Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness @ Serpentine South

‘States of Oneness’ is a new exhibition of paintings and drawings at the main Serpentine Gallery (Serpentine South, as it’s now known) by pioneering Sudanese artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.

‘Two Women (Eve and Eve)’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

It brings together works in a variety of media, including:

  • numerous oil paintings
  • a number of early charcoal drawings
  • oil painting on leather drums
  • decorated vases or calabashes
  • a set of 5 Quranic prayers, photocopies of Arabic text which she has decorated with ink and acrylic paint
  • one large painted wooden screen

As usual, the plain white walls and light open spaces of the Serpentine’s rooms make an excellent setting for this major survey of an artist who is, I think, little known in the UK.

Installation view of ‘States of Oneness’ showing a) a big painting on the back wall b) the five framed Quranic prayers on the wall to the right and c) two painted calabashes in the foreground © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag 2022. Photo: George Darrell, Courtesy Serpentine

Ishag’s biography

Born in 1939, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag has practiced since the 1960s and become a defining figure of modern Arab and African art. In the early to mid-1960s, Ishag was part of the Khartoum School, an influential Sudanese modernist movement, which collectively forged an identity for the newly independent nation by drawing on both Arabo-Islamic and African artistic traditions.

Ishag in London

Ishag was among the first women artists to graduate from the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum in 1963, and she followed this with studies in Mural Painting at the RCA in London from 1964 to 1966, and Lithography, Typography and Illustration from 1968 to 1969. During her time in London – the press handout tells us – she was subject to three strong influences:

  • she was drawn to the visionary tone of William Blake’s poetry and etchings
  • she was affected by Francis Bacon’s distorted figures
  • and she was struck by the distorted reflections of human faces and figures she saw in the curved windows of Underground trains

One of the exhibition’s rooms features some big paintings from the 1970s which directly reference Bacon, showing human figures in very dark colours, midnight blues and angsty purples, confined in dimly visible cages, with titles like ‘Loneliness’. Striking but not typical of her work.

Loneliness (1987) by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

Much more important, though, is the spiritualist and other-worldly vibe which you can feel flowing through all her work.

The Crystalist movement

In the mid-1970s, she co-founded the Crystalists, a postmodern, conceptual group which challenged the male-dominated and identity-focused Sudanese art scene and advocated for a new aesthetic modelled on diversity, transparency and existentialist theory. Her Wikipedia tells us more about the Crystalists:

The Crystalist Group broke away from traditional practices in the Sudanese art scene. Their intention was to distinguish themselves from the Khartoum School of painting and their traditional male-centred outlook. This new approach in Sudanese painting was marked by a public declaration in the form of the so-called Crystalist Manifesto. This document presented an artistic vision that attempted to work beyond the Sudanese-Islamic framework of the Khartoum School. Moreover, the Crystalists sought to internationalize their art by embracing an existentialist avant-garde, more akin to European aesthetics.

“The Cosmos is a project of a transparent crystal with no veil and eternal depth. The truth is that the Crystalists’ perception of time and space is different from that of others. The goal of the Crystalists is to bring back to life the language of the crystal and to transform language into something more transparent, in which no word can veil another – no selectivity in language. […] We are living a new life, and this life needs a new language and new poetry.”
(The Crystalist Group, Khartoum, 1971)

Events have moved on in Khartoum and the wider world in the half century since then, but you can hear the stands of mysticism, feminism and internationalism which have informed her work to this day.

Spiritualism in Ishag’s art

The Crystalists may have come and gone as a movement but Ishag’s interest in spiritualism and reaching beyond the veil has endured. Working out way to depict the many ‘states of oneness’. According to the press handout, this derives from the stories of spirits told by her mother and grandmothers, and the field research she carried out with spiritualist women convening healing Zar ceremonies, a traditional practice in North Africa and the surrounding region.

In terms of the work, this has resulted in a very distinctive handling of the human body and face, transforming human beings into willowy, undulating shapes, boneless spirits, barely embodied. In the most recurring instances I thought her people were transforming into spermatazoa, heads with wriggly tails for bodies. That’s what the tadpoles wriggling round the bottom of this picture remind me of.

