Cicero tans Philip Freeman

ISBN 13: 978-0-691-18365-7

Princeton  £13.99

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

A dual-language, 150 page extract from the work of Cicero highlighting in particular Balbus’s Stoicism. The final section is The Dream of Scipio in which the eponymous hero is taken on a tour of the heavens by his grandfather.  

The title is slightly misleading because, of course, Cicero belongs to the pre-Christian era and although during his time the Jews, who lived well in Rome, practised monotheism, the Romans believed in many gods. Reading this in our scientific age when every ten-year-old has heard of the Big Bang and knows that all life forms evolved, generates a certain degree of amusement, but also illustrates how our forbearers had to elaborate the best theory they could on the basis of what evidence they could glean and the intellectual procedures available.  

“…what could be more clear..,” says Balbus, “when we gaze at the sky and contemplate the heavens than that there is some divine power of surpassing intelligence…” 

The crucial words are “gaze” and “contemplate”. When that’s all you can do, Balbus’s conclusion is more or less inevitable. Looking at DNA through a microscope tends to suggest something else.  

“The gods have spoken, therefore we must agree that the gods exist.” The gods speak through auguries, some of which fail, of course. But there’s a get out: medicine works even though some patients don’t recover. A nice example of a meta-theory compensating for a flawed one. The documentary method, as anthropologists call it. What’s interesting about this is its illustration of how people will clutch at any straw rather than ditch a beloved idea.  

There are four ways of knowing that gods exist. The last is the existence of order. Order must imply an ordering intelligence. Once again, now we know that at the level of the very small order breaks down we can see that familiarity with only the phenomenal leads to naïve theories. All the same, people can’t help elaborating them. Our need for explanations is wired in. Unfortunately it often leads to bizarre conclusions.  

The order of the universe can’t have been created by humans, therefore it must be the work of something superior to humans. Cicero and Balbus seemed to have little sense of how long our species has been around. There is a tacit assumption that the universe was made for man. Eels have been here a lot longer than us and will still be here long after we’re gone. Had Cicero known that would it have changed his view?  

A large, beautiful house can’t be built by mice or weasels, says Chryssipus, so it follows that the universe can’t be made by us. You would have to be mad to think so. For the Romans, there seems to have been a simple choice: either we made the universe or the gods. Also, whatever is higher is better. People who live in lowlands with “dense atmospheres” are dim-witted. Thus, humanity is stupid because it inhabits the lower realm of earth. In this way, human reason, recognised as the greatest of our faculties, was projected onto the universe.  

There are points at which the speculations get close to science: “…the primal heat of the universe does not derive its motion from some force outside itself, but is spontaneously moved by itself.” It might be said there’s an intuition of the Big Bang here. Today, physicists tell us that heat death will shut down the universe. The Romans were on the right track which perhaps suggests that our theories are bound to fit the limits of our cognition. Maybe our view of things is wayward, but the only view our minds are capable of. The Stoics believed the universe possesses perfect and absolute reason which is beyond our capacities. They recognised the limits of our cognition but couldn’t believe cognition had absolute limits. 

The stars must be alive: “..logically they must have both sensation and intelligence.” Valuing intelligence and reason made the Romans attribute it to burning balls of helium.  

“Pay no attention to what the common mob may say about you and place none of your hopes in human rewards,” Scipio is advised. This notion of some life beyond our earthly life may be responsible for much tragedy. Knowing that idea emerged from a facile projection of our capacities onto the non-living might help us shrug it off. Human rewards are all we have. Cicero couldn’t have imagined humanity had the power to make its own planet uninhabitable, but as we face that possibility, his efforts to understand the human place in the universe might help  us live within the limits he was trying to define.