Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.08.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.08.28

Raphael Woolf, Cicero: The Philosophy of a Roman Sceptic. Philosophy in the Roman World.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2015.  Pp. viii, 260.  ISBN 9781844658411.  $49.95 (pb.).  

Reviewed by Katharina Volk, Columbia University (


These are good times for Roman philosophy in general and Cicero philosophus in particular. The idea that philosophy written and practiced in the city of Rome and the territories under Roman rule is a phenomenon in its own right rather than a mere appendix to Greek philosophy appears to have hit the scholarly mainstream, to judge, for example, from the fact that "Philosophy, Roman" has now earned its own entry (by G. Reydams-Schils) in the Classics section of Oxford Bibliographies and that an Oxford Handbook of Roman Philosophy is currently being prepared for publication by R. Fletcher and W. H. Shearin.1 Routledge has inaugurated a series "Philosophy in the Roman World," of which the book under review is the first installment, with volumes on Seneca, Lucretius, Galen, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch to follow. Meanwhile, the rehabilitation of Cicero's philosophical work continues at a brisk pace, with recent monographs by I. Gildenhard, Y. Baraz, and S. McConnell, among others, demonstrating the deep philosophical commitment of an author whose engagement with philosophy did not stop at his study door but fundamentally informed both his private life and his political actions.2

It is a propitious moment, then, for Raphael Woolf to present an overall assessment of Cicero's philosophy in what is pretty much the first monograph on the topic ever to be published.3 Woolf has no time for reading Cicero's philosophical works as mere sources for Hellenistic philosophy, making it clear from the beginning that he considers them "worthy of study for their own sake" (2) and is taking their author seriously as a philosopher in his own right, "a thoughtful and sophisticated writer, whose works can and should be read as coherent bodies of philosophical reflection" (2). Significantly, Woolf embraces the Romanness of Ciceronian thought, acknowledging that it is "a product of interaction with its cultural and political background" (4) and that generally, as he nicely puts it, "philosophy does have a geography" (5). In Woolf's view, the key to Cicero's philosophy is his (Academic) Skepticism, which manifests itself not only in the dialogue format of most of his writings, but also in a fundamentally questioning attitude toward philosophy, "a suspicion of grand solutions and unqualified precepts" (7). These three central aspects of Woolf's portrait of Cicero philosophus—serious philosophy, Romanitas, and Skepticism—are neatly encapsulated in the book's subtitle.

After a general Introduction, from which the quotations in my previous paragraph are taken, Woolf surveys Cicero's philosophy through five thematic chapters, each focusing on one philosophical subfield and one or more Ciceronian works: "Scepticism and certainty" (logic and epistemology; Academica), "God, fate and freedom" (physics and metaphysics; De natura deorum, De diuinatione, De fato), "The best form of government" (political philosophy; De re publica, De legibus), "The good life in theory and in practice" (ethics; De finibus, De officiis), and "The role of the emotions" (psychology and emotional therapy; Tusculans). There is no concluding chapter, perhaps because Woolf, in the Ciceronian Skeptical spirit, wants to leave it to his readers to draw their own conclusions.

The individual chapters lay out and interpret the arguments of the Ciceronian works examined, in a style that is clear and accessible, with occasional touches of humor. Despite what one might be led to think by the appearance and marketing of the slim paperback volume, however, the book by no means falls into the genre of the popular introduction. Even though Woolf takes pains to explain from scratch both realia and intellectual concepts, his monograph is a serious philosophical exploration, whose finer points will be appreciated only by readers reasonably well acquainted with both the texts and the issues involved. Consisting of page after page of closely printed text with narrow margins and no notes or other supporting materials (Woolf has deliberately chosen not to engage explicitly with secondary scholarship, but at the end provides a well-selected bibliography of works in English), the book presents a pleasant but not undemanding read.

