Cicero

I found myself saying nicer things about the Stoics than I’d intended, yesterday, as we wrapped up our Maymester Happiness course. Maybe I’ll continue that trend on Wednesday as our “Stroll Through Western Civilization” continues. (It was great seeing two of our fellow strollers last night at the Masters of Liberal Arts Open House, and some hot prospects for next time as well.)

I probably come across as more generally unsympathetic to the Stoics than is truly the case. I’m not hostile, just sometimes impatient with what seems their occasional surrender to circumstance when what’s really demanded is a fight. They’d say that’s an emotional judgment, and that we need to pick our fights with the greatest deliberation. A fight with Nero wasn’t going to save Seneca’s own skin, true enough, and it wasn’t going to look good in the philosophy books alongside a lifetime of counsel against anger and futility.


But lying down and dying at the behest of a crazed despot doesn’t look so good either.

I do still think Roman philosophy gets an undeservedly bad rap. Cicero in particular is way underrated as a philosopher, and in most texts underrepresented. Jennifer Hecht rectified that a bit in her Doubt: A History.

Cicero‘s wonderful dialogue with a Skeptic, a Stoic, and an Epicurean, Nature of the Gods, would have been fun to join. “Cotta” says it all: 

Are you not ashamed as a scientist, as an observer and investigator of nature, to seek your criterion of truth from minds steeped in conventional beliefs? The whole theory is ridiculous… I do not believe these gods of yours exist at all, least of all the uninvolved, uninterested ones like the Epicurean-inspired Disinterested Deist Deity. If this is all that a god is, a being untouched by care or love of human kind, then I wave him good-bye.

If you want truth, as JMH observes, you have to avoid making things up.

Novelists and other artisans of the well-chosen and well-spoken word (like Hecht, a poet and historian as well as a terrific philosopher) have appreciated Cicero more than most of my philosophy colleagues. There’s Tom Wolfe‘s A Man in Full, for instance, in which Epictetus gets the star treatment.

Robert Harris’s Conspirata was good company last Fall on my daily commute up and down I-24, and before that Imperium. Simon Jones’s narration is delightful, even if he sounds a lot like Arthur Dent.

And then there’s the Victorian Trollope’s compendious Life of Cicero.

The older I get, the longer my reading list grows. Cicero said that was one of the consolations of aging. He was a wise old consul, and an honest Stoic.

After the loss of his daughter Tullia in childbirth, [Cicero] turned to Stoicism to assuage his grief. But ultimately he could not accept its terms: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?”

But my favorite mention of Cicero in all of literature is still from Emerson:

Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books. [An honest Stoic, 2.1.13]

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Lucretius (our first selection in the Hitch anthology, from De Rerum Natura) was another Epicurean, but he downplayed the god-talk.The finality of death and the absence of the gods did not seem depressing; indeed, they seemed to add to the sweetness of life.

Marcus Aurelius, as close to a philosopher-king as the West would ever know: “I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature.”He had a Big Picture cosmic perspective. From a vantage “raised up above the earth,” consider life’s brevity and our common humanity. We are one species, as Carl Sagan liked to say, and our time here is brief. Don’t squander it in fear, worry, malice and meanness.

Now, fast forward (past those refreshingly-strange gnostics and their contempt for the creator God) to Boethius, “last of the Romans, first of the scholastics.” His Consolations of Philosophy“completely ignored Christianity.” That’s really hard to do. We” talk about it next week.

Also coming soon, the tragedy of Hypatia. Her alleged killer Cyril nearly killed philosophy and science and civilization as well, and was rewarded with Sainthood. Also, a prominent spotlight of shame on Cosmos. [Romans & redeemers, 2.16.10… Back to the garden, 2.15.10… Seneca falls, 2.17.10]
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What does “cosmopolitan” really mean? Don’t trust Google on this, it takes you straight to that silly magazine with its sex tips and “lifestyle” advice. Funny, or sad, how current linguistic use has corrupted these grand old terms. (Think also of “epicurean,” “cynic,” maybe even “platonic”…)

The question arises in connection with Anthony Appiah’s book and interview. Kosmopolites is the Greek root meaning citizen of the world, thecosmos. What a large identity to claim, and yet what a miniscule corner of existence we actually occupy.
The cosmos used to coincide strictly with the known terrestrial world, before anybody’d ever even circumnavigated it. Now we’ve seen our tiny world from space, in perspective.

So now we know: it’s a really big cosmos, and we are here.

So far as we can tell we’re the only part, around these parts anyway, that knows it’s part of a cosmos. We’re the cosmopolitans.

Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls, and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ realized its true meaning: citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos

More Saganportalmotecalendargolden recordapple pie

So who was the first cosmopolitan in philosophy? Socrates, possibly, he’s said to have declared himself a citizen of the world – but still so loyal an Athenian that he insisted on having his hemlock. Scholars wonder if that was really him or Plato talking.

Whether Socrates was self-consciously cosmopolitan in this way or not, there is no doubt that his ideas accelerated the development of cosmopolitanism and that he was in later antiquity embraced as a citizen of the world. In fact, the first philosopher in the West to give perfectly explicit expression to cosmopolitanism was the Socratically inspired Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century bce. It is said that “when he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world.” SEP

That doesn’t sound “cynical” in the perverted modern sense at all, does it? Diogenes spent a lot of time under the stars. He knew where he was. [The real cosmopolitans, 9.18.12]

6 am/5:36, 56/87, 7:52

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