Posts Tagged ‘Cicero’

Cicero, an honest Stoic

February 1, 2013

I may have come across in CoPhi yesterday as hostile to the Stoics. 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.

Anyway, I still think Roman philosophy in general gets a bad rap and Cicero in particular is way underrated. He’s also underrepresented in our Little History. 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.

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. Simon Jones’s narration is delightful.

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.”

Be a friend & (or?) go to hell

September 12, 2012

I just opened a note from an old student back from Germany. Made me want to go see the sites too, even though another recent traveler back from Rome says you don’t discover the real spirit or philosophy of a storied place in its ruins, but in the books and ideas the place provoked. So, let’s go!

It’s a terse and breezy reading assignment in CoPhi today, on the Stoics Epictetus, Cicero, and Seneca. Should leave students plenty of time to do some extra research and fill out the meaning and context of these squibs:

 ‘Being philosophical’ simply means accepting what you can’t change, for instance the inevitable process of growing older and the shortness of life.

‘Stoic’ came from the Stoa, which was a painted porch…

Like the Sceptics, Stoics aimed for a calm state of mind. Even when facing tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, the Stoic should remain unmoved. Our attitude to what happens is within our control even though what happens often isn’t.

Stoics think we are responsible for what we feel and think. We can choose our response to good and bad luck… They believe emotions cloud reasoning and damage judgment.

Epictetus started out as a slave. When he declared that the mind can remain free even when the body is enslaved he was drawing on his own experience.

The brevity of life and the inevitability of aging were topics that particularly interested Cicero and Seneca.

Cicero said old people can spend more time on friendship and conversation. He believed the soul lived forever, so old people shouldn’t worry about dying. [Epicurus already told us they needn’t worry in any event.]

For Seneca the problem is not how short our lives are, but rather how badly most of us use what time we have. [“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“… Seneca on anger (de Botton)]

The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse… studying philosophy and get[ting] rid of those troublesome emotions.

But Nigel Warburton‘s question is on target: at what price? If you’re even half human, like Mr. Spock, you’ll only damage yourself by suppressing your affective side. Calm may not be the greatest good, after all.

Anyway, Roman philosophy is under-rated. The Romans have done a lot for us.

And not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

We also give a listen today to Alexander Nehemas on friendship. He says the imperative of personal loyalty “can’t be accommodated within the constraints of morality,” and sometimes should be allowed to trump moral values. I’ll be interested to hear of instances in which any of us have perceived a conflict between our values and our friends, and of how we’ve resolved them.  Ever had a Huck Finn moment, an “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” resolution of a conflicted conscience?

Well, Huck was no Epicurean. He still credited hell as a plausible possibility. But even an Epicurean can face down the moral equivalent of hell, the misapprobation of one’s nurturing community. No one wants to be cast out of The Garden, but in the end you have to be able to live with yourself before you can be a really good communitarian.

In EEA Hawken’s “Indigene” chapter reminds us that knowing our way around our natural habitat is also a prerequisite of responsible and civilized citizenship. “Living within the biological constraints of the earth may be the most civilized activity a person can pursue, because it enables our successors to do the same.” But we mostly fail on that score, in the industrialized world. We live like Oncelers, not like friends of the earth.

We have little understanding of where our water and food come from, the impacts of our cars and homes, the activities undertaken by others around the globe to support our lifestyle, and the effects we have on the environment and its people.

All right, then, we’ll go to hell too. Unless we wise up, as Huck would say, right quick.

Epicureans, Stoics, & Skeptics

September 30, 2010

There are three obstacles to happiness, Epicurus said– fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the gods– but all can be removed easily enough.

Death is no problem because when we are alive we are not dead and when we are dead we don’t know it… Fear of pain is worse than pain itself. Accept the pain, embrace the sting… and you’ve vanquished your worst foe, the one in your head.” (J.M. Hecht)

Strike one, strike two… and since any gods there may happen to be, out there in the empty spaces between the stars, are quite evidently “totally unconcerned with human affairs,” fear strikes out. Be happy.

Seneca‘s end was not so happy, but it was more or less consistent with his life. He did not strain against the leash of perceived necessity. But does he illustrate the limits the of therapeutic acceptance, and cross the line into defeatist resignation? [text… J-L David painting]

Other Stoics are better role-models. Cicero‘s De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) is a neglected classic. Bottom line: “If you want truth, you have to avoid making up anything.”

Marcus Aurelius had a cold unblinking eye for harsh home-truths. He poses a question never more timely than right now, for a celebrity-besotted society like ours:

He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will also die very soon… But suppose that those who will remember are even immortal, and that the remembrance will be immortal, what then is this to thee? And I say not what is it to the dead, but what is it to the living?

Not enough to live for, is what. But the Philosopher-Emperor finds life worth living all the same, for those who cultivate a properly-stoic sensibility. Contented are those who learn to comprehend the universe,

by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every several thing, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.

Our time is brief, but  so then also is our pain. From this perspective, the trite modern phrase about not sweating the small stuff (because it’s all small) can become meaningful and profound.

The skeptic Sextus Empiricus offers an interesting observation on anthropomorphic God-projection, as Jennifer Hecht summarizes: divine virtues are thought to be “fully realized versions of human virtues.” But “that did not make sense unless God had our weaknesses.”

Weaknesses like impotence, fallibility, and ignorance: whose acknowledgement by us is also our greatest strength. So, says Sextus, your God is too small.

But of course, as a skeptic, he must always add: for all we know.

