By Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The legacy of Cicero towers over the ancient world: philosopher and politician, enemy of Mark Antony, and the Roman Republic’s great defender. His writings remain some of the most celebrated in Latin literature, and today we look at one of his more overlooked works – the Paradoxa Stoicorum. But first, a little background….
Cicero was quite eclectic in his beliefs, but he mostly embraced the beliefs of Academic Skepticism. As the Skeptics believed that there is no philosophy that can be entirely true, they mostly criticized belief systems. However, Skepticism allowed for embracing certain philosophies, just as long as one makes sure to carefully examine them and leaves oneself open to change in the face of good arguments.
This was suitable for Cicero, as he could advocate for the philosophical systems he found most useful. For Cicero, philosophy was subject to politics, as it served his political beliefs and interests. He believed that the reason that the Republic was weakening was the moral decay of Roman politicians. Therefore, he advocated for Stoicism (among other schools of thought), since the Stoics believed that one must be politically involved, as it is his duty as a Roman citizen. They did not advocate for political involvement due to self-interest, but rather as a moral duty.
However, Stoic sayings were often difficult to understand so that, as Cicero says, even the Stoics themselves called them ”paradoxes”. For this reason, he decided to perform a little exercise (or even a game) that consisted of exploring and translating six complex Greek Stoic sayings into his contemporary language and style of rhetorical Latin. This was the Paradoxa Stoicorum, today one of Cicero’s most fascinating but overlooked writings. Cicero also says that he is playing this game out of curiosity, to see if these principles can actually be applied in reality….
1. That moral worth is the only good
Have you ever thought about how strange it is that the property is also called ”goods”? In this section, Cicero wonders about this paradox, asking:
By what staircase did Romulus ascend heaven? By the ones that those people call ”goods” or by his deeds and virtues?
Cicero quickly answers this question with Bias of Priena‘s famous sentence: Omnia mecum porto mea – Everything mine I carry with me. He concludes that a good and happy life means nothing else but to live honorably.
2. That virtue is sufficient to live happily
This is another very typical stoic belief that is more or less self-explanatory and more of a follow-up to the first principle. This is his message to those who are ”tortured by day and night by the thought that what they possess is not enough”:
Death is devastating to those whose everything vanishes with their life, not to those whose praise cannot die.
3. That offenses are equal, and good deeds are equal
Cicero explains that the best way to punish, or rather, to prevent crimes is to consider them all equally bad, the same way as we should not measure the greatness of a deed if it is good in any way. When asked (by himself) for a reason, he responds in a quite Socratic manner:
Whatever is not fit, is a crime, and whatever is not permitted, we should consider a sin. ‘’Even in the smallest things?’’ Of course, for if we cannot fix the limit of things, but we can set limits on our souls.
4. That every foolish man is insane
This is a perfect example of Cicero’s use of philosophy for political purposes. It is an attack against his personal enemy whom he does not name, but many speculate that it was Clodius, who was responsible for his exile, 58. B.C.E.
As it is well-known, Cicero revealed the conspiracy of Catilina and prevented it from happening. After this, he was so boastful about it, that he was claiming that he was solely responsible for saving the Republic. This section is, in its essence, a follow-up on this self-praise, highlighted by the fact that the exile was not a misfortune for him because he possessed Stoic virtue.
5. Every wise man is free and every fool is a slave
Cicero gives us his definition of freedom while explaining this principle. For him, freedom is the ability to live as you wish. However, under living as we wish, he considers pursuing the upright things, practicing virtue, and living according to our own judgement and will. On the other hand, a slave is everyone who does the opposite.
6. Only a wise man is rich
Cicero already tackled the question of wealth while explaining the first two principles. In this chapter, he says that a truly rich man is the one who thinks he has enough, regardless of how much he has:
But the bad and the greedy, because they have possessions which are uncertain and depend on chance, always seek more, and by now, none of them has been found to whom what he has is enough, not only that they should not be considered abundant and rich, but even as poor and deprived.
We cannot possibly know how this treatise was received by the Romans, but we can conclude that this work was unjustifiably neglected for centuries. In it, we can see Cicero’s rhetorical skills at their best, read about the famous examples from early Roman history, and dive into well explained Stoic philosophy.