BMCR 2016.07.28

Philosophical Life in Cicero’s Letters. Cambridge classical studies

, Philosophical Life in Cicero's Letters. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. viii, 260. ISBN 9781107040816. $95.00.


Cicero’s trove of over 800 letters has long served as an essential window into late-republican politics as lived experience. In the last three decades, seminal works from Rawson, Lévy, Graver, Sedley, Griffin, Powell, and many others have proven the centrality of philosophy to Cicero’s corpus, and the pertinence of the late treatises to his public career. In “Philosophical Life in Cicero’s Letters”, Sean McConnell takes the restoration of Cicero philosophus another step forward, offering the first book-length treatment of the epistolae as vectors of ideas in themselves.1

For McConnell, the philosophical references in these letters go well beyond winking philhellenism or rehearsals for the treatises. Rather, the epistolae deserve recognition as free-standing and worthy attempts to apply philosophy to real and urgent problems. As Cicero’s problems were so often political, McConnell focuses his work on Cicero’s engagement with political philosophy and practical ethics, rather than attempting a broader analysis of the letters en entier. The five case studies he chooses thus serve to illuminate, rather than synthesize, the evolutions in the statesman’s use of philosophy through a long and turbulent career.

The first chapter, “Exploring the relationship between philosophy and politics,” takes up a question of fervid debate among Cicero scholars—was philosophy a departure from, or an instrument of, his politics?—and answers, solomonically, “yes.” In the earliest letters to Atticus, we see philosophy “associated firmly with otium and a divorce from politics proper” (34). Nevertheless, McConnell locates a sharp turn in Cicero’s attitude in the period after his exile in 58 BCE. This new position emerges from a close reading of Ad. Fam. 1.9, a letter from December 54 in which the ex-consul defends his recent turnabout to Caesar and the triumvirate. In this apologia, Cicero uses Plato’s letters to make the case that his support for Caesar is not only pragmatic, but “a principled philosophical engagement, sanctioned by the auctoritas of Plato, for the good of all Romans” (44). Accordingly, philosophy not only enters the political arena but also, in Cicero’s view, settles the matter at hand.

Wisely, McConnell does not adjudge whether Cicero’s Platonic apologia is convincing, but looks to the fact of the apologia itself. First, he notes, Cicero must have presumed that his optimate audience was not only quite familiar with Plato (alluding to him three times without citation), but also receptive to the notion that a Greek thinker could inform Roman politics. Further, McConnell dissents from Shackleton Bailey’s suggestion that Cicero meant to justify his volte-face as “respectable per se ”; rather, Cicero uses Plato’s authority to argue that the right political action is not deduced a priori but inescapably linked to circumstance. As McConnell points out, Cicero uses Plato’s framework—speak out only where useful, and do no harm to the fatherland—to arrive at the opposite conclusion: whereas Plato could drop out of politics, Cicero is obliged to hang in.

McConnell’s analysis suggests a fascinating parallel that he might have pursued further, namely the extent to which Cicero’s stance toward Plato—independent but respectful of his authority—mirrors the political stance he must develop toward Caesar, as preoccupying a figure to Cicero politically as Plato was intellectually. (Given his choice of case studies, the book’s subtitle could well have been, “What to do about Caesar?”). Regardless, the analysis of Ad Fam. 1.9 amply reveals Cicero’s evolution in regard to the political uses of philosophy, even and especially when “politics proper” have failed.

The enlistment of Plato as political adviser is explored further in Chapter 2, “Cicero and Plato’s Seventh Epistle.” Rubicon crossed and die now cast, Cicero turns again to this famous letter to ease his political vexation. Plato’s debacle in Syracuse provides ammunition for an apologia to Atticus justifying his strained neutrality in the struggle between Caesar and Pompey. Quite brilliantly, McConnell examines the metaphors that intertwine Cicero’s story with Plato’s—for example, the image of an imprisoned bird yearning for escape. Equally convincing is McConnell’s use of the literature on late-republican letters to posit that Ad. Att. 9.10 was not a private missive to Atticus at all, but was rather “Cicero’s attempt to define and wrest back control of his public image” among the political class (72). The image the ex-consul wants is that of “philosophic advisor,” natural heir to Plato,2 whose mission of concordia sets him apart from the self-serving partisans of the war.

Like Plato in Syracuse, Cicero projects the image of having endeavored to speak frankly and heal the republic, but failing because of the wickedness of those in power. Yet McConnell’s conclusion that for Cicero, “philosophy…is a genuinely effective tool to apply to Roman practical politics, at least given a certain well- defined set of conditions,” fails to satisfy. Philosophy has failed because Caesar, like Dionysius, is wicked. Fine, but if philosophy is of no help when one most needs it, we want to ask, is it “genuinely effective”? Neither Cicero nor McConnell (nor I) have a clear answer.

The third chapter, “Cicero and Dicaearchus,” revives an intriguing debate within the Peripatetic school. In a letter to Atticus from 59, Cicero ironically compares the positions of “your friend Dicaearchus” and “my friend Theophrastus” on the supremacy of the active life. The debate was apparently both fertile and famous, yet this letter provides nearly the only extant evidence of it. Nonetheless, by examining other references to the Peripatos in Cicero’s writings and later texts, McConnell succeeds in retracing the battle lines between the bios praktikos and theoretikos in Aristotle’s school. 3

From an “interposed leaf” in the Codex Vaticanus, McConnell locates Dicaearchus’ position in his account of a golden age, when men “did not do philosophy with speech,” but rather “the good man alone was a philosopher,” and did “practise politics finely” (128-29). For this Peripatetic faction, therefore, “the enactment of virtue or the practice of good deeds is what doing philosophy ultimately consists in” (137). We see immediately how this reframing of philosophy—away from contemplation and toward virtuous civic action—would have magnetized Cicero. Far from his earlier identification of philosophy with otium, McConnell argues, this activist philosophy could serve Cicero “as a means to return to a sort of Roman golden age” (158).

