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LEARNED AND WISE:COTTA THE SCEPTIC IN CICEROS
ON THE NATURE OF THE GODS
J. P. F. WYNNE
S more radical sorts of ancient sceptic claimed to live, or totry to live, without beliefs. That invited and invites psychologicalquestions. For example: even if you could live without beliefs, orcould try to, what could it be like to live that way?
Cicero wrote dialogues. Dialogues allow their author to add a di-mension to writing about philosophy. A character, if he wishes, cangive an argument in expository prose. But the author of a dialogue,by putting this character in a drama, can also suggest for him a psy-chology. In On the Nature of the Gods Cicero presented a scepticalcharacter, Cotta, who reports his inner life. I shall show that bydoing so Cicero exhibits one answer (not necessarily his answer) tothe psychological question above. Cotta is a well-trained pupil ofthe sceptical Academy. It seems that he at least tries to live withoutforming dogmatic beliefs. Cicero shows us what it was like to beCotta.
J. P. F. Wynne
I am most grateful for discussion or help, in various stages of the genesis of thispiece, from Charles Brittain, Terence Irwin, Hayden Pelliccia, Brad Inwood,George Boys-Stones, and an anonymous reader. All remaining errors are my own.
Cotta in DND is a fictionalization of a flesh-and-blood man, C. Aurelius Cotta(RE Aurelius ). Cicero knew the real Cotta and admired him as an orator (seetestimonia in H. Malcovati, Oratorum Romanorum fragmenta, th edn. (Turin,), ). Cotta also appears as the narrator of De oratore. During thatstory (set in ) the young Cotta resolves to cultivate the Academy but only fororatorys sake (. ). Atticus and Cicero seem to have thought Cotta a plausiblecandidate for Ciceros role in the Academica (Ad Att. . . = SB), thuslater in his life Cotta must somehow have been eligible for depiction as a sceptic.So it is possible to invent a biography at least for the Cotta of Ciceros imagination,where he went in search of Academic training in oratory and thus fetched up asceptic. See also R. Goulet (ed.), Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, vol. ii (Paris,), s.n. Cotta. How far and in what particulars Cotta in DND resembles thereal man is hard to say. In this article I discuss the character in DND and I assumethat we can get everything we need to know about him from DND itself.
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Treating Cotta this way uses a resource sometimes untapped inthe study of Ciceros philosophical dialogues. In the last centuryand more, two other sorts of approach to the dialogues have beencommon among historians of philosophy, both of which are worth-while. One is research into sources. Another is to treat the dia-logues as a sort of encyclopaedia of Hellenistic philosophy. Neitherof these approaches necessarily requires close attention to Cicerosdramaturgy or characterization. But I find that it bears fruit alsoto notice that Cicero shapes his dramas as coherent works of art,where the speakers have consistent characters. Especially in Sec-tion , I shall show that Cicero indeed took care to make Cotta acharacter with a coherent set of attitudes across his various appear-ances in DND.
For another and insightful treatment of Cottas scepticism, with which I dis-agree as specified below (nn. , , ), see J. G. DeFilippo, Cicero vs. Cotta in Denatura deorum [Cicero], Ancient Philosophy, (), .
For examples of this approach to DND in particular see R. Hirzel, Un-tersuchungen zu Ciceros philosophischen Schriften, i. De natura deorum (Leipzig,); L. Reinhardt, Die Quellen von Ciceros Schrift De deorum natura (Breslau,); A. S. Pease, M. Tulli Ciceronis De natura deorum libri tres: Liber primus[Natura] (Cambridge, Mass., ), ; A. J. Kleywegt, Ciceros Arbeitsweiseim zweiten und dritten Buch der Schrift De natura deorum (Groningen, ). Mymethods here are incompatible with a crude version of the single-source hypothesis,whereby Cicero simply assembled a cosmetic dialogue frame around what are nomore than translations of single sources with Roman examples put in place of Greek.My view is that Cicero shapes his characters and their speeches very much morethan that. But my method is compatible with a more sophisticated version even ofthe hypothesis that Cicero relied heavily on one or a few sources (perhaps alongwith his memory) for the technical arguments of a given speech. This version wouldallow Cicero a large role in shaping the material. Indeed, any view of DND mustbe open to some source criticism given the evidence (e.g. the well-known likenessDND . bears to part of Philodemus, On Piety: see D. Obbink, PhilodemusOn Piety: Part (Oxford, ), ).
