BMCR 2023.11.21

Cicero’s Academici Libri and Lucullus: a commentary with introduction and translations

, Cicero's Academici Libri and Lucullus: a commentary with introduction and translations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 1120. ISBN 9780199277148



What modern scholars call the Academica is an unusually muddled set of texts. It is composed of the entire second book (Lucullus) of the two-volume first edition that began with the lost Catulus and the first portion of the first book (Academicus Primus) of the four-volume final edition (Academici Libri). While approachable translations have been available in (at least) English, German, French, and Spanish for some time, it has not been the subject of extensive commentary since Reid’s 1885 study[1]—until now. Reinhardt has more than filled this gap with a companion volume to his new critical edition of the Academica in the Oxford Classical Texts series. If “companion” sounds diminutive, then it is a misnomer.[2] The companion in question is over one thousand pages long and the fruit of a scholarly effort that began in 1999. In my humble estimation, its publication constitutes a high-water mark for the study of Cicero’s philosophica and of post-Classical philosophy more generally.

Most introductions offer a road map or a general sketch; Reinhardt’s offers a carefully argued and interlocking set of theses, interpretive proposals, argument reconstructions, and linguistic analyses. The introduction is a 177-page tour de force with something for everyone: an account of Cicero’s philosophical authorship, ancient constructions and modern reconstructions of Academic history, interpretations of the evidence of Sextus Empiricus, of key Stoic epistemological notions, of elusive Academic figures, and more. Many of the same themes are taken up in the over-700-page commentary as they become relevant for elucidating Cicero’s text. Throughout, Reinhardt meticulously situates his claims within a vast secondary literature. The commentary is preceded by welcome new translations of all texts in the accompanying OCT (including Academicus Primus, Lucullus, fragments & testimonia, and letters documenting the creation of the Academica). It is bookended with appendices on non-Ciceronian evidence for Academic history, a lengthy bibliography,[3] a general index, an index locorum, and indices of Greek and Latin terms.

Following Reinhardt’s lead, I take a “Cicero first approach” (p. xxvi) in this review by focusing on an interpretive question that continues to divide scholars: what sort of sceptic was Cicero? This question is taken up most directly in Section 8 of the introductory essay, but the answer given there draws on claims about pre-Ciceronian material advanced in earlier sections (especially 4 and 6) and throughout the ensuing commentary. It therefore provides a concrete example of the way the volume’s interpretive claims hang together.

Reinhardt’s answer is that Cicero was an unwavering “Clitomachean” or “radical” skeptic for his entire documented life. His case rests in part on a careful review of the Ciceronian corpus, but also, more importantly, on an interpretation of radicalism that brings it much closer to the mitigated camp than most scholars have suggested (see p. xlv for a helpful list of features typically associated with mitigated scepticism that Reinhardt finds already in radicalism). Reinhardt makes a strong case for construing πιθανόν in the original Carneadean scheme as “plausibility” in the sense of “rational persuasiveness.” More precisely, the persuasiveness of both perceptual and non-perceptual impressions is grounded in a logical property of fit or congruence between an impression’s propositional content and the subject’s antecedent and associated views (see Section 6 of the Introduction). For example, if Cato saw Cicero dancing in the forum, the resulting top-level impression prior to testing and scrutiny would likely be an ἀπιθανὸς ϕαντασία, even if it were true and formed under ideal conditions. By the same token, a foreigner who did not have any associated views about Cicero or Roman mores could just as easily be struck by a πιθανὴ ϕαντασία (see, e.g., pp. lxxxviii-lxxxix). Later Academics are said to retain this non-predictive, coherentist account of πιθανότης, including Cicero, such that it does not form a fault line in intra-Academic controversy (as is commonly held). According to Reinhardt’s tidier Academic history, the disagreement between radical and mitigated sceptics turned on “the fairly narrow question of what conception of belief they allowed for” (p. clv; see also pp. xlvi–xlvii), where “belief” refers not to δόξα/opinio, but to a genus of endorsement of which δόξα/opinio is a species. Thus, the radical Clitomachean approves (approbare, probare, or sequi) persuasive impressions, whereas the mitigated sceptic assents to them with cautious self-awareness.

