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.

Near the beginning, Cicero explains to his interlocutor, Brutus (the guy who a year later would kill Julius Caesar) that philosophy is a complex matter, and that in order to do it well one has to be acquainted with all its branches — an implicit critique of over-specialization that I wish my contemporary colleagues would heed. He then pleads for his fellow Romans to “snatch” philosophy from the dying Greek civilization and own it as their pursuit, a comment that makes a lot of historical sense considering that philosophy had arrived in Rome only in 155 BCE, when a delegation of Greek heads of different schools (including the Stoa) had visited the city on a diplomatic mission, and had for the first time entertained large crowds with their lectures.

After these preliminaries, the actual dialogue between Cicero and one of his students resumes, with the student acknowledging that he was convinced by the argument put forth during the previous day, that we shouldn’t fear death. Cicero responds: “it is the effect of philosophy, which is the medicine of our souls; it banishes all groundless apprehensions, frees us from desires, and drives away fears: but it has not the same influence over all men; it is of very great influence when it falls in with a disposition well adapted to it.” (IV) I find the comment about the existence of a philosophical “disposition” to be interesting, as I think that there are even more specific dispositions, such as toward Stoic philosophy in particular, as distinct from other approaches. Some people have such dispositions, others don’t, which means that for some Stoicism “clicks” naturally, while for others it remains alien, or at the very least requires more effort.

Cicero then says that one should expect that philosophers live the life they teach about, but that few do, and that “just as if one who professed to teach grammar should speak with impropriety, or a master of music sing out of tune, such conduct has the worst appearance in these men, because they blunder in the very particular with which they profess that they are well acquainted.” (IV) Recent research showing that moral philosophers do not, on average, act more morally than other academics seems to prove Cicero just as right today as he presumably was two millennia ago.

Finally, we get to the topic of the Disputation itself (where M. is Cicero and A. his student): “(M.) Say, if you please, what shall be the subject of our disputation. (A.) I look on pain to be the greatest of all evils.” (V)

The student, however, immediately concedes that pain is not really the greatest of evils, because, for instance, to bear infamy is worse. Still, he says, it’s pretty evil… But Cicero builds on his opening advantage: “Do you perceive, then, how much of the terror of pain you have given up on a small hint?” (V)

After a quick jab at Aristippus (the founder of the Cyrenaics), for having hesitated to deny that pain is the greatest evil, and of course at Epicurus, who made such idea the foundation of his philosophy, Cicero asks his student: “What duty of life, what praise, what reputation, would be of such consequence that a man should be desirous of gaining it at the expense of submitting to bodily pain, when he has persuaded himself that pain is the greatest evil? On the other side, what disgrace, what ignominy, would he not submit to that he might avoid pain, when persuaded that it was the greatest of evils?” (VI) This is obviously a rhetorical question meant to show to that student that obviously people don’t think that pain is that much of an evil, or they would do anything to avoid it and would never do anything that causes it — both of which are plainly false on empirical grounds.

This, though, doesn’t mean that people, including the Sage, are actually looking forward to experience pain, or that they do not attempt to avoid it, if possible: “I cannot allow the wise man to be so indifferent about pain. If he bears it with courage, it is sufficient: that he should rejoice in it, I do not expect; for pain is, beyond all question, sharp, bitter, against nature, hard to submit to and to bear.” (VII) In fact, at IX we are reminded that Heracles himself, one of the standard Stoic role models, suffered pain and vented about it, so it just isn’t reasonable to set the bar higher than the demigod could achieve.

This, incidentally, is one of the things I appreciate the most about Stoic philosophy: it is made to fit human size. It is a demanding philosophy, to be sure, but it doesn’t require perfection, or superhuman abilities. Even the Sage is a human being, and (clearly fictional) demigods suffer just as human beings do. At the end of X Cicero says that since pain causes suffering, it is indeed an evil. But it is one that the true philosopher (meaning the person who practices philosophy, instead of just teaching it) can and should bear.

Indeed, XII continues in this fashion: “you allowed enough when you admitted that infamy appeared to you to be a greater evil than pain. And if you abide by this admission, you will see how far pain should be resisted; and that our inquiry should be not so much whether pain be an evil, as how the mind may be fortified for resisting it.” (This is followed by a barb to Zeno of Citium, who is accused of playing with words when he argued that pain is a dispreferred indifferent. It’s a standard Ciceronian tactic, which we have seen deployed to great length in book IV of De Finibus, here and here — where I also explained why it fails.)

“I do not deny pain to be pain — for were that the case, in what would courage consist? — but I say it should be assuaged by patience, if there be such a thing as patience: if there be no such thing, why do we speak so in praise of philosophy?” (XIII)

But how does one develop the “patience” necessary to endure pain? At XV we are told the story of Caius Marius, who felt pain because of an operation to his thigh, and also great discomfort when he guided his troops in a very hot season — and yet bore both with dignity. The idea is that the two things — physical pain and psychological discomfort — are related, and that the second helps us to better withstand the first.

Even Epicurus, Cicero grants, says that we should despise pain, and he is “a man far from a bad — or, I should rather say, a very good man: he advises no more than he knows” (XIX, note the embedded insult).

At XXII Cicero tells his student that the wise men will be comforted by the example of others, which he will try to emulate: “Calanus the Indian will occur to him, an ignorant man and a barbarian, born at the foot of Mount Caucasus, who committed himself to the flames by his own free, voluntary act. But we, if we have the toothache, or a pain in the foot, or if the body be anyways affected, cannot bear it.”

Pain exists more in “opinion” than in reality, which means that by developing a better command over ourselves we will be able to overcome it: “they who cannot bear the appearance of pain throw themselves away, and give themselves up to affliction and dismay. But they that oppose it, often come off more than a match for it.” (XXIII)

XXV reports a case of Stoic history and lore, when a student of Zeno, Dionysius of Heraclea, told Cleanthes (the second head of the Stoa) that he was quitting Stoicism since his own chronic pain had taught him that Zeno was wrong. In response, “Cleanthes struck his foot on the ground, and repeated a verse out of the Epigonæ: Amphiaraus, hear’st thou this below? He meant Zeno: he was sorry the other had degenerated from him.”

Cicero then ends the essay by contrasting the disappointing attitude of Dionysius with that of Posidonius, who was a contemporary of his, and whom he had seen lecture a number of times. The story goes that the great Roman general Pompey was passing by Rhodes, where Posidonius had his school, and was kin to hear the master lecture. But Posidonius was afflicted by severe pain from gout, so Pompey said that he regretted that it was not possible for him to hear the philosopher lecture. “‘But indeed you may,’ replied the other, ‘nor will I suffer any bodily pain to occasion so great a man to visit me in vain.'” Having said that, Posidonius proceeded to talk about how nothing was good but what was honest, adding “pain, it is to no purpose; notwithstanding you are troublesome, I will never acknowledge you an evil.” (XXV)

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1 reply

  1. “Pain exists more in “opinion” than in reality, which means that by developing a better command over ourselves we will be able to overcome it: “they who cannot bear the appearance of pain throw themselves away, and give themselves up to affliction and dismay. But they that oppose it, often come off more than a match for it.” (XXIII)”

    Reminds me of Johnny Cash’s approach to chronic pain after 34 surgeries on his jaw and opioids:

    ” I’m handling it. It’s my pain. I’m not being brave either. I’m not brave at all after what I’ve been through, I just know how to handle it.”

    Liked by 2 people

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