History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions

(contents)


Part III

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Introduction Phylosophy

The nature of Western philosophy

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy
 

Medieval philosophy
 

Renaissance philosophy

Modern philosophy

Contemporary philosophy


 

Western Philosophy
 

 

 




 

 
 

 

 


Western philosophy

Encyclopaedia Britannica
 

 
 


Western philosophy


History of Western philosophy from its development among the ancient Greeks to the present.




Medieval philosophy

Medieval philosophy designates the philosophical speculation that occurred in western Europe during the Middle Ages—i.e., from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries ad to the Renaissance of the 15th century. Philosophy of the medieval period was closely connected to Christian thought, particularly theology, and the chief philosophers of the period were churchmen. Philosophers who strayed from this close relation were chided by their superiors. Greek philosophy ceased to be creative after Plotinus in the 3rd century ad. A century later, Christian thinkers such as St. Ambrose (339–397), St. Victorinus (died c. 304), and St. Augustine (354–430) began to assimilate Neoplatonism into Christian doctrine in order to give a rational interpretation of Christian faith. Thus, medieval philosophy was born of the confluence of Greek (and to a lesser extent of Roman) philosophy and Christianity. Plotinus’s philosophy was already deeply religious, having come under the influence of Middle Eastern religions. Medieval philosophy continued to be characterized by this religious orientation. Its methods were at first those of Plotinus and later those of Aristotle. But it developed within faith as a means of throwing light on the truths and mysteries of faith. Thus, religion and philosophy fruitfully cooperated in the Middle Ages. Philosophy, as the handmaiden of theology, made possible a rational understanding of faith. Faith, for its part, inspired Christian thinkers to develop new philosophical ideas, some of which became part of the philosophical heritage of the West.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, this beneficial interplay of faith and reason started to break down. Philosophy began to be cultivated for its own sake, apart from—and even in contradiction to—Christian religion. This divorce of reason from faith, made definitive in the 17th century by Francis Bacon (1561–1626) in England and René Descartes (1596–1650) in France, marked the birth of modern philosophy.

 


Medieval philosophy » The early Middle Ages

The early medieval period, which extended to the 12th century, was marked by the barbarian invasions of the Western Roman Empire, the collapse of its civilization, and the gradual building of a new, Christian culture in western Europe. Philosophy in these dark and troubled times was cultivated by late Roman thinkers such as Augustine and Boethius (c. 470–524), then by monks such as St. Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109). The monasteries became the main centres of learning and education and retained their preeminence until the founding of the cathedral schools and universities in the 11th and 12th centuries.


Medieval philosophy » The early Middle Ages » Augustine

During these centuries philosophy was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism; Stoicism and Aristotelianism played only a minor role. Augustine was awakened to the philosophical life by reading the Roman statesman Cicero (106–43 bc), but the Neoplatonists most decisively shaped his philosophical methods and ideas. To them he owed his conviction that beyond the world of the senses there is a spiritual, eternal realm of Truth that is the object of the human mind and the goal of all human striving. This Truth he identified with the God of Christianity. Human beings encounter this divine world not through the senses but through the mind—and, above the mind, through the intelligible light. Augustine’s demonstration of the existence of God coincides with his proof of the existence of necessary, immutable Truth. He considered the truths of both mathematics and ethics to be necessary, immutable, and eternal. These truths cannot come from the world of contingent, mutable, and temporal things, nor from the mind itself, which is also contingent, mutable, and temporal. They are due to the illuminating presence in the human mind of eternal and immutable Truth, or God. Any doubt that humans may know the Truth with certainty was dispelled for Augustine by the certitude that, even if they are deceived in many cases, they cannot doubt that they exist, know, and love.

Augustine conceived of human beings as composites of two substances, body and soul, of which the soul is by far the superior. The body, nevertheless, is not to be excluded from human nature, and its eventual resurrection from the dead is assured by Christian faith. The soul’s immortality is proved by its possession of eternal and unchangeable Truth.

Augustine’s Confessions (c. 400) and De Trinitate (400–416; On the Trinity) abound with penetrating psychological analyses of knowledge, perception, memory, and love. His De civitate Dei (413–426; The City of God) presents the whole drama of human history as a progressive movement of humankind, redeemed by God, to its final repose in its Creator.


Medieval philosophy » The early Middle Ages » Boethius

One of the most important channels by which Greek philosophy was transmitted to the Middle Ages was Boethius. He began to translate into Latin all the philosophical works of the Greeks, but his imprisonment and death by order of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, cut short this project. He finished translating only the logical writings of Porphyry and Aristotle. These translations and his commentaries on them brought to the thinkers of the Middle Ages the rudiments of Aristotelian logic. They also raised important philosophical questions, such as those concerning the nature of universals (terms that can be applied to more than one particular thing). Do universals exist independently, or are they only mental concepts? If they exist independently, are they corporeal or incorporeal? If incorporeal, do they exist in the sensible world or apart from it? Medieval philosophers debated at length these and other problems relating to universals. In his logical works Boethius presents the Aristotelian doctrine of universals: that they are only mental abstractions. In his De consolatione philosophiae (c. 525; Consolation of Philosophy), however, he adopts the Platonic notion that they are innate ideas, and their origin is in the remembering of knowledge from a previous existence. This book was extremely popular and influential in the Middle Ages. It contains not only a Platonic view of knowledge and reality but also a lively treatment of providence, divine foreknowledge, chance, fate, and human happiness.
 



Saint Ambrose
bishop of Milan
Latin Ambrosius

born ad 339, Augusta Treverorum, Belgica, Gaul
died 397, Milan; feast day December 7

Main
bishop of Milan, biblical critic, and initiator of ideas that provided a model for medieval conceptions of church–state relations. His literary works have been acclaimed as masterpieces of Latin eloquence, and his musical accomplishments are remembered in his hymns. Ambrose is also remembered as the teacher who converted and baptized St. Augustine of Hippo, the great Christian theologian, and as a model bishop who viewed the church as rising above the ruins of the Roman Empire.

Early career.
Though Ambrose, the second son of the prefect (imperial viceroy) of Gaul, was born in the official residence at Augusta Treverorum (Trier), his father died soon afterward, and Ambrose was reared in Rome, in a palace frequented by the clergy, by his widowed mother and his elder sister Marcellina, a nun. Duly promoted to the governorship of Aemilia-Liguria in c. 370, he lived at Milan and was unexpectedly acclaimed as their bishop by the people of the city in 374.

Ambrose, a popular outsider, chosen as a compromise candidate to avoid a disputed election, changed from an unbaptized layman to a bishop in eight days. Coming from a well-connected but obscure senatorial family, Ambrose could be ignored as a provincial governor; as bishop of Milan he was able to dominate the cultural and political life of his age.


Ecclesiastical administrative accomplishments.
An imperial court frequently sat in Milan. In confrontations with this court, Ambrose showed a directness that combined the republican ideal of the prerogatives of a Roman senator with a sinister vein of demagoguery. In 384 he secured the rejection of an appeal for tolerance by pagan members of the Roman senate, whose spokesman, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, was his relative (Letters 17, 18). In 385–386 he refused to surrender a church for the use of Arian heretics. In 388 he rebuked the emperor Theodosius for having punished a bishop who had burnt a Jewish synagogue. In 390 he imposed public penance on Theodosius for having punished a riot in Thessalonica by a massacre of its citizens. These unprecedented interventions were palliated by Ambrose’s loyalty and resourcefulness as a diplomat, notably in 383 and 386 by his official visits to the usurper Maximus at Trier. In his letters and in his funeral orations on the emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius—De obitu Valentiniani consolatio (392) and De obitu Theodosii (395)—Ambrose established the medieval concept of a Christian emperor as a dutiful son of the church “serving under orders from Christ,” and so subject to the advice and strictures of his bishop.


