Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: V. Whether Virtue Alone Be Sufficient for a Happy Life

IMG_8198Time to wrap up our analysis of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, a series of five essays expounding on general themes of Stoic philosophy written in 45 BCE (the year before the assassination of Julius Caesar), while he was in temporary retirement in his villa at Tusculum, outside Rome. We have looked so far at contempt of death, bearing pain, grief of mind, and other perturbations of mind. Dulcis in fundo (the sweetest for last) is a disputation on whether virtue is sufficient for a happy life.

Cicero begins, as usual, by addressing his friend Brutus (eventual co-conspirator against Caesar), telling him that on this last day they will talk about Brutus’ favorite subject matter, and “endeavor to facilitate the proof of it.”

First of all, why do we care? Because “if virtue, as being subject to such various and uncertain accidents, were but the slave of fortune, and were not of sufficient ability to support herself, I am afraid that it would seem desirable rather to offer up prayers, than to rely on our own confidence in virtue as the foundation for our hope of a happy life.” (I)

Cicero gets lyrical at one point: “O Philosophy … one day spent well, and agreeably to your precepts, is preferable to an eternity of error.” (II) He recalls a story about Pythagoras, suggesting that he is the one that came up with the term “philosopher”:

“When Leon, admiring his ingenuity and eloquence, asked him what art he particularly professed, his answer was, that he was acquainted with no art, but that he was a philosopher. Leon, surprised at the novelty of the name, inquired what he meant by the name of philosopher, and in what philosophers differed from other men; on which Pythagoras replied … ‘we come from another life and nature unto this one, just as men come out of some other city, to some much frequented mart; some being slaves to glory, others to money; and there are some few who, taking no account of anything else, earnestly look into the nature of things; and these men call themselves studious of wisdom, that is, philosophers.'” (III)

Cicero continues his little history of philosophy: “Socrates was the first who brought down philosophy from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, and good and evil. … The greatness of his abilities, being immortalized by the memory and writings of Plato, gave rise to many sects of philosophers of different sentiments.” (IV)

As in the previous four disputations, it is only after the opening to Brutus and the little prologue that we get to the question at hand:

“(A.) I do not think virtue can possibly be sufficient for a happy life.
(M.) But my friend Brutus thinks so, whose judgment, with submission, I greatly prefer to yours.” (V)

The student agrees that it is very good to have the qualities of a virtuous person, but in the end denies a central Stoic idea: “a man may display all these qualities on the rack; but yet the rack is inconsistent with a happy life. … Like certain light wines that will not bear water, these arguments of the Stoics are pleasanter to taste than to swallow.” (V)

Cicero’s counter-argument begins in earnest:

“Turbulent motions and violent agitations of the mind, when it is raised and elated by a rash impulse, getting the better of reason, leave no room for a happy life. For who that fears either pain or death, the one of which is always present, the other always impending, can be otherwise than miserable? Now, supposing the same person — which is often the case — to be afraid of poverty, ignominy, infamy, or weakness, or blindness, or, lastly, slavery, which doth not only befall individual men, but often even the most powerful nations; now can any one under the apprehension of these evils be happy? … What reason, again, can there be why a man should not rightly enough be called miserable whom we see inflamed and raging with lust, coveting everything with an insatiable desire, and, in proportion as he derives more pleasure from anything, thirsting the more violently after them? … Therefore, as these men are miserable, so, on the other hand, those are happy who are alarmed by no fears, wasted by no griefs, provoked by no lusts, melted by no languid pleasures that arise from vain and exulting joys.” (VI)

And how does one achieve the state of mind that Cicero describes as happy? By way of virtue, of course. It follows that if these are the effects of virtue, then virtue itself is what makes a person happy.

After this, comes the usual dig at the Epicureans: “Or would we rather imitate Epicurus? who is often excellent in many things which he speaks, but quite indifferent how consistent he may be, or how much to the purpose he is speaking. … He denies that any one can live pleasantly unless he lives honestly, wisely, and justly. Nothing is more dignified than this assertion, nothing more becoming a philosopher, had he not measured this very expression of living honestly, justly, and wisely by pleasure.” (IX)

At XI we see the student using Cicero’s own words against him: “I have lately read your fourth book on Good and Evil: and in that you appeared to me, while disputing against Cato, to be endeavoring to show, which in my opinion means to prove, that Zeno and the Peripatetics differ only about some new words” [as discussed here].