‘Procession’ (Zaar) by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2015) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

Or as here, in the untitled decoration of a leather drum, where the bodies are made to taper parallel to palm trees, in an image obviously influenced by the landscape of Sudan.

Composition by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

And above all her faces. So many of the faces which appear in these paintings are doubled, as if split, as if she is capturing the duality of human experience in every portrait. As mentioned above, this owes something to her seeing faces of people travelling on the Tube curved and distorted and refracted in Tube carriage windows.

‘Faces with two roses’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

But looking at some of them, I thought about Freud and psychoanalytical notions of the conscious and unconscious selves, or wider depth psychology ideas about the multitude of selves we contain within ourselves. Looking at others I thought about the most basic tenet of most religions which is that we are made of body and soul, are made of bodily instincts and soulful longings. Then again, the ones with multiple eyes reminded me of Picasso or the Picasso which his philistine critics liked to mock, two eyes on the same side of the nose, that sort of thing.

Detail of ‘Faces with two roses’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

These and many more interpretations are possible. I like art which allows indeterminacy of interpretation, allows thoughts and reflections to rise and connect and free associate.

Nature in Ishag’s art

The other really important aspect of her work is nature, to be precise, trees and leaves and flowers. There are many images of trees and leaves and of people’s willowy bodies undulating in line with arboreal curves. For example, the image at the top of this review of two women floating amid a sea of bright green leaves, or the spectacular ‘Lady grown in a tree’.

‘Lady grown in a tree’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

This lady really is deeply embroiled with her tree. The idea made me think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and all those figures from Greek mythology, mostly women, who turns into flowers or trees.

‘Nothing now remained of my dear sister except her face: all the rest was tree.’
(Iole describing the fate of her sister, Dryope, transformed into a tree, in book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses)

But looking up close, it struck me the lady’s face is very reminiscent of the African mask-inspired faced of Picasso’s famous painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, from a hundred and ten years earlier, in 1907.

Detail of ‘Lady grown in a tree’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

The people who float around at a gallery like the Serpentine and are available to answer questions are called ‘visitor assistants’. They are always extremely helpful and very well informed. I got chatting to one visitor assistant who pointed out that many of these images of trees and flowers derive from the plants in Ishag’s own garden in Khartoum. Some – like the palm trees on the drum I mentioned above – are obviously nods to Sudan’s wider landscape. But many not only show flowers but convey a very feminine sense of sociability in a calm, leafy, civilised space. Hence the stylised but still very evocative painting ‘Gathering’ from 2015.

‘Gathering’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2015) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

I assume this is a meeting of (rather ghoulish-looking) ladies who are drinking tea or a light beverage from the long glasses with tiny handles, or maybe just water, which symbolises the water of life. Maybe the glasses are both on the table and floating off it (at the same time) and the picture captures the way it’s the same water as feeds the trees and plants in her garden, which can’t live without it. So the water in the human glasses is one with the water feeding nature and so the plants can be thought of as growing out of the water in the glasses as it is all one.

The more you look, the more you see images of greenery – flowers, plants, tendrils and leaves, either as central motifs for a picture or as decorative elements furling around the split faces and swimming spermatazoa, or of people turning into trees, or of trees containing human faces.

Take the image at the top of this review, ‘Two Women’, if you look carefully at the trees, you’ll see they both contain a human face. In fact at the bottom of both trees, especially the one on the right, you can see a pair of human feet. This painting in particular, made me think of the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, giants in tree form.

The more you look, the more you see leaves, flowers, tendrils, trees everywhere, images of wholeness and healing to set against her continually disturbing depiction of human faces.

Detail of ‘Two figures in two balls’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

‘Blues for the Martyrs’

As might be obvious by now but I think Ishag’s most recent work is her best. In the big paintings from the last decade or so all her themes – willowy people, strange split faces, trees and tendrils – emerge with most force and power. Some artists peak early and fade; Ishag strikes me as getting better and better with every year. Long may she continue.