Literary and musical accomplishments.
Ambrose’s relations with the emperors formed only part of his commanding position among the lay governing class of Italy. He rapidly absorbed the most up-to-date Greek learning, Christian and pagan alike—notably the works of Philo, Origen, and St. Basil of Caesarea and of the pagan Neoplatonist Plotinus. This learning he used in sermons expounding the Bible and, especially, in defending the “spiritual” meaning of the Old Testament by erudite philosophical allegory—notably in the Hexaëmeron (“On the Six Days of Creation”) and in sermons on the patriarchs (of which De Isaac et anima [“On Isaac and the Soul”] and De bono mortis [“On the Goodness of Death”] betray a deep acquaintance with Neoplatonic mystical language). Sermons, the dating of which unfortunately remains uncertain, were Ambrose’s main literary output. They were acclaimed as masterpieces of Latin eloquence, and they remain a quarry for students of the transmission of Greek philosophy and theology in the West. By such sermons Ambrose gained his most notable convert, Augustine, afterward bishop of Hippo in North Africa and destined, like Ambrose, to be revered as a doctor (teacher) of the church. Augustine went to Milan as a skeptical professor of rhetoric in 384; when he left, in 388, he had been baptized by Ambrose and was indebted to Ambrose’s Catholic Neoplatonism, which provided a philosophical base that eventually transformed Christian theology.

Ambrose provided educated Latins with an impeccably classical version of Christianity. His work on the moral obligations of the clergy, De officiis ministrorum (386), is skillfully modelled on Cicero’s De officiis. He sought to replace the heroes of Rome with Old Testament saints as models of behaviour for a Christianized aristocracy. By letters, visitations, and nominations he strengthened this aristocratic Christianity in the northern Italian towns that he had once ruled as a Roman governor.

In Milan, Ambrose “bewitched” the populace by introducing new Eastern melodies and by composing beautiful hymns, notably “Aeterne rerum Conditor” (“Framer of the earth and sky”) and “Deus Creator omnium” (“Maker of all things, God most high”). He spared no pains in instructing candidates for Baptism. He denounced social abuses (notably in the sermons De Nabuthe [“On Naboth”]) and frequently secured pardon for condemned men. He advocated the most austere asceticism: noble families were reluctant to let their marriageable daughters attend the sermons in which he urged upon them the crowning virtue of virginity.


Evaluations and interpretations.
Ambrose’s reputation after his death was unchallenged. For Augustine, he was the model bishop: a biography was written in 412 by Paulinus, deacon of Milan, at Augustine’s instigation. To Augustine’s opponent, Pelagius, Ambrose was “the flower of Latin eloquence.” Of his sermons, the Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam (390; “Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke”) was widely circulated.

Yet, Ambrose is a Janus-like figure. He imposed his will on emperors. But he never considered himself as a precursor of a polity in which the church dominated the state: for he acted from a traditional fear that Christianity might yet be eclipsed by a pagan nobility and Catholicism uprooted in Milan by Arian courtiers. His attitude to the learning he used was similarly old-fashioned. Pagans and heretics, he said, “dyed their impieties in the vats of philosophy”; yet his sermons betray the pagan mysticism of Plotinus in its most unmuted tints. In a near-contemporary mosaic in the chapel of S. Satiro in the church of S. Ambrogio, Milan, Ambrose appears as he wished to be seen: a simple Christian bishop clasping the book of Gospels. Yet the manner in which he set about his duties as a bishop ensured that, to use his own image, the Catholic Church would rise “like a growing moon” above the ruins of the Roman Empire.

Peter R.L. Brown

 

 



 



Saint Augustine
Christian bishop and theologian
also called Saint Augustine of Hippo, original Latin name Aurelius Augustinus
born Nov. 13, 354, Tagaste, Numidia [now Souk Ahras, Algeria]
died Aug. 28, 430, Hippo Regius [now Annaba, Algeria]

Main
feast day August 28, bishop of Hippo from 396 to 430, one of the Latin Fathers of the Church, one of the Doctors of the Church, and perhaps the most significant Christian thinker after St. Paul. Augustine’s adaptation of classical thought to Christian teaching created a theological system of great power and lasting influence. His numerous written works, the most important of which are Confessions and City of God, shaped the practice of biblical exegesis and helped lay the foundation for much of medieval and modern Christian thought.

Augustine is remarkable for what he did and extraordinary for what he wrote. If none of his written works had survived, he would still have been a figure to be reckoned with, but his stature would have been more nearly that of some of his contemporaries. However, more than five million words of his writings survive, virtually all displaying the strength and sharpness of his mind (and some limitations of range and learning) and some possessing the rare power to attract and hold the attention of readers in both his day and ours. His distinctive theological style shaped Latin Christianity in a way surpassed only by scripture itself. His work continues to hold contemporary relevance, in part because of his membership in a religious group that was dominant in the West in his time and remains so today.

Intellectually, Augustine represents the most influential adaptation of the ancient Platonic tradition with Christian ideas that ever occurred in the Latin Christian world. Augustine received the Platonic past in a far more limited and diluted way than did many of his Greek-speaking contemporaries, but his writings were so widely read and imitated throughout Latin Christendom that his particular synthesis of Christian, Roman, and Platonic traditions defined the terms for much later tradition and debate. Both modern Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity owe much to Augustine, though in some ways each community has at times been embarrassed to own up to that allegiance in the face of irreconcilable elements in his thought. For example, Augustine has been cited as both a champion of human freedom and an articulate defender of divine predestination, and his views on sexuality were humane in intent but have often been received as oppressive in effect.

Life overview
Augustine was born in Tagaste, a modest Roman community in a river valley 40 miles (64 km) from the African coast. It lay just a few miles short of the point where the veneer of Roman civilization thinned out in the highlands of Numidia in the way the American West opens before a traveler leaving the Mississippi River valley. Augustine’s parents were of the respectable class of Roman society, free to live on the work of others, but their means were sometimes straitened. They managed, sometimes on borrowed money, to acquire a first-class education for Augustine, and, although he had at least one brother and one sister, he seems to have been the only child sent off to be educated. He studied first in Tagaste, then in the nearby university town of Madauros, and finally at Carthage, the great city of Roman Africa. After a brief stint teaching in Tagaste, he returned to Carthage to teach rhetoric, the premier science for the Roman gentleman, and he was evidently very good at it.

While still at Carthage, he wrote a short philosophical book aimed at displaying his own merits and advancing his career; unfortunately, it is lost. At the age of 28, restless and ambitious, Augustine left Africa in 383 to make his career in Rome. He taught there briefly before landing a plum appointment as imperial professor of rhetoric at Milan. The customary residence of the emperor at the time, Milan was the de facto capital of the Western Roman Empire and the place where careers were best made. Augustine tells us that he, and the many family members with him, expected no less than a provincial governorship as the eventual—and lucrative—reward for his merits.