In advancing his interpretation, Reinhardt eschews the distinction between objective and subjective conceptions of the πιθανόν/probabile. According to the subjective conception, the persuasiveness of an impression is a testament only to the positive psychological effect an impression has on the agent, not evidence for its truth or mind-to-world fit. Reinhardt rejects any such view that deprives the sceptic of epistemic justification (e.g., p. cvi), but he is not a straightforward partisan of the objective camp either. For one, he rejects past attempts to link πιθανόν/probabile to pre-theoretical notions of statistical likelihood or probability (see pp. xciv–xcvii; see also p. 645 and p. 798). Furthermore, Reinhardt insists that the notion of “evidence,” which he traces back to the original Carneadean scheme given its connection to sensorimotor interaction with the world, spans the objective-subjective distinction (p. xcvii; p. cvi; p. 427). However, in attempting to complexify an oversimplification, Reinhardt might understate its textual basis. Cicero, for example, repeatedly criticized Aristo of Chios and Pyrrho of Elis—Aristo for failing to provide a justificatory basis for action and inquiry, and Pyrrho for providing neither a justificatory nor a psychological basis (e.g., Fin. 4.43). The conjunction of these criticisms suggests that Cicero was aware of the objective-subjective distinction. Moreover, the fact that Cicero singled out Aristo’s occurrentia[4] for failing to meet a normative criterion governing action and inquiry that his probabilia satisfied[5] tells us something about the kind of justification Cicero was after: an objective one grounded in “a world outside of our own consciousness” (p. 527). While Cicero’s treatment of Aristo and Pyrrho is discussed in the commentary (e.g., pp. 737–738; p. 747–755), it is nowhere connected to his conception of probabile.

Reinhardt contends that the historical Cicero likely inherited his Clitomacheanism directly from Philo of Larissa when he attended Philo’s lectures prior to his articulation of the Roman Books view (p. xxiv; pp. cxliii-cxliv). Yet Cicero’s continuity with the Academic tradition did not detract from the distinctively Roman idiom in which he conceived and articulated it, as Reinhardt emphasizes with the example of Luc. 146. There, Cicero the character appeals to the diligentia maiorum to defend the Clitomachean outlook. He notes that it is customary for witnesses to swear “to the best of their belief” (ex sui animi sententia), for eye-witnesses to qualify even that surest form of evidence with arbitrari, and for judges to hand down decisions not as assertions about what is or is not the case but what seems to them to be so (ut ea non aut esse aut non esse facta sed ut uideri pronuntiarentur) (see pp. cii–ciii, pp. 782–783, and pp. 792–793). Cicero’s forensic allusion encapsulates the core features of his radical scepticism: a policy of approving persuasive impressions—sine ulla affirmatione—that warrant approval for articulable reasons that are discovered and confirmed by rational and coherentist methods.

What, then, of the doxastic attitude that results from approval? Reinhardt employs a variety of locutions to describe the radical’s mysterious sententiae: “a lesser form of belief” (p. cxlix), “views or beliefs of a kind” (p. xxxix), “belief-like states” (p. cxciii), “quasi-beliefs” (p. 300), and “hypothetical beliefs” (p. 661). Whatever their status, they cannot be bona fide beliefs, since “belief” constitutively involves “taking to be true.” Even so, the sui generis attitude of approval is not without precedent. Reinhardt says it is akin to replying “yes” or “no” in a question-and-answer λόγος, in the manner set out in Aristotle’s Topica. An interlocutor in a dialectical exchange “combines a full application of his rational self to the activity of appraising propositions with a simultaneous detachment from the issue” (pp. cvii–cviii; see also p. cxxxvii n 384, p. 659, and pp. 664–665). As the paradigm case of approval, the dialectician’s detachment illustrates how sceptical inquiry can be earnest and truth-oriented without resulting in an attitude of ‘taking to be true’.

For all its persuasiveness, the overall picture of Ciceronian scepticism that emerges is in some ways unstable. If probabilia do play a justificatory role as evidence, then their function is in part to help us attain a more accurate picture of the world (not just a consistent psychology). At the same time, Reinhardt joins most scholars in maintaining that Cicero’s policy of withholding assent is incompatible with any form of “taking to be true.” A prohibition against coming to believe that some things are more or less probably true, all the while working tirelessly to attain evidence thereof, can seem more Sisyphean than Herculean (Luc. 108). Nor does such a policy seem to capture the spirit of the diligentia maiorum, whose caveats can be interpreted more straightforwardly as placing limits on the confidence with which one asserts and believes, rather than as repudiating assertion and belief altogether (Reinhardt defends his interpretation of the metaphor on p. 660; cf. the hypothesizing scientist on p. 661). Similarly, Reinhardt’s detached sceptic is intelligible to me in the abstract, but not as a characterization of Cicero’s positive, more-than-dialectical ideal of the Academiae ratio around which he wanted to “conduct his whole life” (p. cxlv; see also pp. 298–302). A life organized around hypothetical beliefs, especially concerning deep-seated moral commitments such as the finis bonorum and officia, strikes me as impracticable at best and unmoored at worst (see p. 680 on the supposed harmony between radical scepticism and Roman traditionalism; see also p. 645 and p. 740 on sceptical moral action).