Thus it is that arguably the most striking image in the entire show is the most recent. It’s titled ‘Blues for the Martyrs’ and it was made this year, 2022. One of those visitor assistants I was talking about explained it to me. In 2019 there were student protests in Khartoum. The police cracked down with violence. They beat up and threw protesters into the river (Nile). Hence the deep blue of the painting which portrays the river and the tendrils of river weeds billowing up through the water.

And the faces in their bubbles? Ishag is using the faux naif style she has perfected over decades to convey the sense of the souls of the dead, protected in hermetic bubbles, enduring, living on, smiling blissfully, a little childishly, maybe. They’re certainly strikingly unlike the troubled split faces, the ghoul faces, of virtually all her previous work. ‘Smiley face for the martyrs.’

‘Blues for the Martyrs’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2022) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

‘Blues for the Martyrs’ is pretty much the most striking painting in the exhibition, not least because it marks such a complete departure from the palette of almost all the other works. Much of the other stuff, whether painted on drums or calabashes or canvas, is predominantly brown or sand, colours of a hot desert country, sprinkled with green leaves, splashes of plantlife in the desert.

By contrast this painting is huge and painted a powerfully deep rich blue. It’s a very striking image but I’ve saved it till last because it’s so uncharacteristic of everything which came before it. Maybe it’s a one-off or…maybe it marks a new departure in Ishag’s work, which is still very much ongoing.

Summary

This is an unusual, unexpected, strange and often very beautiful exhibition, beautifully laid out in the Serpentine’s main big white gallery space. And it’s FREE. Well worth making a detour through the park to see.

Here’s the artist herself, pushing 83 and still rocking it.

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag. Photo © Mohamed Noureldin Abdallah Ahmed


Related links

Other Serpentine reviews

On the laws by Cicero

We are born for justice and what is just is based, not on opinion, but on nature.
(De legibus, book I, section 28)

Cicero began writing the De legibus or On the laws during the same period as the De republica, i.e. the late 50s BC, but suspended work on it when he was compelled to go and be governor of Cilicia in 51 BC, and possibly never resumed it. It is certainly unfinished. We have just two books of 60-odd sections each and most of book 3 (49 sections) then the manuscript stops in mid-sentence. The 4th century AD philosopher Macrobius refers to the existence of a book 5. Maybe it was intended to have 6 books to parallel the De republica to which it is obviously a partner.

Like most of Cicero’s other works it is a dialogue though, unlike the De republica, it is set in the present and, instead of historical personages, features just the author himself, his brother (Quintus Tullius Cicero) and his best friend (Titus Pomponius Atticus, addressee of so many of Cicero’s letters).

De legibus has a simple premise: since he is Rome’s leading lawyer and advocate, Cicero’s brother and friend suggest he is perfectly placed to write a book about The Law, and so Cicero sets off with the aim of establishing the fundamental basis of law, before considering specific laws, whether they need to be amended and, if so, how. From the start Cicero describes and explicates what was essentially the Stoic theory of natural law as amounting to right reason in action.

Natural Law

In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, Jonathan Powell explains that Cicero’s theory of Natural Law was based on certain premises:

  1. that the universe is a system run by a rational providence
  2. that mankind stands between God and the animals so that in creating and obeying laws man is employing Right Reason
  3. that human potential can only be realised in communities – Cicero derives this from Aristotle’s view that humans are sociable animals
  4. that man is a homogeneous species – we have more in common than separates us – therefore we are susceptible to the same, one, universal natural law which stands above (or lies beneath) all ‘positive’ i.e. merely local and culture-specific laws
  5. that law is based on (human) nature not opinion – individual laws may come and go but the existence of a deep fundamental law of human nature can never change

Natural Law refuted

The objections to this are obvious and start with the counter statement that the universe is very much not a system run by a rational providence. Since Isaac Newton’s discoveries of the basic forces which govern the universe, there has been no need to posit a God to create and keep the universe running; and since Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, there has been no need to posit a God who created the extraordinary diversity of life forms we see around us, including humanity. Many other reasons may be found for adducing the existence of a God or gods, but the regularity of the cosmos and the diversity of the natural world are not among them.

