One of the most intriguing and challenging among Cicero’s works, the Tusculan Disputations have long been regarded as an authorial failure by modern scholars puzzled by the anomalies and inconsistencies of the structure, setting and formal design of the dialogue written in the summer or fall of 45 BCE. These anomalies, however, make sense if we read the dialogue within the wider parameters of a political and educational project that aims at opposing Caesar’s tyranny by asserting Roman supremacy in philosophy and creating a new ethics for Rome’s ruling lite. This is the approach of Gildenhard’s thoughtful and persuasive book. The author provides a close and attentive reading of the dialogue supporting the ‘political’ interpretation with a sound analysis of the form, prologues and didactic plot: the result is the refutation of negative judgements on Cicero’s work1 and a new, more appropriate, vision of the orator’s cultural and political ambitions in the last years of his life. Gildenhard’s thorough analysis correctly re-evaluates the key role played by the Ciceronian dialogue in the history of education and Roman philosophy in the late republic: philologists, philosophers and historians will all find ample food for thought in this original study.
After a brief introduction about argumentation and purpose of the Tusculans (1-4), the volume falls into three chapters, the first of which is devoted to resolving the structural enigmas of the dialogue (5-88). The other two chapters deal with the prologues of the Tusculans (89-206) and the didactic interaction between Cicero and his pupil (207-275), respectively. There follow a Conclusion (277) and two Appendices on the date of the dialogue (279-281) and genre issues (283-285). A list of the editions cited (287-288), a full and accurate bibliography (289-305), and three indices (of contents 307-310, passages 311-320, and names and themes 321-325) conclude the book.
In the introduction Gildenhard sketches out the main features of the dialogue, defined as “a Roman drama in education with a strong political subtext” (p. 4). The peculiarity of Cicero’s work lies in the connection between philosophy and politics, a new ambitious cultural program and its application under a despotic regime. The loss of the res publica forced Cicero into an involuntary otium and then to rethink his role in a state dominated by a tyrannical power: by applying Greek philosophical methods to the Roman tradition and elaborating a Roman mode of doing philosophy, Cicero, far from limiting himself to a nostalgic evocation of the past, aimed at founding a new pedagogy which would successfully confront and overtake the Greek educational model and at the same time provide means to cope with the present political situation.
As Gildenhard makes clear at the outset of the first chapter (‘The Form—Enigmas and Answers’), the resolution of the idiosyncrasies and ‘monstrosities’ which affect the structure of the Tusculans is the first step towards a full understanding of the dialogue. Gildenhard identifies six focal points in need of discussion. The title, the genre by which Cicero defines his work ( disputatio, schola, exercitatio, senilis declamatio, and sermo), the cast of characters and the persona Cicero chose for himself (as a sophist and a teacher), the lack of setting, the long translations from Greek tragedies, and finally Cicero’s endorsement of the Epicurean contemplation of nature are all exceptions in Cicero’s usual practice. Gildenhard finds a satisfactory solution to this array of puzzles by initially looking into the historical situation of the years 46-45 BCE and then revisiting Cicero’s literary career before and after the Tusculans. Cicero’s position under Caesar’s tyranny was quite ambiguous. On the one hand the state of forced retirement compelled the orator to dedicate himself to philosophy; on the other he acted on behalf of exiled republicans before the dictator, trying to maintain a public voice in insufferable political circumstances.2 This ambiguity forced Cicero to give a justification of his doings. Evidence from the correspondence shows Cicero’s unhappiness at being in close proximity to the dictator: as for the choice to compose a corpus of philosophical writings, the apologies in the dialogues starting from the 50s demonstrate how Cicero legitimised his literary efforts by endorsing the example of Cato the Elder, who composed the first historical work in Latin in his leisure time, and by defining his philosophy as a contribution to Roman politics. Gildenhard opportunely underscores the changes in Cicero’s apologetic strategy from the 50s till the years that followed Caesar’s assassination. Whereas in the trilogy De Oratore, De Republica, De Legibus Cicero stressed that his treatises are to be taken as politically relevant literature and as “part of his aristocratic commitment to the commonwealth” (p. 51), in the dialogues of 46-45 BCE he tended to manifest his personal disappointment in Roman politics by asserting that he was forced to write philosophy by his current state of involuntary idleness; as Cicero himself clarifies,3 however, philosophy was not only a grief therapy and leisure entertainment but also ‘a political act’ perfectly compatible with the dignitas of a Roman noble. As Gildenhard affirms, Cicero’s project of creating a philosophia Latina became a patriotic duty and the most important part of a “programme of civic instruction”: by emphasizing the public utility of his new educational ideal and vindicating the primary role of Greek philosophy in Roman aristocratic life Cicero justified his personal choice