Perhaps these are some of the internal pressures that led the mitigated sceptic to break with Clitomacheanism in the first place. However, Reinhardt’s readiness to rethink the doctrinal (so to speak) unity of the sceptical Academy left this reader wondering about another option that satisfies at least some of his desiderata: Cicero’s sceptical sage endorses persuasive impressions in the sense that they have credences or partial beliefs about what is true. These are not mere hypothetical beliefs (i.e., “treating as if true” in the detached sense), but they are also not fully-fledged dogmatic beliefs that cease inquiry and violate ἐποχή (i.e., “taking to be true” in the proscribed sense). This position is still radical, since it is based on a Stoic (or possibly Platonic, see p. 526 & p. 800) premise about our aptitude for truth and a stringent aversion to the risk of misdirected assent in an incomprehensible world. Like Reinhardt’s interpretation, it makes the philosophical pressures that propelled intra-Academic dispute narrower, but all the more pointed (see esp. p. 799 n 590). Of course, this reading faces its own trade-offs and difficulties. My aim here was not to defend an alternative, but to trace one major thread in Reinhardt’s complex tapestry, and to show how my engagement with his volume facilitated my own search for coherence in a difficult text.

While Reinhardt’s commentary is palpably more philosophical than Reid’s more general treatment (to say nothing of length), many of its claims and arguments are buttressed by the author’s supreme command of the Latin language.[6] Consider, for example, Reinhardt’s notes on the widely discussed passage Luc. 104, where Cicero reports Clitomachus’ distinction between two kinds of suspension of assent. Reinhardt begins by articulating the features of Cicero’s Latin that any adequate interpretation must accommodate or explain away (pp. 654–655)—for example, that the two ways of saying “yes” and “no” that are invoked (ut neque neget aliquid neque aiat and aut ‘etiam’ aut ‘non’ respondere possit) are semantically distinct, or that the explicandum of a crucial ut-clause (ut aut approbet quid aut improbet) is ambiguous. Reinhardt’s linguistic observations are followed by a methodical review of competing interpretations scholars have offered, organized according to the way they adjudicate (or fail to heed) these and other textual clues and puzzles.

As mentioned above, Reinhardt’s understanding of the Clitomachean position is that the Academic sage’s expression of approval and disapproval is compatible with the suspension of assent. The idea is clear enough on a conceptual level, but how does one extract it from the text? Reinhardt’s favored strategy is to interpret the aforementioned ut-clause as explicating respondendo only, rather than all of se a respondendo … sustineat, and to emend the transmitted text with non. Thus, what Cicero reports is that the Academic sage “does ⟨not⟩ check himself from responding so as to approve or disapprove, in such a way that he neither denies or affirms anything.” (p. 63) Reinhardt tells a persuasive story about how the non might have dropped out of the transmitted text by the intervention of a thinking scribe or by mechanical error (p. 656). And his proposed reading avoids the awkward implication that, in this portion of the passage, we are to understand approval as a way of checking oneself from responding, while just a few lines later respondere is the verb used to characterize the Academic’s own position.

The arc that I have just described is not uncommon in this volume. Throughout the commentary, Reinhardt deploys his full scholarly repertoire to illuminate every corner of Cicero’s text, including undertheorized and minor passages that have received far less attention in the literature. Frequent cross-referencing and signposting encourage the reader to flip back and forth between Reinhardt’s interpretive essay, translation, and textual commentary (with the new OCT close at hand, of course). Reinhardt’s notes provide ample information about grammar, style, and diction, but always in the service of helping the reader understand Cicero’s ideas. There is no doubt that he has succeeded in this task. While there is no direct course through the Academica, no Cynosura to guide readers out at sea, Reinhardt is the expert and charitable guide we have long needed for the winding path by the Septemtriones (on which, see p. 527).



[1] James S. Reid, M. Tulli Ciceronis Academica, London: Macmillan & Co., 1885.

[2] The volume’s ambitions (and size) place it in roughly the same category as Andrew Dyck’s authoritative commentaries on De Officiis and De Legibus (which, unlike Reinhardt’s, do not contain translations).

[3] In the acknowledgments the author states that the secondary literature extends through September 2021. However, I noted citations to Trabattoni 2022 (p. 146 n 144), Allen 2022 (p. cliii n 437; cited as forthcoming on p. 300 n 16), and Fleischer 2022 (p. 326).

[4] Aristo’s principle is also described as ‘quodcumque in mentem incideret’ et’ quodcumque tamquam occurreret’ (Fin. 4.43).

[5] See Off. 2.7-8 (= T42 in Reinhardt).

[6] In Reinhardt’s own words, his aim “is to explain Acad. in its complexity, without trying to replace the elementary linguistic and stylistic elucidation which Reid1 provided in an exemplary way” (p. xxii; superscript is the author’s own).