BMCR 2006.11.07

Cicero: on Academic Scepticism

, , On academic scepticism. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2006. lviii, 161 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0872207757. $12.95 (pb).

Particularly during the past twenty-five years, there has been an outstanding advance in the study of ancient skepticism, both in its Pyrrhonian and Academic varieties. This is reflected in the publication of a considerable number of works about the nature and consistency of those philosophical outlooks, as well as about their influence on the development of early modern philosophy and their relevance to present-day epistemological discussions. Most of these works concern Pyrrhonian skepticism. This predominance of interest in Pyrrhonism over Academic skepticism also manifests itself in the fact that, whereas in recent years several new translations of Sextus Empiricus’ writings (our principal source for Pyrrhonism) have appeared in the most important European languages, the same has not happened with Cicero’s Academica, which is our main source of information about the philosophy of the skeptical Academy. Even though Sextus’ works are also an important source for Academic skepticism,1 Sextus is not himself an adherent of that philosophy as Cicero is, and does not offer an account of the controversies that took place within the skeptical Academy.2 This new English translation of the Academica by Charles Brittain (a specialist in Academic skepticism)3 is therefore a most welcome contribution to filling the gap in the literature.4

What we currently know as the Academica consists of the remaining books of two different editions of the work. Of the first edition, made up of two books, there remains only the second, namely the Lucullus (commonly referred to as Academica 2) (translated on pp. 3-86), while the Catulus has been lost. Of the second edition, composed of four books and entitled Academici Libri, only about half of the first (the Academica 1) is extant (translated on pp. 87-107). There are also several assigned and unassigned fragments from the Academici Libri, of which Brittain presents a translation here, as well as a concordance with the fragments in Reid’s and Plasberg’s editions (pp. 108-112). For information about the philosophical stance and argumentative practice of the skeptical Academics, the Lucullus is the more important of the two remaining books. This is because it presents both the dispute about the attainability of knowledge and the possibility of action without assent between Stoics and Academics, and the dispute between the Academics themselves over what form of skepticism (radical or moderate) they should adopt, whereas the extant part of Acad. 1 is concerned mostly with Antiochus’ view of the history of philosophy.

Brittain’s excellent Introduction (pp. viii-xlv) places the work in its historical and philosophical context, explains his way of dealing with the difficulties of translation presented by Cicero’s text, and gives details about the Latin editions he has used (as well as about the editorial symbols and the notes). Worth mentioning is Brittain’s careful distinction, in the text of the Academica, between three layers of argument which correspond to different debates: the debate between Stoics and Academics in the third and second centuries BC, between the Academics themselves in the first century BC, and between the Roman interlocutors of the dialogues. Of interest also is his elucidation of the use of the history of philosophy made by the skeptical Academics, which was more ingenious than it might seem at first glance. Throughout his exposition, Brittain helpfully refers the reader to the relevant scholarly works on each topic and cautiously acknowledges that some of the interpretations he advances are controversial. One example is Brittain’s view that, in his Roman Books, Philo defended a form of fallibilism, and not the mitigated skepticism he had espoused after his abandonment of Clitomachus’ radical skepticism.

There is one point I wish to discuss briefly. When explaining the nature of Arcesilaus’ skepticism, Brittain observes that some sources represent him as not accepting the conclusion of the “core” Academic argument (namely, “There are no cataleptic impressions”), whereas others “see him as a straightforward proponent” of both that conclusion and the conclusion of the “corollary” to the core argument (namely, “It is irrational to assent to any impressions at all”) (p. xxiv, n. 39). Among the latter sources, Brittain mentions Acad. 1.44-45, 2.67, 77. This is at first glance problematic since, whereas Acad. 1.44-45 plainly portrays Arcesilaus as committed to both conclusions, it is less clear that Acad. 2.67 and 77 do the same. For these two passages describe Arcesilaus’ debate with Zeno, which appears to indicate that the former’s arguments are merely ad hominem. However, in both passages Cicero does seem to believe that Arcesilaus accepts in propria persona those conclusions. The solution consists perhaps in distinguishing the inference one may draw by taking into account the dialectical context in which Arcesilaus’ arguments were put forward from Cicero’s own interpretation, which seems to be same as in Acad. 1.44-45.

Brittain also provides a helpful up-to-date Select Topical Bibliography (pp. xlvi-liii), a very detailed Analytical Table of Contents (pp. liv-lviii), a Textual Appendix in which the significant departures from Plasberg’s Teubner edition are listed (pp. 113-115), a thorough Glossary of Names (pp. 116-137), a most useful Select English-Latin-Greek Glossary (pp. 138-142), and an Index (pp. 143-161). There is a minor error in the second glossary: the reference of the term “proof” should read ” Ac. 2.26″ instead of ” Ac. 2.28″.