Augustine’s career, however, ran aground in Milan. After only two years there, he resigned his teaching post and, after some soul-searching and apparent idleness, made his way back to his native town of Tagaste. There he passed the time as a cultured squire, looking after his family property, raising the son, Adeodatus, left him by his long-term lover (her name is unknown) taken from the lower classes, and continuing his literary pastimes. The death of that son while still an adolescent left Augustine with no obligation to hand on the family property, and so he disposed of it and found himself, at age 36, literally pressed into service against his will as a junior clergyman in the coastal city of Hippo, north of Tagaste.

The transformation was not entirely surprising. Augustine had always been a dabbler in one form or another of the Christian religion, and the collapse of his career at Milan was associated with an intensification of religiosity. All his writings from that time onward were driven by his allegiance to a particular form of Christianity both orthodox and intellectual. His coreligionists in North Africa accepted his distinctive stance and style with some difficulty, and Augustine chose to associate himself with the “official” branch of Christianity, approved by emperors and reviled by the most enthusiastic and numerous branches of the African church. Augustine’s literary and intellectual abilities, however, gave him the power to articulate his vision of Christianity in a way that set him apart from his African contemporaries. His unique gift was the ability to write at a high theoretical level for the most discerning readers and still be able to deliver sermons with fire and fierceness in an idiom that a less cultured audience could admire.

Made a “presbyter” (roughly, a priest, but with less authority than modern clergy of that title) at Hippo in 391, Augustine became bishop there in 395 or 396 and spent the rest of his life in that office. Hippo was a trading city, without the wealth and culture of Carthage or Rome, and Augustine was never entirely at home there. He would travel to Carthage for several months of the year to pursue ecclesiastical business in a milieu more welcoming to his talents than that of his adopted home city.

Augustine’s educational background and cultural milieu trained him for the art of rhetoric: declaring the power of the self through speech that differentiated the speaker from his fellows and swayed the crowd to follow his views. That Augustine’s training and natural talent coincided is best seen in an episode when he was in his early 60s and found himself quelling by force of personality and words an incipient riot while visiting the town of Caesarea Mauretanensis. The style of the rhetorician carried over in his ecclesiastical persona throughout his career. He was never without controversies to fight, usually with others of his own religion. In his years of rustication and early in his time at Hippo, he wrote book after book attacking Manichaeism, a Christian sect he had joined in his late teens and left 10 years later when it became impolitic to remain with them. For the next 20 years, from the 390s to the 410s, he was preoccupied with the struggle to make his own brand of Christianity prevail over all others in Africa. The native African Christian tradition had fallen afoul of the Christian emperors who succeeded Constantine (reigned 305–337) and was reviled as schismatic; it was branded with the name of Donatism after Donatus, one of its early leaders. Augustine and his chief colleague in the official church, Bishop Aurelius of Carthage, fought a canny and relentless campaign against it with their books, with their recruitment of support among church leaders, and with careful appeal to Roman officialdom. In 411 the reigning emperor sent an official representative to Carthage to settle the quarrel. A public debate held in three sessions during June 1–8 and attended by hundreds of bishops on each side ended with a ruling in favour of the official church. The ensuing legal restrictions on Donatism decided the struggle in favour of Augustine’s party.

Even then, approaching his 60th year, Augustine found—or manufactured—a last great challenge for himself. Taking umbrage at the implications of the teachings of a traveling society preacher named Pelagius, Augustine gradually worked himself up to a polemical fever over ideas that Pelagius may or may not have espoused. Other churchmen of the time were perplexed and reacted with some caution to Augustine, but he persisted, even reviving the battle against austere monks and dignified bishops through the 420s. At the time of his death, he was at work on a vast and shapeless attack on the last and most urbane of his opponents, the Italian bishop Julian of Eclanum.

Through these years, Augustine had carefully built for himself a reputation as a writer throughout Africa and beyond. His careful cultivation of selected correspondents had made his name known in Gaul, Spain, Italy, and the Middle East, and his books were widely circulated throughout the Mediterranean world. In his last years he compiled a careful catalog of his books, annotating them with bristling defensiveness to deter charges of inconsistency. He had opponents, many of them heated in their attacks on him, but he usually retained their respect by the power and effectiveness of his writing.

His fame notwithstanding, Augustine died a failure. When he was a young man, it was inconceivable that the Pax Romana could fall, but in his last year he found himself and his fellow citizens of Hippo prisoners to a siege laid by a motley army of invaders who had swept into Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar. Called the Vandals by contemporaries, the attacking forces comprised a mixed group of “barbarians” and adventurers searching for a home. Hippo fell shortly after Augustine’s death, and Carthage not long after. The Vandals, holders to a more fiercely particularist version of the Christian creed than any of those Augustine had lived with in Africa, would rule in Africa for a century, until Roman forces sent from Constantinople invaded again and overthrew their regime. But Augustine’s legacy in his homeland was effectively terminated with his lifetime. A revival of orthodox Christianity in the 6th century under the patronage of Constantinople was brought to an end in the 7th with the Islamic invasions that permanently removed North Africa from the sphere of Christian influence until the thin Christianization, now rapidly disappearing, of French colonialism in the 19th century.

Augustine survived in his books. His habit of cataloging them served his surviving collaborators well. Somehow, essentially the whole of Augustine’s literary oeuvre survived and escaped Africa intact. The story was told that his mortal remains went to Sardinia and thence to Pavia (Italy), where a shrine concentrates reverence on what is said to be those remains. Whatever the truth of the story, some organized withdrawal to Sardinia on the part of Augustine’s followers, bearing his body and his books, is not impossible and remains the best surmise.


Life retold
As outlined above, the story of Augustine’s life will seem in numerous ways unfamiliar to readers who already know some of it. The story of his early life is exceedingly well known—better known than that of virtually any other Greek or Roman worthy. Augustine’s Confessions recounts that early life with immense persuasiveness, and few biographers can resist abridging that story to serve their own purposes. Yet it is a story told with a sophisticated purpose, highly selective in its choice of incident and theological in its structure. The goal of the book was ultimately self-justification and self-creation. Modestly successful in Augustine’s lifetime, the book has been triumphant ever since, defining his life on his terms in ways both obvious and subtle.

For Augustine the defining moment of his life was the time of his religious conversion to an intense and highly individual form of Christianity. He dated this experience to his time in Milan, and in relation to this he explained his ensuing career. But contemporaries found it odd to single out that particular moment—when he was conveniently away from Africa and from any scrutiny of his motives and actions—in a life that was not always as he seemed to narrate it. None of the handful of Augustine’s contemporaries known to have read the Confessions was persuaded by its narrative of youthful dissipation turned to austere maturity. Augustine was always dutiful and restrained. Neither he nor any of his modern biographers has yet succeeded in getting at the essence of his personality. The hostages he left to psychobiography in the Confessions have not made it any easier for modern readers to find him; in an odd way, the Freudian readings of Augustine common in the 20th century shared with him an emphasis on the selected emotional high points he chose to narrate and so were captives of his own storytelling.

