36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I?m first to review a two thousand year old book! Unfortunately, Cicero seems to have become the hinterlands of Amazon.com.
This is a marvelous, but somewhat flawed, book for anyone interested in moral philosophy or in how the various streams of Greek philosophy had evolved by the time Cicero wrote this work, late in his life (45 B.C.).
What we have here is a collection of five "disputations", each covering a different topic about practical philosophy. This was a conscious attempt by Cicero to bring to the average educated Roman the essential practical insights of Greek philosophers of various schools. Cicero, besides his considerable career in public life as an orator, lawyer and politician, was a life-long student and dilettante of philosophy, and had studied in Greece with some of the main teachers of his time.
The book starts with a helpful introduction. It is really quite good. It explores the various philosophical strands that Cicero weaves into his work, it explains the context in which Cicero wrote the work, and it gives a brief outline of its main points.
The five disputations cover:
1. Fear of Death
2. Endurance of Pain
3. Alleviation of Distress
4. The Remaining Disorders of the Soul
5. The Sufficiency of Virtue for a Happy Life
The disputations are dialogues which Cicero says he had with a friend on five consecutive days at his vacation home in Tusculum. Yet these dialogues are really just soliloquies, with only occasional lame input from his interlocutor. This work therefore entirely lacks the give and take that makes many of Plato's dialogues so entertaining. Indeed, most of what Cicero has to say can be found in Plato and in a number of the subsequent Greco-Roman moralists such as Epictetus, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, as well as much later writers such as Boethius, and even, after a fashion, Plotinus: most of these others even said it all much better in certain ways, but Cicero puts it all together in a pleasingly compact and compelling way.
But there are other problems here that keep this work from being as excellent as it might otherwise be, and that almost undermined my fondness for the work to the point of giving it only four stars.
First is the language: it is often off-putting. The original Latin by Cicero is filled with his own brand of eloquence, which to a modern mind is overly full of elaborations, digressions and ornamentations. This is compounded by the translation, first published in 1927 and revised in 1945, such that the English is a bit antiquated in style. All this is brought to a head during Cicero's questionable and all-too-frequent injections of Greek and Roman poetry. Ugh!
Then there are episodes, fortunately not too frequent or prolonged, but unwelcome nonetheless, in which Cicero indulges in the wishful nonsense that the Latin language and the Roman mind will be fertile soil for philosophy. The Romans were many things, but they were never in the same philosophical or literary league as the Greeks. Cicero's digressions about this just seem silly.
My last main complaint is with the whole fourth disputation. The convoluted style and reasoning may have appealed to someone of his own era, but it's really quite a task to slog through this. A few golden nuggets of wisdom save it from total condemnation, but just barely. (Cicero wrote this whole work in quite a hurry, apparently. It is not a deeply reflected nor highly polished work, unfortunately.)
But overall, this book is well worthwhile. Even more so if you read Latin: the book is published by the Loeb Classical Library. For those not familiar with this press, it says that its collection of several hundred handsome little tomes "through original text and English translation, gives access to all that is important in Greek and Latin literature." Indeed it does. The ones in green jackets are Greek works, the ones in red Latin, and the original work in Greek or Latin is found on the left pages and the English translation is on the right, so you can read either or compare (If you're fortunate enough to have learned these languages). Even if you only read English, these are nice books, well worth owning.
The introduction ends with this wonderful quote, after pointing out that some famous writers and thinkers disliked Cicero's style, whereas St. Augustine and Erasmus were very fond of him: "A man who makes such an appeal to men like St. Augustine and Erasmus cannot be dismissed as merely a phrasemaker. Cicero was not an original thinker and greater names have taken the place his once occupied in philosophy. His importance rests for one thing on the fact that he was not simply a student but a man of affairs as well . . . . When men of his gifts and his experience are also genuinely interested in great subjects like philosophy, the conclusions to which they have come upon the meaning of life experience an influence and have a permanent value quite apart from the technical qualifications they may possess. Historically Cicero is of the greatest importance, for he gives us most that we know of a number of Greek philosophers whose thought inspired the civilized world of their day, and his influence was felt by the Latin fathers of the Church, at the Revival of learning and in the eighteenth century, at all the chief turning points of Western thought, not to speak of the many generations of the young whose first steps he has guided in the paths of moral philosophy, and what in his writings may seem commonplace to us is commonplace because it has been "absorbed into the fabric of civilized society." In fact, as Strachan-Davidson said in Cicero's Life: "If we were required to decide what ancient writings have most directly influenced the modern world, the award must probably go in favor of Plutarch's Lives and the philosophical writings of Cicero." " Amen.