STOIC CALENDAR: Commemoration of Cicero 2022


On December VII, 43 BCE Cicero was finally overtaken by the forces of the Second Triumvirate after being designated an enemy of the state by Mark Antony and his once-friend Octavian. Let me commemorate him today with some words about his life and death.

Cicero was born into rural nobility in a small villa southeast of Rome (a member of the equitēs like Seneca and Musonius Rufus after him— not a member of the Patrician class). He struck a balance between being ambitious (though not as much as his once-friend, Julius Caesar) and being a scholar (though not as much as his friend Atticus). He was a student of philosophy and history and dedicated much of his time to these subjects while he was either exiled or semi-retired. But he was equally dedicated to elevating the name “Cicero” in Roman politics. He advanced quickly through the Roman cursus honōrum —the “ladder of offices” that afforded opportunities to those that were not born into aristocracy. At 30 years old, he was elected Quaestor (and, thus, granted a lifetime membership in the senate). At 39, he was elected Praetor. At 43, he became—in effect—the sole consul of Rome (the highest public office in the Republic). With all that power and with his great oratorical ability for exposing the poor character of his political opponents (and, sometimes, of his allies), he made a lot of enemies. Reading his biography, I was stuck that he survived as long as he did.

A couple other takeaways from his biography, briefly

  • Cicero loathed Roman militarism and violence. Although he was forced to punish those who conspired against the government while he was consul, he seemed to express remorse over his actions. Later in life, his political opponents cited his sidestepping of habeas corpus to justify his exile … and Cicero obliged them. 
  • He was—perhaps naively—an ardent conservative (a so-called optimās). This lead him to push back against dictators, but also to push back against reform. Because his own political status was always tenuous owing to his lack of both aristocratic ancestry and any military record, he made many compromises that some would find distasteful.

It seems like Cicero was not a Stoic. He claimed to be a disciple of Academic Skepticism (specifically, of Philo of Larisa), which may have suited his temperament as an orator, who needed to argue all sides of a case. 

He was certainly highly sympathetic to Stoicism (he studied it with the help of a man named Diodotus) and was especially fond of THREE Stoic doctrines:

1) the necessity of duty or “appropriate action” (lt. officium, gr. kathêkon) in the ethical life;
2) the importance of civic engagement (as opposed to Epicurean quietism) in the ethical life; and
3) the unity of God and Nature. 

[NOTE: After reading biographies of Cicero and treatises by him in different times during his life, I get the impression that he got closer to the Stoic position after the death of his daughter, Tullia, in 45 BCE and as his ability to survive the new political regime became more precarious.]

For more of his life, it does seem that TWO aspects of Stoicism likely rubbed him the wrong way: 

1) fortune—both political and personal— is indifferent to happiness. This was contrary to his uncompromising political views; his personal ambitions; and his tendency to display his prosperity in the form of large estates within Rome and country villas.
2) extreme emotions are unhealthy. This was contrary to his apparent belief that skilled emotional rhetoric can be a force for good. He also had a tendency to indulge in his grief, depression, and anger: when his daughter died, he mourned for months; when he lost favor with the Senate, he grew out his beard and wore black robes in public; when his once-friends turned their backs on him, he would rant about it in his correspondences with Atticus.

Despite these things that I would consider flaws, I think he did better than most in such a dangerous political climate. But in addition to how one lives, I think it’s most illuminating to look at how one dies in order to really understand and appreciate the quality of their character. To that end, we should put more weight on his last moments…

LONG story short: After the assassination of Julius Caesar, there was a power vacuum that was ultimately occupied by more of Julius Caesar’s allies—specifically, Octavian (Caesar’s heir), Mark Antony, and Lepidus. Historians call this the “Second Triumvirate,” a prelude to the Roman Empire which would be founded by Octavian a.k.a. Augustus… Before all that though, the Second Triumvirate had to wipe the slate clean, and so they began a proscription— a long list of official “enemies of the state” that could be killed on site by anyone looking to get a reward. Cicero and his family made the list since he applauded Julius Caesar’s assassination and implied that it should have gone further, taking out Antony and Octavian as well (oops). Octavian might have been willing to forgive Cicero, since the latter was Octavian’s mentor prior to his ascension. But Antony was certainly not willing to forgive: Cicero ordered the execution of Antony’s step-father, Lentulus Sura, twenty years prior and more recently said some very nasty things about his wife, Fulvia. So Cicero was proscribed (basically given the death penalty without a trial) and, after a brief chase, he was caught in Formia. Once soldiers captured him and he realized there was no escape, Cicero calmly stretched out his neck in order to ease his executioner’s task (as reported by Seneca the Elder and the historian Aufidius Bassus).

