Cicero’s Academica, part I

Philosophy as a Way of Life
9 min readOct 24, 2019

Marcus Tullius Cicero is one of our best sources concerning the early and middle Stoas, i.e., the period of the evolution of Stoicism that goes from the founding of the sect by Zeno of Citium in Athens, circa 300 BCE, to the period of Panaetius (185–109 BCE) and Posidonius (135–51 BCE), the latter being one of Cicero’s teachers.

Yet, Cicero himself was an Academic Skeptic, not a Stoic, despite his general sympathy for Stoic philosophy. The reason to look at Academica (“The Academics”), then, is to learn more about a different practical philosophy and how it differentiated itself from Stoicism.

“Skepticism” is a rather vague term, which indicated a number of different philosophical positions in the ancient world, and that today refers mostly to so-called scientific skeptics, i.e., people who are critical of notions such as the paranormal, astrology, UFOs, and so forth. While I consider myself a skeptic in the latter sense, that’s not what we are going to talk about today.

The Academic Skeptics where named after Plato’s Academy, which is a bit weird, since Plato was definitely not a skeptic about the possibility of human nature. Indeed, this was an unusual middle phase for the Academy, characterized mostly by the figures of Carneades, Arcesilaus, and Philo of Larissa. It was followed by a return of sorts to Plato with what we call today Neo-Platonism.

In what sense, then, where the Academic Skeptics, well, “Academic”? Because they were inspired by the Socratic notion that the wise person admits that he does not know anything, unlike all those fools who Socrates had a good time exposing as such. (And who, in due course, killed him for it.)

Arguably the most influential of the Academic Skeptics was Carneades, who was inspired to develop his doctrines in direct response to the Stoic Chrysippus. Carneades articulated the notion of “acatalepsia,” according to which there is no necessary correspondence between our perceptions and the objects we perceive. Which means we should doubt all our sensory perception. Since there is no criterion of truth (contra the Stoic position), then there is no possibility of knowledge. This in turns means that the wise person ought to practice “epoche,” or suspension of judgment. Which is the Academic Skeptic’s path to a eudaimonic life. If we suspend…

Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at