and at the same time conferred dignity on philosophy as a valid means to remain still ‘visible’ in Roman politics (from this point of view I would avoid defining philosophy as a “meagre substitute” for politics, as Gildenhard does, since the very act of presenting philosophy as suitable to the prestige of a Roman statesman makes it a ‘dignified’ activity). The ambivalence of Cicero’s project, on the one hand a medium of political protest, on the other a meaningful pursuit of a new pedagogy, is clearly demonstrated by the Tusculans. Gildenhard correctly argues that the presence of unintelligible literary markers, the above mentioned ‘enigmas’, is due to the political backdrop of the dialogue: the title and the image of Cicero as a scholasticus as well as the realistic setting, the long translations from the Greek, and the Epicurean contemplation of the universe are strictly connected to the theme of involuntary leisure and are to be interpreted as the result of a deliberate operation to focus on the ‘absurdity’ of a res publica dominated by tyranny. Cicero’s paideia Romana, however, counterbalances the negative aspects of the work. As Gildenhard puts it, in the Tusculans Cicero addressed Rome’s next generation and by mixing different philosophic modes of imparting lessons (Socratic inquisition and continuous lecture in books 1 and 2; New Academic methods, with thesis and its refusal, in books 3 and 4; witty and cultivated exchanges among Roman aristocrats in book 5) he provided a solution to a crisis in education and furnished Roman youth with the wisdom of the ancestors and Greek philosophy. Gildenhard rightly focuses on Cicero’s assertion of the validity of the ancestral virtues and at the same time on his willingness to portray his philosophia Latina as an act of conquest and supremacy over his Greek predecessors; by taking on the role of magister of the next generation of Roman politicians Cicero played up “the creation of a philosophy in Latin as an imperialist undertaking that will bring eternal glory to the intellectual imperator and his people” (p. 78). Cicero’s elitist pedagogical ideal is reaffirmed in the dialogues composed after the Tusculans. Gildenhard analyses the prefaces to De Natura Deorum 1 and De Divinatione 2 along with the treatises De Fato and De Officiis; although the death of Caesar enabled Cicero to regain his former status, the combination of Roman wisdom and Greek lecturing remained of paramount importance in Cicero’s cultural program aimed at educating a few individuals “who should take charge of the res publica after the fall of the tyrant” (p. 83).
The prefaces to the five books of the Tusculans cast light on the political and didactic intent of Cicero’s paideia Romana (chapter two ‘The Prologues- In tyrannum and cultural warfare’). After rejecting previous interpretations that rely on a face value reading, Gildenhard investigates the structure of each preface, paying particular attention to the carefully balanced symmetry of the single segments: in doing so he unearths the ‘political’ and ‘cultural’ context of Cicero’s work. To start with the preface to Tusculans 1, Gildenhard first shows how the connection between adverbs and nouns and the sequence of some concepts reveal an internal logic intimately related to Cicero’s political and philosophical project. For instance, in the first paragraph the link between the adverb maxime and the verb rettuli pinpoints Cicero’s intense participation in philosophical studies as a direct consequence of the orator’s loss of political influence; again in the same paragraph the string of nouns artes, ratio, disciplina, studium, sapientia, philosophia is the result of a complex hierarchical ordering that culminates with the studium sapientiae to be identified with Greek philosophy. Gildenhard then proceeds to explore Cicero’s procedure of praising Rome’s past and the ancestral virtues of its citizens. By comparing Tusculans 1.1.2 with De Republica 2.29-30 he reads the greatness of Rome’s past as a marker of discontinuity with the present; in the same way the praise of the Roman discipline of the past which involved no exposure to bookish learning allows Gildenhard to hark back to Cato the Elder’s educational program and to focus on the contrast between the perfection attained by the ancestors and Rome’s current political weakness that needs to undo the errores with the help of philosophy. As for the ancestral virtues ( gravitas, constantia, magnitudo animi, probitas, fides) Gildenhard juxtaposes Tusculans 1.2 with De Republica 1.2 and a letter to Atticus (12.4.2) and observes that the presence of gravitas and constantia at the top of the list, two qualities closely associated with Cato the Younger, implies a polemical attack against Caesar; moreover, the absence of iustitia might be interpreted as a further reference to the lack of ius and freedom in the present political situation. This latter argument sounds less convincing. By exploiting an argumentum ex silentio Gildenhard does not consider that the passage of the Tusculans in which Cicero mentions all the virtues of the sapiens is strictly connected to a celebration of the past: there is no reason for assuming that the orator deliberately eliminated iustitia from a general praise of the traditional moral values. He is more persuasive when he assesses that starting from three axioms, that is the natural disposition of Romans to excel other cultures, the perfection achieved in the past in the absence of litterae, and incapability to maintain perfection in politics, Cicero created “a philosophical literature in Latin” which offered a