Excerpt #19 — Cicero on the Path from Socrates through Plato to Aristotle; Cicero on Plato & Aristotle on Form

Continuing with Excerpt #17, which treats of Plato’s narration of Socrates’ philosophical path, and Excerpt #18, where we see Aristotle narrating the philosophical development (and position) of Socrates and Plato, here we get the Roman Stoic Marcus Tullius Cicero (B.C. 106-43) on Socrates through Aristotle.

Varro is here recounting “Antiochus’ views on the history of philosophy.” [p.92, fn. 12]

[IV.15] Then Varro began like this. “As I see it, Socrates was the first (this is a point accepted by all) to summon philosophy away from the obscure subjects nature itself has veiled –the questions all his philosophical predecessors had been concerned with– and to direct it towards ordinary life. He set it onto investigating virtue and vice and good and bad in general, considering celestial subjects to be far beyond our knowledge or, even if they were perfectly knowable, still completely irrelevant to the good life. [IV.16] His manner of argument [p.93] is the same in practically all the conversations his students wrote up so eloquently and variously: he makes no affirmation of his own, but refutes other people and says that he knows nothing except just that. This, he says, is his advantage over everyone else: while they think they know what they don’t know, he knows just the fact that he doesn’t know anything — and that, he thinks, is why he was declared the wisest of all men by Apollo, because not thinking you know what you don’t know is the sum of human wisdom. And yet, though he kept making these claims and stuck with this view, every speech of his was taken up with praising virtue and exhorting people to pursue it, as one can see from the books of the Socratics, and especially Plato’s.

[IV.17] “Following Plato’s complex and eloquent lead, a single and concordant system of philosophy developed under two names: the philosophy of the Academics and the Peripatetics. Despite their difference in name, they agreed in their doctrine. Plato, you see, left Speusippus, his sister’s son, as the heir of his philosophy, <but his work was inherited> by two men of outstanding energy and learning: Xenocrates of Calchedon and Aristotle of Stagira. Aristotle’s companions were called ‘Peripatetics’ because they held their debates as they strolled in the Lyceum, while the students who held their meetings and conversations in the Academy (another gymnasium), as Plato had, received their name from there. But since both were raised on Plato’s riches, they drew up a fixed system of teaching –a remarkably full and detailed system– and abandoned that Socratic habit of arguing in doubt about everything and without making any affirmation. The result was something Socrates was far from approving: a systematic art of philosophy, an ordering of subjects, and a framework for teaching.


And here, not far on in the text, a note about the Peripatetics and the Academics on form:

[p.94] [IV.19] “Well, they started with a threefold theory of philosophy inherited from Plato, one part dealing with our way of life and ethical dispositions, another with nature and hidden subjects, and the third with argument, i.e., judging what is true or false, correct or incorrect in its expression, and consistent or inconsistent.”


[p.99] [VIII.30] “Next is the third part of philosophy, which dealt with reasoning and argument. Both schools treated it as follows. The criterion of truth was not in the senses, they maintained, although it took its start from the senses: the mind was the judge of things. They believed that this was the only faculty deserving our trust, because it alone discerned what was always simple, uniform, and same as itself. (Idea was the term they used for this, the name Plato had already given it; but we can rightly call it a ‘Form’.) [VIII.31] The senses were all blunt and feeble, in their view, and quite unable to apprehend the things people thought were subject to perception, because the latter were either so small that they were undetectable by the senses or moving so rapidly that nothing was one or constant or even self-identical because everything was continually slipping or flowing away. For this reason, they called this whole domain ‘subject to opinion’. [VIII.32] Knowledge, they believed, existed only in the conceptions and reasoning of the mind. Accordingly, they approved the use of definitions of things and applied them to all the subjects they discussed. The analysis of words was another practice they approved, i.e., investigating the explanations for the names things had been given (which they called etumologia [‘etymology’]). They went on to use certain signs or ‘marks’ of things as guides to arrive at proofs or demonstrations [p.100] of the things they wanted to explain. This was their teaching of the whole method of dialectic, i.e., speech used in formal argument. Its counterpart, as it were, was the ability to use rhetoric, i.e., the development of continuous speech adapted for persuasion.

Cicero, On Academic Skepticism transl. Charles Brittain (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2006), 92-100

The ellipses that I have provided are not identical with the breaks in the text itself; I have cut out a great deal. It is unfortunate that this work, like so many works, comes to us in fragmented form. But it is a lovely thing that we get as much of it as we do!


Header image found via a Google search that led me to Barry Straus’ site: http://barrystrauss.com/another-day-that-shall-live-in-infamy/

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