BMCR 2023.08.38

Power and persuasion in Cicero’s philosophy

, , , Power and persuasion in Cicero's philosophy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781009170338

1 Responses


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


If the title of this volume neglects the possibility that Cicero regards wisdom as an end in itself, not merely as a means to the goals of political office and rhetorical victory, the contributors’ defense may be that Cicero’s own life justifies the foci of their book. One indication that those foci are incomplete, however, is the editors’ description of Socrates as “ineffectual”, despite Cicero’s frequent praise of Socrates (p. 4). But the contributors do take Cicero seriously as a philosopher: like almost all other scholars today, they regard him as an Academic skeptic throughout his career, one who often undogmatically promotes the views of other schools. The overarching concern of the essays is with analyzing Cicero’s application of rhetorical expertise to practical philosophical problems. To some extent, the book succeeds in doing so. Considerations of space preclude my commenting on every chapter; my choices have been based on my ability to contribute to the discussion.

Woolf begins his essay by saying that he will not directly address Cicero’s view of the relation between philosophy and politics but then immediately asserts that Cicero “regards the value of philosophy as above all practical” (p. 15). For Woolf the key to Cicero’s philosophy lies in the interplay between dialectic, or formal argument, and rhetoric, or the appeal to emotion. Effective speech requires both elements. Cicero’s frequent use of examples to illustrate his points is one way of arousing emotion in his audience, but examples can also be used to point to the philosophical goal of freeing one’s mind from emotional disturbance (e.g., Tusc. 4.49-50). Woolf finds what he considers to be a related puzzle: must orators personally experience the emotions that they want to stir in their audience? As he recognizes, Cicero appears to answer that question in the negative (Tusc. 4.55). But that answer leads Woolf to a false dilemma: the orator must choose between what Woolf claims to be the “philosophical” goal of freeing the minds of his audience from emotion, and the rhetorical goal of arousing emotion in his audience (p. 24). Woolf’s mistakes are assuming that (1) Cicero expects the orator to pursue that difficult “philosophical” goal and (2) a Ciceronian philosopher expects the same freedom from emotional disturbance in others as he expects in himself. Those errors are the more surprising in that Woolf’s penultimate paragraph notes the differing purposes of dialectic and rhetoric, albeit while maintaining their undeniable ability to work in tandem.

Zetzel argues that De oratore, De re publica, and De legibus are “meta-Platonic rather than Platonic”: the first two works “discuss, and make problematic, the relationship between Roman life and Plato,” manifesting “a distinctly ironic, not to say hostile, attitude toward Plato,” while the last work is “a more straightforward and generally unironic attempt to adapt a Platonic text to a Roman context” (p. 36). About Cicero, Zetzel says, “he was not a Platonist in philosophy and he detested Plato’s ideas about rhetoric and politics” (p. 39). If we leave aside the thorny question of what it means to be a Platonist, the second part of Zetzel’s claim depends on the dubious identification of characters’ statements in De or. and Rep. with Cicero’s views.[1] Using the character Antonius’s criticism of philosophy in De or. 1 to explain the expulsion of Plato from the best republic—in a fragmentary statement of Rep. 4 by an unknown speaker—is especially unfounded because later Antonius admits that he is more favorable to philosophy than his earlier remarks indicated (De or. 2.28, 2.55-59, 2.156). The strength of Zetzel’s essay lies in his consideration of the incompleteness of Leg., in particular the unresolved questions of how the character Marcus’s proposed laws relate to natural law and how the rector rei publicae, prominent in Rep., is to fit in the Roman republic described in Leg.

White starts her fine chapter on Academica by rightly rejecting other scholars’ neglect of the dialogue form: the existence of two editions shows Cicero’s discontent with the implausible speakers of the first edition (Att. 13.12.3, 13.16.1-2, 13.19.5). Because Cicero rejects the Stoics’ and Antiochus’s view that true impressions have a quality of “evidentness” lacking in false ones, Cicero must think that an impression with such a quality “must be something closer to the rhetorical idea of ‘evidentness,’ in that it can be found in true and false impressions alike” (p. 54). Thus he uses “the fictional, yet ‘evident,’ speeches” of the work as “an extended counterexample” to the Stoics’ and Antiochus’s claim. White describes the lengths to which Cicero goes to produce a convincing text. Her treatment of the dedicatory letter to Varro is somewhat speculative, but it does yield the reminder that the mos dialogorum of which Cicero writes there combines plausibility and fiction (Fam. 9.8.1).

