BMCR 2020.08.02

Cicero on the philosophy of religion: on the nature of the gods and on divination

, Cicero on the philosophy of religion: on the nature of the gods and on divination. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xi, 308 p.. ISBN 9781107070486. $99.99.


The dialogues On the Nature of the Gods (DND) and On Divination (Div.) are Cicero’s contribution to what Momigliano dubbed the ‘theological efforts’ of the Roman elite of the late Republic.[1] These two works, like all of Cicero’s philosophica, have long deserved a deeper philosophical analysis than is usually afforded Cicero’s dialogues. J.P.F. Wynne’s Cicero on the Philosophy of Religion has provided just that. Wynne’s book can be read on three levels. First, as an interpretation of Cicero’s project of bringing Greek philosophy to bear on Roman religion in DND and Div. Second, as a reexamination of certain core aspects of Hellenistic philosophical theology. And third, as a proposal for and illustration of a new model for interpreting the Ciceronian philosophical dialogue. On all three fronts Wynne succeeds.

The introduction, “Cicero and the Translation of Philosophy from Greece to Rome,” defends a new interpretative approach to Cicero’s philosophical dialogues. Rather than merely a storehouse of Greek sources or an encyclopedia for Roman neophytes, the Ciceronian dialogue should primarily be read as a unified literary-philosophical whole. In order to move beyond the traditional approaches to Cicero, Wynne proposes two hermeneutic principles: (1) Like Cicero’s audience, we too ought to read as a learned reader with other sources for Hellenistic philosophy close to hand. (2) We should read the dialogues as a literary unity, whose philosophical content, dramatic characterization, and authorial prefaces all contribute to a broader, uniquely Ciceronian project. To these we should add a third principle by which Wynne abides (although he undersells it as a ‘convention’, p. 2): (3) to distinguish ‘Cicero’ the author from ‘Marcus’ his avatar in the dialogues. These principles allow us to interrogate Cicero’s choices and aims in crafting all aspects of the dialogues. Among these aims is to advance his own Academic skeptical agenda, which Wynne takes to be the radical skepticism of Clitomachus, rather than the mitigated skepticism of Philo.[2] This is significant: the dialogues do not lead the reader to a particular view that Cicero takes to be closest to the truth. Rather, the dialogue form encourages open-minded enquiry and illustrates an ideal model of Roman philosophizing.

Chapter 1, “Cicero’s Project in On the Nature of the Gods and On Divination,” expounds Wynne’s central thesis about the purpose of these works. First, in DND and Div. Cicero poses what Wynne describes as the Central Question of any philosophical theology: “do the gods care for us?”. DND opposes Epicurean, Stoic, and New Academic responses to the Central Question, while Div. focuses on the specific problem of divination as evidence for divine care. (Wynne justifiably sets aside On Fate on account of its fragmentary state and hasty composition [Fat. 1].) Second, Cicero presents different philosophical responses to the Central Question in order to moderate religion (ad moderandam religionem, DND 1.1) by ridding us of false beliefs about divine care: the Epicureans and Stoics replace ignorance with (what they take to be) ‘the truth’ about the divine, while the Academics rid us of false belief by insisting that we suspend judgement entirely about the nature of the divine. A properly moderated epistemic attitude towards the divine lies between superstition and impiety: the former is the belief that the gods care for us more than they in fact do, the latter that they care less than they really do.

This emphasis on belief may surprise scholars of Roman religion who stress that Roman religio emphasizes orthopraxy (the proper practice of particular required actions) over orthodoxy. But, Wynne argues, Cicero undertakes this project of moderating religious belief within the orthopractic model. The dialogue does not suggest changes to religious performance, but rather to the underlying beliefs about the nature of these performances. Cicero is sensitive to the relationship between religious belief and action and suggests that the former ought to be reformed to better support the latter. This interpretation shows the space available for intellectual and philosophical reflection even within the orthopractic conception of religion in the 1st century BCE, and Wynne draws interesting parallels with Varro’s Divine Antiquities.

