Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations

Ruins of the theater at Tusculum

A series of short audio meditations on Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, written in 45 BCE, when Cicero was 62 years old and had just lost his daughter Tullia in child labor. The Disputations address five topics from a Stoic perspective: On the contempt of death; On bearing pain; On grief of mind; On other perturbations of the mind; Whether virtue alone be sufficient for a happy life.

I.5-6: Cicero disputes with his friend about whether we should be afraid of the afterlife, and concludes that we will not exist, and therefore we will not be feeling anything. It is superstition that generates fears of death.

I.6: We seem to be awfully bothered by the fact that we will one day no longer exist. And yet, we didn’t suffer from the equally true fact that for a long time we didn’t exist.

I.7-8: Nature has presented us with this bargain: either not being born at all, or being born a mortal. Everything else is the fantasy of priests bent on scaring and controlling us, as Epicurus put it.

I.9: Cicero mentions a number of accounts of the nature of the soul, explaining that the Stoic take is that the soul is a physical attribute responsible for our faculty of judgment. And it perishes with us.

I.11: How, then, can you, or why do you, assert that you think that death is an evil, when it either makes us happy, in the case of the soul continuing to exist, or, at all events, not unhappy, in the case of our becoming destitute of all sensation?

I.13: Why exactly to we grieve when loved ones are gone? Is it about them, about us? Does it depend on what we think will happen to them after death?

I.30: For the whole life of a philosopher is, as [Socrates] says, a meditation on death.

I.34: Death, says Cicero, overtakes us quickly, and it is therefore endurable. It is the thought of leaving people and things behind that is painful. But the Stoics have a unique argument for why we should overcome that fear.

I.35: Cicero argues that sometimes people live too long for their own good. Which makes the Stoic point that life itself is not an intrinsic good, but the means by which we exercise virtue.

I.36: It never occurs to a man that such a disaster may befall himself. As if the number of the happy exceeded that of the miserable; or as if there were any certainty in human affairs.

I.38: The process of nature is this: that in the same manner as our birth was the beginning of things with us, so death will be the end; and as we were not concerned with anything before we were born, so neither shall we be after we are dead.

I.39: Away, then, with those follies, such as that it is miserable to die before our time. What time do you mean? That of nature? But she has only lent you life, as she might lend you money, without fixing any certain time for its repayment.

I.39: Aristotle discovered some insects whose entire life lasts one day. Compared to the vastness of time, our lives are not much longer. The question is whether we are able to live them fully.

I.43. Diogenes the Cynic famously didn’t care what happened to his body after death, since he believed there would be no sensation. That’s an excellent reason to check your driver’s license and see if you signed up for organ donation.

I.45. People carry out all sorts of rites to “take care” of the dead, even though there is no one to take care of. How about, instead, taking care of the people you love while they are still alive?

I.47. Cicero recounts an anecdote involving Trophonius and Agamedes, who built the temple of Apollo at Delphi. They asked the god for whatever was best, and the god granted it: three days later, they were found dead.

I.49: How can that be miserable for one, which all must of necessity undergo?

II.1: Cicero explains to his friend Brutus why he writes about philosophy, and why in order to do so well he has to be acquainted with a large variety of fields of inquiry. Philosophical knowledge leads to the good life.

II.2: We who pursue only probabilities, and who cannot go beyond that which seems really likely, can confute others without obstinacy, and are prepared to be confuted ourselves without resentment.

II.4: Some people have a natural talent for music. But everyone can learn to play an instrument, even if they don’t get to perform at Carnegie Hall. The same goes for philosophy: everyone can benefit from it, but not everyone is a sage.

II.4: How few philosophers will you meet with whose life is conformable to the dictates of reason! Who look on their profession, not as a means of displaying their learning, but as a rule for their own practice!

II.5: Cicero and Brutus begin a conversation on the nature of pain. Brutus immediately concedes that pain isn’t the worst possible evil. Infamy, which indicates a bad character, is to be avoided even at the cost of pain.