The emblems of this sort of approach are collections like SVF or LS, but it isvery widespread in scholarship on Hellenistic philosophy. It is not threatened bymy views about Ciceros characters. I think that to assemble an encyclopaedia wasnot Ciceros primary purpose in the philosophica of . But there is evidencethat he gave some thought to making them usable as suchfor example, he seemsto have tried to cover the whole range of philosophy in something like a coherentsyllabus (see Div. . ). So I would be surprised if Cicero knowingly gave a char-acter anything less than a fair representation of another philosophers argument. Ihave never found an example of his doing so. It may nevertheless be the case thatan understanding of a particular characters purposes may allow us better to use thatcharacters speech as a source.
I am not alone in this sort of approach to the dialogues. Most notable is M.Schofield, CiceronianDialogue [Ciceronian], in S.Goldhill (ed.),The End of Dia-logue in Antiquity (Cambridge, ), , with whom I align myself in nn. ,, and below. Another strong caution against overlooking the personality of
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Cotta the Sceptic in Cicero
DND is about theology and religion, and Cotta is a pontifex,a member of the leading college of priests at Rome. The tensionbetween his lack of theological beliefs and his authority in the reli-gious life of the city is not lost on his opponents. SoCotta commentson how his scepticism comports with his priesthood. That god andreligion are thus in question adds relevance toCottas remarks, sincein modern times radical scepticism has so often been used to thinkabout natural theology or fideism, as is shown by Richard Popkinswell-known survey.
My analysis of Cotta will be as follows. I contend that of thevarious sorts of Academic sceptic Cicero describes, Cotta followsClitomachus interpretation of Carneades. That is to say, he avoidsbeliefs like those of a dogmatist, which the dogmatist takes to betrue. Instead he has views (sententiae) which he does not take to betrue but rather like the truth or persuasive. Thus to somebody withdogmatist assumptions, what it is like to be Cotta seems surpris-ingly normal in many ways (he navigates the world using his views)but strange in some (he reports only psychological histories for hisviews, never epistemic justifications). Nevertheless, I argue, Cottaharbours hope of discovering the truth one day and can be affectedif a view seems to be true or false. In this way he is an Academicradical sceptic worth contrasting with the Pyrrhonist.
. Cotta and epistemology
Let us first review some answers to the question of the scepticsviews which have helped to structure recent scholarly discussion.The sceptic aims to avoid dogmatic beliefs. The challenge comesback: but how can you live without beliefs? One answer to the chal-lenge is that sceptics do have beliefs or views of some other sort.Here, in the abstract, are two versions of that reply to the questionI might give if I were a sceptic, phrased so as to be easily applicableto Ciceros writing:
(RR) I refrain from the sort of belief that a dogmatist holdsforexample, from taking beliefs to be true. But I believe in some
a Ciceronian character, Cato in De finibus book , is B. Inwood, How Unified isStoicism Anyway?, in R. Kamtekar (ed.), Virtue and Happiness: Essays in Honourof Julia Annas (Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, suppl.; Oxford, ), .
R. Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford, ).
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other wayfor example, I take my beliefs to be plausible ortruth-like.
(MR) Like the dogmatist, I take my beliefs to be true. But unlikethe dogmatist, I reserve the caveat that any of them might befalse.
The mitigated reply (MR) says that my scepticism is not so radical:like the dogmatist, I take it to be true that things are this way orthat. But if I pursue the radical reply (RR) my difference from thedogmatist is that I do not take my beliefs to be true.
There is more to be said about the strength of RR as a reply tothe question of the possibility, or practicality, of life without be-liefs. For RR might turn defence into attack. Suppose that I havenot only taken nothing to be true or that I not only think that Inever should. Suppose I also do not care about truth. I get alongfine without it, while the hunt for truth seems to cause trouble tothe hunters. Then I might say that the dogmatist seems wrong tothink the pursuit of truth is at the heart of philosophy. Her truth-seeking epistemology is the deviant position and a rod for her ownback. I shall call this the insulating reading of RR, since it meansthat the sceptics views are insulated from dogmatic debates. Foreven if such a sceptic should find an argument for the truth of someproposition persuasive, he need not be tempted to assent to it, sinceto him care for the truth seems to be folly. In Section I shall askwhether Cottas views are thus insulated.
Let us now apply this survey of interpretative options to the