If God does not exist, didn’t create the universe and does not deploy a benevolent providence to watch over us, then humans cannot occupy a middle space between the animals and this God who doesn’t exist. We are more accurately seen as just another life form amid the trillions teeming all over the earth.

Cicero displays towards human beings the same kind of anthropocentric chauvinism and exceptionalism which was first recorded among his Greek predecessors and persisted through most thinking about humanity and human nature up till very recently. Only in the last couple of generations has it become clear that humans may have invented language and maths and built skyscrapers and flown to the moon but that, deep down, we are just apes, mammals, animals, and behave much like all the other mammals, in terms of our fundamental behaviours – feeding, mating and fighting.

If you have a God, then you can establish a hierarchy with him at the top, then the angels, then humans sitting comfortably above all other species on earth. If you have no God, the hierarchy crumbles and we are just one among a million different life forms jumbled together on this small planet, engaged in the never-ending battle for survival. Nowadays we know that humanity is killing off the other species, destroying countless habitats, and burning up the planet as no other species possibly could. Some people characterise our arrogant lording it over life forms as speciesism, a view I share.

If there is one quality that distinguishes human beings from all other species it is our unique capacity for destruction.

The notion that humans are governed by Right Reason has always seemed to me self evidently false. Our values are inculcated by the society we grow up in. If some values are almost universal across most of these societies this is because they make evolutionary sense, they help the group survive, rather than being a Universal Law handed down by a Benevolent God.

Therefore premises 1, 2, 4 and 5 listed above are false. We are left with 3, the notion that humans naturally live in groups or communities, which seems to be objectively true, but gives us no guide on how we should conduct ourselves, or establish laws or rules for running these communities.

Lastly, the introductions to all these texts by Cicero tend to talk about Universal values, Universal laws, and Universal human nature very freely but I can’t help feeling they only apply to the Western world. The terms of reference seem very Eurocentric or Anglocentric or whatever the word is for Western-centric. Meaning that my reading about African tribes, cultures, laws and traditions, or what I know about Chinese history, and my personal experience of travelling in the Muslim world, suggest that there are many non-Western cultures which don’t share these ways of looking at the world at all. I’m guessing the same could be said about Indian culture, or the traditions of the native Americans of North or South America, the Australian aborigenes and any number of other cultures.

Liberals may be proud of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the recently founded United Nations, founded by the soon-to-be-victorious Allies during the Second World War, based in New York, a document drafted by a committee chaired by the American president’s wife (Eleanor Roosevelt) – but the idea of universal set of values is not a fact about human beings but a high-minded aspiration.

I recently visited the British Museum exhibition on Stonehenge. This has a section describing life in Britain before the advent of the (first) agricultural revolution, which began in the Middle East 12,000 years ago. The human population of Britain was minuscule (maybe 5,000) arranged into tiny communities of hunter gatherers who lived deep amid nature as they found her, without the knowledge, means or incentive to change anything, to fell trees, clear land, burn forests and so on. Instead they considered themselves an integral part of nature, not set aside from it. They killed rarely and atoned for their killings with offerings. And the exhibition says this was the way of life for most hunter-gatherer societies for most of human history i.e. going back hundreds of thousands of years, back through all the various species of the genus Homo.

So I’m saying that Cicero’s premises are not only wrong in the theoretical/theological way that they posit the existence of One Universal God to explain the world around us, an explanation which has been utterly superseded by the scientific worldview – but wrong in all his factual claims about human nature,  above all that it is universally the same, whereas we now know that there have been, and currently are, many, many, many more human cultures than Cicero could ever imagine.

The Romans thought the world amounted to one continent completely surrounded by a vast Ocean, punctuated by the middle-earth or Mediterranean Sea. They hugely underestimated the size of Africa, and thought the world ended with India and a little beyond the Ural mountains, so forming one circular continent. The historical examples Cicero bases his notion of a universal human nature on amount to a tiny sub-set of the actually existing cultures of his own time, and a minuscule sub-set of all the human cultures and societies which have existed over the face of the earth for the past several hundred thousand years.

So: this book is clever and interesting in all kinds of ways but it is based on multiple types of ignorance – deep, deep ignorance – which lead to false premises and wrong deductions on every page.

