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? Read more »

The Red Ribbon Argument for Skepticism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Ribbon99

In his Contra Academicos, Augustine discusses a fragment of Cicero's Academica in which Cicero advances a unique argument for skepticism. Cicero's argument is unique in that it derives, ironically, from a positive epistemic assessment of human judgments. Skeptical arguments usually proceed from negative assessments of human cognition according to which humans cannot tell the true from the false, cannot articulate their reasons, are prone to unreflective dogmatizing, and so on. Those negative assessments are then taken to yield the skeptical outlook. Cicero's argument for skepticism, by contrast, derives from a positive assessment of a subset of human judgments. Let us call it the Red Ribbon Argument (or the Argument from Second Place):

The second prize is given to the Academic (skeptical) wise person by all the self-declared sages from the other schools, since they must obviously claim the first prize for themselves. A persuasive conclusion one can draw from this is that he is right to take the first place in his own judgment given that he has the second place in the judgment of all the others.

Cicero starts from a regular observation about dogmatism: those committed to a view become not only invested in their view, but also less capable of critically reflecting on it. We often form our own theoretical, political, and religious alliances well before we have thoroughly surveyed and critically compared all of the plausible options. That is, we make our allegiances first and critically examine later. As Cicero notes elsewhere in the Academica:

All other people . . . are held in close bondage placed upon them before they were able to judge what doctrine was best, . . . they form judgments about matters as to which they know nothing at the most incompetent time in life, either under the guidance of some friend or the from the first harangue from the first lecture they attend, and cling as to a rock to whatever theory are carried to by stress or weather.

Hence we might say that we are serially confirmationally biased. As we are committed to our beliefs, and loyal to our doctrines, we tend to seek evidence that supports them. And yet we formed these allegiances with almost no judgment at all! And so, Cicero observes, we will of course assign our own view first place when asked to rank all of the views. But this method of ranking obviously is not reliable. And the widespread conflict between votes for first place is testament to it.

So our votes for first place are unreliable. And when we compare the competing views to our own, we likely will succumb to similar distortions; the competing views will be rejected simply on the grounds that they are incompatible with our own view. So our ranking of the competing doctrines against our own are epistemically polluted as well. However, our assessments of the merits of the competing views relative to each other tend not to involve such distortions. Thus Cicero predicts that when enthusiasts of a particular view are asked what the second best view is, they will judge more clearly and less prejudicially. The interesting thought is that the skepticism has massive support as the second best view. According to almost all perspectives, skepticism is the best of the incorrect views.

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