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 »

Only Philosophers Go to Hell

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

HellThe Problem of Hell is familiar enough to many traditional theists. Roughly, it is this: How could a loving and just god create a place of endless misery? The Problem of Hell is a special version of the Problem of Evil, which is the general challenge that a just and loving God would not intentionally create a world with excessive misery, and yet we see the excesses all around us. Hell, on its face, seems like it is actually part of God’s plan, and moreover, the misery there far exceeds misery here. At least the misery here is finite; it ends when one dies. But in Hell, death is just the beginning. Those in Hell suffer for eternity. Hell, so described, seems less the product of a just and loving entity than a vicious and spiteful one. That’s a problem.

There are two standard lines in defense of Hell. The first is the retributivist line, and the second is the libertarian line. We think that if either succeeds, only philosophers could go to Hell. This is because only someone who understands exactly what she is doing in sinning or rejecting God could deserve such a fate as Hell, and only a philosophical education could provide that kind of understanding. So, it follows, only philosophers can go to Hell.

Retributivism with regard to Hell runs as follows: Those in Hell are sinners, and sin demands punishment. Therefore, Hell is necessary; it is the place where that punishment is delivered. This seems reasonable as far as it goes, and it does work as a nice counterpoint to the regular complaint that sometimes the wicked prosper in this life – they will suffer appropriately in the next. But retributivism about Hell ultimately seems problematic. Grant that sinners deserve punishment. Nonetheless, the amount of punishment being visited upon those in Hell is objectionable. Sinners can’t do infinite harm, no matter how bad they are. But they get an eternity of torment. Punishment is just only when it is proportionate to the wrongs committed by the guilty. So even if Hell’s express purpose is to enact retribution on those who are guilty of sin, and even if the guilty do get what’s coming to them in Hell, making that punishment eternal is moral overkill. Again, disproportionate punishment is morally wrong, and Hell is guaranteed to be exactly that for everyone there.

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On the Gods of Horses

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse 220px-Busto_Jenófanes

The Presocratic philosopher-poet Xenophanes famously noted that if horses could draw, they would draw their gods as horses. The same, he holds, goes for lions and oxen. What is the intended critical edge of such observations? Suppose it’s true that horses would draw their gods as horses. So what?

The famous Xenophanes fragment runs as follows:

If horses or oxen or lions had hands

or if they could draw with their hands and

produce works like men,

horses would draw the figures of the gods as

similar to horses, and oxen as similar to oxen,

and they would make the bodies

of the sort which each of them had.

The Christian apologist Clement of Alexandria is our source. He portrays Xenophanes as a religious reformer, one committed to criticizing anthropomorphism in religion. To construct a god in your own image, he holds, is a form of idolatry. Clement also provides another Xenophanes fragment, one that he takes to provide parallel support for this interpretation:

Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black;

Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.

The same lesson is said to follow: Humans make their gods look like themselves. But the question remains. What is the critical edge? They serve a critical religious program, but there is no overt argument in either. We hold it that the observations function as a reductio ad ridiculum.

To see this, we must make explicit what’s funny about horses drawing horse gods. In doing so, we’ll ruin the joke, for sure, but that’s philosophy. So what’s funny about horses and horse gods?

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