'Tusculum Disputations' by Marcus Tullius Cicero (45 BC)

Mid 1st Century AD bust of Cicero

A selection from Marcus Tullius (Tully) Cicero's Tusculum Disputations, 45 BC.

The Tusculans was composed in the last year of Caesar's dictatorship and is dedicated to Brutus (who would soon become Caesar's slayer). In that same year Cicero suffered, amongst other reverses in fortune, the loss of his daughter, Tullia. The Tusculans thus became a way for him to console himself over his misfortunes. In his treatise On Divination, Cicero describes the contents of these books as "examining the essentials for a happy life."

It is not clear who the two interlocuters of the Socratic dialogue are, although manuscripts from the sixth century onwards indicate them, by their Greek initials, as 'Magister' and 'Discipulus' ('master' and 'pupil'). The speakers have not been indicated in this selection as most of it derives from the monologues in which Cicero expresses himself.

Cicero was regarded as Rome's greatest orator, with
Quintilian famously declaring that 'Cicero' was "not the name of a man, but of eloquence itself", a proclamation which would be born out over the centuries ahead.

The Latin Church Fathers drew heavily upon the works of the Pagan Philosopher. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions, spoke of undergoing two conversions: the first, to Cicero's Philosophy (through his reading of Hortensius, which is now lost), and the second, to Christianity. Many of his works are replete with references to Cicero's writings. Amrose's On the Duties of Ministers, an early manual for the clergy, was modelled after Cicero's On Duties.
confessed his love for the Pagan Philospher in one of the letters he wrote while living in a monastry, describing a vision of being brought before the judgement seat and God demanding to know from him whether he was "a follower of Cicero or of Christ?" (I will include an extract from this letter in the Appendix).

Today, Tully (as his name is often anglicized) is one of the most popular Roman writers among US senators and statesmen.

Book V

...the book you [he is addressing Brutus] wrote with such care and dedicated to myself,... have shown me the strength of your conviction that in order to live a happy life the only thing we need is moral goodness [Brutus's essay On Virtue is now lost].
Certainly, after all the varied blows of fortune that have descended on our heads, it is a hard thing to prove! [Though] the entire range of philosophy contains nothing more essential or more sublime.

...if such a thing as moral goodness really exists... then it surely possesses the ability to rise above the accidents that can befall human beings. It can look down upon them all, with complete contempt for the hazards of mortal life... .
We mortals, however, do not come up to this standard. When misfortune appear on the horizon, we exaggerate them from sheer fright, and when they are right upon us we exaggerate them once more, because of the pain they are causing us. These feelings impel us to put the blame on circumstances when what we ought to be blaming is a deficiency in our own character.
The cure for this fault and for all our other failings and offences is philosophy. From my earlist youth I threw myself into its arms... . And now again, in my present miseries, when I am tossed by all the fury of the tempest, I have sought refuge in the very same harbour from which I first set out to sea.
Philosophy! The guide of our lives, the explorer of all that is good in us, exterminator of all evil! [...] It was you who brought cities into existence. [...] Inventor of laws, teacher of morals, creator of order! [...] Your aid is the most precious in all the world. It is you who have brought peace into our lives; you who have relieved us of the fear of death.

The people who first created civilization were the philosophers.

...human life seemed to [Pythagoras] comparable with the festival to which people flocked from all over Greece in order to see those magnificent Games [The Olympic Games]. This is an occasion for which some people have gone into physical training in the hope of winning the splendid distinction of a crown [of wild olive], while others are attracted by the prospect of buying or selling for profit, whereas a further category again... are interested in winning neither applause nor profit, but come merely for the sake of the spectacle... . And we too, said Pythagoras, as we enter this life from some other kind of existence [the 'metempsychosis' of Pythagoras: the soul is condemned to a cyle of reincarnation from which it can only be saved through the cultivation of a nobler way of life], behave like people who have moved out of town to join the crowds at this sort of show. Some of us are enslaved to glory, others to money. But there are also a few people who devote themselves wholly to the study of the universe, believing everything else to be trivial in comparison.

Socrates... took the initiative in summoning philosophy down from the heavens. He transferred it to the actual cities inhabited by mankind, and moved it right into people's own homes; and he compelled it to ask questions about how one ought to live and behave, and what is good and what is bad. ...the greatness of his genius... [has] been immortalized in Plato's writings... . The school I myself have particularly followed is the one which in my view comes closest to Socrates in its methods... .

When there is not the smallest breeze to ruffle the waves of the sea one speaks of it as calm: and in the same way you are entitled to describe the condition of the soul as peaceful when no agitation disturbs its traquility. If, therefore, there exists any man who is capable of regarding all the hazards and accidents of fortune and human life as endurable, ...troubled neither by fear nor by distress nor by passion, a man whom all empty pleasures of whatever kind leave utterly cold-- then, if such a person exists, there is every reason why he should be happy.

...philosophy will ensure that the man who has obeyed its laws shall never fail to be armed against all the hazards of fortune: that he shall possess and control, within his own self, every possible guarantee for a satisfactory and happy life. In other words, that he shall always be a happy man.

