BMCR 2003.02.08

Cicero, On Moral Ends. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy

, , , On moral ends. Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xxxix, 158 pages).. ISBN 0511040601 $14.00 (pb).

1 Responses

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2003.02.21.]]

Towards the end of Cicero’s De Finibus — here, ‘On Moral Ends’ — there is a touching passage which expatiates on the superior moral value of intellectual activity. In Raphael Woolf [W.]’s elegant translation:

Alternatively, one devotes oneself entirely to intellectual study [ad studia doctrinae], a life far removed from that of the pleasure-seeker. Indeed those who take this course endure worry, anxiety and sleeplessness as they exercise the cutting-edge of their talent and intellect, the finest element of a human being, and one that should be considered divine. Such people have no desire for pleasure, nor any aversion to hard work. Indeed their activity is ceaseless, be it wondering at the discoveries of the ancients or undertaking original research. Their appetite for study is insatiable. They forget everything else and never think a mean or unworthy thought. (fin. 5.57)

This must have been almost as difficult an argument to carry off in the late Republic as it is today. And in fact, Cicero doesn’t attempt to carry it off himself: he puts it in the mouth of Piso, naively defending the doctrines of the Old Academy, whose argumentative prowess he later demolishes at a philosophical stroke (5.77-86).

Such intellectual idealism, however it might be tacitly questioned, is of importance. First, it shows the expectation of an all-pervading devotion to philosophical pursuits and envisages that devotion within the whole life of the philosopher (“curas sollicitudines uigilias”). Second, it shows the link between that devotion and moral elevation (“nihil abiectum, nihil humile cogitant”). But third, it begs a question: who are the “one” and the “they” of this passage?

This is significant because the very inclusion of such a text as the De Finibus in a series concerned largely (to judge by its current constituent parts) with the philosophy of the Enlightenment and after may seem to leave these observations dangling.1 Annas [A.] remarks in her Introduction on “the widespread ancient assumption that an ethical theory must be a theory to live by” and goes on: “The modern assumption that we can divorce the truth of an ethical theory from its practicability is deeply alien to ancient ethical debate” (xxvi). And there the matter rests.

This work of Cicero’s is not, in fact, a particularly eloquent argument for “a theory to live by”. Although it intermittently draws its arguments from “real-life” figures — indeed, the disjunction between Torquatus’ public actions and philosophical theories helps to vitiate his argument (2.72-4) — the overall effect is still of the professionalization of philosophy: that philosophy is something organized into schools. Torquatus presents an account of Epicurean philosophy in Book 1, which is extensively criticized by Cicero in Book 2; Cato gives a very partial view of Stoicism (ignoring almost entirely Stoic physics) in Book 3, which makes it easier for Cicero to interrogate it in Book 4. Finally, as already mentioned, Piso presents the arguments of the Old Academy in Book 5 and laughs off Cicero’s criticism. This gives the sense of an incomplete work (in fact, it had earlier been “completed” with Cicero’s Academica) concerned with the refutation of (currently) recondite theories; it also gives a slight sense of a lost opportunity. If the importance of ancient philosophers today lies in their testing of “theor[ies] to live by”, wouldn’t a work such as Cicero’s rambling, but insightful, De Amicitia expand the discursive matrix more effectively? 2

Why is this important? Because if we take seriously this refusal to divorce philosophy from life — and I feel strongly that we should — the question of who is doing the living, and on what terms, comes to the fore. In other words, we go back to the identities of “one” and “they” in my initial passage.

One clear way of interrogating these identities — of seeing how inclusive these “theor[ies] to live by” might be — is through the feminist critique which is increasingly part of our philosophical conversation. After all, feminist philosophies tend to resist the separation of philosophy from life as well. And this volume invites this interrogation, when on p.76 (n.20), A. suddenly refers to the wise person as “she”. A. herself has shown in earlier work that she is far from insensitive to the nuances of such a move.3 In this case, it contrasts sharply with its context: on the very next page we are shown how profoundly male — and upper-class — this moral system of Cicero’s in fact is; an appeal to the Maximus and Africanus families “and many other outstandingly brave and distinguished men” is followed by the observation that “no one raised in a good family and brought up with decency can fail to be sickened by immoral behaviour in its own right” (3.37-8). If this were only an issue of male versus female (is it ever?), perhaps we could justify dropping in the feminine pronoun into the commentary; but here the implicit appeal to a whole world of social conditioning and consensus militates against it. Earlier (2.94), W. has translated, “The brave are forbidden to show weakness in the face of pain.” But the verb here is in fact “effeminari”, “to become a woman” — thereby automatically excluded from the category of “the brave”.4

“Pain” and “pleasure” are, of course, part of the fundamental coinage of ancient ethical debate: but one might suggest that childbirth, for example, complicates the discussion about the value and desirability of pain (as well as about women’s right to be numbered among “the brave”). The fact that childbirth is completely ignored in De Finibus is particularly striking,5 because the ethical theories debated repeatedly advert to early childhood development to demonstrate their “naturalness” (most notably at 5.42-3 — another particularly pleasing passage of W.’s translation). Where, for that matter, are children in this philosophical schema? Once again we may ask: with whose life are we integrating philosophy?6

If, then, ancient philosophy is included in a series on the presumption of its continuing relevance,7 the parameters of that relevance should be more explicitly engaged.

