Ratio et Iustitia: The Basis for Cicero’s Rejection of Epicureanism in Finibus 2 and 3

David C. Noe

This paper examines the twofold rejection of Epicureanism that Cicero summarizes in the opening remarks to Finibus 3. From Cicero’s perspective, the Epicurean account of the summum bonum has failed by the end of Fin. 2. The root cause for this failure is the elevation of the pursuit of pleasure to a primary impulse of all living creatures. As such he believes it provides no basis for consistent and organized human interaction, no cogent explanation of the origins of human society and our associations into groups and political units. For this reason it is a philosophy devoid of an account of justice that Cicero would find compatible with cherished Roman intuitions and traditions. This is evident from the critique of Epicurean oikeiosis offered in Fin. 2, and rests on two criticisms.

The first is that by appealing to the senses for its justification of pleasure as the summum bonum, Epicureanism is at base irrational. According to Cicero, the senses are fit for judging only sensory things, sweetness, bitterness, and so forth (B. Inwood, Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism 1985, 154). Only ratio can pronounce a just verdict on humankind’s chief good, as ratio alone is unique to human beings and fully consistent with their natural endowments. In this vein Cicero speaks crescendos of praise for the power and effectiveness of ratio in rendering such decisions (2.38). But as Torquatus states here, and also earlier at 1.30, Epicurus emphatically denies the necessity of ratio in deciding primary questions of ethical development: “itaque negat opus esse ratione neque disputatione quamobrem voluptas expetenda, fugiendus dolor sit.” To Cicero, Epicureanism is fundamentally irrational (Hossenfelder, The Norms of Nature 1986, 251).

In addition to this, there is for him a second, more troublesome aspect of the elevation of pleasure, the problem mentioned earlier of leaving no room for justice and the other cardinal virtues. At 2.45, immediately after faulting the Epicureans for irrationality, Cicero credits to ratio, one given by nature, the production within human beings of an appetitus for one another. Closely joined to this gift of ratio is natura’s second bestowal, the “cupiditatemveri videndi” (2.46). With marked similarities to Off. 1.13, Cicero proceeds to the other three cardinal virtues of justice, courage, and moderation. The problem with pleasure therefore is that it tends to destroy justice: Cicero’s gripe with Epicureanism is fundamentally political (P. MacKendrick 1989, 12).

Whether the widespread acceptance of Epicureanism in Roman society was likely, so as to undermine the political system, is difficult to know. But Cicero writes in Tusc. 4.6 that the Epicurean Gaius Amafinius so popularized their system at Rome, that when his rivals from the same school appeared they “won over the whole peninsula”. He may no doubt be exaggerating for the sake of his argument, but the prominence of Amafinius is mentioned earlier at Acad.1.6, as well in Cicero’s correspondence, Ad Fam. 15.16.1 and 15.19.2 (N. Wood, Cicero’s Social and Political Thought 1988, 63). This we might call Cicero’s reasoned opposition to the Epicurean system. He has strong rhetorical antipathies to Epicureanism, as is not widely realized, but these are a symptom of the root cause, the subjection of the question of the summum bonum to the bar of the senses. By this they are both further weakened rhetorically, trying to defend the irrational, and separate themselves from the rest of humankind by making no provision for the development of the virtues. This latter is a distinctly un-Roman and unpolitical position to hold, and it has no appeal for Cicero. Furthermore, once ratio has been stripped of its prominence and potency, it follows that its primary manifestation oratio is greatly enfeebled. Rhetoric is of course indispensable to the maintenance and advance of Roman imperium. The Epicurean system does not, and, Cicero claims, cannot provide a persuasive rationale for this.

Secondary literature in this area is rapidly growing, thanks to the efforts of those who are beginning to take seriously Cicero’s claims to philosophical importance. Certainly much important work has been done by, among others, the individuals listed below. Yet in the analysis of his hostility to Epicureanism, scholars seem to have overlooked what Cicero saw as the connection between pleasure’s irrationality and its inevitable undermining of the Roman state and its traditions. This paper seeks to provide such an account by demonstrating more clearly the sources of his antagonism. Cicero does not oppose pleasure per se, which even Stoics could rationally choose, but objects to the political and social consequences engendered by its latent irrationality.

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