The certainty that there is no gift in the world which can offer the same assurances as moral goodness is admirably illustrated by the story of Xerxes. Here was a man loaded with every privilege and favour that fortune could offer. But all his cavalry and infantry and fleets of ships and boundless stores of gold were not enough to satisfy him. And so he offered a reward to anyone who could discover some pleasure that was altogether new. Yet, even if such a thing had been found, he still would not have been content. For such cravings cannot ever be sated.

One philosopher after another writes books or delivers lectures attacking Theophrastus because in his Callisthenes he expresses approval of the saying: 'Chance, and not wisdom, rules the life of men.' His critics declare that this is the most demoralizing utterance that any philosopher has ever made. Quite true! And yet, all the same, the declaration is thoroughly logical. For if so much good depends on the body, and so much else depends on sheer external accident, it is entirely consistent to conclude that chance, which is thus seen to dominate physical and non-physical occurrences alike, must be more powerful than any rational factor.

[Epicurus] made... a splendid observation: 'Over a man who is wise, chance has little power.' But the man who said that is also on record as asserting that pain is not merely the greatest of evils but the only evil that there is!

The same sentiment was expressed even more felicitously by his supporter Metrodorus. 'I've got the better of you, Fortune!', he declared. 'I've captured and sealed off every possible route by which you could approach me. You can't get anywhere near!' [...] According to [Metrodorus], the supreme good is sound physical health plus the confident hope that nothing will interfere with it in the future. How on earth, then, can you suppose that you have cut off Fortune's access? Your ideal might easily vanish into this air at any moment.

...since they are so keen on this fine and imposing epithet 'wise', with its echoes of Pythagoras and Socrates and Plato, it is imperative that they should also make every effort to stop being dazzled by physical strength, health, beauty, riches, honours and possessions. They must learn to view these things with contempt instead. If they succeed in doing this, they will be able to disregard the so-called 'evils' that are the opposites of those alleged advantages [physical health, etc.]: and then they really will be in a position to proclaim, as loudly as they like, that chance and public opinion and pain and poverty hold no terrors for them, and that they regard themselves as entirely self-sufficient and refuse to attach the designation 'good' to anything they do not completely control themselves.

Supplement [courage] with self-control-- the power to keep every emotion in check-- and then every ingredient you could need for the happy life is yours. For you will have courage as your defence against distress and fear, and self-control to liberate you from sensuality and keep you free of immoderate cravings.

...I would ask you to consider the significance of those famous scales of Critolaus. If the good things of the spirit, the morally good things, are placed in one of the scales, and what he regards as the good things of the body plus accidental, external good things in the other, he maintains that the first scale sinks so much lower than the second that the whole earth and all the oceans together would not be enough to redress the balance.

Consider the case of Dionyius. He became tyrant of Syracuse... . It was a superb and immensely wealthy city, he held it down in slavery.

Dionsius's determination to maintain his tyrannical rule virtually caused him to shut himself up in a prison.

Round his own bedroom he arranged for a wide trench to be dug; it could only be crossed by a wooden gangway, which he himself drew inside the door every time he wanted to shut himself in.

Indeed, Dionysius himself pronounced judgement on whether he was happy or not. He was talking to one of his flatterers, a man called Damocles, who enlarged on the monarch's wealth and power, the splendours of his despotic regime, the immensity of his resources, and the magnificence of his palace. Never, he declared, had there been a happier man. 'Very well, Damocles,' replied the ruler, 'since my life strikes you as so attractive, would you care to have a taste of it yourself and see what my way of living is really like?' Damocles agreed with pleasure. And so Dionysius had him installed on a golden couch covered with a superb woven coverlet embroidered with beautiful designs, and beside the couch was placed an array of sideboards loaded with chased gold and silver plate. He ordered that boys, chosen for their exceptional beauty, should stand by and wait on Damocles at table, and they were instructed to keep their eyes fastened attentively upon his every sign. There were perfumes and garlands and incense, and the tables were heaped up with a most elaborate feast. Damocles thought himself a truly fortunate person. But in the midst of all this splendour, directly above the neck of the happy man, Dionysius arranged that a gleaming sword should be suspended from the ceiling, to which it was attached by a horsehair. [...] In the end he begged the tyrant to let him go, declaring that his desire to be happy had quite evaporated.
Dionyius was indicating clearly enough that happiness is out of the question if you are perpetually menaced by some terror.

...the satisfaction that comes from intense intellectual exercise-- ... is the most wonderful spiritual nourishment in the world.

...since the best part of a man is his mind, that, surely, must be where the 'best', the supreme good you are looking for, is located.

Happiness, I say again, will not tremble, however much it is tortured. Clinging steadfastly to its integrity, its self-control and above all its courage, with all the strenth of character and endurance that the word implies, happiness will not flinch even when the countenance of the execuationer himself is revealed. While the virtues, one and all, move fearlessly onwards to suffer the torments of the rack, happiness, I repeat, will scorn to linger behind outside the prison gates. For to be abandoned there alone and in isolation, separated from all that glorious company, would be the most digraceful and degrading thing in the world.