II.6: Cicero on Epicureanism: “What disgrace, what ignominy, would he not submit to that he might avoid pain, when persuaded that it was the greatest of evils?”

II.7: I cannot allow the wise person to be so indifferent about pain. If they bear it with courage, it is sufficient. For pain is, beyond all question, sharp, bitter, against nature, hard to submit to and to bear.

II.11: Poetry and fiction tug at our emotions. They are pleasant and powerful, but they may also be manipulative. While Plato’s solution to ban poets is not a good idea, we should keep our critical sense on guard so not to be manipulated.

II.13: For the Epicureans virtue is instrumental in achieving ataraxia, a life of tranquillity. For the Stoics ataraxia is a byproduct, a result of the fact that the virtuous person can take on any challenge in life with a serene mind.

II.14: I do not deny pain to be pain—for were that the case, in what would courage consist?—but I say it should be assuaged by patience, if there be such a thing as patience: if not, why do we speak so in praise of philosophy?

II.15: Cicero suggests that getting used to one kind of discomfort or pain will allow us to more easily bear another kind. This is the basis for some modern Stoic exercises, like taking a cold shower.

II.20: Health has value, and is therefore preferred in the Stoic system. However, it is not an intrinsic good, and if in order to stay healthy you have to cheat others, you should accept the chances that you might get sick.

II.21: While physical pain may be inevitable, our mental attitude makes a significant difference — for better or worse, depending on how we choose to see things.

II.22: Cicero tells the story of Zeno of Elea, a philosopher who withstood torture and faced death in order to overthrow tyranny. Remember that, the next time you complain about a toothache…

II.24: Cicero refers to the story of the Theban general Epaminondas, who sacrificed his life to free his people from the Spartan yoke. If he was capable of that, surely we can withstand the pains and setbacks of ordinary life.

II.25: Cicero tells the story of how Dionysius quit Stoicism because he was experiencing chronic pain, and how Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, chastised him for not understanding the Stoic take on the issue.

II.25: Posidonius was once afflicted by severe pain, and yet invited Pompey to discuss philosophy. He said: “Pain, it is to no purpose; notwithstanding you are troublesome, I will never acknowledge you an evil.”

II.26: If you are satisfied with yourself when you have approved of what is right, you will not only have the mastery over yourself (which I recommended to you just now), but over everybody, and everything.

III.1: What reason shall I assign, O Brutus, why, as we consist of mind and body, the art of curing the body should be so much sought after, but the medicine of the mind should not have been so much the object of inquiry?

III.1: The Stoics put forth the notion that we are naturally virtuous (i.e., prosocial), and that it is society that leads us astray. Modern science confirms their intuition only in part. The fact remains, though, that the choice is ours.

III.2: Popular fame is hasty and inconsiderate, and generally commends wicked and immoral actions, and throws discredit upon the appearance and beauty of honesty by assuming a resemblance of it.

III.3: There are more disorders of the mind than of the body, and they are of a more dangerous nature. And what disorders can be worse to the body than these two distempers of the mind, weakness and desire?

III.4-5: Cicero explains the Stoic “paradox” that everyone but the sage is mad. In the sense of not being reasonable. The good news is that we can work on being less mad, every day.

III.5: They who are run away with by their lust or anger have quitted the command over themselves.

III.7: Cicero presents an argument according to which grief is the result of lack of courage. As a modern Stoic, I beg to differ. Overcoming grief requires courage, but the feeling itself is natural and inevitable.

III.9: The word envy comes from Latin for “looking too closely into other people’s fortune.” Let us see why this is most definitely not a thing that a Stoic should indulge in.

III.10: Cicero makes an argument that the ideal Stoic, the sage, should feel neither envy nor pity. He was spectacularly wrong, and directly contradicted by Marcus Aurelius. Let’s see why.

III.11: Cicero gives us a classification of disturbances of the mind: when we think that something is good (now or in the future) but it actually isn’t. And when we think that something is bad (now or in the future) but it actually isn’t.