Cicero’s motivation

As we saw in De republica Cicero was a very practical-minded Roman. He wasn’t interested in airy-fairy philosophical speculations for their own sake. He was a staunch Roman patriot who wanted to preserve the Roman state. The practicalness of his motivation is stated explicitly mid-way through book one:

You see the direction which this discussion is taking. My whole thesis aims to bring stability to states, steadiness to cities, and well-being to communities. (I, 37)

He is not seeking ‘the truth’, so much as cherry-picking arguments from the range of Greek philosophy in order to shore up his practical and patriotic aim.

Book one

Cicero asserts that:

  1. human beings are blessed with the ultimate gift of the gods, Reason
  2. humans have a single way of living with one another which is universal
  3. all people in a community are held together by natural goodwill and kindness (I, 35)

As you can see, all these axioms are wrong and he goes on to deliver a slew of equally high-minded, fine-sounding sentiments which are equally false:

Law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. (I, 18)

Law is a force of nature, the intelligence and reason of a wise man, and the criterion of truth and injustice. (I, 19)

The creature of foresight, wisdom, variety, keenness, memory, endowed with reason and judgement, which we call man, was created by the supreme god to enjoy a remarkable status. Of all the types and species of living creatures he is the only one that participates in reason and reflection whereas none of the others do…Since there is nothing better than reason, and reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God. (I, 22-23)

No, humans were not created by God but evolved through natural processes. We now know that numerous other species certainly have memory, and many appear capable of thought and calculation. Who says there is nothing better than reason? A philosopher whose central subject is reason, which is like a carpenter saying there’s nothing better in the world than working with wood. Why is there nothing better in the world than reason. How about, say, love?

Since there is no God, the statement ‘since reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God’ is meaningless. Or more accurately, it has a meaning, but a meaning made out of words, in the same way that a poem about blue guitars floating up to the moon makes sense, but refers to nothing in the real world. On it goes:

Those who share reason also share right reason; and since that is law, we men must also be thought of as partners with the gods in law. (I, 23)

Those who obey the same laws effectively live in the same state and:

and they do in fact obey this celestial system, the divine mind, and the all-powerful god. Hence this whole universe must be thought of as a single community shared by gods and men. (I, 23)

In the course of the continuous circuits and revolutions of the heavens the right moment arrived for sowing the human race; that after being scattered and sown in the earth it was further endowed with the divine gift of mind; that whereas men derived the other elements in their makeup from their mortal nature…their mind was implanted in them by God. Hence we have…a lineage, origin or stock in common with gods…As a result man recognises God in as much as he recognises his place of origin…the same moral excellence in man and in God. (I, 24-25)

Cicero’s belief in God or gods isn’t tangential to his thought: his theism is absolutely central and vital to his entire view of human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice. And so, since there is no God, Cicero’s views on human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice are wrong from top to bottom. They may occasionally coincide with modern views based on humanistic atheism but these are accidental overlaps.

What makes this relatively short book (72 pages) so hard to read is that I disagreed with all his premises and almost all his conclusions. As a discussion of the theoretical basis of law and justice I found it useless. It has a sort of historical usefulness in shedding a very clear light on how a leading Roman lawyer conceived his profession and clearly explaining the kind of arguments about jurisprudence which were common in his day. And it includes references to Greek and Roman history which are anecdotally interesting. But every time he makes a general statement I find myself totally disagreeing and this eventually becomes very wearing:

Nature has lavished such a wealth of things on men for their use and convenience that every growing thing seems to have been given to us on purpose; it does not come into existence by chance. (I, 26)

Wrong: the life forms we see around us evolved by the process explained by Darwin, of which Cicero knows nothing; none of them were created ‘for our convenience’, instead food crops and livestock only began to be bred and fine-tuned for our use during the agricultural revolution which began some 10,000 years before Cicero’s time, of which he knew and understood nothing.

And the world does not exist ‘for our convenience’: it is precisely this self-centred sense of human privilege and entitlement which is very obviously destroying the earth in our own time.

God has created and equipped man in this way, intending him to take precedence over everything else. (I, 27)

Anthropocentrism. Narcissism*. Human chauvinism. Arrogance.