The observable facts about Augustine’s religious history are that he was born to a mother, Monnica, who was a baptized Christian and a father, Patricius, who would take baptism on his deathbed when Augustine was in his teens. Neither was particularly devout, but Monnica became more demonstratively religious in her widowhood and is venerated as St. Monica. Augustine was enrolled as a pre-baptismal candidate in the Christian church as a young child, and at various points in his life he considered baptism but deferred out of prudence. (In that age, before the prevalence of infant baptism, it was common for baptism to be delayed until the hour of death and then used to wash away a lifetime of sins.) His classical education was supplemented by a curious but dismissive reading of the Christian scriptures, but he then fell in with the Manichaeans, enjoying their company and their polemics, in which he took eager part, for most of a decade. He sheltered himself with them and used them for political influence even after he claimed to have dissociated himself from their beliefs; he abandoned them when he found himself in Milan. It was there, where Ambrose was making a name for himself as a champion of orthodoxy, that Augustine found orthodoxy—or at least found orthodoxy satisfactory as something a gentleman could practice.

But when Augustine accepted baptism at the hands of Ambrose in 387, thereby joining the religion of his mother to the cultural practices of his father, he managed to make it a Christianity of his own. To some extent influenced by Ambrose (but few others influenced by Ambrose went in the same direction), Augustine made his Christianity into a rival to and replacement for the austerity of ancient philosophers. Reading Platonic texts and correctly understanding some of their doctrine, Augustine decided for himself that Christianity was possible only if he went further than any churchman said he was required to go—he chose to remain celibate even though he was a layman and under no requirement to do so. His life with a succession of lovers ended, Augustine accepted sexual abstinence as the price of religion. After a long winter in retirement from the temptations of the city, he presented himself to Ambrose for baptism, then slipped away from Milan to pursue a singularly private life for the next four years. That this life ended in his entering the Christian clergy was something he did not foresee, and he should probably be believed when he says that he did not want it. It was in office as Christian bishop of Hippo that he chose to tell the story of his life as a drama of fall and rise, sin and conversion, desolation and grace. He told that story at a time when his own credentials were suspect—his Donatist opponents thought it queer, or at least suspiciously self-serving, that he left Africa a raving Manichaean and returned meekly claiming to have been baptized in the official church. It is likely that his telling of the story was meant to reassure his followers and disarm his opponents.

If the Confessions had not survived, we would not surmise its story. We should learn to hear it without letting its self-interested narrative blind us to a fresh reading of Augustine’s life.


Chief works
Two of Augustine’s works stand out above the others for their lasting influence, but they have had very different fates. City of God was widely read in Augustine’s time and throughout the Middle Ages and still demands attention today, but it is impossible to read without a determined effort to place it in its historical context. The Confessions was not much read in the first centuries of the Middle Ages, but from the 12th century onward it has been continuously read as a vivid portrayal of an individual’s struggle for self-definition in the presence of a powerful God.


Chief works » Confessions
Although autobiographical narrative makes up much of the first 9 of the 13 books of Augustine’s Confessiones (397; Confessions), autobiography is incidental to the main purpose of the work. For Augustine confessions is a catchall term for acts of religiously authorized speech: praise of God, blame of self, confession of faith. The book is a richly textured meditation by a middle-aged man (Augustine was in his early 40s when he wrote it) on the course and meaning of his own life. The dichotomy between past odyssey and present position of authority as bishop is emphasized in numerous ways in the book, not least in that what begins as a narrative of childhood ends with an extended and very churchy discussion of the book of Genesis—the progression is from the beginnings of a man’s life to the beginnings of human society.

Between those two points the narrative of sin and redemption holds most readers’ attention. Those who seek to find in it the memoirs of a great sinner are invariably disappointed, indeed often puzzled at the minutiae of failure that preoccupy the author. Of greater significance is the account of redemption. Augustine is especially influenced by the powerful intellectual preaching of the suave and diplomatic Bishop Ambrose, who reconciles for him the attractions of the intellectual and social culture of antiquity, in which Augustine was brought up and of which he was a master, and the spiritual teachings of Christianity. The link between the two was Ambrose’s exposition, and Augustine’s reception, of a selection of the doctrines of Plato, as mediated in late antiquity by the school of Neoplatonism. Augustine heard Ambrose and read, in Latin translation, some of the exceedingly difficult works of Plotinus and Porphyry; he acquired from them an intellectual vision of the fall and rise of the soul of man, a vision he found confirmed in the reading of the Bible proposed by Ambrose.

Religion for Augustine, however, was never merely a matter of the intellect. The seventh book of the Confessions recounts a perfectly satisfactory intellectual conversion, but the extraordinary eighth book takes him one necessary step further. Augustine could not bring himself to seek the ritual purity of baptism without cleansing himself of the desires of the flesh to an extreme degree. For him, baptism required renunciation of sexuality in all its express manifestations. The narrative of the Confessions shows Augustine forming the will to renounce sexuality through a reading of the letters of Paul. The decisive scene occurs in a garden in Milan, where a child’s voice seems to bid Augustine to “take up and read,” whereupon he finds in Paul’s writings the inspiration to adopt a life of chastity.

The rest of the Confessions is mainly a meditation on how the continued study of scripture and pursuit of divine wisdom are still inadequate for attaining perfection and how, as bishop, Augustine makes peace with his imperfections. It is drenched in language from the Bible and is a work of great force and artistry.


Chief works » City of God
Fifteen years after Augustine wrote the Confessions, at a time when he was bringing to a close (and invoking government power to do so) his long struggle with the Donatists but before he had worked himself up to action against the Pelagians, the Roman world was shaken by news of a military action in Italy. A ragtag army under the leadership of Alaric, a general of Germanic ancestry and thus credited with leading a “barbarian” band, had been seeking privileges from the empire for many years, making from time to time extortionate raids against populous and prosperous areas. Finally, in 410, his forces attacked and seized the city of Rome itself, holding it for several days before decamping to the south of Italy. The military significance of the event was nil—such was the disorder of Roman government that other war bands would hold provinces hostage more and more frequently, and this particular band would wander for another decade before settling mainly in Spain and the south of France. But the symbolic effect of seeing the city of Rome taken by outsiders for the first time since the Gauls had done so in 390 bc shook the secular confidence of many thoughtful people across the Mediterranean. Coming as it did less than 20 years after the decisive edict against “paganism” by the emperor Theodosius I in 391, it was followed by speculation that perhaps the Roman Empire had mistaken its way with the gods. Perhaps the new Christian god was not as powerful as he seemed. Perhaps the old gods had done a better job of protecting their followers.

It is hard to tell how seriously or widely such arguments were made; paganism by this time was in disarray, and Christianity’s hold on the reins of government was unshakable. But Augustine saw in the murmured doubts a splendid polemical occasion he had long sought, and so he leapt to the defense of God’s ways. That his readers and the doubters whose murmurs he had heard were themselves pagans is unlikely. At the very least, it is clear that his intended audience comprised many people who were at least outwardly affiliated with the Christian church. During the next 15 years, working meticulously through a lofty architecture of argument, he outlined a new way to understand human society, setting up the City of God over and against the City of Man. Rome was dethroned—and the sack of the city shown to be of no spiritual importance—in favour of the heavenly Jerusalem, the true home and source of citizenship for all Christians. The City of Man was doomed to disarray, and wise men would, as it were, keep their passports in order as citizens of the City above, living in this world as pilgrims longing to return home.

