- From Moral Theology to Moral Philosophy: Cicero and Visions of Humanity from Locke to Hume by Tim Stuart-Buttle
It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Cicero to British—and not only British—philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For the most part, interest appears to have been much greater in De Officiis, De Finibus Malorum et Bonorum, De Natura Deorum, Academica, De Legibus, and so on, than in the works of Plato or of Aristotle. Yet Cicero was different things to different people. To many, he was the paradigmatic moderate Stoic, critical of the paradoxical excesses of Zeno and Chrysippus, but unwilling to follow the Epicureans in their reduction of the goods of life to the merely useful and agreeable. In this rich and rewarding study of British moral philosophy from Locke to Hume, Tim Stuart-Buttle is interested in another reading of Cicero, according to which he was first and foremost a skeptic, albeit a skeptic of a moderate, “academic,” kind. This Cicero was neither an Epicurean nor a Stoic. He was above all a cautious empiricist in his method, highly conscious of the limits of reason, and interested in how it is that most people, ignorant as they are of the real basis of morality, are nevertheless able, despite the deleterious influence of factionalism, to live responsibly as trustworthy members of civil society. Stuart-Buttle argues persuasively that this Cicero was Locke’s Cicero. Locke used him to illustrate both the potential and the limits of a properly cultivated faculty of reason. A skeptical Cicero served to expose the errors of dogmatic versions of Christianity, thereby making clear the need both for the separation of politics from religion and for Christ’s revelation as the ultimate ground of saving belief.
Stuart-Buttle goes on to explore how Cicero was read in much the same way, though to different ends, by the deist Conyers Middleton and by Hume. Both, like Locke, saw Cicero’s philosophical works as embodying the highest achievement of pre-Christian moral thought. As a result, Cicero brought into sharp focus the question of what, exactly, Christianity had added to humanity’s stock of moral knowledge. Where William Warburton had read Cicero as showing how little mankind had achieved in the way of genuine virtue before the coming of Christ, Middleton, possibly inadvertently, possibly intentionally, was so fulsome in his Life of Cicero (1741) and his Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1749) that he could not help [End Page 151] suggesting that all that Jesus had done was restate what Cicero had already said. Certainly everything that had followed in the history of Christianity had been a corruption of the moral doctrine that Christ, and also Cicero, had taught. Stuart-Buttle’s Hume is, likewise, a Ciceronian academic skeptic—not the Pyrrhonist that his contemporaries took him to be. Stuart-Buttle points out that Hume excepted Cicero from his critique of the pretensions of ancient philosophy. Cicero is the “presiding presence” in Hume’s mature moral philosophy, as laid out in the Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, and also, of course, in the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. And Hume used Cicero in order to be explicit where Middleton had been ambiguous. In Hume’s hands, the Roman philosopher showed that the virtuous person had no need of Christianity. He also showed, resurrected as Philo in the Dialogues, that Locke had severely exaggerated the reasonableness of Christian belief. In Hume, the shift from moral theology to moral philosophy is complete.
Stuart-Buttle acknowledges that another book on the place of a skeptical Cicero in early modern British thought would have begun with Erasmus and would have got to Locke by way of Chillingworth. A full study of Ciceronianism in this time and place would have covered the Stoic interpretation of Cicero also in, for example, Samuel Clarke and Francis Hutcheson. Instead, and for reasons that are not entirely obvious, Stuart-Buttle devotes a chapter each to Shaftesbury...