Nature made man alone erect, encouraging him to gaze at the heavens as being akin to him and his original home. (I, 27)

Sweet, poetic and false.

Cicero goes on to make the humanistic claim that people have more in common than separates them, we are all one human family. He is not stating this because he’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony but because he wants to continue his thought that there is One God who has created one human race with One Reason and so it follows that there must be One Law to rule them all. Hence his insistence that there is One Human Nature. He claims that Reason:

  • may vary in what it teaches but is constant in its ability to learn
  • that what we perceive through the senses, we all perceive alike
  • that perceptions which impinge on our minds do so on all minds in the same way
  • that human speech may use different words but expresses the same ideas
  • troubles and joys, desires and fears haunt the minds of all alike

He is trying to corral human nature into his One God, One Reason, One Human Nature therefore One Law argument, but each of those four statements is questionable or wrong, starting with the notion that everyone is alike in the ability to learn and ending with the notion that we all experience the same emotions. Demonstrably false.

This is the evidence, in reality just wishes and assertions, which leads him to conclude that there is One Justice and that it derives from Nature (I, 33). Again and again he repeats the same formulas:

There is one, single, justice. It binds together human society and has been established by one, single law. That law is right reason in commanding and forbidding. (I, 42)

We are inclined by nature to have a regard for others and that is the basis of justice. (I, 43)

But repeating false claims doesn’t make them true.

Nature has created perceptions that we have in common, and has sketched them in such a way that we classify honourable things as virtues and dishonourable things as vices. (I, 44)

And yet Cicero saw Scipio Africanus, the general who oversaw the complete destruction of Carthage and the selling of its entire population of 50,000 into slavery as an epitome of virtue and honour and glory. Is that a perception we all have in common? Probably not the population of Carthage.

Moral excellence is reason fully developed and that is certainly grounded in nature. (I, 45)

Goodness itself is good not because of people’s opinions but because of nature. (I, 46)

Here and in many other similar formulations you can see that what he is arguing against is the notion that goodness and morality and law are contingent upon human societies. If this is true then, for a patriotic, socially-minded conservative like Cicero, what follows is anarchy. (It is the same fear of anarchy which underpins his conservative preference to keep on worshipping the gods according to the traditional ceremonies, as expressed in De rerum deorum.)

For more pragmatic, sceptical and utilitarian-minded people like myself, what follows is not anarchy, but is certainly a complex and never-ending process of trying to create culture, morality and laws which allow for diversity and strike a balance between conflicting opinions, classes and needs. The unending messiness of democracy, in other words.

Book one is essentially in two parts: up to section 40-something he is laying down these basic principles, and then gets his brother and best friend to enthusiastically vouch that he has certainly proved them, that men were endowed with reason by the gods, men live with one another in the same way everywhere, and that all human communities are held together by the same universal justice (I, 35).

All good men love what is fair in itself and what is right in itself. (I, 48)

In the second half he introduces, or wanders off to consider, notions of the good and morality. Sometimes, reading Cicero, it feels like you can see the joins, the places where he moved from copying one Greek text to suddenly copying from another. The order is his but much of the source content is cribbed from Greek originals (as he freely admits in his letters and in the texts themselves) with the result that his works rarely feel like they have a steady clear direction of travel, but more like a collection of related topics thrown loosely together. And this partly explains why his so-called conclusions rarely feel really justified by what has preceded them.

The conclusion is obvious from what has been said, namely that one should strive after justice and every moral virtue for their own sake. (I, 48)

Therefore what is right should be sought and cultivated for itself. (I, 48)

The t-shirt slogans keep on coming:

Justice looks for no prize; it is sought for itself and is at once the cause and meaning of all virtues. (I, 48)

This reminds me of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude… (1 Corinthians 13:4)

And the comparison confirms my sense that Cicero’s writings are less philosophy than wisdom literature, defined as: “statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue.”