Aristotle, skeptics, & stoics

September 28, 2010

It’s an ambitious menu today, and we’re reviewing for exam #1 too. Better keep it short.

Main point about Aristotle: if Plato’s the urrationalist, he’s the primordial empiricist. His Lyceum would have been a perfect choice for me (better even than Vandy), with all that peripatetic walking-about.

He came close to facing the same charges that did Socrates in, but chose to leave Athens. Do we think the less of him for that? I don’t.

Through no fault of his own, he become the Unquestioned Authority of medieval philosophy. We shouldn’t hold that against him either.

His “metaphysics” is simply “after physics,” just a rung up the abstraction ladder. Nothing too “woo-woo,” in fact it mirrors his body language in “School of Athens“: pace Plato, forms (lower case “f”) are not transcendent and outside our terrestrial “cave,” they’re as particularized and individuated as we are.

His logic is basic and comprehensive. (But is it exhaustive of reality? A meta-metaphysical question, perhaps.)

His emphasis on potentiality also distinguishes him from his teacher Plato: Becoming is more important, certainly more formative, than Being. An acorn is a potential oak. A student is a potential teacher. But it’s important, too, not to see development of this sort as more teleological or purposive than it is. “Goals” are typically the possessions of individuals or cohesive, intelligently-directed groups, not of nature per se.

His Unmoved Mover is an unmoving “Philosopher’s God.” (No wonder so many of us are irreligious. Blame Aristotle, among others.)

His ethics is a constant quest for the middle ground, the mean, splitting the difference between extremes. This works, arguably, for courage, and charity and pleasure-seeking (etc.), but what about honesty?

His politics makes a strong case for the middle class. But why didn’t he challenge slavery? (Does this show that even the most sophisticated philosophy is trapped in its time & place?)

Our text today includes a nice graphic of the library of Alexandria (founded by Aristotle’s most ambitious, but possibly least ethically-reflective student), the sacking of which remains one of the great unwashed stains on our species.

Aristotle’s Lyceum successors were sceptics (our author’s a Brit, hence the “c” in place of my “k”) who renounced the quest for truth. Pyrrho was their most salient and extreme spokesman. (But we’ve just about forgotten his predecessor Chrysippus, thanks to the aforementioned legions of Caesar who burned the library that housed his works.)

Then, the contemptible/contemptuous Diogenes, a dog-like “cynic. (My pooches are insulted by the comparison.)

Rome was grand but mostly not too reflective. They did sponsor some impressive public works, though.

Then came the ill-fated Seneca. [“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“] You can read all about him in de Botton’s Consolations. And, watch this:

Not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

And don’t forget the pleasure-seeking Epicurus [“Back to the Garden“], or the slave Epictetus. We have much still to learn from them both, about freedom from ignorance and superstition, and the free will such freedom makes valuable.

And don’t forget Hecht’s Doubt, full of insight on the Greeks in ch.2 and the Romans in ch.4. Cicero in particular deserves a lot more respect than he’s gotten from other sources.

Yes, I agree:  this is all too much for one day. An adjustment in the syllabus may be in order, stay tuned.

Romans & redeemers

February 16, 2010

We get another big swatch of Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt today in A&S, from the Romans and Christians to Hypatia to Zen. The sheer volume of erudition here is dizzying.

Paul of Tarsus, publicist for Jesus (though they’d never met) and founder of Christianity as we know it, gets his 15 seconds. So, this deserves a reprise…

Paul developed and evangelized some of the amazing new ideas that were brewing in the Judaism that raised him. But his biggest ideas, belief in belief and belief in eternal life, were not central to the Jewish tradition.

Jesus was himself a doubter, but Paulian Christianity comes to view doubt as an obstacle to salvation and an impediment to faith rather than a critical tool for seeking evidence and truth (and exposing their absence, in the spirit of Socrates).

Like Socrates, we get Jesus at 2d, 3d, and umpteenth-hand. He wasn’t a writer. The first three Gospels were written about half a century after he died. So maybe he was a Cynic, a doubter and a dedicated thorn in the side of the establishment.

His last words did indeed imply that he was expecting something that did not seem to be happening. The message to the flock ever since, though, seems to have been that it’s ok to doubt so long as you don’t finally act on your doubt.  Keepers of the faith have done an impressive job over the centuries of glossing Jesus’ expectations and ours that either something happens or it doesn’t. Looks like it didn’t. Again and again.

But the end-times keep coming back, and belief without evidence turns out to have incredible magic powers to compel assent (or at least stifle dissent). “Everything is possible for him who believes. Help me overcome my unbelief!” As Jesus told Doubting Thomas: “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” A virgin birth, water-walking, sea-parting, resurrection, eternal life in paradise… no problem. Just believe. “I do believe in magic. I do. I do!” You don’t? What’s the matter with you?? Not enough faith, or– like Augustine, who gets too little credit for paving Descartes’ way– not enough resistance just yet to the seductions of corporeal existence.

This is all so un-pragmatic, this separation of belief from action. (See C.S. Peirce: beliefs are ideas we’re prepared to act on, and “what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief… to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous.”)

And not just un-pragmatic. Un-American, even, and of questionable sincerity. But there it is. As Tim McGraw’s dad used to insist: ya gotta believe, if you want to win the game of life.

But let’s go back, before we go forward. Cicero‘s wonderful dialogue with a Skeptic, a Stoic, and an Epicurean 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, you have to avoid making up anything.

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.

Finally (today) the tragedy of Hypatia. Her alleged killer Cyril nearly killed philosophy and science and civilization as well, and was rewarded with Sainthood. What else is new?