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  • Cicero on the Philosophy of Religion: On the Nature of the Gods and On Divination by J. P. F. Wynne
  • Harald Thorsrud
J. P. F. Wynne. Cicero on the Philosophy of Religion: On the Nature of the Gods and On Divination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xi + 308. Cloth, $99.99.

This is an outstanding contribution to the study of Cicero's philosophical works. Wynne argues for a nuanced view of De natura deorum (DND) and De divinatione (Div.) as components of Cicero's larger philosophical project, specifically revealing how Greek philosophy might serve to moderate or clarify Roman religion. In an extensive introduction, Wynne lays out his interpretative approach, adding to the growing consensus that these texts are worth reading for more than the reconstruction of lost sources. The first chapter elaborates Cicero's project in these dialogues. The central aim is to help his readers avoid the superstitious belief that the gods care more for us than they do as well as the impious belief that they care less for us than they do. So, by critically examining theological beliefs, especially regarding divine providence, readers may acquire a more intelligible and philosophically moderated approach to Roman religious practice. In chapters 2 and 3, Wynne applies his interpretative principles first to the arguments for and against Epicurean theology in DND 1, and then for and against Stoic theology in DND 2–3. Similarly, chapters 4 and 5 explore the case for and against divination in Div., effectively clearing up some longstanding interpretative puzzles along the way. In chapter 6, Wynne argues that Cicero gestures toward his own view on these matters: Roman religious practice can indeed be better understood as expressing certain key elements of Stoic theology, though the orthodox Stoic account of divination requires modification. In keeping with the radical Academic skepticism that Wynne attributes to him, Cicero does not accept this view as true, or even more probably true than alternative accounts; it is strictly how things appear to him at the close of the dialogues. [End Page 513]

Anyone interested in Hellenistic philosophy, or the history of Roman culture and religion, will find many rewarding insights here, along with a greater understanding of and appreciation for Cicero's literary, philosophical work. I could go on at length detailing the virtues of the book but will devote the remainder of this review to a critical point.

Wynne acknowledges the complexity of the issue regarding the proper understanding of Cicero's skepticism but decides to provide only a brief justification of his preference for the radical interpretation, as a full defense would take him outside the scope of the book (35–40). On Wynne's radical view, the Academic avoids committing errors by suspending judgment, "keeping chaste his ardor for unreachable truth" (38). Nevertheless, the radical skeptic follows whatever appears plausible or truth-like and may even hold views (though not beliefs insofar as that involves taking something to be true or probably true).

Let us suppose that Cicero succeeded in the radical aim Wynne attributes to him, namely of balancing the cases for and against divination and the nature of the gods in order to promote suspension of judgment on the crucial issue of the gods' providence (71; DND 1.14; Div. 1.7), even though it is worth noting that this is not explicitly asserted in either DND 1.14 or Div. 1.7. But if so, it is puzzling as to why one side or the other might still seem more like the truth. If the opposing arguments are really balanced and lead us to suspend judgment, then whatever it is that nonetheless makes things seem a certain way must be some nonrational factor. For example, if the arguments for and against divine providence lead me to suspend judgment but it still seems to me that the gods care for us, this appearance must be the result of something besides the arguments, perhaps my cultural conditioning or some personal experience.

Such appearances are better understood, I believe, in terms of the nonrational affection that the Pyrrhonist relies on as a practical criterion. For the Pyrrhonist, action-guiding appearances neither arise from the...


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pp. 513-514
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