The title of Roskam’s sterling essay—taken from Tusc. 5.33—refers to Cicero’s “zetetic” philosophizing that aims at the truth but is not “systematic” (pp. 93, 96). We should not be surprised, then, when in that work Cicero contradicts his remarks in De finibus bonorum et malorum 4 on the question of whether Stoics and Peripatetics agree about the sufficiency of virtue for a happy life. As Roskam explains in his nuanced treatment, Cicero often uses common sense to decide what position to defend in a given work—but not always, as concerning whether the sage is happy on the rack (contrast the common-sensical Tusc. 2.17-18 with 5.73-75). Cicero often appeals to dignitas or decorum to justify his arguments—but not always, as when decorum about the treatment of dead bodies takes a back seat to theoretical insight (Tusc. 1.108-9). Cicero often gives examples to make a point—but not always, as when Epicurus’s endurance of pain is first rejected as a model (Tusc. 2.45) and later embraced (Tusc. 5.88). Not only the answers but also the questions change from place to place as Cicero regularly “reorients” the topics he treats (p. 91). But if Emerson is correct about “a foolish consistency,” is Roskam correct that Cicero pays a “high price” for risking “erecting a building that lacks internal coherence” (p. 96)?

Schofield makes a significant contribution with his exploration of the meaning of iuris consensus as one of the two elements in Cicero’s definitions of populus and res publica (Rep. 1.39; the coetus multitudinis is also utilitatis communione sociatus). Schofield’s novel approach is to determine the meaning of the phrase from the deficiencies of the simple regimes explained by the character Scipio. Two types of deficiencies exist: (1) the populus lacks control of the regime, so the res publica cannot exist; (2) one or both of the elements is partly or completely lacking, so the populus and therefore the res publica exist in a limited way or not at all. In democracy, justice is not completely absent but is lacking because there is no recognition of rank (Rep. 1.43). Aristocracy maintains equal legal justice but is deficient in the people’s freedom. Kingship also provides equal legal justice, but political participation is limited to the king. Does ius mean right (i.e., justice) or law? Elizabeth Asmis claimed the latter and argued that in book 3 Scipio revises his earlier definition of res publica so that ius means not any law but “just law.”[2] Schofield reasonably replies that, even in book 1, a better translation of ius is “right” or “justice” because, if the simple regimes are still res publicae, they must contain a degree of justice (pp. 129, 133). Doubtful, however, is his translation of consensus as “unanimity”—an impossible goal, as he soon seems to recognize, but only with the oxymoronic “a degree of unanimity” (p. 136). Schofield concludes incisively that consensus results from the guarantee of justice that consists in human law because “justice cannot be assured without law” (p. 139).

Graver’s essay complements Zetzel’s by detailing the ways in which Cicero’s Rep. treats honor more as the Stoics do than as Plato does: honor is either an unsalutary motivation for public servants or an appropriate but secondary one. In Plato’s Republic spiritedness, the drive for honor, helps reason regulate desires, but for Cicero reason does not need the help (Rep. 3.21-22 [3.36-37 Ziegler]). The character Laelius admits that the virtuous person may want honor but only as an accompaniment to correct action (Rep. 3.28-29, 3.31 [3.40 Ziegler]). More than once Cicero denigrates gloria (Leg. 1.32) or fama popularis (Tusc. 3.3) while he champions honestas. By comparing Rep. 4.23 (4.9 Ziegler) with Tusc. 3.3, Graver argues that Rep. asserts the corrupting influence of the pursuit of glory on human nature. A sense of shame may keep citizens in line, but only if regulated by the proper institutions (Rep. 3.3 [5.6-7 Ziegler]). Graver is not fully convincing when considering the dream of Scipio, where she finds his reference to rewards for virtue that last longer than statues and laurels to point toward honor, not toward the immortality of the soul for which he proceeds to argue (Rep. 6.12, 6.17-20, 6.29-33 [6.8, 6.13-16, 6.25-29 Ziegler]). If the reward were immortality, she maintains, Cicero would be guilty of contradicting his claim elsewhere that virtue is its own reward (e.g., Leg. 1.48). In that case, however, see Roskam’s essay. Moreover, as Roskam suggests in general, might Cicero be offering his readers a choice of reward to pursue (p. 94)?

