Transcript: 72 - Raphael Woolf on Cicero

Peter talks to Raphael Woolf about the method and philosophical allegiance of Cicero, focusing on the work On Ends (De Finibus).
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about Cicero, as I just said, and he has always been of interest to historians of philosophy, but I guess more usually because of what he tells us about other philosophers. But you're actually writing a book about Cicero, so I suppose you must think that he's worth studying in his own right. Why do you think that?

Raphael Woolf: I do think that, and hopefully it'll be a more interesting book as a result. I think I'm not alone in thinking that. I think I'd like to say a little bit maybe about how one sort of gets to this stage of thinking of Cicero as a philosophical author who's worth reading in his own right. I mean, he's unquestionably a very, very important source for earlier Greek philosophical thinking, particularly the Hellenistic age, and partly because of the accident of history that we have virtually nothing that the founders of Stoicism and even Epicurus wrote themselves. So the fact that Cicero took himself to be transmitting this material for a Roman audience, we might come back to sort of that aspect later, but that has made him probably an even more important figure for the history of philosophy than he himself might have recognized. So in a way, it's no surprise that scholars have spent a lot of time, as it were, looking at Cicero and using Cicero for the purpose of finding out what previous important thinkers thought. But I think we've now come to the stage where it's almost, and I think this is a good thing, almost sort of disreputable to simply regard Cicero as just a useful source for other thinkers, though he undoubtedly is that. I think more and more scholars are recognizing that the way he writes, the way he constructs his philosophical works indicates that there's much more going on than the sort of simple transmission of other people's ideas. So I think I'm trying to sort of just take that idea forward a little bit.

Peter Adamson: Is one reason why he's now thought to be more interesting that he's himself coming out of a certain tradition within Hellenistic philosophy, namely the skeptical tradition?

Raphael Woolf: Yes, I think so. I think that's certainly one aspect of it. And the sort of particular brand of skeptic - I mean, I think one of the interesting questions about Cicero is actually quite hard, and this is sort of one of the things I want to sort of claim about him, that it's actually quite hard to pin him down. I think that in some ways - and I'll try not to talk about Plato too much, tempted as I always am, but in some ways you can look at him a little bit like one might look at Plato as somebody who's actually quite elusive. There's a sort of rather naive reading of Cicero, where for example, if you look at some of the things he has to say about the Epicureans, it looks like straightforward he thinks they're rubbish - not to put too fine a point on it. And I think there's much more going on than that. I think he actually doesn't want to tell us what to think about the philosophers that he discusses. And I think the skepticism is one feature of that. So I think I'll say for present purposes, and I don't think it's too inaccurate, that if he did, if he sort of nailed his colors to any mast, it was the mast of what's known as Academic skepticism. Which unlike the other kind of skepticism, Pyrrhonean skepticism - again, I won't go on too much about the different types - but Pyrrhonean skepticism basically kind of says 'anything you can say in favor of a position, you can say an equal amount against, and what we do is suspend judgment. And basically, we ultimately don't take any notice of these philosophical theories.' The Academic skepticism is much more interesting, I think, in this regard. It certainly doesn't think you can have certain knowledge. So every position that either you or anybody else might uphold is fallible, subject to revision and correction. But on the other hand, Academic skeptics do think that certain positions are more plausible, probable than other positions. And what that means in Cicero's context, when he's talking about previous thinkers, is that he can do things - he doesn't have to dismiss them and say, well, 'there's nothing more we can say for than against, so forget about even trying to engage with these guys ultimately.' He can make assessments, he can make critical judgments, he can compare one philosophical school with another, and actually he can express a view about one versus another. But I think that also means the fallibility of skepticism also allows him to, as it were, leave it to the reader to make their judgments, because all judgments are fallible.

Peter Adamson: He actually says sometimes that it's very important to reflect for yourself on the validity of philosophical arguments, rather than just following a school because it's the school to which you adhere. So what you're suggesting is that it's not merely that he did that himself, but that he's trying to make it possible for you to do that by writing his works in such a way as to present the views before you.

Raphael Woolf: Exactly. I think that one of the ways he does this is by writing sometimes in, for example, dialogue form. So we're going to talk a bit more about one specific work later, the ethical work called On Ends, de Finibus. And that's written as kind of a series of dialogues that an Epicurean spokesman makes the case for Epicureanism. Cicero then gives a critical response. Then the same happens for Stoicism. And then the same happens for the theory of Antiochus, which is a slightly more obscure theory. But it's the same pattern that a spokesman for Antiochus' philosophy makes the case for it and then Cicero makes the case against. And I think it's sort of crucial that we're not just supposed to think - it's actually very hard to just to think that - there's some determinate thing that Cicero wants us to take away from that. It's not that he ends up saying, well, Stoicism is the right philosophy, or Epicureanism is. He says basically they've all got something to be said for them. I think it's important to realise that. If I could just give a little quote perhaps, because we've been talking a lot about what I think Cicero is up to, it's worth saying that Cicero himself gives us some fairly good indications what he is up to. So here's a little quote from the prologue of On Ends, and this is what he says about what he thinks he's doing.

