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

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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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.

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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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Posidonius on the science and art of divination

Recently I’ve been asked to write a review of a fascinating book by Peter T. Struck: Divination and Human Nature, A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity. While the full book is worth reading for anyone interested in ancient Greco-Roman culture, as well as in the early development of science, there is a whole chapter on Posidonius, one of the major figures of the so-called Middle Stoa, the period during which Stoicism transitioned from its original home in Athens to Rome. Posidonius is a fascinating figure in his own right, and he is often not written about because all we have by him are fragments and indirect sources (as opposed to, say the wealth of stuff by Seneca). Divination is also rarely commented on in Stoic circles, because it is automatically relegated to the category of superstition, something the Stoics were wrong about and that we just don’t need to be concerned with nowadays. But the story is not that simple.

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The Cato chronicles, part IV: the clash with Cicero

Cato (left) and Cicero (right)

We have so far examined stories about Cato the Younger’s childhood, his very conscious embracing of Stoicism, as well as his first assignment as military commander and his rather un-Stoic reaction to the death of his half-brother. Another of the pivotal episodes of his life was his clash with the eminent orator and philosopher Cicero, during the famous Catiline conspiracy. We will therefore look at those events to refine our understanding of the man who became a Stoic role model. As usual, I will follow Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s treatment in Rome’s Last Citizen.

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The drowning man metaphor and the all-or-nothing of virtue

Drowning manStoics were well known in antiquity for the use of metaphors, as well as for developing concepts that to others sounded rather paradoxical, or even downright nonsensical. Cicero went so far as to write an entire book entitled Paradoxa Stoicorum.

I maintain, though, that the Stoics weren’t fools, and understood perfectly well how some of their notions came across to non-Stoics. However, they used such “paradoxical” ideas and strange metaphors as a pedagogical tool to draw others into considering their philosophy seriously, rather than reducing it to what we today would call a bumper sticker version.

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