Atkins’s chapter contravenes Roskam’s by insisting on finding “a systematic account of Cicero’s treatment of the justice of war” (p. 172). Admittedly, Atkins mentions some of the dangers of combing works that differ “in composition, genre, preservation, and circumstance” to try to discover a single doctrine of war. He understands that it is difficult to discern Cicero’s thoughts on just cause for war, partly because most of the relevant passages are the words of characters in the dialogues. Does Cicero think that a just war requires both (1) prior demand for reparation and (2) declaration and announcement (Rep. 2.31, 3.25 [3.35 Ziegler]), or only either of those two conditions (Off. 1.36)? Atkins takes the latter view but not merely because Off. is in Cicero’s own voice. When Atkins turns to justice in war, he notices duties to show mercy (Off. 1.35) and to honor treaties (Off. 1.40, 1.159, 3.86), a distinction between civilians and military (Off. 1.36-37), a prohibition on poisoning (Off. 1.40, 3.86)—and above all a concern for “fides and security” (p. 185). Cicero and Atkins observe that those two goals may conflict with each other (Off. 1.38), so both men appeal to prudence and utility, guided by “regard for the immediate survival of the type of political community that promotes human beings’ natural end of sociability” (p. 189). Atkins is on weaker ground when attempting to explain Cicero’s defense of wars for empire in terms of results rather than purpose (Off. 1.38, 2.26-27, 2.85). Cicero says that statesmen “will give effort [operam dabunt] . . . to increase the republic in empire [imperio], lands, revenues” (Off. 2.85). Those are “appropriate actions” (officiorum) that statesmen “pursue” (persequuntur). Clearly purpose is implied, however illiberal it may be. Atkins reconciles Cicero’s cosmopolitan and patriotic commitments by appealing to justice as the first virtue (Off. 3.28) and by reasoning that human fellowship is best served when citizens care for their countries (adapting Off. 3.90). Those responses may be “Ciceronian,” but are they Cicero’s (p. 197)? Atkins properly concludes by emphasizing the need for prudence. Cicero, however, knows that prudence cannot be systematized.

The book has an index locorum and a general index. I noticed one factual error: Scipio Aemilianus was the adoptive grandson, not the nephew, of Scipio Africanus (p. 166).


Authors and Titles

Nathan Gilbert, Margaret Graver, and Sean McConnell, Introduction

Part I: Techniques and Tactics of Ciceronian Philosophy

Raphael Woolf, Cicero on Rhetoric and Dialectic
James E. G. Zetzel, Cicero’s Platonic Dialogues
Georgina White, Mos dialogorum: Scepticism and Fiction in Cicero’s Academica
Geert Roskam, Nos in diem vivimus: Cicero’s Approach in the Tusculan Disputations
Nathan Gilbert, Cicero the Philosopher at Work: The Genesis and Execution of De officiis 3

Part II: Political Philosophy and Ethics

Malcolm Schofield, Iuris consensu Revisited
Margaret Graver, The Psychology of Honor in Cicero’s De re publica
Jed W. Atkins, Cicero on the Justice of War
Katharina Volk, Towards a Definition of Sapientia: Philosophy in Cicero’s Pro Marcello
Sean McConnell, Old Men in Cicero’s Political Philosophy


[1] See my “Philosophy, Politics, and Rhetoric in Cicero’s On the Orator,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 49 (Spring 2023): 353-73.

[2] Elizabeth Asmis, “The State as a Partnership: Cicero’s Definition of res publica in His Work On the State,” History of Political Thought 25 (Winter 2004): 589.