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


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.

The personal background here is interesting, as Cicero’s daughter, Tullia, had just died, and he retired from public business, leaving Rome to devote himself to philosophical studies. During this period he published his De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (About the Ends of Good and Evil), on which I have previously commented (here and here, as well as here and here).

The five topics covered by the Disputationes are: on contempt of death; on bearing pain; on grief of mind; on other perturbations of the mind; and whether virtue alone is sufficient for a happy life. The individual essays are significantly longer than the Paradoxa Stoicorum, so I will cover the material in multiple entries on the blog.

The first essay begins with both an acknowledgment of the achievements of Greek philosophy and a proud defense of novel Roman contributions to the field:

“I have thought it an employment worthy of me to illustrate [the principles of living well] in the Latin tongue, not because philosophy could not be understood in the Greek language, or by the teaching of Greek masters; but it has always been my opinion that our countrymen have, in some instances, made wiser discoveries than the Greeks, with reference to those subjects which they have considered worthy of devoting their attention to, and in others have improved upon their discoveries, so that in one way or other we surpass them on every point.” (I)

Cicero then goes on to explain that he wishes to contribute to Roman philosophy as a way to continue to be of service to Rome even after his retirement from public affairs. To do so, he created his own version of a Greek school of philosophy in his villa, inviting his students, over the period of five days, to ask questions about a range of topics, endeavoring then to address them to his best. He is explicitly referring to the Socratic method and making it his own.

The first exchange begins in this fashion (V):

A. To me death seems to be an evil.
M. What, to those who are already dead? Or to those who must die?
A. To both.

After which Cicero immediately dismisses the first worry as based on superstition:

“Tell me, I beseech you, are you afraid of the three-headed Cerberus in the shades below, and the roaring waves of Cocytus, and the passage over Acheron, and Tantalus expiring with thirst, while the water touches his chin; and Sisyphus, who sweats with arduous toil in vain the steepy summit of the mount to gain?” (V)

His interlocutor is offended by the mockery, indignantly replying that he is not as imbecile as to believe that sort of thing. Cicero replies:

“If, then, there is no one miserable in the infernal regions, there can be no one there at all. … Where, then, are those you call miserable? Or what place do they inhabit? For, if they exist at all, they must be somewhere.” (VI)

And after a while he continues:

“You have returned to the same point, for to be miserable implies an existence; but you just now denied that the dead had any existence: if, then, they have not, they can be nothing; and if so, they are not even miserable.” (VI)

Cicero’s student then clarifies his thought (or, more likely, changes position after the first round), saying that what he meant was that he thinks that non existing after having existed is a miserable condition.

But, Cicero replies: “we ourselves, if we are to be miserable after death, were miserable before we were born: but I do not remember that I was miserable before I was born.” (VI)

All right, then, there is no evil after we die. But isn’t death itself still an evil?

“If there is no evil after death, then even death itself can be none; for that which immediately succeeds that is a state where you grant that there is no evil: so that even to be obliged to die can be no evil, for that is only the being obliged to arrive at a place where we allow that no evil is.” (VIII)

Cicero then points out that people even disagree about what death actually is, some saying that it is the departure of the soul from the body (Plato), other denying that there is such thing as an immaterial soul (the Stoics). And opinions are highly divided on what the soul — if it exists — actually is: tripartite and immaterial for Plato, one material unit for the Stoics.

This variety of points of view, however, doesn’t really matter: “In all these opinions, there is nothing to affect any one after death; for all feeling is lost with life, and where there is no sensation, nothing can interfere to affect us.” (XI)

There are, in fact, only two possibilities: “How, then, can you, or why do you, assert that you think that death is an evil, when it either makes us happy, in the case of the soul continuing to exist, or, at all events, not unhappy, in the case of our becoming destitute of all sensation?” (XI)

At XIII Cicero makes the point that when we grieve for people we lose we do it, again, out of an incorrect understanding of what is going on:

“Who is there, then, that does not lament the loss of his friends, principally from imagining them deprived of the conveniences of life? Take away this opinion, and you remove with it all grief; for no one is afflicted merely on account of a loss sustained by himself. Perhaps we may be sorry, and grieve a little; but that bitter lamentation and those mournful tears have their origin in our apprehensions that he whom we loved is deprived of all the advantages of life, and is sensible of his loss.”

He continues by explaining to his students that people engage in all sorts of future-oriented activities, from planting seeds of future trees to founding cities and introducing laws that future generations will benefit from. Poets too write seeking fame after death.

