Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.12.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.12.29

Stefano Maso, Grasp and Dissent: Cicero and Epicurean Philosophy. Philosophie hellenistique et romaine, 2.   Turnhout:  Brepols Publishers, 2015.  Pp. 272.  ISBN 9782503550305.  €70.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Attila Németh, Eötvös Loránd University (

This review was written with the support of the Hungarian Research Fund, OTKA, based on contract no. PD 112253.

This is a systematic study of an exciting topic, namely, Cicero's relation to Epicureanism. It is an amended, English translation of the Italian original (Capire e Dissentire: Cicerone e la Filosofia di Epicuro, Bibliopolis, 2008). I do not know the original work, but the present English edition suffers from a grave difficulty: comprehensibility. I have great respect for Stefano Maso's scholarly work. I suspect, therefore, that the substandard argumentation in this text results from the inadequacy of the translation. In what follows, I shall attempt to summarize the main tenets of Maso's work, but I will also explain why it is difficult to come to a fair judgment on its substance.

As an introduction to Cicero's attitude to Epicureanism, Maso first gathers the biographical references from Cicero's philosophical works and concludes that despite some hostile comments in the Tusculanae Disputationes and in the Academica posteriora, Cicero recognized the strength of Epicureanism and consequently, Maso thinks, he represented it faithfully. In my view, however, there is a significant difference between recognizing the strength of a theory and representing it in an unbiased way, even if Cicero claimed to do just that (cf. Nat. D.. 1.17). Based on his conclusion in Chapter 1 ("Antiepicureanism?"), the rest of Maso's book treats Cicero as faithful—or, at least, as less prejudiced than generally conceived—in his presentation of Epicureanism. The judgment seems hasty, given that this is one of the major questions to be clarified by his work (cf. p. 17).

Overall, Maso's central thesis seems to be that Cicero, as a defender of the fundamental values of the Roman civil and ethical tradition, versed himself well in Epicureanism in order to establish himself as an authority who could credibly prove the Epicureans wrong. In Chapter 3 ("Epicurean Theology") we learn that Cicero demonstrated some of the inconsistencies of Epicurean theology. In Chapter 4 ("A Theoretical Project's Failed Plan") we learn how Cicero may have planned to use Epicurean doctrines as a standard by which to assess the value of opposing theories, with the intention to establish the supremacy of the fundamental values of Stoicism and Academic Scepticism. In Chapter 5 ("Epicurus's Pleasure") Maso discusses the different kinds of pleasure in Epicureanism, their relation to virtue and Cicero's obvious objections, while in Chapter 6 ("On the Tetrapharmakon and Suffering") he covers the subjects of death and meditation in order to compare the Epicurean end to the "Ciceronian telos". Maso works through a set of texts to show how Cicero glorified virtue as opposed to pleasure.

Unfortunately, the quality of the translation is such that one's ability to appreciate and follow the argument is regularly frustrated, e.g., "More significantly we find the Epicureans – those who seem to reject direct intervention in the political arena" (p. 19) or "Cicero does not hesitate to praise the logical Epicurean argumentative procedure, harshly criticized in other places because it represents a strong argument carried through well-developed positions that are bases on coherent and widely accepted premises" (p. 109). Sometimes, as in the second example, it is easy to spot the mistake and understand what is intended. But in many cases, even if grammatically acceptable English sentences follow one another, they do not appear to be logically connected. As a result, it can be very difficult to follow the overall argument.

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