The Puzzle of Cicero’s Philosophy of Religion

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Cicero’s philosophical dialogues are notoriously difficult.  In some cases, as with the Academica and the Republic, their fragmentary state exacerbates the challenge of interpretation. In other cases, as with On Ends, the breadth of the discussion makes it difficult to locate the thread. In every case, Cicero stays true to his Academic skeptical training of opposing every argument with another argument. In some instances, one line of reasoning comes out clearly best, but in others, it is not so clear. And then there is On the Nature of the Gods. It is a special case. Let us explain.

The overall structure of On the Nature of the Gods is quite simple. The theologies of three philosophical schools are represented, each with a Roman mouthpiece. Epicureanism is represented by Velleius, Stoicism by Balbus, and Academic skepticism by Cotta. Cicero writes himself into the dialogue, too, as listening in and promising not to tilt the verdict in favor of his fellow Academic, Cotta. Velleius proceeds to give an outline of Epicurean theology, complete with an account of how it is possible to know things about the gods, what the gods are like, and how we should live in light of these truths. In short, Epicureans believe that we know about the gods because we have deeply held conceptions of them, which must have antecedent causes. The gods have human bodies and they live lives free of care for eternity. Consequently, we should not fear the gods, because they take no notice of us. Cotta the Academic skeptic then proceeds to demolish the Epicurean case. Why trust preconceptions when they are so often wrong? If the gods have human-like bodies, how can they be immortal? And if the gods don’t care about us, then what’s the point of religion or piety at all? Isn’t Epicureanism really just atheism?

Balbus the Stoic is happy to see Epicurean theology so vigorously criticized, and the takes the opportunity to explain the Stoic view on the gods. Balbus’s case is that we know of the gods’s nature from the order of the universe, and from this, we know that god is a perfect sphere that maintains the world through providential care. So, given the nature of the gods and their care, humans are helped by the gods if they are virtuous.  Cotta the skeptic skewers all the Stoic theses. Does natural order really require intelligence to maintain? Doesn’t providence produce a glaring version of the problem of evil? And why should a sphere be the perfect shape for a god? (At this point, Vellleius the Epicurean chimes in to call the Stoic god “tubby.”) And do the gods really help the virtuous? In contrast, it seems rather that the vicious thrive and the virtuous suffer – how could any god allow that?

The result, as it seems, is total skeptical victory. Every argument of the dogmatic theologians is met with devastating counter-argument, and little at all seems to be left standing with either programs. What’s so hard about that as an interpretation? The answer is: nothing. The problem, though, is that the dialogue doesn’t end there. Cicero closes the dialogue by inserting himself as the arbiter of the results, and he does not side with his own Academic school. Instead, he sides with the Stoics. He writes:

Cotta’s argument seemed to Velleius to be more truthful; but in my eyes, Balbus’s case seemed to come more closely to a semblance of the truth (DND 3.95)

The puzzle is how, after what seems total skeptical victory, the Stoic program could look right at all.

Ironically enough, Cicero’s sequel dialogue to On the Nature of the Gods is On Divination, and Cicero’s own Brother, Quintus, having just read Cicero’s verdict, confronts him about his conclusion. How could he, especially as an Academic skeptic in the first place, side with the Stoics after what seems to be a decisive refutation? In fact, it seems to Quintus that Cotta’s arguments did not just prove Epicurean and Stoic theologies false, but that the arguments go further and “utterly demolish the gods” full stop (De Div. 1.9). Atheism seems to follow, so how does Cicero side with any theology?

Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods is intuitively structured, the arguments are well-ordered and focused, and it seems very clear that one side comes out as the clear winner in the exchange. It should be an easy task of interpretation. And then there is the verdict. That is what makes this dialogue so difficult.

As we see it, there are three plausible lines to take with the verdict. The first is the atheistic interpretation. Cicero actually agrees with Quintus that the skeptical arguments prove not only that particular theologies are false, but that the gods don’t exist at all. But Cicero knows that he cannot, as a Roman statesman in addition to being a philosopher, say that on record. Any person of philosophical acumen can see the real conclusion hiding behind the mere words of the verdict, but religious zealots will be appeased by his endorsement of theology and providence. Cicero as an atheist hides in plain sight.

A second alternative is that there is a difference between philosophical evaluation of views and what one finds one believes after the evaluation. Cotta the Academic is, despite being a skeptic of all religious claims, still a Roman pontifex – a high priest of the civic religion. Cicero, too, despite his skeptical worries, is an augur, a reader of divine signs for state function. The objective of skeptical critique is not to eliminate religion, but to purge it of its excesses. After skeptical reflection, one may still believe, but one does so without superstition and as a matter of civic service.

The problem with both of these interpretations is that they are out of character for someone who identifies as an Academic skeptic. The first is dogmatic atheism, and the second simply insulates politically useful belief from revision. Neither is the kind of policy that Academics would endorse.

The third alternative is that of Cicero practicing a form of what is called mitigated skepticism. According to the mitigated skeptic, views, even after vigorous skeptical critique, can still be plausible. And if they are tested and stably plausible, one may still assent to them, but in an explicitly qualified fashion. One may say of a view, despite its problems, it is still believable, or that it resembles a truth. And this, we think, is what Cicero communicates when he uses the qualification of Balbus’s Stoic case “seeming to come closely to a semblance of truth.”

What that semblance is, especially after what to our eyes seems total skeptical victory, is a mystery. Cicero never tells us. Perhaps we, as sympathizers with the Academics ourselves, should accept the fact that we likely will never know.