BMCR 1999.10.17

Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods

Marcus Tullius Cicero, P. G. (Patrick Gerard) Walsh, The nature of the gods. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. 1 online resource (lv, 230 pages). ISBN 0191561746 $70.00.

Peter Walsh offers a new translation of De Natura Deorum [DND] with introduction and notes. The forty-five page introduction concisely covers a sensible range of topics: Cicero’s biography as relevant to DND, a summary of his philosophical works which indicates the subjects they treat, traditional Roman views about the gods, Cicero’s sources for DND, an outline of the philosophies of the Hellenistic philosophical schools represented in DND (Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics), the literary form of DND and its characters, and an interesting section on the later history of the work through the eighteenth century. The translation, as we would expect from Walsh, reflects a masterful command of Latin and of English style. Walsh translates the fragments and places them after 3.65. Like the introduction, the sixty-nine pages of notes are intended for non-specialists and are in the main uncontroversial and explanatory rather than interpretive.

Although the translation is on the whole a very good one, it is open to criticism on several grounds. First, it slightly misplaces a goodly number of section numbers (and there is no indication on p.198 where the notes for book 3, chapter 42 begin).

It also neglects to translate some words of the text. I note the following omissions (page and line numbers refer to Ax’s Teubner edition, which Walsh uses):

p.4 l.3 (1.6) [i.e., DND book 1, chapter 6] a primo tempore aetatis
p.19 l.13 (1.45) a vi atque ira
p.20 l.19 (1.49) similitudine et transitione
p.21 l.4 (1.50) a nobis
p.25 l.25 (1.65) corporibus autem omnis obsidetur locus
p.33 l.10 (1.84) qui potest esse in eius modi trunco sapientia?
p.36 l.13 (1.92) reliqua
p.55 l.27 (2.17) tantam vim et magnitudinem maris atque terrarum
p.81 l.21 (2.81) vim
p.86 l.32 (2.94) sed concurrentibus temere atque casu
p.96 l.16 (2.116) ob eamque causam
p.109 l.11 (2.145) laetantem dolentem
p.111 l.10 (2.150) domicilia
p.112 l.24 (2.154) aliquando
p.116 l.24 (2.165) Rhodum
p.142 l.5 (3.60) secunda
p.151 l.12 (3.74) ex agro Piceno

In addition, it fails to bring out the precise force of the some of the arguments. This happens in two ways: it is inconsistent in the translations of words, which sometimes makes the reasoning opaque (example: “consensus” translated as “harmony” at p.128 l.22 and as “fellow-feeling” at p.128 l.27 (both 3.28), “animus” translated as “life-force” at p.131 l.18 and as “soul” at p.131 l.20 (both 3.36), “malum” and “mala” translated “evil” at p.153 l.18, “ills” also at p.153 l.18, and “despond” at p.153 l.20 (all 3.79), and it omits some words (like “ob eamque causam” at p.96 l.16 (2.116)) that indicate the sequence of reasoning.

Readers with a background in philosophy are ill served in other ways. The translation of “Omnibus (sc. philosophis) placet” as “all philosophers like (something)” at p.24 l.23 (1.62) does not bring out standard philosophical use of the verb to mean “it is the opinion of.” The phrase “rationem reddere,” the Latin equivalent of the Greek ” λόγον διδόναι” is incorrectly rendered “make sense of” at p.143 l.12 (3.63). To translate “rerum natura” as “creation” (frequently, e.g. at p.126 l.1 (3.21)) connotes a view of the cosmos that the Latin does not support (likewise “the varying economy of creation” as a translation of “rerum vicissitudines ordinesque” at p.21 l.17 (1.52)). At p.26 l.23 (1.68), “ante quam nati” should be given its full force: gods did not exist before they were born. The difficult phrase “ad numerum permanere” at p.41 l.19 (1.105) most likely refers to continuing identity as an individual (in this case as an individual god); I cannot make sense out of the translation given, “continuing measurable identity.”

Another fault which translators of philosophical texts have learned to avoid is the use of words that cannot but import anachronistic ways of thinking. Thus, it is wrong to translate “gravitas” as “gravity” (e.g., p. 27 l.10 (1.69)), because for us gravity is a force of attraction between bodies, whereas gravitas (heaviness) was regarded in antiquity as a property of individual bodies. “Thermal energy” presents similar difficulties as a translation of “vim caloris” at p.58 l.9 (2.23), as does “vaporized water” as a version of “vapor” at p.59 l.24 (2.27).

Other inconsistencies occasionally turn up. For example, after emphasising in his note on 2.149 that “the Stoics posited the heart as the seat of reason” Walsh translates “animus” as “brain” p.111 l.7 (2.150). And “nihil curans” is given as “wholly insensitive” at p.48 l.13 and as “discharging no duties” at p.48 l.23 (both 1.123).

Some words are translated in so many ways that there is no hope for a person to understand the underlying connections without constantly consulting the Latin. “Vis” is sometimes “force,” sometimes “power,” and sometimes “impact,” “significance,” “dynamic,” “concentration”; vim habere even occurs as “in essence abstractions” at p.142 l.16 (3.61). “Ratio” and “mens” likewise appear in a wider range of disguises than the demands of English sense dictate.

In some cases the translation is bizarre, as at p.135 l.19 (3.45) where Aristaeus is dubbed the inventor of the olive (where the Latin word “inventor” here must mean that he discovered the use of the olive), and at p.140 l.25 (3.57) where we read that in Arcadia Aesculapius’ “tomb and grove are open to inspection,” where “ostenditur” means that they are pointed out.

Walsh’s translation of Jupiter secundus as “Jupiter mark two” (cf. 3.53 ff.) finds a flippancy in the Latin that I do not. The same breeziness appears elsewhere too: for example, the reference to the feast of Thyestes as an Irish stew (3.68 n.), and the rendering of “omnibus minimis punctis temporum” at p.26 l.15 (1.67) as “at the drop of a hat” makes it sound as if cosmoi go out of existence readily, rather than that they do so frequently, and it fails to reflect the Epicurean doctrine that there are atomic times as well as atomic bits of matter.

I will conclude the reviewer’s invidious task of fault-finding by pointing out a lapse in Walsh’s usual sensitivity to Cicero’s style. Cicero avoids direct description of excretory and sexual organs and functions (note his delicacy at 1.95 and 2.138). The similar restraint in his description of Mercury, aroused by the sight of Proserpina, “cuius obscenius excitata natura traditur quod aspectu Proserpinae commotus sit” at p.140 l.9 (3.56) is badly served by Walsh’s “he is depicted rather lewdly with penis erect in excitement at the sight of Proserpina.”

My overall judgement is that Walsh’s translation is more accurate to the Latin than MacGregor’s (Penguin) and (subject to the reservations expressed above) a fair rival to Rackham’s version in the Loeb Classical Library.