Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.29

Julia Annas, Gábor Betegh (ed.), Cicero's 'De finibus': Philosophical Approaches.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. vii, 266.  ISBN 9781107074835.  $99.99.  

Reviewed by Jacob Klein, Colgate University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Cicero composed De finibus bonorum et malorumOn the Ends of Goods and Evils—in the spring and summer of 45 BC, exiled from political life at Rome and mere months after the death of his beloved daughter, Tullia. In it, he set out with force, elegance, and philosophical nuance the central doctrines of Hellenistic ethics, a summation of some three hundred years of ethical debate and argument among the main philosophical schools. He wrote as a life-long student of Greek philosophy, but also as an independent and supremely educated thinker with a considered commitment to the methods of the skeptical Academy. This collection of nine essays—papers delivered at the twelfth Symposium Hellenisticum—approaches De finibus in that light, treating it as a serious work of philosophy and paying attention to the complex dialectical framework in which Cicero expounds and criticizes the position of each school. The essays are nicely balanced in their focus, roughly divided between treatments of Epicureanism and Stoicism. Two of the essays—those of Margaret Graver and Brad Inwood—are rooted in De finibus but nonetheless deal with themes central to much of Cicero’s philosophical work.

The initial, framing essay by Charles Brittain offers a fundamental—even radical—reassessment of Cicero’s own Academic skepticism, challenging the usual reading according to which Cicero, following Philo of Larissa, rejects the possibility of certain knowledge but nonetheless regards some views as more plausible than others. Against this understanding of Cicero as a “mitigated” skeptic, Brittain argues that De finibus as a whole treats no single position as more plausible or persuasive than any other, thereby dramatizing a more radical skepticism Cicero inherits through Carneades’ disciple Clitomachus: a principled, “intractable doubt” requiring the wholesale suspension of assent. Brittain bases this reading on parallels with the Academica—which sets rival epistemological accounts in a similar equipollent frame—and also on a series of close observations about the structure of De finibus itself. Thus Brittain observes, notably, that the dialogue’s dramatic settings are presented in reverse chronological order, complicating the standard assumption that Cicero’s own considered view emerges in the Antiochean perspective of Books 4 and 5. This intricate paper is full of insights despite its controversial thesis.

The three essays that follow deal with the presentation and critique of Epicureanism in De finibus 1 and 2. James Warren offers a lengthy exposition of the central arguments about Epicurean pleasure, including especially Cicero’s allegation that the Epicureans offer no unitary account of pleasure and in fact group under the heading of ‘pleasure’ diverse phenomena that are too dissimilar to share the name. Pierre-Marie Morel’s essay considers whether the cardinal virtues discussed by Torquatus but not mentioned in other Epicurean sources have an authentic place in orthodox Epicureanism. Morel’s answer is that they do not, but that Cicero has Torquatus discuss the traditional virtues in order to highlight the instrumental status Epicureanism must assign to them. Cicero thereby casts the Epicurean position as fundamentally opposed to the conception of virtue—as praiseworthy for its own sake—that is essential to both the Stoic and Antiochean positions. Torquatus’ focus on the cardinal virtues in Book 1 contributes in this way to the “global strategy” of De finibus, providing a counterpoint to the ethical expositions to come (94). The third essay, by Dorothea Frede, takes up a related criticism of Epicurean friendship: friends should be esteemed for their own sake, but Epicurean theory seems able to accommodate friendship only as an instrumental means to the end of pleasure. Frede discusses three Epicurean replies to this criticism as they are reported by Torquatus (1.66-70), each intended to show that friends may consistently be valued propter se. Her discussion elaborates and clarifies the structure of each reply, but it serves mainly to highlight the basic equivocation on which all three rejoinders appear to rest: a conflation of what is desired as an indispensable means with what is desired for its own sake. There is little in De finibus, or in Frede’s essay, to indicate whether the Epicurean arguments on which Cicero drew could have avoided this fatal equivocation. On the whole, the impression given by Cicero’s report, and by Frede’s discussion, is that they could not.

Margaret Graver discusses the meaning of honestum as Cicero’s rendering of kalon, treating the concept it expresses as the “key to Ciceronian ethics overall” (118) and identifying the referent of honestum, in Cicero’s usage, as a property distinct from virtue but nonetheless co-extensive with it: the property of meriting praise. Graver especially distinguishes the honestum from the concept of gloria as an ideal in Roman civic life, gloria referring to praise that is given whether it is merited or not. She then applies this analysis to Cato’s exposition of Stoic ethics in De finibus 3, asking how an accurate conception of the honestum is to be acquired, on Cato’s theory. Her account is illuminating, but there is some unclarity in the details. As Graver observes, in De finibus and elsewhere Cicero’s use of honestum clearly picks out an objective feature of virtuous conduct, something that inheres in right action whether or not that action figures as the object of anyone’s thought. But Graver also says that “what makes something honestum, in the proper sense of the word, is the approbation of a reliable observer” (123), and she goes on to characterize the concept expressed by honestum as a “relational notion” (135). These latter characterizations cut against the central point of her analysis: if the honestum is indeed an “inherent” or “intrinsic” quality of virtue (137, 143), it should precisely not depend—as gloria does depend—on the approval of an observer. 1 As Graver elsewhere makes clear, so far from depending on praise, the honestum, as Cicero conceives it, attracts and elicits praise through its own nature. These inconsistencies complicate an otherwise insightful essay.