Chapter 2, “Velleius the Epicurean,” turns to DND and the Epicureans’ negative answer to the Central Question. Wynne reexamines the central argument (DND 1.43-5) that mankind universally possesses the preconception (prolepsis) that the gods exist and are happy and eternal, and therefore, on the Epicurean conception of happiness, free from care. Wynne shows how this argument undergirds Velleius’ vituperative critique of rival theories: all other philosophers have erred by contradicting this natural preconception of the nature of the divine. Cotta’s counterarguments are damning, and they echo Cicero’s assertion in the preface that those who deny divine concern for mortals uproot the very basis of civilization.

Chapter 3, “Balbus the Stoic and Cotta the Skeptic,” tackles DND 2 and 3. Wynne first highlights how Cicero stages a personal clash between the two interlocutors. For Balbus, the skeptical Cotta’s epistemic instability and habit of arguing against the gods is in direct conflict with his pontifical duties. For Cotta, it is Balbus’ rationalizing reforms and demand for firm and incontrovertible truths about the divine that undermine traditional religion. As a Stoic, Balbus’ answer to the Central Question is a firm ‘yes’: god’s concern for mortals is visible in the fact that the he has created a beautiful cosmos as a divine community to be shared by all rational creatures (gods and humankind). Balbus’ approach to traditional religion distinguishes between the cosmic and celestial gods and the cultural gods of myth and cult: these latter are worshipped as expressions of the former’s beneficence, virtuousness, and natural-philosophical significance. Balbus’ rationalizing approach ‘re-reads’ traditional cult as pious performance for the sake of the celestial gods.

According to Cotta, Academic and pontifex, one can and should defend ancestral religious practice and participate in traditional practice while nevertheless suspending judgment on the various philosophical theologies. Cicero here takes the opportunity to illustrate how an Academic approach to religion is not a path to atheism or impiety. For example, Wynne deploys his learned reader principle to show how Cotta reframes an objection of Carneades (the so-called ‘sorites’): although Sextus reports (M. 9.170) that Carneades argued for a staunch atheism, Cotta rather offers his arguments to counterbalance Balbus’ claims. The weight of Cotta’s counterarguments leads not to atheism, but to the suspension of belief. As a radical skeptic, Cotta’s theism is not based on philosophical arguments (which invariably cause him to doubt) but rather on his pre-philosophical commitment to the existence of the divine and the wisdom of the maiores. Cotta’s epistemic attitude towards the gods is similar to the Pyrrhonian position (Sextus, M. 9.49), and, as Wynne notes (p.165-6), it contrasts with Marcus’ stated preference for Balbus at the dialogue’s close (DND 3.95). Cicero dramatizes two different Academic responses to philosophical theology, leaving it open to the reader to judge their merits.

In chapter 4, “Quintus’ Stoic Case for Divination,” Wynne admirably elucidates the complexities of the central argument of Div. 1. The dialogue frames Quintus’ Stoic defense as a response to Cotta’s denial of divination (DND 3.14). Quintus argues for the reality of divination by appealing to the outcomes of predictions (eventa), offering empirical evidence for divination and so for god’s providential care. In order to avoid Cotta’s objections, Quintus offers an idiosyncratic Stoic account of divination that is different from that of Chrysippus, relying on the fundamental distinction between natural and artificial divination. Wynne reconstructs the distinction as grounded in the relation between the divinatory sign and its predictive content. In natural divination (say, a portentous dream), the sign itself contains the predictive content; this content in turn may be either self-evident or obscure and in need of skilled interpretation. Artificial divination requires technical knowledge to recognize the sign as a sign and to relate the sign to a theorem which generates the predictive content, as when a haruspex derives a prediction from entrails. Whereas Chrysippus had argued that all divination was an infallible art of interpreting divine signs, for Quintus it is not an art, but rather a kind of prediction that may use art in some cases. The distinction is subtle but is an insightful and ingenious reconstruction of Quintus’ position.

