Cicero’s Academica, part I


Marcus Tullius Cicero is one of our best sources concerning the early and middle Stoas, i.e., the period of the evolution of Stoicism that goes from the founding of the sect by Zeno of Citium in Athens, circa 300 BCE, to the period of Panaetius (185–109 BCE) and Posidonius (135–51 BCE), the latter being one of Cicero’s teachers.

Yet, Cicero himself was an Academic Skeptic, not a Stoic, despite his general sympathy for Stoic philosophy. The reason to look at Academica (“The Academics”), then, is to learn more about a different practical philosophy and how it differentiated itself from Stoicism.

“Skepticism” is a rather vague term, which indicated a number of different philosophical positions in the ancient world, and that today refers mostly to so-called scientific skeptics, i.e., people who are critical of notions such as the paranormal, astrology, UFOs, and so forth. While I consider myself a skeptic in the latter sense, that’s not what we are going to talk about today.

The Academic Skeptics where named after Plato’s Academy, which is a bit weird, since Plato was definitely not a skeptic about the possibility of human nature. Indeed, this was an unusual middle phase for the Academy, characterized mostly by the figures of Carneades, Arcesilaus, and Philo of Larissa. It was followed by a return of sorts to Plato with what we call today Neo-Platonism.

In what sense, then, where the Academic Skeptics, well, “Academic”? Because they were inspired by the Socratic notion that the wise person admits that he does not know anything, unlike all those fools who Socrates had a good time exposing as such. (And who, in due course, killed him for it.)

Arguably the most influential of the Academic Skeptics was Carneades, who was inspired to develop his doctrines in direct response to the Stoic Chrysippus. Carneades articulated the notion of “acatalepsia,” according to which there is no necessary correspondence between our perceptions and the objects we perceive. Which means we should doubt all our sensory perception. Since there is no criterion of truth (contra the Stoic position), then there is no possibility of knowledge. This in turns means that the wise person ought to practice “epoche,” or suspension of judgment. Which is the Academic Skeptic’s path to a eudaimonic life. If we suspend judgment on everything then we will not be emotionally attached to anything, which means that we will be able to achieve ataraxia, or lack of disturbance. However, Carneades saved himself from the more extreme position of radical skepticism (and therefore from the Stoic accusation that he would have no reason to act in any way) by introducing the notion that certain “impressions” are more probable than others, and therefore that certain judgments are more likely true than others. (I hope to soon devote a separate post to the discussions between Academic Skeptics and Stoics, arguing with John Sellars that in the end they converged to very similar positions.)

The above summary can serve as background to the examination of selected passages from Cicero’s Academica, to which I now turn. The treatise was written in 45 BCE, two years before Cicero was killed on the order of Mark Anthony, and during a period of incredible productivity in terms of philosophical writings. What has survived consists of two parts, so-called book I and book II. In the first book (the subject of the current post) Cicero explains to his friends Lucullus and Catulus the Stoic take on knowledge. He then turns to laying out the skeptical position. The second book (next post) is largely devoted to the presentation of Carneades’ ideas and the above mentioned notion of probability, but still discusses a number of Stoic notions, again in contrast to the Academic ones.

One of the striking quotes from the beginning book I is in effect a personal explanation by Cicero of why he wrote the treatise in the first place:

Indeed, he was going through a very tough period in his life, his political career seemingly (but not really, as it turned out) over, and his beloved daughter Tullia having just died.

Cicero then tackles his subject matter, beginning by telling us that Socrates represented a turning point for philosophy, something still acknowledged by historians of philosophy today, with their acceptance of the (increasingly challenged) term “Pre-Socratics”:

Socrates was apparently initially interested in the broader issues that had kept the Pre-Socratics busy, such as natural philosophy and metaphysics (think of Thales, or Heraclitus). But later on in his career had decided that the only things really worth focusing on where human affairs, and particularly what we would today call ethics and, to some extent, political philosophy. The Stoics wouldn’t radically disagree with such notion, but qualified it significantly. They did have an active interest in other branches of philosophy (metaphysics, logic), but that interest was subordinated to the ethics: we need to have a grasp of how the world works, and we need to learn how to reason correctly, otherwise we are likely to mis-live our lives.

This is the classic Stoic distinction of “goods” into an A-class (populated by virtue alone), a B-class (the preferred and dispreferred indifferents, like health, education, wealth, etc.), and a C-class (things that truly have nothing to do with virtue, like one’s preference for a certain flavor of gelato). The B-class is crucial for two reasons: putting externals among things that have value, and yet are indifferent to one’s moral worth is what distinguishes Stoicism from both Aristotelianism (where some externals are considered A-class goods) and Cynicism (where the B-class disappears and everything other than virtue is truly neutral).

Cicero then continues to explain the basics of Stoicism as laid out by Zeno:

Again we see here Stoicism differentiating itself from Aristotelianism, with an emphasis on the use of reason to perfect virtue, instead of nature (i.e., one’s innate constitution) and habit. We also have an emphasis on the unity of virtues, the idea that practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance are not four distinct notions, but rather four aspects of the same underlying thing, which we may call wisdom broadly construed. That said, and in a nod to the Aristotelians, Zeno does say that we need to constantly practice virtue in order to retain it, which is not radically different from Aristotle’s notion of habit — except that it is reason itself that leads us to this practice.

This is a nice and succinct statement of a fundamental aspect of Stoic physics: materialism. For the Stoics, everything that can be said to exist has to be part of the cosmic web of cause-effect, either by being a cause, or by being an effect. And only material things can be causes or effects. (What of abstract entities, then? The Stoics thought that those are real, but don’t exist; rather, they “subsist,” a nice way to both account for abstracta and retain a materialism metaphysics.)

This last quote from book I of Academica gives us a short introduction to Stoic psychology, about which two things need to be noted. First, when we perceive things in the world, we are free to grant or deny our “assent,” by an act of the will. This is important because it means that human beings’ agency resides precisely in our ability to agree, or not, with whatever impressions our mind is exposed to. For instance, I may see a fine example of cannoli in the window of a shop in Sicily, and be tempted by the strong impression the cannoli made on me to give assent to the proposition that it would be good to walk in, purchase the cannoli and eat them. But I am a (somewhat) rational being, so I realize that eating the cannoli would not help my waistline, which isn’t just a matter of aesthetics, but of long-term health. And long-term health is a preferred indifferent, because it allows me to practice virtue better and longer (it would be a dispreferred indifferent if I were a psychopath bent on harming others). So, all things considered, I ought to deny assent to the impression that eating cannoli is good for me.

The second thing to notice, and on which we’ll return in the second part of this essay, is the Stoic distinction among ignorance, opinion, and knowledge. Knowledge is defined by Zeno as that which is comprehended by the senses and cannot possibly be denied. These are the so-called kataleptic impressions, like the notion that it is day outside (if it is), or that two plus two equals four (right, that’s not the result of sense perception, not all kataleptic impressions are triggered by external objects). Knowledge is rare among human beings, who mostly dwell in one of the other two categories: ignorance (defined simply as the opposite of knowledge) and opinion. Opinion is “compatible” with both falsity and knowledge. I may hold to some opinions that will turn out to be true, even though I don’t have sufficient reason to conclude that they are true. Contrariwise, I may hold to some opinions that will turn out to be false, even though I think I have good reasons to consider them true. Since only the sage can possibly know that his kataleptic impressions are true, this is a call for the rest of us to stay humble: by all means, develop and refine your opinions (otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to make decisions and act in the world), but hold on to them only lightly, because you ain’t no sage.

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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