A fundamental mistake he makes is common to dogmatists of his type, namely the false dilemma or false dichotomy, “an informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.” For, Cicero argues, if his account of One God endowing One Human Race with One Right Reason so that Justice and Virtue arise out of Nature is wrong – then the only alternative is chaos. For if people only act in their own self-interest, not according to Universal Justice, then:

where is a generous person to be found…what becomes of gratitude…where is that holy thing, friendship…what are we to say of restraint, temperance, and self-control? What od modesty, decency and chastity?… then there is no such thing as justice at all. (I, 49-50)

But this is a false dichotomy. There aren’t just two stark alternatives. There are, in reality, a huge variety of societies, laws, customs and traditions. Yes it may look like anarchy to a conservative like Cicero. But it is how human beings actually live. The false dichotomy is a way for an author to terrorise you into accepting his tendentious view.

Cicero is not seeking ‘the truth’; he is, like the excellent lawyer he was, making a case and using every rhetorical and logical sleight of hand to do so.

Quintus asks where all this is going (I, 52) and Marcus replies that he is steering the discussion towards a definition of the Highest Good. Oh God, how boring. As with all these conservative/authoritarian thinkers, there can only be one of everything, One God, One Human Nature, One Reason, One Justice, One State and One Good.

As usual he a) approaches the problem through a blizzard of references to Greek philosophers including Phaedrus, the Academy, Zeno, the Old Academy, Antiochus, Chios, Aristotle, Plato and b) fails to reach any meaningful conclusion. Whereas the Old Academy called what is honourable the highest good, Zeno said it was the only good, holding the same beliefs as Aristotle but using different terms. (I, 55).

Quintus suggests that:

There is no doubt about it: the highest good is either to live according to nature (i.e. to enjoy a life of moderation governed by moral excellence) or to follow nature and to live, so to speak, by the law (i.e. as far as possible to omit nothing in order to achieve what nature requires, which means the same as this: to live, as it were, by a code of moral excellence). (I, 56)

Great. Does that help anyone? No. Words, words, words. But when Quintus asks him to show what all this means in practice, Cicero at first pleads that it is beyond his powers. What isn’t beyond his powers is more highfalutin’ truisms:

Wisdom is the mother of all good things; the love of her gives us the word ‘philosophy’ from the Greek. Of all the gifts which the immortal gods have bestowed on human life none is richer or more abundant or more desirable. (I, 58)

Cicero deflects to invoke the famous maxim carved above the oracle at Delphi, Know thyself:

The person who knows himself will first of all realise that he possesses something divine, and he will compare his own inner nature to a kind of holy image placed within a temple. (I, 59)

Will he? The book concludes with a half page hymn of praise to the Truly Great Man Who Knows Himself, understands his mind is a gift from God, understands Wisdom and Virtue and Justice, and so is ideally placed to rule over his fellow men. In other words, the ideal Roman ruler of Cicero’s own time.

Book two

As a break, the characters describe the fictional walk they are taking through the countryside of around the Cicero family estate outside Cicero’s home town of Arpinum, 100 kilometres south east of Rome. Pleasant chat about the view (‘What could be more delightful?’) is artfully placed in order to lead on to consideration of love of birthplace and country. Never forget that Cicero was a fierce Roman patriot. A person’s birthplace:

is the country for which we should be willing to die, to which we should devote ourselves heart and soul, and on whose altar we should dedicate and consecrate all that is our. (II, 5)

All that is ours. Cicero is usually referred to as a lovely humanist but this is as fierce and total a patriotism as Mussolini’s. And then we return to consideration of the law and Cicero recapitulates his axioms for the umpteenth time:

Law was not thought up by the intelligence of human beings, nor is it some kind of resolution passed by communities, but rather an eternal force which rules the world by the wisdom of its commands and prohibitions…the original and final law is the intelligence of God, who ordains or forbids everything through reason. Hence that law which the gods have given to the human race is rightly praised, for it represents the intelligence of a wise man directed to issuing commands and prohibitions. (II, 8)

I think I disagree with pretty much every word of this. On it goes: the power of encouraging people to right actions:

is not only older than the existence of communities and states; it is coeval with that god who watches over and rules heaven and earth. (II, 10)

Repetition

If in doubt, repeat it again and again, bludgeoning your readers into submission:

Reason existed, reason derived from the nature of the universe, impelling people to right actions and restraining them from wrong. That reason did not first become law even it was written down, but rather when it came into being. And it came into being at the same time as the divine mind. Therefore the authentic original law, whose function is to command and forbid, is the right reason of Jupiter, Lord of all. (II, 10)

Mind you, in a note to page 162 Jonathan Powell points out that repeating ideas in different formulations in order to drive it home was a skill that was taught and practiced in the schools of rhetoric which Cicero attended.

