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.