Chapter 5, “Marcus’ Arguments against Divination,” turns to Div. 2. While Marcus may seem to talk past Quintus, Wynne defends the unity of the dialogue and shows that Marcus responds explicitly to Quintus’ idiosyncratic defense of divination. Commentators have sometimes dismissively labelled Cicero’s philosophical practice as ‘rhetorical’, but Wynne does well in explaining how Cicero’s rhetorical philosophy is not ersatz but an appropriate response to Quintus’ strategy. Quintus has deployed what Cicero would categorize as an argument from conjecture (coniectura), appealing to empirical evidence (eventa) rather than rational arguments (rationes). The dispute therefore is about the plausibility of inductive inference from agreed upon facts, and the dialogue demands that Marcus’ response undermine the plausibility of Quintus’ inferences to the reality of divination, not attack the logical soundness any particular arguments. In staging the dispute between the brothers Cicerones, Div. offers a balanced case for and against divination as evidence for divine providence, thereby promoting the avoidance of “superstition by suspension of judgment in the face of dissension about the Central Question” (p. 263).

The final chapter, “Marcus’ Stance on the Central Question,” explores how Cicero constructs the response of his dialogic counterpart, Marcus, to the question of the gods and religion. DND famously concludes with Marcus stating his tentative preference for Balbus’ Stoic theology over Cotta’s Academic criticisms (3.95). And in the final paragraphs of Div. (2.148-50) Marcus qualifies his inclination toward Stoicism, agreeing about divine providence and approving the Stoics’ rationalizing approach to the gods but rejecting divination as a source of superstition. According to Wynne, as a radical Academic skeptic Marcus takes these views to be plausible or persuasive, not true or even approximations of the truth. This contrasts with those who would see Cicero as a moderate Academic, promoting Marcus’ qualified agreement with Stoic theology as the most verisimilar position. Against this, Wynne argues that Cicero portrays Marcus as a “model of how one can react skeptically to the dialogues, not a prescription of what to think” (pp. 271-2, Wynne’s emphasis). Indeed, Cicero never denies that a radical Academic can hold beliefs: these are non-dogmatic beliefs about what appears plausible to him at the moment, not dogmatic commitments about the truth or truthlike (cf. Luc. 8, 109-10, Fin. 5.76). Cicero as author hides his sententiae in order to encourage his readers to judge the arguments by the weight of reason and not the compulsion of authority (DND 1.10-11). Although Wynne insists that Cicero removes his authority from the equation, it seems to me that only the Academic is actually capable of realizing the ideal model he envisions. As Cicero often repeats, intellectual freedom and epistemic integrity is afforded to the Academic alone (Luc. 8-9, T.D. 5.33, Div. 2.150). So while Cicero may not be telling his readers what to believe, he nonetheless tells them how to believe it, namely as an Academic does.

There are a handful of typos and one reference I could not track down.[3] But these in no way detract from the very persuasive arguments in Wynne’s book, the light it sheds on Cicero’s approach to Roman religion, and the case it makes for taking Cicero seriously as a philosophical author.


[1] A. Momigliano, ‘The Theological Efforts of the Roman Uppers Classes in the First Century BC’, CPh 79.3 (1984): 199-211.

[2] Wynne offers a fuller defense of Cicero as radical Academic in: J.P.F. Wynne, ‘Cicero’, in D. Machuca and B. Reed (edd.), Skepticism: from Antiquity to Present. Bloomsbury (2018): 93-101.

[3] 58n.16, “pausible’ for ‘plausible’; 145: cross-reference “p. 14” should be p. 147-9; 156: “Div. 2.36” should be 1.36; 212: “the Quintus’ own” delete ‘the’; 230: ‘three-state argument” should be ‘stage’; 253n.40: “Marus” for Marcus. 50n.2 refers to Brutus’ On the Blessed Life, but I haven’t found any reference to this text; perhaps Brutus’ de Virtute is meant.