Cicero’s De Finibus book V: the nature of good and evil

Philosophy as a Way of Life
12 min readDec 21, 2021
[image: page from De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, Wikimedia]

What is good? What is evil? These twin questions have probably been asked by human beings as soon as our ancestors were capable of posing questions to themselves. In the Greco-Roman tradition they are most famously tackled by Marcus Tullius Cicero in a book entitled De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, or On the Ends of Good and Evil. It was written in less than two months in the summer of 45 BCE, two years before Cicero’s death at the hand of assassins sent by Mark Anthony, who had not appreciated Cicero’s barbed criticism of him in the famous Philippicae.

De Finibus, as the book is familiarly referred to, is comprised of five “books” (i.e., chapters). The first two feature a dialogue between Cicero and the young Epicurean Lucias Torquatus, on the pros and cons of Epicureanism as a philosophy of life. The third (see here and here) and fourth (see here and here) books are dialogues between Cicero and Cato the Younger, on the pros and cons of Stoicism. The fifth book, which I’m going to discuss here, is a dialogue between Cicero and several of his friends meant to explore the philosophy of Antiochus of Ascalon, a student of Philo of Larissa, who had been Cicero’s own teacher at the Platonic Academy. The fifth book, then, presents a mix of Platonism and Aristotelianism, which Cicero then declares to be essentially the philosophy that he himself endorses, of course with the caveat that, a Skeptic, he holds to such opinion only tentatively and always with the possibility of revision.

There is another reason De Finibus is so important for those interested in virtue ethics. It constitutes one entry in an unofficial trilogy that also includes De Officiis (On Duties), written in 44 BCE (the year after De Finibus), and De Re Publica (The Republic), composed earlier, between 54 and 51 BCE. The Republic is Cicero’s response to Plato’s book by the same title, and lays out the parameters for the functioning of a good state. On Duties is about how the individual, and especially a statesman, should behave. But De Finibus informs both, because it lays out the broad principles of what counts as good and evil, which ought to inform both the structure of a society and the behavior of individuals within that society. Beautiful, no? (Incidentally, De Finibus is addressed to Marcus Junius Brutus, a chief co-conspirator against…

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Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/