Is all this enough to commemorate Cicero? Maybe not. So let me summarize his contributions to Stoicism and to philosophy in general:

  • He dedicate much of his later life to writing great doxographies on the different philosophical schools, including Stoicism. 
  • He has helped us understand and appreciate the Stoic doctrine of duty or “appropriate action” (lt. officium, gr. kathêkon) with his treatise De Officiis
  • With his vision for a well-working democratic republic, prudent statesmen, and engaged citizenship (especially in his treatise the Republic (De Re Publica), he has provided us with a road map for us to actualize his vision the best we can.
  • He has provided us with inspirations images that highlight the unity of God and Nature

This last point brings me to one of the most wonderful passages we have from Cicero’s Republic (6.9-19) often called “Scipio’s Dream”—I’ll just end the post with to provide a window into the mind of Cicero during a particularly vulnerable part of his life (the mid/late 50s while watching in vain as Julius Caesar gained power).

In “Scipio’s Dream,” Scipio Aemilianus is recounting a dream he had in which he encounters his father (Paulus Macedonicus) and grandfather (Scipio Africanus). His grandfather is guiding him through the heavens and giving insight into life on the Earth from that lofty perspective.

When I saw [my father] I poured forth a flood of tears, but he embraced and kissed me, and forbade me to weep. {15.} As soon as I had restrained my grief and was able to speak, I cried out: “O best and most blameless of fathers [. . .] Why should I remain longer on earth? Why not hasten thither to you?”  

“Not so,” he replied, “for unless that God, whose temple is everything that you see, has freed you from the prison of the body, you cannot gain entrance there. For man was given life that he might inhabit that sphere called Earth, which you see in the centre of this temple, and he has been given a soul out of those eternal fires which you call stars and planets, which, being round and globular bodies animated by divine intelligences, circle about in their fixed orbits with marvellous speed. Therefore you, Scipio, and all good men, must leave that soul in the custody of the body, and must not abandon human life except at the behest of him by whom it was given you, lest you appear to have shirked the duty imposed upon man by God. {16.}  But, Scipio, imitate your grandfather here, imitate me, your father; love justice and duty, which are indeed strictly due to parents and kinsmen, but most of all to the fatherland. Such a life is the road to the skies, to that gathering of those who have completed their earthly lives and been relieved of the body, and who lie in yonder place which you now see” (it was the circle of light which blazed most brightly among the other fires), “and which you on earth, borrowing a Greek term, call the Milky Circle.”    

When I gazed in every direction from that point, all else appeared wonderfully beautiful. There were stars which we never see from the earth, and they were all larger than we have ever imagined. The smallest of them was that farthest from heaven and nearest the earth which shone with a borrowed light [i.e., the moon]. The starry spheres were much larger than the earth; indeed the earth itself seemed to me so small that I was scornful of our empire, which covers only a single point, as it were, upon its surface.    

{17.} As I gazed still more fixedly at the earth, Africanus said : “How long will your thoughts be fixed upon the lowly earth ? Do you not see what lofty regions you have entered ? These are the nine circles, or rather spheres, by which the whole is joined. One of them, the outermost, is that of heaven; it contains all the rest, and is itself the supreme God, holding and embracing within itself all the other spheres; in it are fixed the eternal revolving courses of the stars. Beneath it are seven other spheres which revolve in the opposite direction to that of heaven. One of these globes is that light which on earth is called Saturn’s. Next comes the star called Jupiter’s, which brings fortune and health to mankind. Beneath it that star, red and terrible to the dwellings of man, which you assign to Mars. Below it and almost midway of the distance [between heaven and Earth] is the Sun, the lord, chief, and ruler of the other lights, the mind and guiding principle of the universe, of such magnitude that he reveals and fills all things with his light. He is accompanied by his companions, as it were – Venus and Mercury in their orbits, and in the lowest sphere revolves the Moon, set on fire by the rays of the Sun. But below the Moon there is nothing except what is mortal and doomed to decay, save only the souls given to the human race by the bounty of the gods, while above the Moon all things are eternal. For the ninth and central sphere, which is the earth, is immovable and the lowest of all, and toward it all ponderable bodies are drawn by their own natural tendency downward.”

{18.} After recovering from the astonishment with which I viewed these wonders, I said : “What is this loud and agreeable sound that fills my ears?”

“That is produced,” he replied, “by the onward rush and motion of the spheres themselves; the intervals between them, though unequal, being exactly arranged in a fixed proportion, by an agreeable blending of high and low tones various harmonies are produced; for such mighty motions cannot be carried on so swiftly in silence; and Nature has provided that one extreme shall produce low tones while the other gives forth high. Therefore this uppermost sphere of heaven, which bears the stars, as it revolves more rapidly, produces a high, shrill tone, whereas the lowest revolving sphere, that of the Moon, gives forth the lowest tone; for the earthly sphere, the ninth, remains ever motionless and stationary in its position in the centre of the universe. But the other eight spheres, two of which move with the same velocity, produce seven different sounds, – a number which is the key of almost everything. Learned men, by imitating this harmony on stringed instruments and in song, have gained for themselves a return to this region, as others have obtained the same reward by devoting their brilliant intellects to divine pursuits during their earthly lives. Men’s ears, ever filled with this sound, have become deaf to it, for you have no duller sense than that of hearing. We find a similar phenomenon where the Nile rushes down from those lofty mountains at the place called Catadupa [i.e., the first Nile cataract at Aswan]; the people who live nearby have lost their sense of hearing on account of the loudness of the sound. But this mighty music, produced by the revolution of the whole universe at the highest speed, cannot be perceived by human ears, any more than you can look straight at the Sun, your sense of sight being overpowered by its radiance.”    