Brad Inwood’s careful analysis considers a Stoic assumption he aptly calls “the minimal teleological requirement:” that cosmic nature, as a rational and self-consistent agent, intends the survival of what it creates. Cato employs this assumption at De finibus 3.62 in a far-reaching argument purporting to show that parental affection is ultimately the foundation of justice, providing a naturalistic basis for friendship, fairness and the institution of law. There are gaps and obscurities in Cato’s account, which Inwood effectively brings out, but one puzzling feature of Inwood’s discussion is his supposition that although Cato’s argument might indeed show that parental affection is a natural motivation in the case of non-rational animals (granting the argument’s teleological assumptions), it could not show this in the case of rational human parents, “for if they are rational the intention [to care for their children] might be construed not as a fact of nature but as part of the instrumentalist reasoning undertaken by a rational agent” (158-9). This criticism misconstrues, I believe, the more limited conclusion Cato’s inference is intended to support. As I understand it, Cato’s use of the “minimal teleological requirement” is not an attempt to show anything about motives—about the reasons in light of which rational agents do or ought to act, or whether their motivations result from rational calculation—but only that such concern as human parents ordinarily have for their children, and which we see that they do have, is present by nature’s design. The argument reported by Cato applies simply to the fact of parental concern, whatever considerations may figure as its intentional basis in the rational case.

The remaining essays focus on the details of Stoic ethical theory as expounded by Cato in Book 3, and on their complex relation to the Antiochean doctrines of Books 4 and 5. Anna Maria Ioppolo argues that Cato’s summary statement of Stoic ethics at De finibus 3.31 fails to distinguish importantly different versions of the Stoic telos. In particular, according to Ioppolo, Cato’s identification of virtue with the rational selection and rejection of indifferents is a later development of Stoic doctrine introduced to counter a line of criticism first advanced by Aristo and taken up by Carneades: that the Stoics must concede either that promoted indifferents are genuinely indifferent, playing no role in the justification of action, or that, having such a role, they are equivalent to goods in all but name. That the close association of virtue with selection was offered in response to Academic criticism is a compelling thesis. Unfortunately, Ioppolo does not say in any detail what she takes the selection doctrine to be, and it is difficult to see precisely what the substantive difference between Chrysippus’ own account of the end and later formulations amounts to, in her view. The essay nonetheless underscores an important point: Chrysippus’ own account of the Stoic telos is cast in epistemic terms and differs markedly, in this respect, from the formulas of Diogenes and Antipater, which postdate Carneades. 2 These later formulas, which foreground the selection doctrine, can easily seem to present indifferents as practical ends in their own right.

De finibus 4 and 5 pose especially formidable interpretive difficulties: they clearly reflect the syncretizing doctrines of Antiochus, but a long tradition of scholarship has yielded no consensus about Cicero’s sources for these books, and the skeptical framework of the dialogue as a whole makes it difficult to assess the status of their conclusions. Thomas Bénatouïl argues, very resourcefully, that the apparently haphazard structure of Book 4—its repetitive argumentation and poor fit with the Stoic doctrines of Book 3—is a deliberate feature of Cicero’s rhetorical method, to be explained on the hypothesis that Cicero aims to address the “same topics and problems, but with different types of argument” (207). The resulting interpretation is admirably charitable to Cicero, though it verges at points on special pleading. Christopher Gill offers a close comparison of the Antiochean doctrine of oikeiôsis set out in Book 5—an uncertain amalgam of Academic and Peripatetic doctrine—with the Stoic theory of oikeiôsis as presented by Cato in Book 3. Both theories offer “an account of human development which is designed to support a distinctive conception of the overall goal of life” (226). Gill finds that the Antiochean theory offers a more self-consistent and intuitively appealing account of human motivation, but that the Stoic theory answers more closely to the axiological conclusions it is intended to support. A more basic philosophical question, unaddressed by Gill, is why claims about psychological development, taken on their own, should be thought to support ethical conclusions at all.

On the whole, these essays do much to bring out the intricate structure of De finibus, the significance of the doctrines it preserves, and Cicero’s own philosophical learning and sophistication. They also illustrate both the usefulness and the limitations of recent efforts to treat Cicero as a careful philosophical thinker in his own right. Cicero could not of course foresee the eventual loss of the vast and complex body of Greek philosophy on which he drew, and he sometimes omits or obscures crucial features of the doctrines he reports. On occasion these are the very features that would enable a reader without access to Cicero’s Greek books to understand their import and philosophical motivation. 3 The essays are at their best when they frankly acknowledge this limitation. Occasionally, the effort to make Cicero speak with a sophisticated and original philosophical voice is pressed too far.

The volume is almost wholly free of typographical errors. It includes a topical index and an index locorum. It is a very welcome contribution to the study of Hellenistic ethics and of Cicero’s own philosophical method.

Authors and Titles

Julia Annas, Introduction
Charles Brittain, Cicero’s sceptical methods: the example of the De finibus
James Warren, Epicurean pleasure in Cicero’s De finibus
Pierre-Marie Morel, Cicero and Epicurean virtues (De finibus 1-2)
Dorothea Frede, Epicurus on the importance of friendship in the good life (De finibus I.65-70; 2.78-85)
Margaret Graver, Honor and the honorable: Cato’s discourse in De finibus 3
Brad Inwood, The voice of nature
Anna Maria Ioppolo, Sententia Explosa: criticism of Stoic ethics in De finibus 4
Thomas Bénatouïl, Structure, standards and Stoic moral progress in De finibus 4
Christopher Gill, Antiochus’ theory of oikeiôsis


1.   Cf. Off. 1.14, where the honestum is quodque vere dicimus, etiamsi a nullo laudetur, natura esse laudabile.
2.   See DL 7.87.
3.   For a clear case in point, see Susanne Bobzien, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy (OUP, 2001), 198-217 and esp. 216-17.

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