Even so, “as our bodies fall to the ground, and are covered with earth (humus), from whence we derive the expression to be interred (humari), that has occasioned men to imagine that the dead continue, during the remainder of their existence, under ground; which opinion has drawn after it many errors, which the poets have increased.” (XVI)

Eventually, he returns to the question of the nature of the soul, about which Cicero finally professes agnosticism, accompanied however by his Platonic (not Stoic) belief in its indefinite survival after death: “For my own part, when I reflect on the nature of the soul, it appears to me a far more perplexing and obscure question to determine what is its character while it is in the body — a place which, as it were, does not belong to it — than to imagine what it is when it leaves it, and has arrived at the free æther, which is, if I may so say, its proper, its own habitation.” (XXII)

What is by now no longer a dialogue, but a straightforward monologue, meanders into an argument for design about the existence of God, after which Cicero concludes — not exactly by way of rigorous logic — that: “as you are convinced there is a God, though you are ignorant where he resides, and what shape he is of; in like manner you ought to feel assured that you have a soul, though you cannot satisfy yourself of the place of its residence, nor its form.” (XXIX)

At XXX we get another change of topic, when Cicero tells us that sometimes we ought to be glad of dying: “Cato left this world in such a manner as if he were delighted that he had found an opportunity of dying; for that God who presides in us forbids our departure hence without his leave. But when God himself has given us a just cause, as formerly he did to Socrates, and lately to Cato, and often to many others — in such a case, certainly every man of sense would gladly exchange this darkness for that light … For the whole life of a philosopher is, as the same philosopher says, a meditation on death.”

This sounds a hell of a lot like Epictetus’ so-called open door policy, and as in the case of Epictetus, I don’t think Cicero is talking about a literal sign from God that it’s okay to commit suicide (Cato) or sacrifice our life (Socrates), and indeed the immediate reference to the idea that it is the point of a philosophical life to be able to discern when such “call” comes reinforces the conclusion that talk of God here is metaphorical, not to be taken literally.

At XXXII Cicero again sounds a note of caution about holding too strongly to any opinion: “we should not be too confident in our belief of anything; for we are frequently disturbed by some subtle conclusion.”

After which he goes back to the question of why, exactly, we are afraid of death: “Where, then, is the evil? For there is nothing but these two things. Is it because the mere separation of the soul and body cannot be effected without pain? But even should that be granted, how small a pain must that be! Yet I think that it is false, and that it is very often unaccompanied by any sensation at all, and sometimes even attended with pleasure; but certainly the whole must be very trifling, whatever it is, for it is instantaneous. What makes us uneasy, or rather gives us pain, is the leaving all the good things of life.” (XXXIV)

And yet, Cicero adds shortly thereafter, life is fuller of evils than it is of good things, so, if anything, we should be glad to leave it for a state in which there is no sensation at all. He presents the case of the famous Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius, who died too late, so to speak, not at the peak of his fame, but when he had already descended into a state of disgrace: “Did not he, then, who, if he had died at that time, would have died in all his glory, owe all the great and terrible misfortunes into which he subsequently fell to the prolongation of his life at that time?” (XXXV)

[Incidentally, the same example would later be taken up by Seneca, making the same point: “Life, it is thanks to Death that I hold thee so dear. Think how great a blessing is a timely death, how many have been injured by living longer than they ought. If sickness had carried off that glory and support of the empire Gnaeus Pompeius, at Naples, he would have died the undoubted head of the Roman people, but as it was, a short extension of time cast him down from his pinnacle of fame.” (To Marcia On Consolation, XX)]

Back to the idea that the dead don’t actually exist, and cannot, therefore, have any concern: “there is no difference between a Hippocentaur, which never had existence, and King Agamemnon [who doesn’t exist now], and that M. Camillus is no more concerned about this present civil war than I was at the sacking of Rome [when I wasn’t alive], when he was living.” (XXXVII)

At XXXVIII-XXXIX Cicero reminds his students of the similarity between death and sleep, as well as of the idea that there is no such thing as dying before one’s time, the whole concept being based on a misunderstanding of the course of nature: “You look on sleep as an image of death, and you take that on you daily; and have you, then, any doubt that there is no sensation in death, when you see there is none in sleep, which is its near resemblance? Away, then, with those follies, which are little better than the old women’s dreams, such as that it is miserable to die before our time. What time do you mean? That of nature? But she has only lent you life, as she might lend you money, without fixing any certain time for its repayment. Have you any grounds of complaint, then, that she recalls it at her pleasure? For you received it on these terms.”

