- Grasp and Dissent: Cicero and Epicurean Philosophy by Stefano Maso
This book will be of considerable interest to those familiar with Hellenistic philosophy generally and with Cicero’s philosophical dialogues in particular. Maso’s close readings of the primary texts produce many valuable insights into Cicero’s philosophical worldview and his complex and nuanced attitude toward Epicurean physics, theology, epistemology, and ethics. One of the central themes of the work is the tempering of Cicero’s devotion to the primacy of the political life. Maso aims to show how this is reflected over time in his attitude toward Epicureanism, while he struggles against the political realities that excluded him from playing the civic role he craved and that eventually cost him his life. Indeed, we can see Cicero’s philosophical project, outlined in the opening sections of De Divinatione 2, as emblematic of his lifelong attempt to harmonize the demands of the practical or political life with those of the contemplative life, that is, the attempt to combine otium (even if initially unwelcome) with dignitas and negotium.
Broadly speaking, Maso argues that the Epicurean system plays a more prominent role in Cicero’s philosophical reflections than scholars have typically acknowledged: “More than a doctrine to be presented and studied alongside those of other philosophical schools… it seems to be a point of reference for Cicero” (215). With a nod to Antiochus, we might say that Cicero sees the disputes between Academics, Stoics, and Peripatetics as mere sibling rivalries compared to the profound threat posed by Epicureanism. And yet, Cicero’s philosophical education began with the Epicurean Phaedrus; and he enjoyed very close friendships with Atticus and other Epicureans throughout his life.
In developing his case, Maso convincingly shows that Cicero’s knowledge of all aspects of Epicureanism is extensive and subtle. My overall assessment is that this work makes significant contributions to our understanding of Cicero the philosopher. However, I would also like to briefly discuss a tension in Maso’s interpretation that could have been brought more explicitly to the fore. On the one hand, we have the repeated insistence in the philosophical dialogues that the primary goal is to seek out and give shape to the truth or its closest approximation, that is, the view that enjoys the most convincing, rational justification. But on the other hand, we find numerous instances, especially in the arguments for and against Epicureanism, of apparent misrepresentation or at least rhetorical subterfuge.
Under the latter heading, Maso remarks that Cicero knew full well that his reconstruction of the Epicurean swerve was “inherently skewed” (72). And with regard to the arguments against the existence of the Epicurean gods, he claims, “Cicero once again succeeded by lightly and dexterously manipulating the original doctrine” (89). Similarly, in attempting to demonstrate the incompatibility between pleasure as the summum bonum and virtue in De Finibus 2, Cicero imposes “a framework cleverly designed to undermine the credibility of Epicurean ethics at its foundation” (171). None of this sounds like the even-handed pursuit of truth that is supposed to inform Academic philosophical inquiry.
Ultimately, the question that deserves more explicit and detailed treatment than Maso provides is whether Cicero rejects Epicureanism on the basis of its incompatibility with traditional Roman virtue and his sense of political obligation, that is, on pragmatic grounds, or on epistemic grounds, either because of its incompatibility with his preferred Stoic, Academic, or Peripatetic doctrines, or because of its proponents’ inability to provide a convincing and coherent philosophical defense. Of course, the answer is most likely to be a combination of these. But that in itself raises important issues. For example, does Cicero subordinate his philosophical pursuit of truth to the overriding aim of the preservation of the Republic and traditional virtue? If so, his critique of Epicureanism is far less in the service of seeking truth than in the service of undermining the potentially pernicious effects of the growing popularity of Epicureanism.
Unless we are able to discern some fundamental connection between the epistemic and pragmatic constraints...