potential source of intellectual resistance: as Gildenhard rightly notes, “Cicero addresses the present in terms of the past and the future” and re-defines the concept of virtus and education under tyranny (p. 130). The analysis of Tusculans 1.1.3-8 largely confirms the ‘political’ reading of the dialogue. In pursuing a comparative history of Greek and Roman culture Cicero alludes to Cato the Elder’s educational project, as exemplified in the prologue of the Origines, to justify his philosophical activity, and by focusing on the absolute perfection of oratory and the absence of philosophy till his time he restates the political and cultural significance of his literary efforts: Gildenhard correctly says that “the parallel between the perfection of oratory nostram ad aetatem and the corresponding neglect of philosophy usque ad hanc aetatem defines the Tusculans as a work written at exactly the juncture when, owing to untoward political circumstances, the aetates oratorum have run their course and the aetas philosophiae is about to begin” (p. 140). Cicero styles himself as a new Cato, although he opposes Cato’s refusal of Greek doctrina and substitutes history with philosophy: the rejection of the narcissistic activity of previous Epicurean philosophers in paragraph 6 and the reference to Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates as philosophical models in paragraphs 7-8, moreover, highlight the literary qualities of Cicero’s writing and the intimate connection between rhetoric and philosophy. Gildenhard observes that Cicero’s decision to engage in philosophy without giving up on oratory reflects the political scenario as the very inability to speak publicly under the tyrant implies a new educational approach based on philosophy; at the same time Cicero’s conception of perfect philosophy that relies on the symbiosis of eloquentia and prudentia carries a social and political significance that perfectly fits the Roman practical connotation of wisdom (pp. 155-156).
The prefaces to the books 2-5 emphasize the political and cultural message conveyed by Cicero’s project. As to the preface to Tusculans 2, Gildenhard first focuses on the citation from the Andromacha of Ennius (2.1) and the difference between Neptolemus’ moderate and Cicero’s total commitment to philosophy. Then he deals with the switch from oratory to philosophy. The loss of interaction between speaker and populus brings about the necessity to elaborate a new mode of imparting education: Gildenhard correctly points out that Cicero’s assessment philosophia paucis contenta iudicibus in Tusculans 2.4 reveals the orator’s intent to create a “small lite of philosophically educated aristocrats” (p. 164). Finally, he lingers over Cicero’s exhortation to conquer Greece in the realm of philosophy. The notion of culture “as an arena of cross-cultural competition” (p. 165), already expressed in the preface to book 1, implies an optimistic vision of Roman cultural force that manifestly appears in the stylistic superiority of Latin philosophy over its Greek precedents: Cicero insists on the qualities of distinctio, distributio, elegantia, ornatus of his philosophical writing as well as the pleasure the reader will take from such a polished and sophisticated work. The analysis of the preface to book 3 allows Gildenhard to explore how Cicero tinkered with Stoic doctrine to suit his political needs. After briefly analysing the core message of the preface, that philosophy is a therapy and medicine of the soul, he looks into the idea of false and bad education that originate the moral decadence of the outstanding members of the community: only philosophy and a new paideia Romana might restrain the aristocrats from slipping into error and falsehood. Cicero picks up on the Stoic doctrine of the ‘fall from nature’: by revisiting Chrysippus’ distinction between those who possess good natural endowments and the less well endowed he reiterates the primary role of the ruling lite and assumes that a resurrection of the state and education is possible only with the aid of enlightenment and philosophical insight.
Gildenhard rightly emphasizes the importance of Plato’s Republic in the elaboration of this new pedagogy, especially with reference to the well-known allegory of the cave. Both Plato and Cicero tried to create a new paideia aimed at undoing the damages caused by noxious educational principles: the main difference lies in Cicero’s rejection of the image of a philosopher disaffected by politics. Rome’s cultural history and the vision of philosophy as a “common cultural heritage of Rome and Greece” come back in the preface to the book 4. Gildenhard compares the text of the Tusculans with De Republica 2.14 and argues that the praise of Pythagoras as an intermediate between Greece and Rome enabled Cicero to backdate proto-philosophical insights in Roman politics to the seventh century BCE and at the same time to pair the philosopher and the tyrannicide Lucius Brutus, thus focusing on the liberation from tyranny as an essential factor for reaching the highest standards of excellence in any art and discipline. The political tone re-emerges in Cicero’s successive considerations about the ‘oral’ philosophy of the ancestors. Gildenhard correctly states that Cicero’s willingness to supply the Romans with a written code of conduct is a response to the lack of freedom under a tyranny: the anti-Caesarian message finds a further corroboration in the preface to the last book of the dialogue where Cicero praises Cato the Younger’s opposition to tyranny and implicitly encourages Brutus to commit tyrannicide (p. 206).