We are even reminded that human life is actually quite long, by the common standards of the animal world, and yet that at the same time it is nothing compared to the span of the universe: “Aristotle saith there is a kind of insect near the river Hypanis, which runs from a certain part of Europe into the Pontus, whose life consists but of one day; those that die at the eighth hour die in full age; those who die when the sun sets are very old, especially when the days are at the longest. Compare our longest life with eternity, and we shall be found almost as short-lived as those little animals.” (XXXIX)

Finally, XLIII regales us with a taste of Cynic sarcasm on the matter of death: “Diogenes was rougher, though of the same opinion; but in his character of a Cynic he expressed himself in a somewhat harsher manner; he ordered himself to be thrown anywhere without being buried. And when his friends replied, ‘What! To the birds and beasts?’ ‘By no means,’ saith he; ‘place my staff near me, that I may drive them away.’ ‘How can you do that,’ they answer, ‘for you will not perceive them?’ ‘How am I then injured by being torn by those animals, if I have no sensation?'” Good point…

8 thoughts on “Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: I. On contempt of death

  1. Brett Allen Elhoffer

    Excellent writing as usual. Thank you so much for all of this.

    I am a little lost however regarding some of their commentary on life ending early. I understand the concept that at times it is more virtuous to end your life early than to continue on, as Cato did. However, both Cicero and Seneca mention the ills that followed from people living too long. The thing that gets me is they both talk about these people being at the peak of their power or popularity and that if they had died there they would have died at their best but instead they grew older and fell out of favor with the people. This doesn’t seem particularly stoic to me seeing as the things they are referencing appear to be externals and so should have no bearing on whether or not their lives were good or not. We often talk about old age, sickness, injury, and how the world views us and that these things ought to have nothing to do with our happiness or virtue. Cicero and Seneca seem to place some weight on these things by saying that it would have been better for people to die at the peak of their lives then on the down slope but their examples seem to me to be things that shouldn’t have any bearing on it to begin with.

    It occurs to me that this could be because I am not familiar with those historical figures and what actually happened to them later in life. Still, this commentary by these two struck me a little wrong. I believe that it is probably my understanding, or lack thereof, that has created this but perhaps you could clarify. Thank you again for everything.


  2. Massimo Post author


    Good points, but I interpreted Cicero’s and Seneca’s intent differently. For the Stoic it was important to show that only virtue is the chief good, because it cannot be used for bad things. One way to do that is to show that that’s not true for anything else.

    So for instance, wealth can be acquired in a good way, or used for good; but it can also be acquired in a bad way, or used for bad. Thus, wealth is not the chief good. (This sort of argument actually goes back to Socrates, in the Euthydemus.)

    Similarly with a long life: the point is that length per se isn’t good, because a longer life can actually go bad later on. So a long life, per se, is not a good thing.

    Also remember that the Stoics are not Cynics: they did value externals (they were “preferred”), but they thought that they were “indifferent” to virtue. So there is no contradiction in preferring one’s life to be well remembered, though it is only a preferred indifferent, not something fundamentally necessary.


  3. Daniel Mann

    Even if death is nothingness, and nothingness is nothing at all, and there is no rational reason to fear nothing, nevertheless, entering into eternal nothing is a dreadful thought to the human psyche. And perhaps it should be dreadful and shouldn’t be dismissed.


  4. Massimo Post author


    I don’t see the point of dreading a state of non existence, especially considering that there is absolutely nothing I can do to avoid it.


  5. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    It might even be arguable that the problem lies in our very definition of “us,” limiting it to a specific body and/or conscious mind. A body and its accompanying conscious mind are not even made of the same matter and energy from one moment to the next; they’re more like a wave pattern, or a traffic jam, representing a certain ordered flow of matter and energy. Like any pattern in the flow of matter and energy in the universe, it will not last forever, but there are always new patterns forming from the same matter and energy that once flowed through us but no longer does, even while we’re still alive.

    Frankly, I think I agree with the ancients that I tend to dread the cutting off of pleasures or the introduction of pains more than non-existence, given that I’ve tended to fear certain future life transitions, like retirement, unemployment, parenthood, and chronic illness, all of which may bring unfamiliar pains and/or cut off familiar pleasures, almost as if they were death itself. That shows that the problem is a very narrow definition of “me,” which I’m seeking to broaden in advance of these kinds of life transitions so my fears won’t get in the way of the best possible decision-making in the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Daniel Mann

    Massimo: “I don’t see the point of dreading a state of non existence, especially considering that there is absolutely nothing I can do to avoid it.”

    True, but perhaps irrelevant in view of our humanness. We might know that it is not helpful or even reasonable to dread losing our job or rejection. However, such fears and insecurities seem to be hot-wired into our nature.

    Consequently, I think that we need something more than our own logic, something else that has been hot-wired into us – the knowledge that we are being cared for from Above.


  7. Massimo Post author


    I see no reason to believe that the sort of reactions you are talking about are hard-wired. Indeed, there are plenty of people who don’t have them, or not to the extent you are implying.


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