To which Cicero replies: “What! You would convict me from my own words, and bring against me what I had said or written elsewhere. You may act in that manner with those who dispute by established rules. We live from hand to mouth, and say anything that strikes our mind with probability, so that we are the only people who are really at liberty.”

This may sound like a really strange rebuttal, until we remember that Cicero was an academic skeptic, which means that his method was always to defend different positions in order to test his own convictions and those of others. (He was also a lawyer…)

“Absolute reason is the very same as virtue. And if everything is happy which wants nothing, and is complete and perfect in its kind, and that is the peculiar lot of virtue, certainly all who are possessed of virtue are happy.” (XIII)

Still not convinced? Then how about this syllogistic argument, which we find at XV: “Every good is pleasant; whatever is pleasant may be boasted and talked of; whatever may be boasted of is glorious; but whatever is glorious is certainly laudable, and whatever is laudable doubtless, also, honorable: whatever, then, is good is honorable … therefore what is honorable alone is good. Hence it follows that a happy life is comprised in honesty alone.”

This, of course, is the standard Stoic position, which is shared by the Cynics (the difference between the two schools is found in their treatment of externals, not in their concept of the sufficiency of virtue). Also, it should go without saying in this context, but remember that the word for “happiness” here is eudaimonia, i.e., the life worth living. Cicero isn’t talking about a state of psychological pleasure.

At XIX, Cicero argues by example, a practice also common among the Stoics. The contrast he sets up is between Gaius Laelius, a virtuous man who famously sacrificed personal financial gain because he valued his friendship with the general Scipio Africanus, and Lucius Cornelius Cinna, a tyrant who ended up murdered by his own soldiers.

“The point is, would you prefer, were it in your power, to be once such a consul as Lælius, or be elected four times, like Cinna? I have no doubt in the world what answer you will make, and it is on that account I put the question to you. I would not ask every one this question; for some one perhaps might answer that he would not only prefer four consulates to one, but even one day of Cinna’s life to whole ages of many famous men. … [In fact] it is better to receive an injury than to do one.”

At XX and XXI Cicero reinforces the point by examining at length the story of Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse (whom Plato briefly tried to school in philosophy, and almost lost his life as a result). Dionysius could not trust people, to the point that he had his daughters shave his beard, for fear that his barber would cut his throat.

Cicero recounts the episode of Damocles, one of the people who regularly flattered Dionysius, and who was clearly envious of the tyrant’s life. “‘Have you an inclination,’ said [Dionysius], ‘Damocles, as this kind of life pleases you, to have a taste of it yourself, and to make a trial of the good fortune that attends me?'”

Dionysius then offered to make Damocles sit on his throne for a day. “Damocles thought himself very happy. In the midst of this apparatus, Dionysius ordered a bright sword to be let down from the ceiling, suspended by a single horse-hair, so as to hang over the head of that happy man.”

The hanging sword, of course, signified the constant danger the king of Syracuse would face throughout his life. Concludes then Cicero:

“After which [Damocles] neither cast his eye on those handsome waiters, nor on the well-wrought plate; nor touched any of the provisions: presently the garlands fell to pieces. At last he entreated the tyrant to give him leave to go, for that now he had no desire to be happy. Does not Dionysius, then, seem to have declared there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions?”

It’s a very well known story. In Italian “la spada di Damocle” (Damocle’s sword) is a turn of phrase used still today to indicate a situation that was apparently enviable and yet, upon closer examination, turned out to be anything but.

At XXIII Cicero contrasts Dionysius with another son of Syracuse, and tells the story of how he rediscovered his tomb and brought it back to the attention of the Syracusans: “I will present you with an humble and obscure mathematician of the same city, called Archimedes, who lived many years after; whose tomb, overgrown with shrubs and briers, I in my quæstorship discovered, when the Syracusans knew nothing of it, and even denied that there was any such thing remaining.”