III.13: Grief, Cicero tells us, is a highly destructive emotion. While we shouldn’t go around telling others not to grieve, we ourselves should take care to react differently to the loss of a loved one.

III.14: Cicero tells us that Anaxagoras, the Presocratic philosopher, was ready to accept the death of his son, because he had always known he was a mortal. This isn’t lack of care, it’s mental preparedness.

III.15: There are two ways to think about potential future setbacks: emotionally, and rationally. The first approach only causes perpetual distress. The second one prepares our mind to deal with what may be coming.

III.18: Cicero says that if one is distraught she should read Socrates rather than listen to music. I disagree. Music may be soothing in the long run. Socrates is the long term cure.

III.19: I should agree with Epicurus that we ought to be called off from grief to contemplate good things, if we could only agree upon what was good.

III.20: Cicero presents three major objections to Epicureanism, which he argues is a fundamentally incoherent philosophy. See if you agree with his analysis.

III.23: [We can point] out that nothing has happened but what is common to human nature; [which] does not only inform us what human nature is, but implies that all things are tolerable which others have borne and are bearing.

III.27: You see, the evil is in opinion, not in nature.

III.27: Cicero gives an example of people suddenly setting grief aside because they are absorbed in an urgent task. He infers that, therefore, grief is a matter of opinion, not of nature.

III.29: Most people appear to be unaware what contradictions these things are full of. They commend those who die calmly, but they blame those who can bear the loss of another with the same calmness.

III.31: Grief arises from an opinion of some present evil, which includes this belief, that it is incumbent on us to grieve.

III.31: Cicero very clearly and succinctly explains the difference among five Hellenistic takes on grief, including two Stoic ones, one by Cleanthes (the second head of the Stoa) and one by Chrysippus (the third head).

IV.4: The sage will achieve a state of apatheia, meaning lack of disturbance from unhealthy emotions like fear, anger, and hatred. But she will also experience healthy emotions, like love, joy, and a sense of justice.

IV.5-6: Zeno’s definition, then, is this: “A perturbation” (which he calls “pathos”) “is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, and against nature.”

IV.6: Where this strong desire is consistent and founded on prudence, it is by the Stoics called volition. And this they define it thus: volition is a reasonable desire.

IV.6: If our concerns are in agreement with reason, they are healthy; but fear is not in agreement with reason, and it is therefore unhealthy.

IV.7: Cicero gives a nice rundown of the Stoic theory of emotions, which holds up well according to modern cognitive science. Emotions have cognitive components, so we can challenge them when they are not good for us.

IV.8-9: Cicero continues his classification of the emotions as seen by the Stoics. Envy, for instance, is a type of grief generated by the mistaken belief that the prosperity of another is an injury to ourselves.

IV.9: Intemperance, which is in opposition to reason, inflames, confounds, and puts every state of the mind into a violent motion. Thus, grief and fear, and every other perturbation of the mind, have their rise from intemperance.

IV.11: Money, fame, and sexual pleasure are not problematic per se. They may be preferred or dispreferred, so long as they don’t control us and lead us away from a virtuous life. Own your desires and pleasures, do not be own by them.

IV.13: Cicero says that our mind becomes sick when our opinions and judgments are not coherent with each other, just like our body becomes sick when one of its parts is in disharmony with the rest.

IV.15: There is an important distinction to be made between instrumental reason, which is morally neutral, and what the Stoics call “right” reason, or virtue, which comes with a built-in moral prescription.

IV.18-19: For whoever prescribes bounds to vice admits a part of it, which, as it is odious of itself, becomes the more so as it stands on slippery ground, and, being once set forward, glides on headlong, and cannot by any means be stopped.

IV.22: Take care how you make courage to depend in the least on rage. For anger is altogether irrational, and that is not courage which is void of reason.

IV.24: What is Chrysippus’s definition? Fortitude, says he, is the knowledge of all things that are bearable, or an affection of the mind which bears and supports everything in obedience to the chief law of reason without fear.