De civitate Dei contra paganos (413–426/427; City of God) is divided into 22 books. The first 10 refute the claims to divine power of various pagan communities. The last 12 retell the biblical story of mankind from Genesis to the Last Judgment, offering what Augustine presents as the true history of the City of God against which, and only against which, the history of the City of Man, including the history of Rome, can be properly understood. The work is too long and at times, particularly in the last books, too discursive to make entirely satisfactory reading today, but it remains impressive as a whole and fascinating in its parts. The stinging attack on paganism in the first books is memorable and effective, the encounter with Platonism in books 8–10 is of great philosophical significance, and the last books (especially book 19, with a vision of true peace) offer a view of human destiny that would be widely persuasive for at least a thousand years. In a way, Augustine’s City of God is (even consciously) the Christian rejoinder to Plato’s Republic and Cicero’s imitation of Plato, his own Republic. City of God would be read in various ways throughout the Middle Ages, at some points virtually as a founding document for a political order of kings and popes that Augustine could hardly have imagined. At its heart is a powerful contrarian vision of human life, one which accepts the place of disaster, death, and disappointment while holding out hope of a better life to come, a hope that in turn eases and gives direction to life in this world.


Chief works » Reconsiderations
In many ways no less unusual a book than his Confessions, the Retractationes (426–427; Reconsiderations), written in the last years of his life, offers a retrospective rereading of Augustine’s career. In form, the book is a catalog of his writings with comments on the circumstances of their composition and with the retractions or rectifications he would make in hindsight. (One effect of the book was to make it much easier for medieval readers to find and identify authentic works of Augustine, and this was surely a factor in the remarkable survival of so much of what he wrote.) Another effect of the book is to imprint even more deeply on readers Augustine’s own views of his life. There is very little in the work that is false or inaccurate, but the shaping and presentation make it a work of propaganda. The Augustine who emerges has been faithful, consistent, and unwavering in his doctrine and life. Many who knew him would have seen instead either progress or outright tergiversation, depending on their point of view.


Other works
None of Augustine’s other works has the currency or readership of his two masterpieces. Of greatest interest are the following:


Other works » Christian Doctrine
De doctrina christiana (books 1–3 396/397, book 4 426; Christian Doctrine) was begun in the first years of Augustine’s episcopacy but finished 30 years later. This imitation of Cicero’s Orator for Christian purposes sets out a theory of the interpretation of scripture and offers practical guidance to the would-be preacher. It was widely influential in the Middle Ages as an educational treatise claiming the primacy of religious teaching based on the Bible. Its emphasis on allegorical interpretation of scripture, carried out within very loose parameters, was especially significant, and it remains of interest to philosophers for its subtle and influential discussion of Augustine’s theory of “signs” and how language represents reality.


Other works » The Trinity
The most widespread and longest-lasting theological controversies of the 4th century focused on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity—that is, the threeness of God represented in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Augustine’s Africa had been left out of much of the fray, and most of what was written on the subject was in Greek, a language Augustine barely knew and had little access to. But he was keenly aware of the prestige and importance of the topic, and so in 15 books he wrote his own exposition of it, De trinitate (399/400–416/421; The Trinity). Augustine is carefully orthodox, after the spirit of his and succeeding times, but adds his own emphasis in the way he teaches the resemblance between God and man: the threeness of God he finds reflected in a galaxy of similar triples in the human soul, and he sees there both food for meditation and deep reason for optimism about the ultimate human condition.


Other works » Literal Commentary on Genesis
The creation narrative of the book of Genesis was for Augustine scripture par excellence. He wrote at least five sustained treatises on those chapters (if we include the last three books of the Confessions and books 11–14 of City of God). His De genesi ad litteram (401–414/415; Literal Commentary on Genesis) was the result of many years of work from the late 390s to the early 410s. Its notion of “literal” commentary will surprise many moderns, for there is little historical exposition of the narrative and much on the implicit relationship between Adam and Eve and fallen mankind. It should be noted that a subtext of all of Augustine’s writing on Genesis was his determination to validate the goodness of God and of creation itself against Manichaean dualism.


Other works » Sermons
Almost one-third of Augustine’s surviving works consists of sermons—more than 1.5 million words, most of them taken down by shorthand scribes as he spoke extemporaneously. They cover a wide range. Many are simple expositions of scripture read aloud at a particular service according to church rules, but Augustine followed certain programs as well. There are sermons on all 150 Psalms, deliberately gathered by him in a separate collection, Enarrationes in Psalmos (392–418; Enarrations on the Psalms). These are perhaps his best work as a homilist, for he finds in the uplifting spiritual poetry of the Hebrews messages that he can apply consistently to his view of austere, hopeful, realistic Christianity; his ordinary congregation in Hippo would have drawn sustenance from them. At a higher intellectual level are his Tractatus in evangelium Iohannis CXXIV (413–418?; Tractates on the Gospel of John), amounting to a full commentary on the most philosophical of the Gospel texts. Other sermons range over much of scripture, but it is worth noting that Augustine had little to say about the prophets of the Old Testament, and what he did have to say about Paul appeared in his written works rather than in his public sermons.


Other works » Early writings
Moderns enamoured of Augustine from the narrative in the Confessions have given much emphasis to his short, attractive early works, several of which mirror the style and manner of Ciceronian dialogues with a new, Platonized Christian content: Contra academicos (386; Against the Academics), De ordine (386; On Providence), De beata vita (386; On the Blessed Life), and Soliloquia (386/387; Soliloquies). These works both do and do not resemble Augustine’s later ecclesiastical writings and are greatly debated for their historical and biographical significance, but the debates should not obscure the fact that they are charming and intelligent pieces. If they were all we had of Augustine, he would remain a well-respected, albeit minor, figure in late Latin literature.


Other works » Controversial writings
More than 100 titled works survive from Augustine’s pen, the majority of them devoted to the pursuit of issues in one or another of the ecclesiastical controversies that preoccupied his episcopal years.

Of his works against the Manichaeans, the Confessions probably remains the most attractive and interesting; the sect itself is too little known today for detailed refutation of its more idiosyncratic Gnostic doctrines to have much weight.

Augustine’s anti-Donatist polemic, on the other hand, has had a modern resonance for its role in creating the relationship between church and state (in Augustine’s case, church and state using each other deliberately to achieve their ends) and in arguing the case for a universal church against local particularism. To the young and still Anglican John Henry Newman, what Augustine had written about the provincial self-satisfaction of the Donatists seemed an equally effective argument against the Church of England. For the theology, Augustine in De baptismo contra Donatistas (401; On Baptism) expounds his anti-Donatist views most effectively, but the stenographic Gesta Collationis Carthaginensis (411; “Acts of the Council of Carthage”) offers a vivid view of the politics and bad feeling of the schism.

The issues raised by Augustine’s attacks on Pelagianism have had a long history in Christianity, notoriously resurfacing in the Reformation’s debates over free will and predestination. De spiritu et littera (412; On the Spirit and the Letter) comes from an early moment in the controversy, is relatively irenic, and beautifully sets forth his point of view. De gratia Christi et de peccato originali (418; On the Grace of Christ and on Original Sin) is a more methodical exposition. The hardest positions Augustine takes in favour of predestination in his last years appear in De praedestinatione sanctorum (429; The Predestination of the Blessed) and De dono perseverantiae (429; The Gift of Perseverance).


Augustine’s spirit and achievement
Augustine’s impact on the Middle Ages cannot be underestimated. Thousands of manuscripts survive, and many serious medieval libraries—possessing no more than a few hundred books in all—had more works of Augustine than of any other writer. His achievement is paradoxical inasmuch as—like a modern artist who makes more money posthumously than in life—most of it was gained after his death and in lands and societies far removed from his own. Augustine was read avidly in a world where Christian orthodoxy prevailed in a way he could barely have dreamed of, hence a world unlike that to which his books were meant to apply.

