Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: III. On Grief of Mind

Cicero
Cicero, bust in the Capituline Museums, Rome (photo by the Author)

Cicero wrote five Disputations while in his villa at Tusculum in 45 BCE. He had retired from politics after the death of his daughter, and spent the time in conversation with his students, explaining Stoic philosophy, even though he considered himself an Academic Skeptic. We have looked at the first two Disputations, on contempt of death and on bearing pain. The third one is devoted to the topic of grief.

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Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: II. On Bearing Pain

CiceroLast time we examined the first of Cicero’s five Tusculan Disputations, on contempt of death. The Disputations were written in the year 45 BCE when Cicero had retired from public affairs and held a five-day retreat in one of his country villas, intent on discussing philosophical matters with his students. Although Cicero was an Academic Skeptic, these five essays are considered to be an attempt to popularize Stoic philosophy. Let’s take a look at the second topic, on bearing pain.

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Stoic advice: what do Stoics think of forgiveness?

[To submit a question to the Stoic advice column send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please consider that the column has become very popular and there now is a backlog of submitted questions, it may take me some time to get to yours. Also, I am simply in no position to answer every email. Apologies.]

K. writes: “My question has to do with the concept of forgiveness as it pertains to Stoicism. My husband and I were married for over 20 years, but during the final few years, his behavior became abusive. This behavior coincided with his inheritance of a hefty trust fund. I filed for divorce after an incident that resulted in his arrest and my hospitalization. I immediately began seeing a psychologist for both myself and my children to deal with the trauma and move forward in the healthiest way possible. Little did I know I was receiving an introductory course in Stoicism. From the psychologist, I came to understand I had no control over my husband’s behavior (I was not to blame and didn’t ‘ask for it,’ he was responsible for his own actions), to value my self-respect over money or material possessions (my divorce settlement was peanuts, his inheritance was considered non-marital), and to focus on my own relationship with the children and the example I set for them.” Continue reading

Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: I. On contempt of death

Tusculum

We have recently looked at Cicero’s Paradoxa Stoicorum, his treatment of so-called Stoic paradoxes, that is, some of those notions in Stoic philosophy that — while not actually logical paradoxes — seem to fly in the face of commonsense. Cicero also wrote five essays aiming at popularizing Stoic philosophy in Rome (even though he was an academic skeptic, not a Stoic), entitled Tusculanae Disputationes, composed around 45 BCE in his villa in Tusculum, in the Alban Hills near Rome.

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Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes

One of the most famous secondary sources on Stoicism is a collection of six essays by Cicero (who considered himself an Academic Platonist, but was sympathetic to Stoicism), entitled Paradoxa Stoicorum, or Stoic paradoxes. Indeed, the Stoics were well known for a number of precepts and standard phrases that sounded decidedly paradoxical to the uninitiated. “Preferred indifferents” anyone? Some of the critics of Stoicism, then as now, took these “paradoxes” as indication that the Stoics were just playing with words, and that their doctrines were not in fact much of an innovation over, say, those of Aristotle. Cicero disagreed, and took the Stoics seriously enough to engage a number of these alleged paradoxes in detail. He wrote the six essays in the form of a letter expounding on Stoic doctrine, addressed to Brutus, Cato the Younger’s nephew and one of the co-conspirators against Julius Caesar (as well as the husband of one of the few famous Stoic women, Porcia Catonis).

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Stoic advice: I have cancer, people tell me to be positive

[To submit a question to the Stoic advice column send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please consider that the column has become very popular and there now is a backlog of submitted questions, it may take me some time to get to yours. Also, I am simply in no position to answer every email. Apologies.]

P. writes: “I am 46 occupational therapist (and Masters student) with a 15 and 13 yo and husband. My parents are Dutch and I’d say I was raised as a Stoic, from what little I know so far. Interestingly my husband appears to be also — he’s an adopted Canadian Aboriginal. I have been living with metastatic (or stage 4) breast cancer for 6 years now. Having stoic tendencies, my husband and I have run with the idea of expect the worst, hope for the best. However, there is pressure in cancerland to be positive all the time and believe your experience has been a blessing. It ain’t btw. I sometimes catch myself wondering if thinking about my death will hasten it. And people get angry and defensive with me when I speak of having a terminal illness ‘you’re going to get old and grey, don’t say that!’ But it is — I’m 3 yrs past median life expectancy. Don’t bring up the hit by a bus thing — in 2010, 4100 Americans died as pedestrians hit by vehicles and over 40,000 died of mbc. I’d hedge my bets on the bus. To date I’m an outlier but I deal with tremendous anxiety and depression. Please could you suggest how to communicate authentically with people putting this pressure on me and remind me that thinking about death will not make it happen sooner. And how to deal with the anxiety and grief living terminally brings. I try to keep living — studying, running, volunteering, advocating.”

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Epicureans and the experience machine

The Epicureans are a much maligned group. Arguably, they were misunderstood by many of their contemporaries, and there were certainly smeared by the early Christians, who focused on the Epicurean idea that pleasure was the highest good in order to paint them, unfairly, as a bunch of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” hedonists. The actual Epicurean position was much more subtle, emphasizing lack of mental distress more than what we moderns call pleasure.

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