Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tusculan Disputations & List of StoicTexts

Portrait of young teen; taken by Benjamin Miller; source:
Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could be convinced not to worry about death, pain, and other mental anguishes with no tricks or drugs? Well, there is some old school medicine that does work. Somehow, antique stuff tends to pushed back by newer, shinier offers, but the Tusculan Disputations, among others, deserve to be brought back to the foreground. Written by Cicero in dialogue form after retiring from public office and taking philosophy full time,  it delivers on this promise.

It consists of five journées (can't find an English equivalent: 'days' doesn't quite capture it) of Cicero and interlocutor covering different evils, one at a time. These are: on Death, on Pain, On Affliction, on Other Tribulations (Fear, Joy, Desire) and On How Happiness can be Attained by Oneself. Though presented sequentially, each one can be read by itself and each is prologued with an address to Brutus (yes, that Brutus) to which the work as a whole is dedicated. Chronologically, the Disputations can be placed second in a series of related treatises that also include On the Ends of Good and Bad Things (De Finibus) and On the Nature of the Gods. These treatises, and more, were written in a down period of Cicero's life where he no longer held an important sway on Rome's politics and was grieving over the loss of his daughter.

There are only two participants: Cicero and his interlocutor.The opponent or interlocutor hardly puts up a fight and is always overwhelmed by Cicero's reasonings. These cover all the bases and if something somehow is left out, it is usually pretty minor. Unlike in some Plato's Dialogues, the interlocutor has the courtesy to allow the defendant, in this case Cicero, lengthier, uninterrupted expositions.

Some working knowledge of mythology, a prior read of the Iliad, a passing familiarity with Plato's Dialogues (Apology, Fedo)  and a feel for Roman history I'd say are required to not get lost in the references. Other than that it is an easy straightforward read.

Technically, Cicero's philosophy belongs to that of the New Academy (I think) and tries to stay away as much as possible from the Epicureans and avoid the argumentative excesses of the Stoics. However, I feel that he leans more to the latter.

Far from being a disjointed collection of maxims and viewpoints, Cicero's work is meticulously crafted and seamlessly systematic  which makes it a joy to read. In the end, Cicero's arguments are very convincing, even if you assume a show-me attitude. He completely won me over on each and every of the five days and has changed me for the better. By itself it can work as a self contained secular life philosophy (though I still feel that the Bible and divine revelation is what really allows it to turn full circle).

The Tusculan was the best book I read in 2013. Now that I'm on a roll here I'll mention my "Hall Of Fame" stoic writings:

  1. The Tusculan
  2. Epictetus' Discourses
  3. On Anger by Seneca
  4. Epictetus' Handbook
  5. Seneca's Letters to Lucilius
  6. Seneca's other Moral Dialogues 
  7. Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. 
  8. Fragments of the Ancient Stoics
  9. Musonius Rufus' Sayings
  10. On Duties by Cicero

The first three by themselves make an unbeatable trio.

Honorable mentions:
  • Life is a Dream by Calderón de la Barca. Worth a read in any case
  • Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy

And one more thing: if you are interested in the life itself of Cicero, there's a great bio from Anthony Trollope on Librivox. Although the ongoing theme with it is that Cicero is wrongly accused by other authors of being a coward or unsteady in his views and political affiliations, it is a fine read for all the detail and context that Trollope provides. I'm re-listening to it right now. If you're in a hurry, Plutarch's life on him might suit you.