Some of his success is owed to the undeniable power of his writing, some to his good luck in having maintained a reputation for orthodoxy unblemished even by debates about some of his most extreme views, but, above all, Augustine found his voice in a few themes which he espoused eloquently throughout his career. When he asks himself in his early Soliloquies what he desires to know, he replies, “Two things only, God and the soul.” Accordingly, he speaks of his reverence for a God who is remote, distant, and mysterious as well as powerfully and unceasingly present in all times and places. “Totus ubique” was Augustine’s oft-repeated mantra for this doctrine, “The whole of him everywhere.”

At the same time, Augustine captures the poignancy and tentativeness of the human condition, centred on the isolated and individual experience of the person. For all he writes of the Christian community, his Christian stands alone before God and is imprisoned in a unique body and soul painfully aware of the different way he knows himself and knows—at a distance and with difficulty—other people. Augustine must have been an overpowering friend to many who knew him, a whirlwind and almost bullying force, but at the same time we see no friend of his as intimate as Atticus was to Cicero or Lou Andreas-Salomé was to Rainer Maria Rilke—two other eloquent loners.

But Augustine achieves a greater poignancy. His isolated self in the presence of God is denied even the satisfaction of solipsism: the self does not know itself until God deigns to reveal to human beings their identity, and even then no confidence, no rest is possible in this life. At one point in the Confessions the mature bishop ruefully admits that “I do not know to what temptation I will surrender next”—and sees in that uncertainty the peril of his soul unending until God should call him home. The soul experiences freedom of choice and ensuing slavery to sin but knows that divine predestination will prevail.

Thousands upon thousands of pages have been written on Augustine and his views. Given his influence, he is often canvassed for his opinion on controversies (from the Immaculate Conception of Mary to the ethics of contraception) that he barely imagined or could have spoken to. But the themes of imperial God and contingent self run deep and go far to explain his refusal to accept Manichaean doctrines of a powerful devil at war with God, Donatist particularism in the face of universal religion, or Pelagian claims of human autonomy and confidence. His views on sexuality and the place of women in society have been searchingly tested and found wanting in recent years, but they, too, have roots in the loneliness of a man terrified of his father—or his God.

In the end, Augustine and his own experience, so vividly displayed and at the same time veiled in his Confessions, disappear from view, to be replaced by the serene teacher depicted in medieval and Renaissance art. It is worth remembering that Augustine ended his life in the midst of a community that feared for its material well-being and chose to spend his last days in a room by himself, posting on a wall where he could see them the texts of the seven penitential Psalms, to wrestle one last time with his sins before meeting his maker.

James O’Donnell

 





 
 



Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
Roman scholar, philosopher, and statesman

born ad 470–475?, Rome? [Italy]
died 524, Pavia?

Main
Roman scholar, Christian philosopher, and statesman, author of the celebrated De consolatione philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy), a largely Neoplatonic work in which the pursuit of wisdom and the love of God are described as the true sources of human happiness.

The most succinct biography of Boethius, and the oldest, was written by Cassiodorus, his senatorial colleague, who cited him as an accomplished orator who delivered a fine eulogy of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths who made himself king of Italy. Cassiodorus also mentioned that Boethius wrote on theology, composed a pastoral poem, and was most famous as a translator of works of Greek logic and mathematics.

Other ancient sources, including Boethius’ own De consolatione philosophiae, give more details. He belonged to the ancient Roman family of the Anicii, which had been Christian for about a century and of which Emperor Olybrius had been a member. Boethius’ father had been consul in 487 but died soon afterward, and Boethius was raised by Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, whose daughter Rusticiana he married. He became consul in 510 under the Ostrogothic king Theodoric. Although little of Boethius’ education is known, he was evidently well trained in Greek. His early works on arithmetic and music are extant, both based on Greek handbooks by Nicomachus of Gerasa, a 1st-century-ad Palestinian mathematician. There is little that survives of Boethius’ geometry, and there is nothing of his astronomy.

It was Boethius’ scholarly aim to translate into Latin the complete works of Aristotle with commentary and all the works of Plato “perhaps with commentary,” to be followed by a “restoration of their ideas into a single harmony.” Boethius’ dedicated Hellenism, modeled on Cicero’s, supported his long labour of translating Aristotle’s Organon (six treatises on logic) and the Greek glosses on the work.

Boethius had begun before 510 to translate Porphyry’s Eisagogē, a 3rd-century Greek introduction to Aristotle’s logic, and elaborated it in a double commentary. He then translated the Katēgoriai, wrote a commentary in 511 in the year of his consulship, and also translated and wrote two commentaries on the second of Aristotle’s six treatises, the Peri hermeneias (“On Interpretation”). A brief ancient commentary on Aristotle’s Analytika Protera (“Prior Analytics”) may be his too; he also wrote two short works on the syllogism.

About 520 Boethius put his close study of Aristotle to use in four short treatises in letter form on the ecclesiastical doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Christ; these are basically an attempt to solve disputes that had resulted from the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Using the terminology of the Aristotelian categories, Boethius described the unity of God in terms of substance and the three divine persons in terms of relation. He also tried to solve dilemmas arising from the traditional description of Christ as both human and divine, by deploying precise definitions of “substance,” “nature,” and “person.” Notwithstanding these works, doubt has at times been cast on Boethius’ theological writings because in his logical works and in the later Consolation, the Christian idiom is nowhere apparent. The 19th-century discovery of the biography written by Cassiodorus, however, confirmed Boethius as a Christian writer, even if his philosophic sources were non-Christian.

In about 520 Boethius became magister officiorum (head of all the government and court services) under Theodoric. His two sons were consuls together in 522. Eventually Boethius fell out of favour with Theodoric. The Consolation contains the main extant evidence of his fall but does not clearly describe the actual accusation against him. After the healing of a schism between Rome and the church of Constantinople in 520, Boethius and other senators may have been suspected of communicating with the Byzantine emperor Justin I, who was orthodox in faith whereas Theodoric was Arian. Boethius openly defended the senator Albinus, who was accused of treason “for having written to the Emperor Justin against the rule of Theodoric.” The charge of treason brought against Boethius was aggravated by a further accusation of the practice of magic, or of sacrilege, which the accused was at great pains to reject. Sentence was passed and was ratified by the Senate, probably under duress. In prison, while he was awaiting execution, Boethius wrote his masterwork, De consolatione philosophiae.

The Consolation is the most personal of Boethius’ writings, the crown of his philosophic endeavours. Its style, a welcome change from the Aristotelian idiom that provided the basis for the jargon of medieval Scholasticism, seemed to the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon “not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully.” The argument of the Consolation is basically Platonic. Philosophy, personified as a woman, converts the prisoner Boethius to the Platonic notion of Good and so nurses him back to the recollection that, despite the apparent injustice of his enforced exile, there does exist a summum bonum (“highest good”), which “strongly and sweetly” controls and orders the universe. Fortune and misfortune must be subordinate to that central Providence, and the real existence of evil is excluded. Man has free will, but it is no obstacle to divine order and foreknowledge. Virtue, whatever the appearances, never goes unrewarded. The prisoner is finally consoled by the hope of reparation and reward beyond death. Through the five books of this argument, in which poetry alternates with prose, there is no specifically Christian tenet. It is the creed of a Platonist, though nowhere glaringly incongruous with Christian faith. The most widely read book in medieval times, after the Vulgate Bible, it transmitted the main doctrines of Platonism to the Middle Ages. The modern reader may not be so readily consoled by its ancient modes of argument, but he may be impressed by Boethius’ emphasis on the possibility of other grades of Being beyond the one humanly known and of other dimensions to the human experience of time.