While gazing at these wonders, I was repeatedly turning my eyes back to earth. {19.} Then Africanus resumed :   

“I see that you are still directing your gaze upon the habitation and abode of men. If it seems small to you, as it actually is, keep your gaze fixed upon these heavenly things, and scorn the earthly. For what fame can you gain from the speech of men, or what glory that is worth the seeking? You see that the earth is inhabited in only a few portions, and those very small, while vast deserts lie between those inhabited patches, as we may call them ; you see that the inhabitants are so widely separated that there can be no communication whatever among the different areas [i.e., among the four quadrants of the Earth relative to you]; and that some of the inhabitants live in parts of the earth that are oblique, transverse, and sometimes directly opposite your own [quadrant]; from such you can expect nothing surely that is glory.    

[. . .]

{21.} “But even if future generations should wish to hand down to those yet unborn the eulogies of every one of us which they received from their fathers, nevertheless the floods and conflagrations which necessarily happen on the earth at stated intervals would prevent us from gaining a glory which could even be long-enduring, much less eternal [Cf. Seneca, Naturales quaestiones 3.27 ff]. But of what importance is it to you to be talked of by those who are born after you, when you were never mentioned by those who lived before you, {22.} who were no less numerous and were certainly better men; especially as not one of those who may hear our names can retain any recollection for the space of a single year? For people commonly measure the year by the circuit of the sun, that is, of a single star alone; but when all the stars return to the place from which they at first set forth, and, at long intervals, restore the original configuration of the whole heaven, then that can truly be called a revolving year [Plato called this “the Great Year” (Timaeus 39)]. I hardly dare to say how many generations of men are contained within such a year; for as once the sun appeared to men to be eclipsed and blotted out, at the time when the soul of Romulus entered these regions, so when the sun shall again be eclipsed at the same point and in the same season, you may believe that all the planets and stars have returned to their original positions, and that a year has actually elapsed. But be sure that a twentieth part of such a year has not yet passed .   

{23.} “Consequently, if you despair of ever returning to this place, where eminent and excellent men find their true reward, of how little value, indeed, is your fame among men, which can hardly endure for the small part of a single year? Therefore, if you will only look on high and contemplate this eternal home and resting place, you will no longer attend to the gossip of the vulgar herd or put your trust in human rewards for your exploits. Virtue herself, by her own charms, should lead you on to true glory. Let what others say of you be their own concern, whatever it is, they will say it in any ease. But all their talk is limited to those narrow regions which you look upon, nor will any man’s reputation endure very long, for what men say dies with them and is blotted out with the forgetfulness of posterity.”    

{24.}  When he had spoken thus, I said: “If indeed a path to heaven, as it were, is open to those who have served their country well, henceforth I will redouble my efforts, spurred on by so splendid a reward, though even from my boyhood I have followed in the footsteps of my father and yourself, and have not failed to emulate your glory.”

He answered: “Strive on indeed, and be sure that it is not you that is mortal, but only your body. For that man whom your outward form reveals is not yourself; the mind is the true self, not that physical figure which can be pointed out by the finger. Know, then, that you are a god, if a god is that which lives, feels, remembers, and foresees, and which rules, governs, and moves the body over which it is set, just as the supreme God above us rules this universe. And just as the eternal God moves the universe, which is partly mortal, so an immortal mind moves the frail body.    

{25.}  “For that which is always in motion is eternal, but that which communicates motion to something else, but is itself moved by another force, necessarily ceases to live when this motion ends. Therefore only that which moves itself never ceases its motion, because it never abandons itself – nay, it is the source and first cause of motion in all other things that are moved. But this first cause has itself no beginning, for everything originates from the first cause, while it can never originate from anything else ; for that would not be a first cause which owed its origin to anything else And since it never had a beginning, it will never have an end. For if a first cause were destroyed, it could never be reborn from anything else, nor could it bring anything else into being; since everything must originate from a first cause. Thus it follows that motion begins with that which is moved of itself, but this can neither be born nor die, or else all the heavens must fall and all nature perish, possessing no force from which they can receive the first impulse to motion.

{26.} “Therefore, now that it is clear that what moves of itself is eternal, who can deny that this is the nature of minds? For whatever is moved by an external impulse is mindless, but whatever possesses a mind is moved by an inner impulse of its own , for that is the peculiar nature and property of a mind. And as a mind is the only force that moves itself, it surely has no beginning and is immortal. Use it, therefore, in the best pursuits! And the best tasks are those undertaken in defence of your native land; a mind occupied and trained in such activities will have a swifter flight to this, its proper home and permanent abode. And this flight will be still more rapid if, while still confined in the body, it looks abroad, and, by contemplating what lies outside itself, detaches itself as much as may be from the body. For the minds of those who are given over to sensual pleasures and have become their slaves, as it were, and who violate the laws of gods and men at the instigation of those desires which are subservient to pleasure – their minds, after leaving their bodies, fly about close to the earth, and do not return to this place except after many ages of torture.”   

He departed, and I awoke from my sleep.

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