The translation, which is “aimed at philosophical readers” (p. vii), is accurate and clear. Still, I would like to make a suggestion. In the Introduction, Brittain points out that he will use the term “impression” to render the Latin visum, visio, and quod videri,5 all of which Cicero utilizes to translate the Greek phantasia (see the chart on p. xli).6 He explains that the reason for rendering quod videri as “impression” is that one thus avoids “the mismatch in English between the noun ‘impression’ and the verb ‘seem'” (p. xli). However, Brittain acknowledges that his decision results in the loss of an ambiguity that “may be of philosophical interest: unlike the Greek nominalization, Cicero’s phrase can refer either to someone’s impression about an object or state of affairs or to the object or state of affairs itself” (p. xli). A possible way of keeping that ambiguity while avoiding the mismatch would have been to render visum and visio as “appearance” and quod videri as “that which appears”. These renderings also have the advantage of keeping the sense of the original Greek, though I recognize that some scholars do not think it appropriate to translate phantasia as “appearance”, but prefer to use the term “impression”.

The translation is fully annotated. The notes are most helpful: they give information about the historical events referred to in the text, describe the layout of each part of the dialogues, offer elucidations of doctrines and arguments, explain the emendations to the text, and provide complete cross-references and references to other ancient sources or to secondary literature. I have noticed two typographical errors: (i) on p. 7, n. 7, “see pages xx-xviii” should read “see pages xv-xviii”; (ii) on p. 29, n. 62, ” Ac. 27-53″ should read ” Ac. 2.47-53″.

The Academica (and hence the present new translation) is of interest to students not only of Academic skepticism, but also of Pyrrhonism. For radical Academic skepticism has several features in common with the Pyrrhonian outlook: both stress the unresolved disputes among dogmatic philosophers; both argue on both sides of a question; both refer to equipollence (of arguments in the case of the Academics, both of arguments and perceptual appearances in the case of the Pyrrhonists); both adopt suspension of judgment; both use ad hominem arguments. Also, just as Sextus portrays the Pyrrhonist as someone who does not affirm that the truth is undiscoverable but continues with his search (see PH 1.1-3), so Cicero portrays the skeptical Academic as someone who does not abandon his search for the truth because of the difficulties he has encountered (see Acad. 2.7).7 In addition, it is significant that the dogmatic rivals that Sextus mostly attacks in his works are the Stoics of the last centuries B.C. — i.e., precisely those against whom the skeptical Academics directed most of their ad hominem arguments. Finally, the objection that the adoption of skepticism leads to inactivity ( apraxia) was directed against both the Pyrrhonists (see AD 5.162-163) and the skeptical Academics (see Acad. 2.24-25, 31, 37-39, 61-62). The Pyrrhonian response, which is based upon the distinction between a criterion of truth or reality and a criterion of action (namely, to follow one’s appearances without holding opinions) ( PH 1.21-24, AD 1.29-30; cf. AD 5.165-166), bears some resemblance to the Academic response, which is based upon the distinction between assenting to appearances and following or approving, without assent, those which are persuasive ( Acad. 2.99, 104). Even Sextus, who takes pains to distinguish Pyrrhonism from the skeptical Academy ( PH 1.226-235), recognizes the strong affinity between Arcelisaus’ and the Pyrrhonist’s stances, which makes him say that they “are almost one and the same” ( PH 1.232). The close similarities between Pyrrhonian and radical Academic skepticism are not surprising, given that it is most likely that some of the material in Sextus’ extant writings has an Academic origin.8 In this regard, we must remember that Aenesidemus, who revived Pyrrhonism in the first century B.C., was probably a former member of the Academy. The reason for his desertion seems to have been Philo’s abandonment of the radical skepticism of the earlier Academics and his adoption of a mitigated skepticism which Aenesidemus regarded as a form of Stoic dogmatism.

In sum, Brittain’s book is a significant contribution to the study of ancient skepticism, and of its Academic variety in particular. It is an excellent starting point for newcomers to the field, and will no doubt become the standard English translation of Cicero’s Academica for the foreseeable future.


1. For Sextus’ reports of the skeptical Academics’ views, see Pyrrôneioi Hypotypôseis ( PH) 1.1-3, 226-235; Adversus Dogmaticos ( AD) 1.150-189, 401-411, 3.182-190.

2. One might also argue that Sextus is historically inaccurate in some of his reports, e.g., in his ascription of a negative dogmatism to Carneades and Clitomachus ( PH 1.3, 226). But the same could be said of Cicero. For if one thinks, e.g., that Arcesilaus’ arguments which conclude that nothing can be apprehended and that it is irrational to assent to anything are merely ad hominem, then one must affirm that Cicero is wrong in saying that Arcesilaus accepted both conclusions in propria persona (see esp. Acad. 1.44-45).

3. Brittain is also the author of Philo of Larissa: The Last of the Academic Sceptics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). See BMCR 2002.07.08.

4. The last full English translation of the Academica was by H. Rackham: Cicero: De Natura Deorum and Academica (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1933).

5. Brittain uses quod videri, instead of a conjugated form, as a generic phrase for all the possible variants. I will do the same.

6. Even if according to this chart Brittain also translates impressio as “impression”, he actually uses “stamping” ( Acad. 2.58) and “formation” ( Acad. 1.19).

7. It has been argued that the portrayal of the skeptic as someone who does not give up the search for the truth fits the neo-Academics much more adequately than it fits the Pyrrhonists: see G. Striker, “Scepticism as a Kind of Philosophy”, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 83 (2001): 113-129.

8. In the notes, Brittain refers to several parallel passages between Cicero’s text and Sextus’ works.