Cicero’s political philosophy — III — Two ways of doing philosophy

Philosophy as a Way of Life
7 min readFeb 28, 2022
[image: Cicero discovers the tomb of Archimedes, by Paolo Barbotti,]

[This series is based on Walter Nicgorski’s Cicero’s Skepticism and His Recovery of Political Philosophy. See part I, part II]

“For if wisdom is attainable, we should not only overtake it but also delight in it; and if this is difficult, there is nonetheless no limit whatsoever on the pursuit of truth save the finding of it, and growing weary in inquiry is base when what is sought is the most beautiful of objects.” (Cicero, De Finibus, I.3)

According to Cicero, there are two forms, or modes of philosophy: as an inquiry into truth, and as a way of living. And the two are deeply intertwined. In order to live well, one ought to have a minimal grasp of how the world works, what is good and bad, what is worth doing or not, and so on. So inquiry and living should go hand in hand, just as they did in Socrates.

Of course, it is perfectly possible to do “armchair” philosophy in the sense of talking about the good life and not actually live it. And Cicero, in the Tusculan Disputations, criticizes those who do so as hypocrites or sophists. A lot of them are still around, not just among philosophers, but among religious so-called authorities.

How exactly does one go about practicing philosophy as a mode of inquiry? By following the Socratic method. Cicero recognizes, and attempts to practice, three ways to implement it. In the Tusculan Disputations, for instance, he poses a question at the beginning of each chapter and then provides a long answer. For example, book I takes up the question of whether death is an evil; book II considers whether pain is an evil; book III asks how to alleviate sorrow; book IV is about how to treat the passions, i.e., unhealthy emotions; and book V contemplates whether virtue is sufficient for happiness.

In De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum Cicero uses a second approach: each major character provides a lengthy exposition of his position, followed by an equally detailed rebuttal from a different character. For instance, Cato the Younger is given the task of presenting the Stoic system in book III, which is followed by Cicero’s own rebuttal in book IV.

The third way to carry out philosophical inquiry is found only in scattered examples in Cicero’s writings, for a reason that…

Philosophy as a Way of Life

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