philosophy

Cicero’s ‘Tusculan Disputations’

1. Illuminated manuscript of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. Naples, late 1450s or early 1460s. Image: Christie’s.

2. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (1.3). Translated by Tom Habinek (2012):

In literature and culture, Greece used to surpass us: an easy conquest when we didn’t fight back! Among the Greeks the earliest kind of learned men were poets. If it’s true that Homer and Hesiod date to before the foundation of Rome, and Archilochus to the reign of Romulus, then it was much later that we Romans adopted the poetic art. Livius staged a play roughly 510 years after the founding of Rome, during the consulship of Gaius Claudius (the son of Caecus) and Marcus Tuditanus, in the year prior to the birth of Ennius. It took a long time for our people to acknowledge, much less welcome, poets.

3. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (1.6). Translated by Tom Habinek (2012):

My project has become more urgent now that a number of hastily composed ‘Latin treatises’ have made their appearance. The authors of these works are respectable fellows, but badly educated. Even when they have their arguments in order, they don’t express them with any flair. They waste their free time– and do a discredit to literature– when they commit thoughts to writing without knowing how to arrange or enliven them or give an pleasure to the reader. And so they just end up reading each other’s books!

4. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (1.12). Translated by Tom Habinek (2012):

‘You are talking in circles again! People must exist to be unhappy. But you just now stated that the dead don’t exist. And if they don’t exist, they can’t be a thing — not even unhappy.’
‘Maybe I am not saying what I really mean. What you just described — not existing when once you did exist — that, I think, is the worst kind of misery.’

5. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (1.17). Translated by Tom Habinek (2012):

But I’m no Pythian Apollo, making pronouncements that are fixed and unchanging. I’ll speak as a mere mortal, one of many, developing likely arguments through the use of reasonable inference. I don’t have the capacity to go beyond my perception of what seems to be true. We can leave certainty to people who claim it’s possible and who boast of their own wisdom.

6. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (1.30). Translated by Tom Habinek (2012):

Who is there who does not mourn the death of those near to him primarily because he thinks they have been deprived of the benefits of life? Take away that belief and you take away mourning. People might feel hurt and distressed at their own loss, but that’s not the reason they go into mourning. Sorrowful weeping and lamentation communicate sadness that is based on our judgement that someone we cherished has been deprived of the good things of life — and senses that very loss.

7. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (1.62). Translated by Tom Habinek (2012):

Finally, consider the power of the mind to pursue the unknown, its capacity to create or invent. Do you think this ability is a compound of earthly matter, subject to death and decay? What about the person who exercised the highest type of wisdom, as Pythagoras would have it, and gave names to everything? or herded scattered men together and called them to lives of companionship, or divided the infinity of possible sounds into a small set of letters, or observed the paths of the stars, their forward motions and their standstills? All such men were great. Even greater were those who discovered food, clothing, shelter, ordered behavior, and defenses against wild animals. They tamed and civilized our species; thanks to them we passed from mere crafting of necessities to more elegant forms of life.

8. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (1.64). Translated by Tom Habinek (2012):

In my view, none of the more noteworthy human achievements has come about without divine influence. I don’t think a poet can proclaim his deep and ample song without heavenly inspiration. Eloquence needs a higher power to release its flood of resonant language and persuasive sayings. As for philosophy, the mother of all the arts, what else is it but the gift of the gods (to use Plato’s expression) or their discovery (to use mine).

9. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (1.75). Translated by Tom Habinek (2012):

For what else are we doing when we call the soul away from pleasure, that is to say, from the body; or from family property, which is the aid and attendant of the body; or from public affairs and every occupation? What – except calling it to itself, urging it to be with itself and drawing it away entirely from the body? To separate the soul from the body is the same thing as learning how to die. Let us practice this separation, let us us bind ourselves from our bodies and grow accustomed to dying.

10. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations (1.86). Translated by Tom Habinek (2012):

As for my friend Pompey, although he was gravely ill at Naples, he recovered. The Neapolitans responded by wearing wreaths; of course the residents at Puteoli did too. Folks came from the neighboring towns to offer congratulations. Frankly, it was a silly business, typically Greek, but a mark of good fortune nonetheless. If he had died on that occasion, would he have departed from good things or from bad? Surely from terrible things. For he wouldn’t have waged war with his father-in-law, he wouldn’t have taken up arms unprepared, he wouldn’t have abandoned his home, fled from Italy, and, after losing an army, fallen naked onto the sword and hands of his slaves. His children wouldn’t have worn themselves out weeping, his property wouldn’t belong to his conquerors. Had he passed away on that occasion, he would have died in the fullness of fortune; but thanks to the extension of his life, how many huge and unbelievable calamities he had to endure! These are the sorts of things death allows us to escape—because if they haven’t yet happened, they still can. But people don’t think they’ll encounter such misfortune. Everybody expects to have the good luck of Metellus, as if more of us are lucky than unlucky or any certainty exists in human affairs! As if it’s wiser to hope than to fear!

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