This is the sort of person a truly wise man has to be. He will never do anything he might regret-- or anything he does not want to do. Every action he performs will always be dignified, consistent, serious, upright. ...no event... will cause him surprise, or strike him as unexpected or strange. Whatever comes up, he will continue to apply his own standards; and when he has made a decision, he will abide by it. A happier condition than that I am unable to conceive.

...not being hampered by belonging to any one philosophical school, you are in the habit of picking up from this one and that whatever point you regard as closest to the truth.

...will insignificance or obscurity or unpopularity prevent a wise man from being happy? No! And, besides, we ought to ask ourselves whether the popular affection and glory we so greatly long to win are not more of a burden than a pleasure. [...] For it is imperative to understand that popular glory is not worth coveting for its own sake; and there is nothing very frightening about obscurity.

Flutists and harpists do not adjust their melody or rhythm according to the taste of the multitude, they base it on whta suits themselves. Why, then, should the wise man, who is the practioner of a far greater art, follow the pleasure of the crowd, instead of pursuing the truth without regard to popular pressures? Surely it is the height of foolishness to attach great importance to people in the mass, when in their individual capacities you look down on them as mere uneducated labourers [Cicero is echoing a remark which Socrates was said to have made to Alcibiades.]. The truly wise thing is to despise all our trivial ambitions, all our honours bestowed by the crowd-- even if these distinctions come when you have not asked for them. Our trouble is that we never do manage to look down on such honours until it is too late-- until we have reason to lament that we had not looked down on them before!

The natural philosopher Heraclitus tells a story about Hermodorus, of Ephesus. The fellow-citizens of Hermodorus expelled him from the city: and the philosopher declares that the entire Ephesian population out to have been deprived of their lives, because the occasion prompted them to make the following thoroughly deplorable pronouncement: 'No single individual among us,' they said, 'must ever be allowed to rise above the rest. Anyone who aspires to such a thing must go and live in another place, among other people.' You get that feeling in every community. People always hate anyone who is a better man than themselves.

What a lot of trouble one avoids if one refuses to have anything to do with the common heard! To have no job, to devote one's time to literature, I mean the works which give us an opportunity to understand the universe and nature in all its infinity, and the world in which we ourselves live, its sky, land and sea.

A man who has the ability to commune with himself does not feel the slightest need for anyone else's conversation.

...spiritual, more good is so pre-eminent that it completely eclipses all goodness of a physical or accidental, external, nature. [...] ... the substance is more important than the form.

Whether my efforts in this direction will be useful to anyone else, I have no idea. But I do know this. The work gives me a chance, the only chance I have, to obtain relief from my own cruel sorrows and the many troubles that press in on me from every side.


Jerome's Letter XXII. To Eustochium, circa 384AD.

30. Many years ago, when for the kingdom of heaven’s sake I had cut myself off from home, parents, sister, relations, and—harder still—from the dainty food to which I had been accustomed; and when I was on my way to Jerusalem to wage my warfare, I still could not bring myself to forego the library which I had formed for myself at Rome with great care and toil. And so, miserable man that I was, I would fast only that I might afterwards read Cicero. After many nights spent in vigil, after floods of tears called from my inmost heart, after the recollection of my past sins, I would once more take up Plautus. And when at times I returned to my right mind, and began to read the prophets, their style seemed rude and repellent. I failed to see the light with my blinded eyes; but I attributed the fault not to them, but to the sun. While the old serpent was thus making me his plaything, about the middle of Lent a deep-seated fever fell upon my weakened body, and while it destroyed my rest completely—the story seems hardly credible—it so wasted my unhappy frame that scarcely anything was left of me but skin and bone. Meantime preparations for my funeral went on; my body grew gradually colder, and the warmth of life lingered only in my throbbing breast. Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: “I am a Christian.” But He who presided said: “Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For ‘where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.’”577 Instantly I became dumb, and amid the strokes of the lash—for He had ordered me to be scourged—I was tortured more severely still by the fire of conscience, considering with myself that verse, “In the grave who shall give thee thanks?”578 Yet for all that I began to cry and to bewail myself, saying: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord: have mercy upon me.” Amid the sound of the scourges this cry still made itself heard. At last the bystanders, falling 36down before the knees of Him who presided, prayed that He would have pity on my youth, and that He would give me space to repent of my error. He might still, they urged, inflict torture on me, should I ever again read the works of the Gentiles. Under the stress of that awful moment I should have been ready to make even still larger promises than these. Accordingly I made oath and called upon His name, saying: “Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or if ever again I read such, I have denied Thee.” Dismissed, then, on taking this oath, I returned to the upper world, and, to the surprise of all, I opened upon them eyes so drenched with tears that my distress served to convince even the incredulous. And that this was no sleep nor idle dream, such as those by which we are often mocked, I call to witness the tribunal before which I lay, and the terrible judgment which I feared. May it never, hereafter, be my lot to fall under such an inquisition! I profess that my shoulders were black and blue, that I felt the bruises long after I awoke from my sleep, and that thenceforth I read the books of God with a zeal greater than I had previously given to the books of men.