The analysis of Cicero’s interaction with his student occupies the third chapter (‘The Plot—Teacher and Student’). Gildenhard starts by examining the Socratic method employed in discussing the first thesis, that is death is an evil, in Tusculans 1.9-17. Through an exercise in pure dialectics Cicero first dismisses the beliefs of Greek thinkers and proves the ontological contradictions implied in many of the current propositions on the real nature of death; then he moves on to a positive assessment, that is that death is a good, and focuses on the immortality of the soul. Gildenhard draws attention to the originality of Cicero’s teaching method, which combines philosophical arguments based on dialectical deductions with a constant appeal to Roman tradition and antiquitas : in a sort of silent dialogue with readers “able to identify the philosophical schools behind the sunt qui and the alii” (p. 232 n. 73), the orator-philosopher scrutinizes every theory about death, demonstrates the usefulness of ontology in issues of practical ethics and, what matters more, insists on the appropriateness of Roman language and vocabulary concerning ethics and psychology. The superiority of Roman and Ciceronian philosophy over the most eloquent Greek thinkers is also evident in the refusal of pure doxographical excursus about the immortality of the soul in Tusculans 1.23-26a. Here Gildenhard rightly focuses on the imitatio/aemulatio of Plato’s Phaedo : Cicero credits his philosophia Latina with enabling his student to attain what he was unable to get from a perusal of the Platonic dialogue, that is “an unshakeable belief in the immortality of the soul and its ascent to heaven after death” (p. 245). At the same time he adds to Roman authority and ‘universal’ arguments from nature, i.e. the existence of some divine power, a rational understanding of the subject ( ratio), a feat attained by Plato for the first time ( Tusculans 1.36-38). The discussion on the nature of pain ( dolor) in Tusculans 2 shows Cicero’s philosophy as the result of a mutual interdependence of natura and ratio. Gildenhard correctly points out that the definition of the sapiens as “someone who has managed to stabilize his innate bravery, fortitudo, through the powers of ratio” (p. 260) reinforces Cicero’s assessment about the necessity of a proper education to eliminate any sort of vitium. Cicero’s didactic strategy in demonstrating the inconsistency of the belief that pain is greatest of all evils thus ends in praising the innate Roman qualities of his pupil: philosophy and the self-sufficiency of virtus provide Roman youth with those skills which enhance their inborn courage and enable them to take an active role in governing the state. The image of the sapiens who has himself under control emerges in all its force;4 as Gildenhard observes, at this point Cicero has reached the apex of his paideia, the conquest of the self, “a requisite quality both to resist an unjust ruler and to govern justly” (p. 267). In the last part of the chapter Gildenhard examines the didactic plot in Tusculans 5. The book, opening with a declaration of loyalty to Brutus, shows a gifted student who handles complex and abstract topics of philosophy without renouncing his Roman common sense, and thus reveals himself as a good counterpart of Cicero. Gildenhard rightly concludes that the dialogue is “a rite of passage for the student, who, through exposure to Cicero’s paideia Romana, reaches philosophical maturity” (p. 275).
Just a few observations about the two final Appendixes. In the first one (‘Appendix A: The Date of the Tusculans‘) Gildenhard argues that Cicero’s absolute otium under Caesar’s dictatorship and the very anomalies of the dialogue prevent us from fixing a date for the oral disputations that might have taken place at any time in the summer or fall of 45 BCE. In the second Appendix (‘Appendix B: Genre Matters’) Gildenhard employs current critical developments in genre theory (function of genre within a pragmatic model of communication, authorial play with literary conventions, notion of ‘generic’ hybrids, and cultural content of literary forms) to define the formal features of the dialogue.
A masterpiece of scholarship, Gildenhard’s excellent book allows us to fully appreciate the originality of Cicero’s thought in the last phase of his life. Through a correct and intelligent analysis Gildenhard illuminates important aspects of the history of Greek and Roman philosophy and paves the way for further investigation into the complex relationship between literature and politics in the late Roman republic.
1. A survey of current scholarship on the Tusculans is in the ‘Introduction’ pp. 1-2.
2. The reference is clearly to the so-called orations Caesarianae ( Pro Marcello, Pro Ligario, Pro Rege Deiotaro). Gildenhard passes over this aspect of the relationship between Cicero and the dictator.
3. See Academica Posteriora 1.11 (cf. pp. 58-60).
4. Gildenhard touches upon the presence of the theme of the sapiens who conquers himself in the Pro Marcello (cf. p. 267). A more attentive analysis of this commonplace in relation to the Caesarianae would have been welcome.