Cicero’s De Finibus and the nature of Stoic philosophy — Part I

CiceroIn preparation for Stoic Camp New York 2015 I have been going over parts of Cicero’s De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (On the Ends of Goods and Evils). Its five books make up a commentary on rival philosophical schools, where Cicero argues against Epicureanism (books I and II), has Marcus Porcius Cato explain to him Stoic philosophy (book III), raises objections to Stoicism (book IV), and discusses and criticizes in dialogue form the Academics and their doctrines (book V). In this multi-part essay I will focus on book III, where Cato explains to Cicero the basics of Stoicism.

Interestingly, the book begins with Cicero addressing Brutus (one of the soon-to-be conspirators against Julius Caesar, who married Porcia Catonis, Cato’s daughter), telling them that in the (philosophical) battle between pleasure and virtue (i.e., Epicureanism vs. Stoicism), surely pleasure will lose, since what is pleasant is not more valuable than what is morally good, because firmness and dignity of character is preferable to bodily or mental gratification. It is this opening that leads Cicero to talk about Stoicism, explaining to his interlocutor that the Stoics had introduced a good number of technical terms that were difficult to translate in Latin (ah! Imagine the difficulties in rendering them in English!).

(Incidentally, this is my growing collection of Stoic technical terms and their meanings, for reference.)

The main part of the book begins when Cicero explains to Brutus that he was “down at my place in Tusculum” (16 miles from Rome, in the Alban Hills), and found Cato sitting at his library. This led to their conversation, during which Cato explained the basics of Stoic philosophy to Cicero. Indeed, Cato exclaims: “How I wish that you had thrown in your lot with the Stoics! You of all men might have been expected to reckon virtue as the only good.”

The two men then get down to business. Cicero points out that insofar as Cato maintains that virtue is the only good his doctrines are no different from those of Pyrrho (the skeptic) or Aristo (who studied under Zeno, but espoused a philosophy closer to the Cynics). Cato responds that instead of answering Cicero “point by point,” since they have time, he will endeavor to present a summary of the entire Stoic system, letting his interlocutor then decide for himself.

Cato then begins in what appears to be an odd place, though it makes perfect sense as he develops his arguments. Infants, he says, have a natural predisposition to desire things that are conducive to their health, as well as a natural avoidance of things that may detract from their health. And these desire and avoidance are prior to any experience of pleasure and pain (take that, Epicureans!). In other words, self-love (not pleasure) is the original, instinctual impulse of humanity.

From there, he explains the famous “developmental” theory of virtue put forth by the Stoics: we begin with instinctual attachment to our selves and our close kins. We then enter the age of reason, and we begin to delight in the exercise thereof. This in turn leads to an appreciation for truth and a repulsion for falsity, and it is this building of reason on top of the raw material provided by instinct that leads the Stoic to value things “according to nature” (meaning, human nature, meaning the nature of a social, rational animal), and eventually of virtue as the supreme expression of what is socially rational.

Toward the end of #22 Cato introduces a famous Stoic metaphor to explain what Stoicism values: “if a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate End,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’”

What Cato is explaining here is a crucial aspect of Stoic doctrine: one can only work on what is under one’s control (aiming the arrow at best as one can), but then has to accept the outcome (the arrow hitting or missing the target) for what it is, because that is not under our control.

Two crucial pieces then come at #27 and #28, and I’m going to quote them in full before closing the first part of this essay.

Cato has just explained to Cicero that Stoics believe that moral worth is the only good. He then elaborates, in syllogistic form: “Whatever is good is praiseworthy; but whatever is praiseworthy is morally honourable: therefore that which is good is morally honourable.” To which he adds a little later on: “the happy life is a thing that deserves (so to put it) that one should be proud of it; and this cannot rightly be said of any life but one morally honourable. Therefore the moral life is the happy life.”

These two bits together go a long way toward explaining why for the Stoics virtue is the good in life: on the one hand, if anything is good it turns out to be honorable, and moral virtue certainly qualifies. On the other hand, one cannot live a life of which one is not proud and still call it a good thing, which implies that moral virtue leads to happiness.

Once we couple this reasoning with the above mentioned developmental theory of virtue, we have a pretty coherent and well developed account of why Stoics thought that virtue is not only the supreme good, but that to recognize it as such is “in accordance to nature.” One may or may not buy the argument, but hopefully it will begin to seem less arbitrary than it might at first sight.

4 thoughts on “Cicero’s De Finibus and the nature of Stoic philosophy — Part I

  1. Cicero as a Platonist wrote dialogues and like Plato’s dialogues they should, I think, be interpreted as a unity. So the argument does not only depend on the force of the positive arguments but on the negative judgements on the alternatives. Of course, Cicero says that they are just repititions, but I would give him credit for some Socratic irony.

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  2. Massimo, Can your readers make requests for topics to your blog anywhere?
    I would like to read your ideas on similarities between human (or non-human) biology and Stoic virtue concepts like survival (courage and resilience), adaptation (wisdom), homeostasis (self-discipline and maybe wisdom?), social relationships / co-adaptation (justice??)… Having read so much of your work now, I am surprised that you haven’t made these explicit connections, but I am sure they have occurred to you in your studies.
    Also… I was listening to a remarkable interview about neuroscience and exercise this morning, and it helped me to understand how important a certain amount of stress is for the human body in growth and health. I think, as a biologist, you might have some thoughts about stress (physical and psychological) and Stoicism, since it is an important topic that Stoics touch upon indirectly in their philosophy (and a very practical topic for modern revisions of Stoicism after Darwin!).
    and… Maybe you could add a page for readers to suggest topics in the future?


  3. vienna,

    interesting idea (about allowing readers to suggest topics), and I think you just did! I may touch on some of the issues you raise, but this blog is largely a public set of reflections about my own discovery of Stoicism, so it goes wherever my readings on the subject go. Stay tuned…


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