IV.25: Anger is in no wise becoming in an orator, though it is not amiss to affect it. Do you imagine that I am angry when in pleading I use any extraordinary vehemence and sharpness?

IV.26: We should not take sorrows on ourselves upon another’s account; but we ought to relieve others of their grief if we can.

IV.27-28: Certainly the most effectual cure is to be achieved by showing that all perturbations are of themselves vicious, and have nothing natural or necessary in them.

IV.29: Cicero advocates a standard Stoic technique: when facing adversity, remind yourself that many others have experienced something similar and have endured it. So can you.

IV.31: One thing alone seems to embrace the question of all that relates to the perturbations of the mind—the fact, namely, that all perturbations are in our own power; that they are taken up upon opinion, and are voluntary.

IV.34: The Stoics, in truth, say, not only that their wise person may be a lover, but they even define love itself as an endeavor to originate friendship out of the appearance of beauty.

IV.35: Whenever we catch ourselves being too focused on trivial or unimportant things, we can willfully redirect our attention on the sort of activities that are truly good for us and for other people.

IV.37: Where, then, are they who say that anger has its use? Can madness be of any use? But still it is natural. Can anything be natural that is against reason?

V.1: If virtue were but the slave of fortune, I am afraid that it would seem desirable rather to offer up prayers, than to rely on our own confidence in virtue as the foundation for our hope of a happy life.

V.1: We, who increase every approaching evil by our fear, and every present one by our grief, choose rather to condemn the nature of things than our own errors.

V.3: Cicero tells us that Pythagoras was the first to use the word philosopher and to explain what philosophy consists of. The Stoics will partially agree with Pythagoras’ definition, but the disagreement is crucial.

V.4: Socrates was the first who brought down philosophy from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, and good and evil.

V.6: Cicero makes a strong argument, based on Socratic and Stoic positions, for why virtue is necessary and sufficient for “happiness,” if we translate the Greek word eudaimonia as “the life worth living.”

V.10: We are not, therefore, to form our judgment of philosophers from detached sentences, but from their consistency with themselves, and their ordinary manner of talking.

V.16: Cicero makes one of a number of arguments for why virtue is the only guarantor of a happy life. Let’s examine the validity of the argument’s structure and the soundness of its premises.

V.21: Cicero tells the famous story of Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, and one of his flatterers, Damocles, who learns the hard way that what may look like a happy life is actually nothing of the sort.

V.27: Shall virtue, then, yield to pain? Shall the happy life of a wise person succumb to it? Good Gods! How base would this be! Spartan boys will bear to have their bodies torn by rods without uttering a groan.

V.30: Cicero gives us a rundown of the major Hellenistic schools, which differed in the way they understood eudaimonia, the life worth living.

V.30: There are three kinds of goods: the greatest being those of the mind; the next best those of the body; the third are external goods, as the Peripatetics call them, and the Old Academics differ very little from them.

V.32: Socrates, when on one occasion he saw a great quantity of gold and silver carried in a procession, cried out, “How many things are there which I do not want!”

V.34: They relate, too, of Socrates, that, once when he was walking very fast till the evening, on his being asked why he did so, his reply was that he was purchasing an appetite by walking, that he might sup the better.

V.35: Cicero tells us about a letter written by Plato during his stint in Syracuse, explaining why temperance is the most fundamental of the four cardinal virtues.

V.37: Cicero explains why being sent out of one’s country is not a hardship worth worrying about, and tells us that Socrates regarded the whole world as his country.

V.38: The reply of Antipater the Cyrenaic to some women who bewailed his being blind, though it is a little too obscene, is not without its significance. “What do you mean?,” said he, “do you think the night can furnish no pleasure?”

V.40: We are all truly deaf with regard to those innumerable languages which we do not understand. Then, as I before referred the blind to the pleasures of hearing, so I may the deaf to the pleasures of sight.

V.40: Cicero reminds us that – when life is truly unbearable and we can no longer act virtuously – we have one last escape route, the guarantor of our ultimate freedom: death itself.