The Cicero who emerges from Woolf's pages is indeed a serious philosophical thinker, who throughout his work remains dedicated to Skepticism as both a method and a stance. His preferred modus operandi is the examination—typically staged as a dialogue—of differing philosophical doctrines (including prominently Stoic, Epicurean, and Antiochean positions); Cicero himself ends up either choosing the most plausible or withholding judgment. His abiding concern is how the universal (e.g., philosophical principle) relates to the particular (e.g., Roman society): ever the realist and pragmatist, he remains suspicious of the applicability of theory to real-life situations and espouses an ethical individualism that views all action as the action of individuals, whose moral right- or wrongness always depends on the circumstances.

Though one may disagree with specific interpretations, Woolf's reading strikes me as generally convincing. It pleasingly presents us with a Cicero who is not only clever but simpatico and, as a matter of fact, astonishingly modern (Woolf repeatedly stresses his thought's continuing relevance). I was particularly taken with Woolf's interpretation of De officiis, a work that seems so mired in its historical context as to appeal neither to hardcore philosophers nor to wide-eyed humanists on the quest for timeless truth. Woolf, the author of two previous articles on the treatise, makes De officiis his prime exhibit for Cicero's individualist ethics and resistance to grand theories, pointing, among other things, to a kind of transparency principle that Cicero has already formulated in De finibus: any ethical position must stand and fall with whether it can be openly lived and proclaimed. This applies not only to figures of myth and legend (Regulus would not be able to live out his life as a manifest oath-breaker; Gyges' actions committed under the cover of invisibility cannot be conducive to a good life) but to contemporary Epicureans and Stoics as well: would a Roman statesman really maintain in public that he does everything for the sake of pleasure—or, conversely, that the welfare of the res publica is not in fact a good?

On Woolf's original reading of De officiis, virtue is not a matter of "a fixed set of rules or positions," but consists in individual choices and thus must be "remade for each generation and each set of circumstances" (200). Concluding with unusual emphasis that Cicero's refusal "to seek refuge in the seductive illusion of certainty" is to his "eternal credit" (200), Woolf has vindicated an unloved treatise and put forth a strong claim for a Ciceronian pragmatic ethics that is as carefully reasoned as it is appealing.

So what is not to love in Woolf's book? Historians and historicists may find Woolf's discussion, for all its avowed stress on the Roman background, a wee bit abstract, with little consideration of specific circumstances, while Latinists may deplore the lack of attention to Cicero's style and literary technique, as Woolf treats form as a mere vehicle for content. However, the fact that one could also approach Woolf's topic differently does not detract from the author's success in the method he has chosen. If the book has any flaw, it is one that arises, paradoxically, from one of its greatest virtues. Philosophers often apply to the interpretation of texts the so-called Principle of Charity, working on the assumption of maximum rationality and consistency and thus attempting to explain (away) any perceived flaws or inconsistencies. Since Woolf's Cicero is a Skeptic suspicious of overarching theories, there is no pressure to make him appear more coherent than he is: it is a very hallmark of his thought that it does not conform to any doctrinal orthodoxy. As a result, Woolf takes the Charity Principle in the opposite direction: any inconsistency in Cicero's work is now part of a "carefully choreographed strategy" (224) employed to make the reader think and question. This may be true in some cases, but on occasion reads like special pleading, especially in the chapter on Tusculans, a very loosely constructed work in which Cicero changes tack numerous times and in ways that may not be reducible to a putative Skeptical master plan.

Cicero may not always have dotted his i's and crossed his t's, but this did not prevent him from writing significant and inspiring philosophy. Woolf's important and enjoyable book shows us just how good he was at it.


1.   See also Roman Reflections: Studies in Latin Philosophy, a volume of essays edited by G. D. Williams and myself, which will be published by Oxford University Press later this year.
2.   I. Gildenhard, Paideia Romana: Cicero's Tusculan Disputations (Cambridge 2007) and Creative Eloquence: The Construction of Reality in Cicero's Speeches (Oxford 2011); Y. Baraz, A Written Republic: Cicero's Philosophical Politics (Princeton 2012); S. McConnell, Philosophical Life in Cicero's Letters (Cambridge 2014).
3.   Of course, individual works and aspects of Ciceronian philosophy have been studied in great detail, but apart from P. MacKendrick, The Philosophical Books of Cicero (London 1989), no book-length treatment of the entire oeuvre and system of thought comes to mind.

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