Peter Adamson: And this is a translation you endorse presumably, because this is your translation?

Raphael Woolf: This is a translation, yes, it is. So of course, being a skeptic myself, I endorse nothing in my own translation. But for present purposes, here's what he says. If he'd written in English, he'd have said the following. This is part of my translation of the prologue of On Ends. And he says: "what of it if I do not perform the task of a translator, but preserve the views of those whom I consider sound, while contributing my own judgment and order of composition?" Now that, I think that means we have to take very seriously the idea that Cicero isn't simply blandly presenting predecessors' views and leaving it at that. If you think about how much scope the idea of contributing one's own judgment and indeed one's own structure, he talks about order of composition, then I think you're going to owe Cicero the idea that there's a much more sort of critical and complex engagement with his predecessors going on than a simple transmission of this.

Peter Adamson: Well let's talk a little bit more about this work On Ends. Maybe you could say a little bit more first about what is it about? So you've said it's an ethical work, but it's called On Ends. What are the ends in question?

Raphael Woolf: Well the ends in question are basically the goals that one should pursue in order to live a good life. So it's concerned with - to use a sort of slightly less obscure phrase than 'an end,' it's concerned with the highest human good or goods. So basically the sort of fundamental goods that a good life is constituted from. And there are a series of different positions. So the Epicureans think that pleasure is the highest good and therefore that's what should be one's end and what the good life consists in. The Stoics think it's virtue. Antiochus, again a bit more difficult to pin down, but he seems to think it's sort of virtue, but a bit of a mix of other more sort of worldly goods if you like as well. So that's the basic structure of the work. It's a discussion of the different views about the highest human good that different philosophical schools propounded.

Peter Adamson: And it does come out in this that he has a lot less time for the Epicureans. I mean there's a parallel actually. So in On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero presents the Stoic view, he presents the Epicurean view, and he has a skeptical mouthpiece criticise both. And it's very clear that the Stoic view is thought to be more sophisticated and interesting than the Epicurean view. And the same sort of thing happens here doesn't it?

Raphael Woolf: I think probably ultimately again, as a skeptic, he's allowed to make comparative judgments. He's allowed to think that one theory is more plausible than another. And I think it would be sort of taking things a bit too far for me to suggest that if you'd ask Cicero, you know, Stoicism or Epicureanism? You know, give me a one word answer. I think it would be Stoicism. And I think he's not ultimately a great fan of Epicureanism. But I think it's more complex than that both because, you know, if you remember what he says in the prologue, he says, and I think this sometimes, you know, people don't quite take proper account of this. He says, I'm going to put before you the views of those I consider sound. Now that sounds fairly bland, but when you think about it, it's actually not entirely straightforward to then square that with the idea that he's going to talk about a view he just considers rubbish. I mean he could have said something like - and I think this is all something he believes, is that it's terribly influential and pernicious and many Romans, including his best friend Atticus, were Epicurean. So there's a kind of personal issue at stake for him. But he doesn't say that. He says, "views I consider sound." And I think if one starts looking maybe at some of the detail of what he says, it's not clear that Epicureanism is just getting straightforwardly lambasted. And I think that the other point to make is sort of, again, regardless of Cicero's own view, I think it's terribly important that, again, the sort of the way he structures On Ends and some of the other works in a particular kind of complex way. For him, the most important thing is not what he thinks. And he's not trying to get us to think anything in particular. He's trying to present the views in a way that will make us, as it were, be good skeptics and engage with these views and think them through for ourselves. And I think that's probably what's happening with Epicureanism.

Peter Adamson: I guess this goes together with something you've already mentioned, which is that it's written as a dialogue. And you said that you think that's important. What effect does it have On Ends, that it is written as a dialogue?