After his detention, probably at Pavia, he was executed in 524. His remains were later placed in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, where, possibly through a confusion with his namesake, St. Severinus of Noricum, they received the veneration due to a martyr and a memorable salute from Dante.

When Cassiodorus founded a monastery at Vivarium, in Campania, he installed there his Roman library and included Boethius’ works on the liberal arts in the annotated reading list (Institutiones) that he composed for the education of his monks. Thus, some of the literary habits of the ancient aristocracy entered the monastic tradition. Boethian logic dominated the training of the medieval clergy and the work of the cloister and court schools. His translations and commentaries, particularly those of the Katēgoriai and Peri hermeneias, became basic texts in medieval Scholasticism. The great controversy over Nominalism (denial of the existence of universals) and Realism (belief in the existence of universals) was incited by a passage in his commentary on Porphyry. Translations of the Consolation appeared early in the great vernacular literatures, with King Alfred (9th century) and Chaucer (14th century) in English, Jean de Meun (a 13th-century poet) in French, and Notker Labeo (a monk of around the turn of the 11th century) in German. There was a Byzantine version in the 13th century by Planudes and a 16th-century English one by Elizabeth I.

Thus the resolute intellectual activity of Boethius in an age of change and catastrophe affected later, very different ages; and the subtle and precise terminology of Greek antiquity survived in Latin when Greek itself was little known.

James Shiel

 





 
 



Marcus Tullius Cicero
Roman statesman, scholar, and writer
English byname Tully
born 106 bc, Arpinum, Latium [now Arpino, Italy]
died Dec. 7, 43 bc, Formiae, Latium [now Formia]

Main
Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, and writer who vainly tried to uphold republican principles in the final civil wars that destroyed the republic of Rome. His writings include books of rhetoric, orations, philosophical and political treatises, and letters. He is remembered in modern times as the greatest Roman orator and innovator of what became known as Ciceronian rhetoric.

Cicero was the son of a wealthy family of Arpinium. Admirably educated in Rome and in Greece, he did military service in 89 under Pompeius Strabo (the father of Pompey) and made his first appearance in the courts defending Quinctius in 81. His brilliant defense, in 80 or early 79, of Sextus Roscius against a fabricated charge of parricide established his reputation at the bar, and he started his public career as quaestor (an office of financial administration) in western Sicily in 75.

As praetor, a judicial officer of great power at this time, in 66 he made his first important political speech, when, against Catulus and leading Optimates (the conservative element in the Senate), he spoke in favour of conferring on Pompey command of the campaign against Mithradates, king of Pontus. His relationship with Pompey, whose hatred of Marcus Licinius Crassus he shared, was to be the focal point of his career in politics. His election as consul for 63 was achieved through Optimates who feared the revolutionary ideas of his rival, Catiline.

In the first of his consular speeches, he opposed the agrarian bill of Servilius Rullus, in the interest of the absent Pompey; but his chief concern was to discover and make public the seditious intentions of Catiline, who, defeated in 64, appeared again at the consular elections in 63 (over which Cicero presided, wearing armour beneath his toga). Catiline lost and planned to carry out armed uprisings in Italy and arson in Rome. Cicero had difficulty in persuading the Senate of the danger, but the “last decree” (Senatus consultum ultimum), something like a proclamation of martial law, was passed on October 22. On November 8, after escaping an attempt on his life, Cicero delivered the first speech against Catiline in the Senate, and Catiline left Rome that night. Evidence incriminating the conspirators was secured and, after a senatorial debate in which Cato spoke for execution and Caesar against, they were executed on Cicero’s responsibility. Cicero, announcing their death to the crowd with the single word vixerunt (“they are dead”), received a tremendous ovation from all classes, which inspired his subsequent appeal in politics to concordia ordinum, “concord between the classes.” He was hailed by Catulus as “father of his country.” This was the climax of his career.

At the end of 60, Cicero declined Caesar’s invitation to join the political alliance of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey, which he considered unconstitutional, and also Caesar’s offer in 59 of a place on his staff in Gaul. When Publius Clodius, whom Cicero had antagonized by speaking and giving evidence against him when he was tried for profanity early in 61, became tribune in 58, Cicero was in danger, and in March, disappointed by Pompey’s refusal to help him, fled Rome. On the following day Clodius carried a bill forbidding the execution of a Roman citizen without trial. Clodius then carried through a second law, of doubtful legality, declaring Cicero an exile. Cicero went first to Thessalonica, in Macedonia, and then to Illyricum. In 57, thanks to the activity of Pompey and particularly the tribune Milo, he was recalled on August 4. Cicero landed at Brundisium (Brindisi) on that day and was acclaimed all along his route to Rome, where he arrived a month later.

In winter 57–56 Cicero attempted unsuccessfully to estrange Pompey from Caesar. Pompey disregarded Cicero’s advice and renewed his compact with Caesar and Crassus at Luca in April 56. Cicero then agreed, under pressure from Pompey, to align himself with the three in politics, and he committed himself in writing to this effect (the “palinode”). The speech De provinciis consularibus marked his new alliance. He was obliged to accept a number of distasteful defenses, and he abandoned public life. In the next few years he completed the De oratore (55) and De republica (started in 54, finished in 52) and began the De legibus (52). In 52 he was delighted when Milo killed Clodius but failed disastrously in his defense of Milo (later written for publication, the Pro Milone).

In 51 he was persuaded to leave Rome to govern the province of Cilicia, in south Asia Minor, for a year. The province had been expecting a Parthian invasion, but it never materialized, although Cicero did suppress some brigands on Mt. Amanus. The Senate granted a supplicatio (a period of public thanksgiving), although Cicero had hoped for a triumph, a processional return through the city, on his return to Rome. All admitted that he governed Cilicia with integrity.

By the time Cicero returned to Rome, Pompey and Caesar were struggling for complete power. He was in the outskirts of Rome when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy in January 49. Cicero met Pompey outside Rome on January 17 and accepted a commission to supervise recruiting in Campania. He did not leave Italy with Pompey on March 17, however. His indecision was not discreditable, though his criticism of Pompey’s strategy was inexpert. In an interview with Caesar on March 28, Cicero showed great courage in stating his own terms—his intention of proposing in the Senate that Caesar should not pursue the war against Pompey any further—though they were terms that Caesar could not possibly accept. He disapproved of Caesar’s dictatorship; yet he realized that in the succession of battles (which continued until 45) he would have been one of the first victims of Caesar’s enemies, had they triumphed. This was his second period of intensive literary production, works of this period including the Brutus, Paradoxa, Orator in 46; De finibus in 45; and Tusculanae disputationes, De natura deorum, and De officiis, finished after Caesar’s murder, in 44.

