him a long while ago myself.’  ‘When was this?’ you’ll say.  Before I was born.  Death is just not being.  What that is like I know already.  It will be the same after me as it was before me.  If there is any torment in the later state, there must also have been torment in the period before we saw the light of day; yet we never felt conscious of any distress then.  I ask you, wouldn’t you say that anyone who took the view that a lamp was worse off when it was put out than it was before it was lit was an utter idiot?  We, too, are lit and put out.  We suffer somewhat in the intervening period, but at either end of it there is a deep tranquility.  For, unless I’m mistaken, we are wrong, my dear Lucilius, in holding that death follows after, when in fact it precedes as well as succeeds.  Death is all that was before us.  What does it matter, after all, whether you cease to be or never begin, when the result of either is that you do not exist?

            I kept on talking to myself in these and similar terms – silently, needless to say, words being out of the question.  Then little by little the affliction in my breathing, which was coming to be little more than a panting now, came on at longer intervals and slackened away.[2]


Seneca recycled Lucretius’ argument that death was simply not being.  Seneca’s battle with asthma caused him to reflect on death because in the ancient world asthma was not treatable and so people waited for it get better, or else waited to die.


            Professor Hutchinson then told the class how he had been awoken that morning by what sounded like a dog barking and gasping for air.  It turned out to be the professor’s son who was battling for breath as he had been afflicted by croup.  The professor’s son fought for his breath for several minutes and then began to panic and cried out, “Daddy, am I going to die?”  “No, Silas, you’re not going to die.”  (However, this was not strictly speaking true, only that his death was unlikely to come soon from this complaint.)  Luckily, Professor Hutchinson’s wife remembered a technique that she had read in a parenting handbook about sticking the child’s head out a window in cases of croup, so they simply opened the front door and placed his son outside on the porch in his pyjamas in the cold morning air.  The change in the air worked and young Silas was once again able to breath easy.


            Hutchinson mentioned that he does sometimes think about his son’s mortality.  Anaxagoras’ son had died young and when praised about his relative serenity throughout the ordeal, he told those concerned that he had realized that he gave birth to a mortal, not an immortal.  Hutchinson’s father-in-law had to bury his own son, so he (H.) is aware that it is not a rare or unheard-of situation.  Hutchinson felt that one should contemplate such things in times of peace and not during times of crisis, but that rehearsing death should not become an obsession because one risks losing one’s self-control by entering that realm of thought over and over again.  Rehearsals for death should be done the right way, on the right occasions, with the right people, and under the right circumstances, as Aristotle would have said.


            Cicero also had a daughter who died at a young age, and he found it very difficult to cope with her death.  He went through all of his books on death and grief and put many of the ideas in an unfinished letter of consolation to himself.  One of the books he consulted was by Crantor who had studied at the Academy during the third century B.C.  Crantor’s work On Grief became very important among books which dealt with death and grief.


            Professor Hutchinson told the class of a friend of his who worked in a hospice as a philosopher and an advisor to those who would soon die.  He has his own philosophies on death, but he did not force them on the ill.  Instead he shaped his philosophies to accommodate the needs of the dying.


            There are two types of consolation: one to calm fears of one’s own death and one aimed to calm the grief of those who have just lost a loved one.  Boethius’ consolation combined grief over one’s own death with counselling to ease the fear of death.  When a person thinks about his/her own death, he/she thinks about the experience of death including what happens after death.  Those who are religious might think of death in a different way.  They believe that death has no experience, but there are problems with that idea because death is a cessation of all that a person was doing before.  The sensation of fear over death can be magnified by the grief over losing oneself.  This is especially hurtful because a person is often his/her own best friend; someone he/she knew better than anyone else.


            From the abstract and objective vantage point of eternity, the fact that a person has died is a confirmation that that person was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to live.  Such a belief was shared by the band The Grateful Dead whose insignia featured skeletons with roses in their heads dancing around as if they were happy to be dead.  The band’s name apparently conveyed the message that they were grateful to be dead; not that they were grateful to be alive no longer, but because in order to have died, they must have lived, and for that they were truly grateful.  Another feeling that often crops up near the time of death is pride – pride in one’s life, one’s qualities, and one’s achievements.  Professor Hutchinson stated, however, that if had to choose between feeling gratitude or pride at the time of death, he would choose to be grateful because he would be happy to have had the privilege of being able to have lived.




[1]Cicero, Discussions at Tusculum, in On the Good Life, trans. Michael Grant (London: Penguin Books, 1971), 84-85.

[2]Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, trans. Robin Campbell (London: Penguin Books, 1969), 104-105.