Cicero and the Eclectics
Cicero was a famous Roman senator, lawyer, orator, and philosopher who lived and died during some of the most turbulent times in ancient history. In a time when power was reserved for the aristocracy, he rose from the less exalted classes to the Roman senate. He favored the Republican form of government in a society that was headed toward dictatorship. He was exiled and almost executed more than once. He witnessed the assassination of Julius Caesar and was eventually executed under the orders of Mark Antony.
Even though it was a culture in decline, Greece still had the monopoly on philosophy in the ancient world. Cicero “Romanized” the Greek philosophers in Latin translations designed to bring the classics to the Romans. It is said he was inventive in his translations, and as a lifelong lawyer and politician, he had ulterior motives in his efforts to bring philosophy, to the Roman Empire. Ever the pragmatist, he intended to use philosophy as a tool to further his political goals and advance the glory that was Rome. Though he was largely linked to the Roman branch of Skepticism, he was also a premier practitioner of Eclecticism.
“When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” was the philosophy of detection employed by Sherlock Holmes. This is essentially what the Eclectics had in mind. Wading through the weighty thoughts of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics, the Eclectics sought to find Truth amidst that conflicting jumble. Cicero examined the major philosophies of the day and, politician that he was, selected his belief systems from the philosophical salad bar.
Who were the Eclectics?
The Eclectics, as the name suggests, were a group of thinkers who picked and chose from a variety of philosophical schools of thought, in an effort to devise a new and improved philosophy.
Cicero had little use for Epicureanism. And that makes sense. Why would a career politician embrace a philosophy that calls for a rejection of public life and recommends a life of anonymous and quiet contemplation? In fact, Cicero was largely responsible, through his translations, for the misrepresentation of Epicurean thought, giving it its undeserved reputation as a coven of party animals.
Cicero embraced certain aspects of Stoic teaching when it came to politics. The extreme Skeptic advocates total inaction, because one cannot trust his own perceptions, and that, of course, is anathema to a politico. So Cicero took one from Column A and one from Column B in his philosophy.
Cicero believed that chaos would ensue if everyone casually did his own thing and did not wholeheartedly embrace the rule of law. There would be no Roman Empire if people did that, and Cicero was a Roman first, philosopher a distant second. Hence, when it was convenient, the heck with the Skeptics — it was time for a little good old-fashioned Stoicism. It was often, however, Stoicism according to Cicero. He incorporated the Roman gods and the active role they played in human affairs, bestowing blessings and afflicting punishment. And he endorsed the pursuit of pleasure in moderation as opposed to the ideal of ascetic self-denial. Of course, Cicero was diluting the message by adapting it to his own ends. This adaptation of philosophy is not unlike our old friends, the Sophists. Sophistry is almost as eternal as one of Plato's Forms. It appears in many faces and guises through the millennia, whether it be in ancient Greece or Rome, right up to and including the current sociocultural climate.