philosophy

Cicero’s ‘De Natura Deorum.’

1. Harley 4662. 15th c. manuscript containing Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. White vine initial ‘C’. Image: British Library.

2. P. A. Brunt, ‘Philosophy and Religion in the Late Republic.’ Philosophia Togata I (1989), pp175:

‘Romans were certainly conscious that philosophic teaching was at variance with inherited religious practices and beliefs. For example, Varro (as we know through St. Augustine) followed an unidentified Greek thinker in distinguishing three types of theology, three ways of giving an account of the divine: mythical, natural, and political. Mythical theology was purveyed by the poets, natural by the philosophers, and political in the laws an civil customs of the state. Of course the poets told and interpreted the myths in various ways, the theories of the philosophers were diverse, and each people had its own gods and cults, though often ready enough, and none readier than the Romans to equate their own with foreign deities or to borrow from other peoples; still in Cicero’s epigram ‘sua cuique religio, nostra nobis’ (Flac. 69).’

3a. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (1.1). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

There are many issues in philosophy which to this day have by no means been adequately resolved. But there is one enquiry, Brutus, which is particularly difficult and obscure, as you are well aware. This concerns the nature of the gods, the noblest of studies for the human mind to grasp, and one vital for the regulation of religious observance. On this question, the pronouncements of highly learned men are so varied and so much at odds with each other that inevitably they strongly suggest that the explanation is human ignorance, and that the Academics have been wise to withhold assent on matters of such uncertainty; for what can be more degrading than rash judgement, and what can be so rash and unworthy of the serious and sustained attention of a philosopher, as either to hold a false opinion or to defend without hesitation propositions inadequately examined or grasped?

3b. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (1.9). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

A further incentive to embark on these studies was provided by the mental depression induced by the savage and crippling blow inflicted by fortune. Had I been able to devise some more effective alleviation, I should not have taken refuge in this. But I could find no better means of exploiting this plan of action than by devoting myself not merely to a course of reading, but also to grappling with the whole philosophy. The easiest way to gain acquaintance with all its constituent parts and branches is to deal with the topics fully in writing, for the arguments follow an ordered sequence in a remarkable way, each being clearly linked to its predecessor and all of them fitting closely in association with each other.

4. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.93). Translated by  P. G. Walsh (1998):

I cannot but express astonishment at this, that anyone could convince himself that certain solid, indivisible bodies are borne along by their thrust and weight, and that from the chance collision of these bodies is created a universe supremely embellished and beautiful. In my view, anyone who imagines that this could have happened, must logically have believe that if countless numbers of the twenty-one letters of the alphabet, fashioned in gold or in some other substance, were thrown into the same receptacle and then shaken out upon the ground, they could form the Annals of Ennius made immediately readable before our eyes. Yet I doubt if as much as a single line could be so assembled by chance.

5a. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.12). Translated by  P. G. Walsh (1998):

Augurs wield great authority, and we must surely grant that the soothsayers’ skill is divinely inspired. Any person observing these examples, and countless others of the same kind, would surely be compelled to admit that gods exist. People who employ spokesmen must themselves assuredly exist, and since the gods have spokesmen, we must conceded that gods exist. Perhaps it may be objected that all does not turn out as predicted. But we do not argue that there is no art of medicine, simply because all sick persons do not get better! The gods reveal signs of future events, and if individuals go astray in interpreting these, the fault lies not with the nature of the gods, but with the inferences made by humans. So there is a general agreement amongst all persons of every nation. All have an innate conviction that gods exist, for it is, so to say, engraved on their hearts.

5b. Cicero, De Divinatione (1.15). Translated by W. A. Falconer (1923):

Who could suppose that frogs had this foresight? And yet they do have by nature some faculty of premonition, clear enough of itself, but too dark for human comprehension [Cic., Prognostica]:

Slow, clumsy oxen, their glances upturned to the light of the heavens,
Sniff at the air with their nostrils and know it is freighted with moisture.

I do not ask why, since I know what happens.

Now ’tis a fact that the evergreen mastic, e’er burdened with leafage,
Thrice is expanding and budding and thrice producing its berries;
Triple its signs for the purpose of showing three seasons for ploughing.

Now do I ever enquire why this tree alone blooms three times, or why it makes the appearance of its blossoms accord with my knowledge that it does, although I may not know why.

6. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.70). Translated by  P. G. Walsh (1998):

So do you now realize how the admirable and useful discoveries about the natural world have resulted in the creation of false and fictitious deities? This process has given rise to false beliefs, confused misapprehension, and superstitions which are virtually old wives’ tales. We are informed what the gods look like, how old they are, what clothes they wear and what arms they bear, as well as about their family backgrounds, marriages, and kinships; all these details about them are reduced to the level of human frailties. They are even presented as being emotionally disturbed, for we are told of their lusts, anxieties, and outbursts of anger; those tales have it that they also participate in wars and battles, not merely as in the Homeric accounts where they separate and take sides on behalf of opposing armies, but also waging their private wars, for example with the Titans, and with the Giants. These idiotic narratives induce idiotic beliefs; they are utterly unprofitable and frivolous.

7. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.60-62). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

With some justification, however, both the wisest men of Greece and our own ancestors have set up and lent names to many other divine natures because of the great benefits which they have conferred. They did this because they believed that anything which bestows some great service on the human race did not originate without divine beneficence. So they then applied the name of the deity itself to what that deity had brought forth. This is why we call corn Ceres, and wine Liber, as in that tag of Terence [Eunuchus 732]:

Ceres and Liber, if not there,
The heat of Venus do impair.

A further instance is when some concepts embodies a greater significance; its title then acknowledges that significance as divine. Examples are Faith and Mind, both of which we observe have been recently enshrined on the capitol by M. Aemilius Scaurus, Faith having earlier been lent divine status by Aulus Atilius Caiatinus. Before your eyes stands a temple of Virtue and Honor, which was restored by Marcus Marcellus, and which was dedicated many years earlier by Quintus Maximus during the war with Liguria. Need I mention the temples of Wealth, Safety, Concord, Freedom, Victory? In each case the impact of these concepts was so great that it could be controlled only by a god, and thus the concepts themselves gained the titles of gods. Desire, Pleasure, and Sexual Joy have similarly been deified; these are vicious and unnatural forces, even if Velleius thinks otherwise, for these very vices rage too fiercely, and banish our natural instincts. So these gods which spawned these several blessings have owed their divine status to the great benefits which they bestowed, and the power residing in each deity is indicated by the names which I cited a moment ago.”

8. Cicero, De Natura Deorum (2.167). Translated by P. G. Walsh (1998):

Our conclusion is that no great man ever existed without a measure of divine inspiration. We are not to reject this thesis just because a storm has damaged someone’s cornfields or vineyards, or because misfortune has deprived a person of one of life’s benefits, inducing us to consider the recipient of such misfortune as the victim of divine hatred or neglect. The gods attend to important issues, and disregard minor things.

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