BMCR 2023.11.09

Ciceros emanzipatorische Leserführung: Studien zum Verhältnis von dialogisch-rhetorischer Inszenierung und skeptischer Philosophie in “De natura deorum”

, Ciceros emanzipatorische Leserführung: Studien zum Verhältnis von dialogisch-rhetorischer Inszenierung und skeptischer Philosophie in "De natura deorum". Palingenesia, 128. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021. Pp. 406. ISBN 9783515130264

As the subtitle of this book indicates, Christopher Diez deals with Cicero’s rhetoric and the staging of the dialogue and how these relate to his skepticism.

Diez distinguishes two types of Leserführung (“guidance of the reader”) in De Natura Deorum, direct guidance issued in the author’s proem and the indirect guidance provided by the dialogue’s framework, with the setting and cast of characters playing a part. Diez further specifies that this process is “emancipatory” (emanzipatorisch). It would have been helpful had he explained how he sees this “emancipation” as operating and what the reader is being freed from.

Diez begins Part II (which follows an introductory Part I) with a critique of the premises of the older school of source-criticism (further elaborated at Diez and Schubert 2022). He then interprets various testimonies that have been used to identify Cicero’s procedures in composing his treatises. But in this chapter Diez is, for the most part, thundering against views that are seldom held nowadays: no longer assuming that Cicero was merely copying and combining sources, scholarship has moved on to subtler forms of analysis. Diez is not opposed per se to the use of pretexts (“Prätexte”), as he prefers to call them, as a basis for analysis but disagrees with the assumptions made by some scholars who invoke them (pp. 26, 290, 331-32). That being so, one might have expected Diez to discuss current views, e.g., the theory that Philodemus, De pietate (known from PHerc 1428) or its source was used for Velleius’ doxography at 1.25-41; but, in spite of Diez’s detailed discussion of source-criticism and of Velleius’ doxography, one finds this view mentioned only in passing (p. 288 n. 3: “Philodem-Rekurs”). Again, although he devotes several pages to Cicero’s rendering of Plato’s Timaeus (pp. 82-84), it is surprising that Diez fails to discuss the famous intertext N.D. 2.47 ~ Tim. 17. One would also have liked to see Diez engage more fully with the view that Cicero derived Cotta’s criticisms of Velleius’ speech from the Epicureans themselves, as argued by Auvray-Assayas 1991 and Essler 2011a; he briefly alludes to such material later on (p. 288 n. 3 and 339 n. 199).

In Part II Diez also works to counter the view that N.D. was hastily composed, a view that might seem to favor the Cicero-as-compiler theory, though that theory would not be a necessary consequence. He discusses several pieces of evidence that have been adduced to suggest hasty composition. The dialogue is set during the three-day Latin festival but takes place on a single day. There are indications, however, of an originally different apportionment of material over books and days. Thus at 2.73 Balbus describes Velleius’ attack on Stoic providence as having occurred “yesterday” (hesterno die), and Cotta refers to Balbus’ presentation of Stoic theology as having taken place “the day before yesterday” (3.18), i.e., Cicero would originally have planned to spread the conversation over the entire three-day period; cf. De republica, originally meant to comprise nine books spead out over a nine-day festival ( 3.5[25].1), but later shortened to six books. Diez (pp. 95-98) seeks to explain Balbus’ and Cotta’s references as polemical and not to be taken literally, though he offers no parallels for such usage, and in context these appear to be mere orientation, not part of any polemic. Moreover, there are other possible indicators of hasty composition not discussed by Diez; cf. Pohlenz 1965, 1:240; Solmsen 1968-82: 2:407-10; Girard 1983.

In Part III, Diez elicits from the author’s proem two pieces of guidance: the reader is to look for arguments that (1) are based on reason and not on authority and (2) do not exceed the boundaries of the knowable.

The next topic is the way the dialogue is framed and the implications for its interpretation (Part IV). Diez rightly notes that setting the dialogue in the past was an author’s choice that enabled him to assume within the dialogue an identity as “young Cicero” separate from the authorial voice of the proem. He can thus function as the ideal recipient of the arguments presented and as a model for the reader (pp. 157-59). The end-frame, when Velleius and young Cicero cast their votes (3.95), is seen as significant in two ways: (1) the fact that they express a judgment and do not sink into aporia is a model for the reader; but (2) the carefully hedged form in which young Cicero expresses his preference is also a model of epistemological caution (pp. 161-62).

The bulk of the book (pp. 163-286 of Part V) is devoted to Velleius’ speech, which Diez argues has been underrated. Diez is right that Velleius’ brash onset is effectively staged (1.18). It is also in sharp contrast with the cautious tone of Cicero’s proem. But if we are taking our cues from the proem, the contrast in tone has implications for the way we should judge Velleius, an aspect that Diez does not consider. Velleius has essentially two roles. He is assigned the doxography on the gods, whereby he relentlessly criticizes Epicurus’ predecessors, partly based upon rational principles, such as self-contradiction, partly based on Epicurean premises about the nature of the gods as corporeal, blessed, and immortal (Velleius’ criticisms are conveniently summarized in the table on pp. 209-10). After that, Velleius sets out Epicurus’ own theology. But it is awkward that the Epicurean ideas are first encountered piecemeal as bits of criticism and only later joined into a coherent system. Moreover, the picture that Velleius paints is sketchy at certain points and draws Cotta’s (just) criticism for unintelligibility (1.74-75), conceded by Diez, pp. 256-59; cf. also 279-80.