A few years ago I went on a Greco-Roman tour of Sicily, and I took a picture of the entrance to Archimedes’ tomb, still standing in Syracuse:


A bit later on, at XXVII, Cicero says that pain is regarded as the sharpest enemy of virtue, it “threatens to crush our fortitude, and greatness of mind, and patience.” And yet, even “Spartan boys will bear to have their bodies torn by rods without uttering a groan.” If a child can withstand pain, when he thinks it is necessary, then how much of a threat to virtue can it really be for someone practicing philosophy? And he continues with a number of other examples, including self-immolating wives in India, who throw themselves on the funeral pile of their husband, or the fortitude of the Egyptians who will bear torture in order to avoid injuring one of their sacred animals, be they ibis, snakes, cats, dogs, or crocodiles. “I mention not what the ambitious will suffer for honor’s sake, or those who are desirous of praise on account of glory, or lovers to gratify their lust. Life is full of such instances.”

At XXX Cicero gives a short list of different philosophical opinions about which is the chief good, proceeding then to discuss every position except the Stoic one because, he says, he has already defended it at length: “‘nothing is good but what is honest,’ according to the Stoics; ‘nothing good but pleasure,’ as Epicurus maintains; ‘nothing good but a freedom from pain,’ as Hieronymus [a Peripatetic] asserts; ‘nothing good but an enjoyment of the principal, or all, or the greatest goods of nature,’ as Carneades [Academic Skeptic] maintained against the Stoics.”

Notice that none of these philosophers thought that the chief good is to be found in external goods, and Cicero underscore the point by reminding his student of two classical examples: “Socrates, when on one occasion he saw a great quantity of gold and silver carried in a procession, cried out, ‘How many things are there which I do not want!’ … Diogenes took a greater liberty, like a Cynic, when Alexander asked him if he wanted anything: ‘Just at present,’ said he, ‘I wish that you would stand a little out of the line between me and the sun,’ for Alexander was hindering him from sunning himself.” (XXXII)

“If, then, honor and riches have no value, what is there else to be afraid of? Banishment, I suppose; which is looked on as the greatest evil.” (XXXVII)

But no, that won’t do either: “But exiles are deprived of their property! What, then! Has there not been enough said on bearing poverty? But with regard to banishment, if we examine the nature of things, not the ignominy of the name, how little does it differ from constant traveling! In which some of the most famous philosophers have spent their whole life, as Xenocrates, Crantor, Arcesilas, Lacydes, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Antipater, Carneades, Panætius, Clitomachus, Philo, Antiochus, Posidonius, and innumerable others.” (XXXVII)

“Thus what Teucer said may be applied to every case: ‘Wherever I am happy is my country.’ Socrates, indeed, when he was asked where he belonged to, replied, ‘The world;’ for he looked upon himself as a citizen and inhabitant of the whole world.” (XXXVII)

Cicero then takes on physical disability, giving a series of examples of philosophers who suffered from blindness:

“Diodorus the Stoic was blind, and lived many years at my house. He, indeed, which is scarcely credible, besides applying himself more than usual to philosophy, and playing on the flute, agreeably to the custom of the Pythagoreans, and having books read to him night and day, in all which he did not want eyes, contrived to teach geometry, which, one would think, could hardly be done without the assistance of eyes, telling his scholars how and where to draw every line. … Democritus was so blind he could not distinguish white from black; but he knew the difference between good and evil, just and unjust, honorable and base, the useful and useless, great and small.” (XXXIX)

He proceeds to provide more examples, of people who are deaf, and yet are happy. And of course, if one really cannot bear one’s situation, there is the ultimate source of freedom:

“Still, why, good Gods! Should we be under any difficulty? For there is a retreat at hand: death is that retreat — a shelter where we shall forever be insensible. … That custom which is common among the Grecians at their banquets should, in my opinion, be observed in life: Drink, say they, or leave the company; and rightly enough; for a guest should either enjoy the pleasure of drinking with others, or else not stay till he meets with affronts from those that are in liquor. Thus, those injuries of fortune which you cannot bear you should flee from.” (XC)

The very last section of this fifth and last Disputation is a fitting end to the entire set, and I’m going to quote it in full:

“But as we are to depart in the morning, let us remember these five days’ discussions; though, indeed, I think I shall commit them to writing: for how can I better employ the leisure which I have, of whatever kind it is, and whatever it be owing to? And I will send these five books also to my friend Brutus, by whom I was not only incited to write on philosophy, but, I may say, provoked. And by so doing it is not easy to say what service I may be of to others. At all events, in my own various and acute afflictions, which surround me on all sides, I cannot find any better comfort for myself.” (XLII)