BMCR 2020.09.20

Marcus Tullius Cicero. How to think about God: an ancient guide for believers and nonbelievers

, Marcus Tullius Cicero. How to think about God: an ancient guide for believers and nonbelievers. Ancient wisdom for modern readers. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. 168 p.. ISBN9780691183657 $16.95.


This book is published in the “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers” collection by Princeton University Press. This collection offers many compendia of ancient texts by Roman and Greek writers, sometimes accompanied by the original Greek or Latin texts. Most of the topics of this collection are related to ethical thinking, understood in its broader meaning of how should one live, and also political ideas of the time. It offers some philosophers (Plutarch, Seneca, Epitectus), historians like Thucydides and Suetonius, and even one poet: Horace. This collection aims to make available to a larger audience many excerpts from great books written in antiquity.

Cicero already has many books in this collection, and most of them feature the original Latin text. This is the third translation for Philip Freeman who already presented How to Be a Friend: An Ancient Guide to True Friendship (2018) and How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life (2016). As in the case of these works, Freeman here offers translations alongside the original Latin text of De Natura Deorum and De Republica. This volume is a great addition to the already very appealing collection from Princeton University Press. This is the first book to deal more directly with some aspects of ancient philosophy of religion. On the Nature of the Gods is one of the essential texts about the philosophy of religion before the dawn of Christianity. The selected passages present very important aspects of Stoic philosophy of religion as presented by Cicero.

Freeman offers a brief introduction to the texts. He starts by reminding readers about the religious context in the time of Cicero. He also notes specific aspects of the reception of Greek philosophy of religion in Rome. He then presents a very brief biography of Cicero, mentioning Cicero’s interest in Greek philosophy. Freeman then turns to the biographical context of both On the Nature of Gods and On the Republic. He finishes this introduction with a very important nuance: Cicero was not a religious dogmatist, and he had his doubts. However, this nuance deserves more explanation for modern readers. Too often, modern readers – even scholars – think that having doubts is a sign of agnosticism or even atheism. This is by no means the case with Cicero. The aim of his treatise is to inquire into the nature of gods, and Cicero, as an adherent of the New Academy, is trying to use doubts, not to refute beliefs or religious practices, but to establish them on a more solid foundation. Since the two excerpts in this volume deal only with Stoic material, Freeman does not mention the influence of Plato on Cicero, but comments instead that while Cicero never identified as a Stoic philosopher, he had considerable appreciation for Stoic thought.

The two excerpts selected for this book work well together. First, the discourse of Balbus, the Stoic philosopher in On the Nature of Gods, presents a view of the universe as divine and intelligent. Then the “Dream of Scipio”, from On the Republic, which includes elements of the Stoic explanation of the universe. Even if both draw on Stoic philosophy, the two passages have different aims. On the Nature of Gods presents the Stoics’ speculative ideas about the universe and the nature of the gods. The aim here is to prove that there is something divine in (or about) the universe. On the other hand, the “Dream of Scipio,” even though it presents some aspects of the universe that might be speculative, aims at ethical teaching.

The excerpt from On the Nature of the Gods features a part, and only a part, of the discourse of Balbus from Book Two of Cicero’s treatise (2.1-44). (Book One presents the ideas of the Epicurean school, the second presents the ideas of the Stoics, and, finally, Book Three gives the perspective of Cotta, who is both a skeptical Academic and a Roman priest.)

This rather long discourse of Balbus is divided into four parts. The first seeks to show the existence of the gods, the second their nature, the third how they govern the world, and the fourth how they mingle in human affairs. In the excerpt included in this volume only the first and second of these parts are fully covered, even though some elements of the last two parts about providence are included as well. To prove that the gods exist, Balbus offers many arguments. The first is the very well-known argument about the sky and heavens that speak of a “divine power of surpassing intelligence which rules over this realm.” Balbus also says that gods make themselves known through apparition: he recalls many stories from Roman history that supports the intervention of gods in human affairs. He then summarizes the views of Greek Stoic philosophers such as Cleanthes, Chrysippus, and Zeno. This last part features many Stoic arguments for the existence of god: that the cosmos is orderly, that nothing is superior to the universe, that a creation needs a creator, that reason must come from somewhere, and that the universe is animate. Ultimately, the Stoic speaker tries to prove that the universe itself is divine and intelligent, which, in turn, proves that divinity exists.

The “Dream of Scipio” is the conclusion of On the Republic and presents a dream that Scipio had of his grandfather Africanus on a visit to King Massinissa. Unlike On the Nature of the Gods, the “Dream of Scipio” does not address the problems of the existence and nature of the gods, but it does describe a vision of a divinely designed universe. Scipio, seeing his grandfather and his father in a dream, is eager to join them and to leave his earthly position. His father and grandfather dissuade him from doing so: Scipio has first to cultivate justice and piety before joining them. They remind Scipio that, even if he becomes famous for his actions, his glory will never last for a long time. He should not pay attention to human rewards and instead focus on virtue and service to his country, for these are the path to heaven for public servants. They also discuss the eternal nature of the soul and the fact that only the body is mortal. This excerpt is less speculative than the discourse of Balbus and focuses on how a Roman should live. It is an ethical exhortation.

Since this is a translation intended for a wide audience, it does not feature a critical apparatus,  even though it sits alongside the original Latin. But Freeman never mentions which edition(s) of the Latin text he is using, and does not include any reference to his text in his bibliography. Freeman’s translation is easy to read, sometimes adding elements to the Latin text to facilitate comprehension. An example of that is found on p. 11, when Freeman replaces two demonstrative pronouns by the corresponding nouns that were stated before. He also adds to the text when needed. On p. 9, Balbus refers to the prima pars, the “first part” of his speech; and since this first part is about the existence of the gods, Freeman adds “– that the gods exist –” to make it clearer. This makes reading easier, but it might have been appropriate to indicate such interventions with brackets.

Freeman also makes an appropriate use of endnotes. Since many modern readers might not be familiar with any ancient philosophical text about the gods, these notes add precision to the text. They never refer to scholarly literature and they do not refer to problems of interpretation and research. Instead, they give basic information about philosophers mentioned in the text, about ancient texts alluded to, about ancient concepts, and finally about relevant dates.

In this book, Latin students will find two great texts to practice their Latin skills, and they will learn more about the Stoic approach to the question of the gods. It is a very affordable introduction to the question, although it covers only the views of the Stoic school. This translation is not intended for scholars, who might wish for discussions or references to further their knowledge of these texts. Nevertheless, it is a great book for a first acquaintance with the philosophy of religion in antiquity in a very useful collection.