Cicero was not involved in the conspiracy to kill Caesar on March 15, 44, and was not present in the Senate when he was murdered. On March 17 he spoke in the Senate in favour of a general amnesty, but then he returned to his philosophical writing and contemplated visiting his son, who was studying in Athens. But instead he returned to Rome at the end of August, and his 14 Philippic orations (so called in imitation of Demosthenes’ speeches against Philip II of Macedonia), the first delivered on Sept. 2, 44, the last on April 21, 43, mark his vigorous reentry into politics. His policy was to make every possible use of Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, whose mature intelligence he seriously underestimated, and to drive the Senate, against its own powerful inclination toward compromise, to declare war on Antony, who had controlled events immediately following Caesar’s death and who now was pursuing one of the assassins in Cisalpine Gaul. No letters survive to show how Octavian deceived Cicero in the interval between the defeat of Antony in Cisalpine Gaul on April 14 and Octavian’s march on Rome to secure the consulship in August. It was in May that Octavian learned of Cicero’s unfortunate remark that “the young man should be given praise, distinctions—and then be disposed of.” The triumvirate of Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus was formed at the end of October, and Cicero was soon being sought for execution. He was captured and killed near Caieta on December 7. His head and hands were displayed on the rostra, the speakers’ platform at the Forum, at Rome.

In politics Cicero constantly denigrated his opponents and exaggerated the virtues of his friends. As a “new man,” a man without noble ancestry, he was never accepted by the dominant circle of Optimates, and he attributed his own political misfortunes after 63 partly to the jealousy, partly to the spineless unconcern, of the complacent Optimates. The close political association with Pompey for which he longed was never achieved. He was more ready than some men to compromise ideals in order to preserve the republic, but, though he came to admit in the De republica that republican government required the presence of a powerful individual—an idealized Pompey perhaps—to ensure its stability, he showed little appreciation of the intrinsic weaknesses of Roman republican administration.

From Cicero’s correspondence between 67 and July 43 bc more than 900 letters survive, and, of the 835 written by Cicero himself, 416 were addressed to his friend, financial adviser, and publisher, the knight Titus Pomponius Atticus, and 419 to one or other of some 94 different friends, acquaintances, and relatives. The number obviously constitutes only a small portion of the letters that Cicero wrote and received. Many letters that were current in antiquity have not survived; for instance, the account of the suppression of Catiline’s conspiracy, mentioned in the Pro Sulla and Pro Plancio, which Cicero sent to Pompey at the end of 63; Pompey hardly as much as acknowledged it, and Cicero was mocked about it in public later. Many letters were evidently suppressed for political reasons after Cicero’s death.

There are four collections of the letters: to Atticus (Ad Atticum) in 16 books; to his friends (Ad familiares) in 16 books; to Brutus; and, in 3 books, to his brother (Ad Quintum fratrem). The letters constitute a primary historical source such as exists for no other part of the ancient world. They often enable events to be dated with a precision that would not otherwise be possible, and they have been used, though with no very great success, to discredit the accuracy of Caesar’s commentaries on the civil war. On the other hand, his reporting of events, naturally enough, is not objective, and he was capable of misremembering or misrepresenting past events so as to enhance his own credit.

Cicero is a minor but by no means negligible figure in the history of Latin poetry. His best known poems (which survive only in fragments) were the epics De consulatu suo (On His Consulship) and De temporibus suis (On His Life and Times), which were criticized in antiquity for their self-praise. Cicero’s verse is technically important; he refined the hexameter, using words of two or three syllables at the end of a line, so that the natural word accent would coincide with the beat of the metre, and applying rhetorical devices to poetry; he is one of those who made possible the achievement of Virgil.

Cicero made his reputation as an orator in politics and in the law courts, where he preferred appearing for the defense and generally spoke last because of his emotive powers. Unfortunately, not all his cases were as morally sound as the attack on the governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, which was perhaps his most famous case. In his day Roman orators were divided between “Asians,” with a rich, florid, grandiose style, of which Quintus Hortensius was the chief exponent, and the direct simplicity of the “Atticists,” such as Caesar and Brutus. Cicero refused to attach himself to any school. He was trained by Molon of Rhodes, whose own tendencies were eclectic, and he believed that an orator should command and blend a variety of styles. He made a close study of the rhythms that were likely to appeal to an audience, especially in the closing cadences of a sentence or phrase. His fullness revolutionized the writing of Latin; he is the real creator of the “periodic” style, in which phrase is balanced against phrase, with subordinate clauses woven into a complex but seldom obscure whole. Cicero’s rhetoric was a complex art form, and the ears of the audience were keenly attuned to these effects. Of the speeches, 58 have survived, some in an incomplete form; it is estimated that about 48 have been lost.

Cicero in Brutus implicitly gives his own description of his equipment as an orator—a thorough knowledge of literature, a grounding in philosophy, legal expertise, a storehouse of history, the capacity to tie up an opponent and reduce the jury to laughter, the ability to lay down general principles applicable to the particular case, entertaining digressions, the power of rousing the emotions of anger or pity, the faculty of directing his intellect to the point immediately essential. This is not an unjust picture. It is the humanitas of the speeches that turns them from an ephemeral tour de force into a lasting possession. His humour is at its best in his bantering of the Stoics in Pro Murena in order to discredit Cato, who was among the prosecutors, and at its most biting when he is attacking Clodia in Pro Caelio. His capacity for arousing anger may be seen in the opening sentences of the first speech against Catiline and, for arousing pity, in the last page of Pro Milone. His technique in winning a case against the evidence is exemplified by Pro Cluentio, a speech in an inordinately complex murder trial; Cicero later boasted of “throwing dust in the jurymen’s eyes.”

Cicero studied philosophy under the Epicurean Phaedrus (c. 140–70 bc), the Stoic Diodotus (d. c. 60 bc), and the Academic Philo of Larissa (c. 160–80 bc), and thus he had a thorough grounding in three of the four main schools of philosophy. Cicero called himself an Academic, but this applied chiefly to his theory of knowledge, in which he preferred to be guided by probability rather than to allege certainty; in this way, he justified contradictions in his own works. In ethics he was more inclined to dogmatism and was attracted by the Stoics, but for his authority he looked behind the Stoics to Socrates. In religion he was an agnostic most of his life, but he had religious experiences of some profundity during an early visit to Eleusis and at the death of his daughter in 45. He usually writes as a theist, but the only religious exaltation in his writings is to be found in the “Somnium Scipionis” (“Scipio’s Dream”) at the end of De republica.

Cicero did not write seriously on philosophy before about 54, a period of uneasy political truce, when he seems to have begun De republica, following it with De legibus (begun in 52). These writings were an attempt to interpret Roman history in terms of Greek political theory. The bulk of his philosophical writings belong to the period between February 45 and November 44. His output and range of subjects were astonishing: the lost De consolatione, prompted by his daughter’s death; Hortensius, an exhortation to the study of philosophy, which proved instrumental in St. Augustine’s conversion; the difficult Academica (Academic Philosophy), which defends suspension of judgement; De finibus, or The Supreme Good (Is it pleasure, virtue, or something more complex?); and De officiis (Moral Obligation). Except in the last book of De officiis, Cicero lays no claim to originality in these works. Writing to Atticus, he says of them “They are transcripts; I simply supply words, and I’ve plenty of those.” His aim was to provide Rome with a kind of philosophic encyclopaedia. He derived his material from Stoic, Academic, epicurean, and Peripatetic sources. The form he used was the dialogue, but his models were Aristotle and the scholar Heracleides Ponticus rather than Plato. Cicero’s importance in the history of philosophy is as a transmitter of Greek thought. In the course of this role, he gave Rome and, therefore, Europe its philosophical vocabulary.

John Ferguson
John P.V. Dacre Balsdon

 

 

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