Raphael Woolf: Well, first thing to say, it's not quite the sort of cut and thrust of a Socratic dialogue. It's not sort of question and answer back and forth. It's more like a sort of exchange of speeches. Nonetheless, I think it does make it harder for us to say that either the view that's being propounded or the view that's being criticised is what we're supposed to take away and think is true. And the complexity goes beyond the fact that they're dialogues. I mean, firstly, of course, it's a series of dialogues. Secondly, remember this guy, Cicero, who's written this prologue, right? I don't want to go on too much about the prologue, but I think the prologue is a really interesting indication of the complexity of the way he's writing. So, there's a prologue and then there are three separate dialogues within that, as we've already said. And the dialogues are all set at times earlier than the prologue. And they're all set at times different from one another. Now, I think if you think about what that means, first thing it means is that one's not necessarily - so when Cicero, the guy taking part in the dialogue, as it were, within the work, is saying nasty things about - if indeed that's what he's doing - but let's say he's saying nasty things about Epicureanism. It certainly doesn't follow automatically from that, that the guy who's writing at a different time the prologue will have identical views. Why should he? Because in he's a skeptic, he's always inquiring. It's similarly not clear that the Cicero who pops up to critique the Epicureans will have exactly the same outlook as the Cicero who pops up to critique the Stoics or Antiochus because it's a different time. So in all these ways, I think, he's encouraging us not to think there's something there that we're supposed to just read off.

Peter Adamson: And that's another difference from Plato, because it's not just the fact that the speeches are longer in Cicero's dialogues, but Plato famously never makes himself a character in his dialogues, whereas Cicero does.

Raphael Woolf: Yes, yes he does, and I think it would be probably too kind of me to deny that there's a bit of ego there. I think Cicero is anxious among other things - and I think this is another reason to take him very seriously, to sort of promote himself as somebody who's doing something important here. So I think that's kind of one reason. And yes, indeed, certainly On Ends, he is the respondent in every case, and he's kind of, you know, you can't get away from his presence. That having been said, I think he was famous and he knew he was famous, and I think ironically actually that kind of helps, because he's a sceptic. As much as one can pin him down, he's a sort of self-proclaimed sceptic. And I think in that sense, the fact that you actually have someone identified as a sceptical figure is helpful, because it gives a certain signal to the reader about the right approach to reading these dialogues. I mean, Plato is in a way harder, because you can't even say - although it's very tempting, you can't even exactly say, well, 'Plato wants us to take a sceptical attitude.' Plato's not there and we don't know. And of course that has its own interest from an interpretive point of view. But I think Cicero is there, and he's there as a sceptical presence, and he's there to tell us that that's how we should approach things.

Peter Adamson: Do you think that there's anything in On Ends that we could say is actually original with Cicero? So presumably, since he's a sceptic, not original ethical theories, but for example, original criticisms of Epicureanism or Stoicism?

Raphael Woolf: Yeah, I would say so. Firstly, he's just a very intelligent guy. And I think as a matter of fact, a lot of what he has to say in critique can't necessarily be tracked down to other sources. And it's actually very worthwhile reading in its own right. Although I, nor do I think he would, want to claim he's an original thinker in this way that the philosophers he's discussing are. I think he's well worth reading, just if you want to see intelligently aimed - and I think in a number of cases - non-derivative criticism of philosophers. But I think there are some very specific Ciceronian angles that actually are particularly characteristic of him. I think one we might want to talk about is the fact that he's writing as a Roman. And again, going back to the prologue, which I think is kind of terribly important to assess what's happening in the work like On Ends. The thing he's kind of obsessive about in the prologue is whether - and he tries to defend the idea - that trying to do Greek philosophy in Latin is a worthwhile task. So he's setting this before us this. And of course again, I think on one level, it's a very straightforward defense that he feels he needs to run because there are clearly Romans, perhaps somewhat ironically, who think that, as it were, Latin isn't really a very appropriate language for the sort of subtleties of Greek philosophy. And Cicero is very keen to say 'you're wrong!' It's at some points, I think a little hyperbolically, he says Latin is better for writing philosophy than Greek! So don't, you know, don't give me this stuff about the Greeks! But on the other hand, I think the fact that he's obsessing about this gives us some kind of indication that he thinks in various ways it's important that he's a Roman engaging with Greek philosophy, and that some of the ways in which he goes about critiquing the Epicureans and the Stoics is very much from the perspective of a Roman. I think there are probably some quite interesting things to say about that.

Peter Adamson: Is part of that because he thinks that, for example, the Epicurean ethical theory would make it very hard to uphold traditional Roman values of integrity and bravery and political engagement and so on?

