Cicero was a Roman philosopher and politician born in 106 BC in Arpinum (a town near Rome). Cicero was considered the best orator (public speaker) in Rome, gaining fame as a lawyer. He advanced through the ranks of Rome’s political offices, including holding the highest position known as consul, until being expelled from Rome. He used his extensive knowledge of Greek philosophy in the service of bettering the Roman Republic. He is famous for having introduced Greek philosophy to the Romans, and having created a new philosophical vocabulary in Latin. He believed in the importance of skepticism (that human knowledge is uncertain), but also the importance of being decisive in political life. He venerated the Gods as well as the life of virtue and duty. Cicero is famous for living a life which fused together politics, rhetoric (public speaking), law and philosophy.
Cicero had great political ambitions, and while born from an aristocratic family, he was neither rich nor well connected. For this reason, there were only two routes available to him to find success in politics: a military life or law. Cicero decided to become a lawyer. He studied the law, rhetoric and philosophy. As a lawyer, he became experience making speeches, gained exposure, and developed a network of political connections. These things would help him triumph in the political arena of the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC. He famously defended a man on charges of killing his father (patricide) and won. He had been a follower of the Skepticism taught in Plato’s academy, which requires one to see all sides of an issue in order to make the most compelling argument. Cicero used this skeptical approach, as well as rhetoric (the ability to speak well), to succeed as a lawyer.
Cicero used this success to enter the world of politics. His name means chickpea (cicer), due to his ancestors having become wealthy through the cultivation and distribution of chickpeas, and he chose to kept the name saying that he would make Cicero more glorious than all others. He used his philosophical background to be flexible, capable of adjusting his position to changing political circumstances, and giving compelling speeches in the influential Roman Senate. Although he considered philosophy valuable in it’s own right, his goal was to use philosophy to advance his political career as well as for the betterment of the Roman Republic. He would serve in every political office available in Rome, until ultimately being exiled for having killed five men without trial. While unable to act as a politician, he focused on philosophy.
At the time, educated Romans learned both Latin and Greek. Cicero had a vast knowledge of Greek philosophy and literature, and would introduce Greek philosophy to the Romans as well as create a Latin vocabulary to account for the new philosophical concepts (such as the Latin words for science and morality). He created an idealized history of Rome in order to give examples of virtue, and actions corresponding to other philosophical principles. He studied with all the major philosophical schools including the Academy which Plato had founded, the followers of Aristotle (known as the Peripatetics), the Stoics, and the Epicureans. He would embrace the Academic’s Skepticism first and foremost, which allowed him flexibility as a lawyer and politician.
Cicero embraced much of Stoic philosophy. In the Laws, he explains that when it comes to laws and justice, one must act rather than be paralyzed by skeptical doubts. He believed in the Gods, seeing them as looking over humans lovingly. He saw the Gods as having given humans the ability to reason as a gift, but also responsible for rewarding or punishing them in the afterlife. Such traditional and accepted beliefs complimented his political activity. Like the Stoics, he embraced the life of virtue, considering it a duty to be politically active. He believed that in a natural law, which through following reason, humans are able to follow. Pleasures are fine, so long as they are not done in excess.
In contrast, Cicero viewed Epicureanism negatively. The Epicureans believed that through a philosophical life, one can avoid the world of human affairs (i.e. politics). For Cicero, philosophy was supposed to help one be a better politician, not escape their social responsibility. Cicero also opposed the Epicureans’ atheism. The Epicureans taught that there is no afterlife, and that fear of the God’s was therefore unnecessary. Cicero, in contrast, believed that it was important for people to believe in an afterlife in order to act morally, and therefore to be able to live together in civil society. Although the Epicureans, who believed that pleasure was the purpose of life, saw pleasure as tranquility, moderation, and peace of mind, Cicero saw them as pursuers of food, wine and sex in contrast to the Stoics who embraced virtue.
Cicero wrote dialogues, because this style allowed him to express multiple views without committing himself to any of them. In On the Orator, he explains the importance of rhetoric (public speaking) and praises the ancient Greeks for having combined rhetoric and philosophy together. He believed that through eloquent speech, the orator is able to “instruct his listener, give him pleasure, [and] stir his emotions,” and considered this skill important for any leader to possess. Likewise, he explains how the orator must “distort history in order to give more point to their narrative.”
In On the Republic, Cicero explains that Rome had been a perfect mix of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, however it was undermined by a decline in moral character. Life must be rooted in virtue in order for people to live together and be happy. In On the Laws, he explains that it is through our reason that humans can understand justice, and thereby create laws in accordance with this justice. In doing so, the laws of man will be in accord with the laws of nature. Because the Gods as well as men have reason, together we all exist in a state of community. In On Duties, Cicero explains that man must follow his reason, and translate it into correct political activity, rather than merely pursuing wealth, fame or power.
Cicero praises philosophy as allowing the individual to find true happiness by overcoming his desires. St. Augustine is said to have turned away from a life of sin, and towards philosophy and God, after having read Cicero’s praise of philosophy as given in the Hortensius. In Tuscularian Disputations, Cicero says that the wise and virtuous man will be free of suffering, and explains how Romans can achieve a level of philosophy even greater than that which has been achieved by the Greeks.
In On Fate, Cicero rejects determinism, and argues that we have free will. He explains in On Old Age, that based on how we act in life, we will either be plagued or praised when we are old. A man of good character will enjoy prestige, pleasurable memories, and pleasures of the intellect, while a man with bad character will continue to be miserable. In On Friendship, Cicero explains that through true friendship, one can cultivate a life of virtue and happiness. In Consolations, Cicero explains that after the death of his daughter, despite having read everything written on overcoming grief, he says “but my sorrow defeats all consolation.” Before being murdered, he exclaimed “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.”
Cicero would influence many as both an inspiration as well as a source of hatred. He said that “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child” and would serve as an inspiration for the humanism of the Renaissance. While criticized for exaggerating the democratic nature of the Roman Republic, and referred to as “the most contemptible scoundrel in history” by Friedrich Engels, he was a source of inspiration both to the founding fathers of the United States as well as the French Revolution, which is said to have been led by “mostly young people who, nourished by the reading of Cicero at school, had become passionate enthusiasts for liberty.” His writings are vast, and include an astronomical theory of the earth moving space which influenced Copernicus’ work in the 16th century. His writings are a main source of knowledge about the last days of the Roman Republic, and he would inspire the European art of writing letters. In this way, Cicero left behind a legacy both in his actions as a lawyer and politician, as well as his thoughts as a philosopher.