A useful point made in this chapter has to do with the arguments that Velleius offers, such as the consensus omnium for the existence of god (1.43b), that have been shown by Essler 2011b, 49-53, to have no basis in (older) Epicureanism. Diez argues that these are a valuable part of Velleius’ case precisely because they begin the argument uncontroversially and help prepare the reader for arguments specific to Epicurus’ doctrine (pp. 248, 279). One of the welcome consequences of the abandonment of the Cicero-as-compiler model is that we are learning that Cicero creates his philosophical arguments from diverse materials, not from a monolithic “source” for each speaker; cf., e.g., Schmitz 2014.

To return to the guidance provided by the frame, by the end of the dialogue Epicureanism is no longer an available option, and no one votes for it (3.95). It certainly looks as though Cicero has arranged the dialogue in such a way as to effect Velleius’ marginalization, with the presentation of Epicurus’ positive doctrine occupying only 1.43b-52 and refuted at length by Cotta. If that is so, then Diez’s decision to focus at such length on Velleius’ speech is questionable. He claims that for Books 2 and 3 studies already exist that have laid the foundation for philosophical and literary analysis (p. 26), but he does not indicate what studies he has in mind. Given that Balbus’ Stoicism remains a live option at the end of the dialogue and receives, in fact, the (carefully hedged) vote of young Cicero, it might have been more productive for the overall interpretation to present a detailed study of Balbus’ speech rather than Velleius’.

Chapter VI is devoted to the strategies of Cotta’s refutations with heavy emphasis on the Epicurean book. As Striker (1980, 81-83) has shown, Carneades adopted dogmatic positions for purposes of refutation without abandoning his skepticism, and Diez allows that Cotta can do likewise (p. 356). However, Diez seems to lose sight of this skeptical strategy. When Cotta invokes some Stoic arguments, claiming they are at least as plausible, Diez speaks of Cotta as sympathizing with the Stoa and that this is possible for him as an Academic Skeptic (pp. 327-28, 355). But he seems to forget that, while the young Cicero of the dialogue is, in his view, a mitigated skeptic (pp. 157, 161), Cotta is a thoroughgoing Carneadean skeptic, associated with Carneades on his first appearance at 1.15 (sedentem in exedra; cf. Fin. 5.4) and by his proclivity to attack others without advancing a positive doctrine of his own (1.60, 2.2).

Diez also considers the implications of the fact that Cotta often supplies details of Epicurean doctrine omitted by Velleius (pp. 328-32). He emphasizes that this procedure both enables Cotta to sharpen his attack and allows the reader to receive two different versions of Epicureanism. But perhaps there is also another aspect: the confrontation of Velleius and Cotta is an agon, and one that Cotta clearly wins, as is shown by Velleius’ rueful comments at 2.1. Cotta, though not an Epicurean, shows both a superior grasp of Epicurus’ system and a superior ability to formulate it (cf. Diez’s own observations, pp. 320-21, 339). He is, then, the ideal Academic Skeptic depicted in the proem (1.11).

On p. 307 Diez raises the general problem of the relation of forensic-political rhetoric and skeptical philosophy, but he does not explore it further. Cicero evidently found the same rhetorical techniques useful for both (cf. Paradoxa Stoicorum). Thus, for instance, in his forensic speeches, Cicero is adept at concealing weak points in his own case and emphasizing those in his opponent’s; this is seen in Velleius’ downplaying of atomism and Cotta’s emphasis on it; similarly of otium as a characteristic of the Epicurean gods: it is emphasized by Cotta, but not Velleius (p. 315 n. 112). Attention to Cicero’s speeches could also have helped with the interpretation of the figure of Cotta, who stakes out a position of public adherence to cult in spite of philosophical arguments to the contrary that is similar to that professed Cicero himself (Har. 18).

Diez also fails to set the N.D. into the larger context of Cicero’s corpus in another respect. He makes very little reference to De divinatione, which begins where N.D. leaves off, with “Quintus,” confused from a fresh reading of N.D. and eager to supply a better case for the existence of the gods. This shows two important things about the earlier dialogue: the way Cicero thought it would affect readers and that its argument was incomplete.

Diez shows how discarding the premises of source-analysis can yield new insights into this text. His interpretations, taken together, are tantamount to a commentary on Book 1, albeit the comprehensive coverage of N.D. implied by the title is not achieved. The book deserves to be read (critically, of course) by serious students of the dialogue.



Auvray-Assayas, C. 1991. “Le Livre I du De natura deorum et le traité De signis de Philodème.” Revue des Études Latines 69: 51-62.

Diez, C. and C. Schubert, eds. 2022. Zwischen Skepsis und Staatskult. Neue Perspektiven auf  Ciceros De natura deorum. Stuttgart.

Essler, H. 2011a. “Cicero’s Use and Abuse of Epicurean Theology.” In J. Fish and K. R. Sanders, eds., Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition, 129-51. Cambridge.

Essler, H. 2011b. Glückselig und unsterblich: Epikureische Theologie bei Cicero und Philodem (mit einer Edition von PHerc. 152/157, Kol. 8-10). Basel.

Girard, J.-L. 1983. “Probabilisme, logique et religion: les catalogues des dieux homonymes dans le De natura deorum de Cicéron.” In H. Zehnacker and G. Hentz, eds., Hommages à Robert Schilling, 112-26. Paris.

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Solmsen, F. 1968-82. Kleine Schriften. 3 vols. Hildesheim.

Striker, G. 1980. “Sceptical Strategies.” In M. Schofield, M. Burnyeat, J. Barnes, eds., Doubt and Dogmatism: Studies in Hellenistic Epistemology, 54-83. Oxford.