But to return from the issues generally raised by the inclusion of De Finibus in this series to the particular: Cicero’s work, relevant or not, is well served here. A.’s introduction is of exemplary clarity — especially given the confused and confusing nature of the philosophical genealogies in play. The initial pages of the text are rather heavy on footnotes (also supplied by A.), but then, they need to be: Cicero himself is establishing his credentials and invoking his forebears. More problematic (and this must be largely due to editorial decisions about the format of the series as a whole) is the reluctance to lead the reader through the text, which at times seems dense and obscure. Dividing with sub-headings, using the material relegated to footnotes, would make its structure far clearer. For example, n.53 on p.41, noting the structure of Cicero’s response to Torquatus, is very useful; but when we get to the beginning of the next section (2.78), there is no reminder of the agenda. The notes in general, though, are extremely useful, and (to my mind) at their best when they allow more suspicious, openly subjective comments — e.g. p.22 n. 44, p.23 n.46.

It must be an anxious task to translate Cicero, given that he is one of the writers who still frames modern discussions of the topic. There are famous passages on translation, of course, in De Oratore and De Optimo Genere Oratorum; but there is also a certain amount of comment on the subject here, notably in the criticism of the Greek (or Graecizing) Stoic terminology. W. renders (3.15): “there is no need for an exact word-for-word correspondence … that is the mark of an unskilled translator.” Unskilled W. is not; in fact, he is amazingly exact, especially given that he is not afraid to divide up Cicero’s sentences (one enormous Latin sentence becomes five short English ones in 1.49, for example) or to translate key terms flexibly when need arises (an excellent note on “honestum”, p. 88 n.f). It would have been good to append an annotated glossary — and not without precendent, as there is a glossary in the Sextus Empiricus volume of the series. There is a good note on “virtus” almost at the end of the text (p.130 n.30); but it is very well hidden. And perhaps then Cicero’s witty coinage of “indolentia” (“freedom from pain”, 2.11) — only a letter off “insolentia” — would get its due. The translation in general is measured without being stiff. When it essays a colloquialism, the results are generally well-judged (e.g. “cutting-edge” in my initial passage), and sometimes extremely felicitous (e.g. 2.24 “ex quo efficitur”= “the upshot is…”; 3.47 “nec satis acute”= “less than incisive[ly]”; 4.1 “tamen”= “mind you…”). Only occasionally does W. seem to miss the mark. At 1.69, “tota amicitia quasi claudicare uideatur” is translated as “the whole notion of friendship will look utterly lame”: a tempting turn of phrase, but is the sense really captured by the slangy mid-Atlantic “lame”?

I found only one error of any significance, when W. omits to translate “tamquam a parentibus” at 4.14 (Zeno breaks with his “pioneering predecessors” as if from his parents). This is important, because it undermines by implication the Stoic emphasis on parent-child relationships: “They were the first of all philosophers to teach that the love of a parent for its offspring is given by nature. They declared that the union of a man and a woman, which is temporally prior and the root of all family affections, is also ordained by nature” (4.16).

The reverence for our philosophical “parentes” enshrined in this series is a worthy one. But, like all parent-child relationships, it is complicated; and the terms on which it is based need constant reflection and renegotiation.


1. The other Greek or Latin titles available in the series to date are Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s On the Trinity 8-15, and Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Scepticism.

2. We may note here that other works of Cicero’s, which do accomplish this, are included in the sister series, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought: see Cicero, On the Commonwealth and On the Laws, ed. James E. G. Zetzel. Zetzel draws a similar ancient / modern contrast to that of A. when he writes in the Introduction to his Latin edition, “Ancient philosophy classified politics as a branch of ethics; modern experience does not” (Cicero, De Re Publica: Selections [Cambridge 1995]: 27). The incompatibility of modern with ancient judgement about the spheres of philosophy and politics is shown equally starkly in the case of Augustine: his City of God is in the Political Thought series; part of his On the Trinity, as we have seen, in Philosophy. And where, we might ask, is On the Academics?

3. See, for example, “Plato’s Republic and Feminism”, in Feminism and Ancient Philosophy, ed. Julie K. Ward (New York & London 1996), 3-12.

4. This recalls, perhaps perversely, a passage of Plato which is cited by A. in the above article: despoiling the dead shows a “small and womanish mind”, γυναικείας τε καὶ σμικρᾶς διανοίας (Republic 5: 469d7).

5. Except, that is, for parturition in animals: “Consider the devotion [animals] show in giving birth to and rearing their young, however great the effort involved” (2.109). A revealing demarcation?

6. Note here especially Judith Hughes, “The Philosopher’s Child”, in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy, ed. Morwenna Griffiths and Margaret Whitford (Bloomington & Indianapolis 1988), 72-89. Hughes has clear views about why children are useful as exemplars to philosophers, “partly because of their continuing presence as a potential sub-class, partly because they have never protested and mainly because it is assumed that in favourable circumstances they will become men and therefore require attention” (my emphasis). Meanwhile, for an interesting recent consideration of how feminists can make constructive use of the Greek philosophical tradition, see Sabina Lovibond, “Feminism in ancient philosophy: The feminist stake in Greek rationalism”, in The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy, ed. Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby (Cambridge 2000).

7. See also Roger Crisp’s Introduction to his translation of the Nicomachean Ethics: “Aristotle’s enduring importance in ethics is assured for at least two reasons. First, he addresses questions concerning how best ot live which will always be asked in any society where rational reflection upon human aims is possible. Secondly, his answers to these questions … will be a perennial source of insight and inspiration” (xxxv).