Raphael Woolf: Very, very much so. And it's very noteworthy that throughout the work, but perhaps particularly pointedly with the Epicureans, a lot of the strategy is to say: 'look, Epicureanism simply doesn't fit.' This is what a surface reading would tell you, I think there's probably more to be said, but at first glance, it looks like a lot of the critique of Epicureanism consists in rolling out various - to use the Latin phrase: "exempla" - various sorts of examples of great Roman figures and the values they upheld, and to say to Torquatus, who's the scion of a very noble Roman family - but he's an Epicurean - 'look, your ancestors couldn't possibly have done what they did within a system of Epicurean values.' Now, you might want to say, oh, well, that's just Cicero being a sort of blustering Roman. Okay, there's probably a grain of truth in that! But I think in a number of ways it's more interesting than that. Firstly, just think about Cicero's background. Cicero was not a traditional patrician Roman. He's what's known as a "novus homo," a new man, somebody who basically reached the top of the political tree without belonging to one of the great traditional Roman families. He's not a military man. He's a great admirer of Greek culture. Now he knows that the reader knows this, apart from the fact that he often talks about it explicitly himself anyway, which immediately suggests he's perhaps not going to be a straightforward upholder of Roman values, that there are going to be more interesting things to be said than that. And for starters I think you might ask, well, why exactly is it a critique of a philosophical theory to say it doesn't fit in with my values? I mean, why not say 'so much the worse for my values?' You might think that's actually a very odd way of assessing things.

Peter Adamson: In fact, that was sort of the Epicureans' point, wasn't it? That people might have the wrong values.

Raphael Woolf: Exactly. And I think all the ancient schools were to some extent, determinedly being radically revisionary. Now then the question is, is Cicero just sort of obtuse to that idea? Or is he in a rather subtle way making a little bit more of it? And I think there are lots of things to say about that. I think one thing to say is that there's a facet, again, just to give a tiny little quote, because I think this is this is really quite important when you're thinking about how Cicero thinks about the relationship between Roman values and the Greek ethical systems that he's that he's discussing. He's talking about, again, the Epicureans. This is from book two of On Ends. And he says, and he's again - on the surface - being rather critical of the Epicurean habit of which was actually, we might think, one of the rather enlightened things about Epicureanism. They praise women and, as it were, female virtues. And Cicero gets seems to get into a bit of a huff about this and says: "let us leave that to the Greeks," and I'm now quoting again from my translation, "we are indebted to them for philosophy," he says, interestingly enough, "and for all higher learning. But there are things that they may do, which we should not." Now, one way to read that is to say, 'Romans write Greek theories, which are inconsistent with Roman values, hence wrong.' That's not what he says. He actually says the Greeks can do things which we may not. He's not saying 'we're objectively right and those guys are wrong,' he's just said, you know, 'we owe them,' sort of. So again, it's a much more nuanced statement. And I think sort of as it were the upshot of all this is that there's actually a serious ethical point here about whether ethical theories should be universal, or whether the idea that a sort of successful ethics has to grow out of things like local traditions and local cultures and local values is actually the only realistic way of doing ethics. Now that would still mean that there's a, in a certain sense, a critique of Epicureanism - but it's a much more, it's a much more subtle one. It's a critique that says, look, maybe it's fine for a different kind of society, but it's not okay for us, not because it's objectively better or worse, but because, you know, there are things we may do that other guys may not, because we have our own traditions and backgrounds and values. And it's a more interesting kind of critique than one might think just a blustering Roman who thinks Romans are right. I mean, he clearly doesn't think that Romans are right about everything. It's more interesting than that.

Peter Adamson: It's particularly interesting, I think, because in the Pyrrhonian skeptical tradition, one of the tropes that they use for undermining ethical theories is to say, 'well, in other cultures they do it differently.' So they'll say, oh, well, there are cultures where people have sex in public, and we wouldn't do that, which should get you to suspend judgment about whether it's okay to have sex in public. But it sounds like you're implying that his academic skepticism, inspired by Philo of Larissa, would be more along the lines of saying, 'well, for us, since we're in our culture, we shouldn't have sex in public.'

Raphael Woolf: Absolutely, I think that's absolutely right, Peter. And I think it's the difference between indeed saying both theories are wrong or both theories shouldn't be taken seriously because they're different, and saying both theories are right, because that's what a good ethical theory does. It's something that has to grow out of local traditions and values.

Peter Adamson: Would it be both theories are right, though, or is it more like both theories are acceptable for the people who find them plausible?

Raphael Woolf: Absolutely, I was going to say that I think, as it were, the methodology of skepticism actually fits that view of the relation of ethical theories to particular cultures very well. And yes, I suppose one should never quite use the word "right." Even about an Academic skeptic. Plausible and part of that plausibility... part of what determines what's plausible for you is, of course, going to be your background beliefs and values, and that just seems to be a kind of sensible way to think about how ethics actually works in the real world. Cicero is concerned, if nothing else, with the real world. He's certainly a Roman in that regard. 


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