After such expert sleuthing, McConnell retreats somewhat from his own argument. Though Dicaearchus’ “golden” philosophy of civic action is a natural fit for the mos maiorum, McConnell somewhat confusingly concludes that this praktikos bios “does not necessarily involve philosophy at all” (159). Nevertheless, he carries his point that the letters not only “fill major gaps in our knowledge of Hellenistic philosophy and its reception,” but that on the vita activa, “Cicero’s vision of philosophy and its role in Roman political culture…is appropriated in all fundamental respects from Dicaearchus” (117).

The fourth chapter, “A Stoic lecture: Epistulae ad familiares 9.22,” examines what McConnell calls “perhaps the most technical philosophical letter” in the extant corpus, whose political import he believes has been overlooked. In this letter to Paetus of 46, Cicero gently upbraids the young man for his use of an obscenity, and proceeds to offer a stoica schola (a “Stoic lecture”) on the use of free and frank speech. Whereas Shackleton Bailey declared the entire letter a “ jeu d’esprit,” McConnell contends that Cicero is making a deadly serious point about verecundia and libertas loquendi at a moment when Caesar is consolidating power.

In the schola, Cicero frames a debate between Academics, who hold that verecundia tempers the wise man’s choice of words, and Stoics, who say that a wise man will always “call a spade a spade.” (A quibble, speaking freely and frankly: no English-speaker since Humphrey Bogart has “called a spade a spade.” For εὐθυρρημονήσει, why not “tell it like it is”?) Here again McConnell’s intertextuality is inspired: citations from Catullus and Suetonius allow him to peg Paetus’ gros mot as a likely reference to Caesar himself.

The highly technical form of the schola, the transposition of libertas loquendi onto the Greek parrhèsia, and the letter’s otherwise jocular tone, thus enable the ex-consul to both deliver and model his key message: say what you want about Caesar, but watch how you say it. Accordingly, “Cicero cleverly puts into practice the Academic position while presenting a technical Stoic argument, thereby making a point about how nuanced Academic practice can achieve the same effects as blunt Stoic practice without upsetting sensitive social boundaries” (169). This deft conclusion highlights McConnell’s philosophical aplomb as well as Cicero’s.

The fifth and final chapter, “Dealing with Caesar: the συμβουλευτικόν,” examines Cicero’s abortive letter of advice to the now-dictator of Rome. Cicero’s challenge is immense: reconcile with Caesar, preserve his own dignitas, and advance the interests of the republic all at once. In political difficulty he again turns to philosophy, conceiving the idea of a symbouleutikon or open letter of advice from philosopher to ruler. His major references here are the (likely spurious) symbouleutikoi of Aristotle to Alexander which lay out the glories of virtuous kingship. Cicero’s letters to Atticus of 45 show him drafting, agonizing over, and ultimately abandoning the project, as “it is better that [Caesar] desire what I don’t write than disapprove what I do write” (201, Ad. Att. 12.28.3).

The problem lay in defining political glory, or rather in adapting Aristotle to Caesar’s troubling career. What Cicero wants is to contrast the ficta gloria of self-serving spectacle with the vera gloria of benevolent rule. Here McConnell demonstrates how Cicero’s concept of gloria had evolved through his career from “simple popular acclaim” to “performing the duties demanded by justice” (202). This path is correct, but its destination is not quite right. For Cicero, says McConnell, “everyone without fail is moved to love the glorious man if he really is virtuous” (203). Yet at the twilight of his public career, vera gloria clearly does not always earn the endorsement of mass opinion. (See e.g. Tusc. Disp. 5.9.54, “it is…the populace that is rejected by the [wise] consul, not he by the populace;” De Off. 1.19.65, “he who depends on the caprice of the ignorant rabble cannot be numbered among the great.”). Cicero wants Caesar to seek approval not from the vulgus but from cultivated boni like himself—a message endorsed by Aristotle but made moot by Caesar’s popularis success. As hard as he tried, Cicero could find no philosophical match for Caesar’s realpolitik.

McConnell’s book is on the whole an outstanding addition to Cicero studies, eminently readable and full of interest to historians and philosophers alike. The author has done a great service in pushing far beyond the conclusions, now well-established, that Cicero could “do” philosophy or fit it to a Roman audience. What the letters reveal—even more than the treatises, perhaps—was that Cicero was not merely putting favored doctrines into practice, but experimenting constantly with how ideas and political realities could reshape one another. A truly gifted intertextualist, McConnell shines brightest in his attention to the manifold ways in which Cicero engages his intellectual forebears.

The weaknesses of this excellent work are minor ones. One often wishes to see McConnell push his conclusions further—at times he retreats from the possibilities opened by superb and original arguments. He also tends to signpost a bit heavily (e.g., “my argument contains a number of interwoven strands and is rather long and complicated” (63-64)). Overall, though, in the fast-moving stream of Cicero studies, McConnell has expertly navigated both the Quellenforschung marking its past and the philosophical seriousness that marks its present and, one hopes, its future.


1. For a recent monograph on Cicero’s letters in their socio-historical context, see Peter White’s Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic (Oxford 2010).

2. McConnell could have emphasized a key point of historical context here, namely that with Sulla’s pillaging of the Academy in 86 BCE and the death of Philo in 84, Cicero could portray himself in the letters not only as Plato’s disciple, but his sole legitimate successor.

3. For the uncertain state of the Peripatos in Cicero’s time, see Jonathan Barnes, “Roman Aristotle,” in Philosophia Togata II (ed. Barnes & Griffin, Oxford 1997).