Cicero’s Guide to Life

I recently finished reading the fourth book of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. In addition to his straight-forward presentation, I appreciate Cicero’s healthy eclecticism. Though officially a follower Platonism, he thought it best to borrow freely, thus avoiding the pedantry that afflicts those who forget that philosophy is, first and foremost, the “love of wisdom.” Cicero says “I shall cling to my rule and without being tied to the laws of any single school of thought… shall always search for the most probable solution to any problem.” Without aiming at novelty, the Roman thinker offers some solid psychological insights.

First, Cicero deals with the excuses we raise against ethical discipline. In this regard I recall C. S. Lewis’ observation: “There is much which it is hard for our will to accept but nothing that is hard for our intellect to understand.” Instead of concentrating on specific human weaknesses in a series of wearying set-piece battles, Cicero seeks to outflank these obstacles by attacking the underlying lack of emotional stability in our lives. It is a single flaw that will always manifest itself in multiple ways. Thus if we can avoid extremes in any action, we will gain greater self-control in all our behavior. The Roman thinker warns against “feverish excitement of the soul,” whether out of excessive elation or melancholy, least it “become chronic and settled as it were in the veins and marrow of our bones.”

Second, the Roman senator adopts a very Stoic, and typically Roman, approach to the emotions themselves. He rejects the fine gradations of Aristotle (the Peripatetic school) and the idea that emotions like desire or anger can act as stimulants to necessary behavior. For him, it is best not to indulge strong feelings at all for fear that once unleashed they become ungovernable. There is something to be said for this theory. We are inclined to seek extenuating circumstances for our shortcomings. So even if it’s not possible to attain Stoic “perfection,” we are less likely to fall short of goodness if we aim at the highest mark. In the case of irascibility, for example, which some say is necessary to struggles in life, “when it has got back home, what is it like with your wife, with children, with household? Or do you think it useful there as well as in battle? Is there a thing that the disordered mind can do better than the equable mind?”

Third, there is the idea that persistent vice leads to mental imbalance. There are “aversions of the soul in which all diseases and disorders are the result of contempt of reason.” Also “all cases where the mind recoils from reason there is always some such kind of overhanging dread” or neurosis. Psychological dysfunction can stem from environmental or genetic factors, but there is no doubt that severe moral faults indulged in for a long time will lead to some form of derangement or instability.

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