The use value of religion

I mentioned above how the conservative Cicero thought religion should be kept up in order to maintain social structure, for its use value. In book two he makes this explicit:

Who would deny that these [religious] ideas are useful, bearing in mind how many contracts are strengthened by the swearing of oaths, how valuable religious scruples are for guaranteeing treaties, how many people are restrained from crime for fear of divine retribution…(II, 16)

One of the reasons Cicero despises and mocks Epicureans is because they sought to free people’s minds from fear of the gods. For Cicero (as for the ancient Jews) piety and morality begin with fear of the gods. This is very Roman, very practical-minded of Cicero. And explains why the population has to be brainwashed into believing in the gods:

Citizens should first of all be convinced of this, that the gods are lords and masters of everything; that what is done is done by their decision and authority; that they are, moreover, great benefactors of mankind and observe what kind of person everyone is…Minds imbued with these facts will surely not deviate from true and wholesome ideas. (II, 15)

I don’t need to point out how coercive and authoritarian this idea is. The gods are Big Brother, watching you, reading your thoughts, checking up that you obey Right Reason, as defined by Cicero and his class.

That said, Cicero’s attitude really only reflected the attitudes of most educated men of his time. They didn’t believe in their religion in the same way a Christian or Muslim believes in their God. Roman religion was, as Jonathan Powell puts it, by this period a matter almost entirely of public ritual, tradition and custom. Religious belief, in the post-Christian sense of the word, wasn’t required or checked. Obedience to custom and ritual, reverence for tradition, was all.

Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion

All of which explains why, when he comes to actually enumerate the laws in his ideal state, Cicero does so with Laws Governing Religion. Anti-climactically, these turn out to be pretty much the same laws as govern Rome. Just as De republica concluded that the Roman constitution was the best imaginable constitution (a conclusion he repeatedly refers to here e.g. II, 23), so De legibus, when push comes to shove, concludes that the best possible laws the human mind could devise are…exactly the same as the laws of ancient Rome (II, 23).

The rest of the book is divided into two parts: a relatively considered statement of Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion (sections 18 to 22) followed by a detailed commentary on each of them (sections 23 to 60). There follow pages and pages of detailed prescriptions about religious rites and rituals, an extraordinary level of detailed specification. There’s a short digression about the proper regulation of music to stop it becoming immoral and corrupting which made me think of Mary Whitehouse and demonstrates Cicero’s cultural conservatism, before we plunge back into thickets of religious law.

The contrast between the high minded rhetoric about the One God and Universal Human Nature and Divine Law in book one and the slavish iteration of Roman rules and regulations as the actual embodiment of this supposedly Universal Law is unintentionally comic. Bathos = “an effect of anti-climax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.”

The place of burial is not called a grave until the rites have been conducted and the pig has been slain. (II, 57)

Do not smooth the pure with a trowel. (II, 59)

Women shall not scratch their cheeks on the occasion of a funeral. (II, 64)

It is forbidden to decorate a tomb with stucco work. (II, 65)

Do these sound like the Universal Laws indicative of the Divine Mind which Cicero has been banging on about…or the customs and conventions accumulated by one particular little city state?

Once this lengthy and hyper-detailed account of Rome’s religious laws is finished, Cicero announces that the next most important element in the structure of the state is magistrates and that he will devote the next book to considering the ideal magistrate.

Book three

Cicero bases his thoughts about magistrates, like his thoughts about everything else, on God:

Nothing is so closely bound up with the decrees and terms of nature…as authority. Without that, no house or clan or state can survive – no nor the human race, nor the whole of nature, nor the very universe itself. For the universe obeys God; land and sea abide by the laws of the universe; and human life is subject to the commands of the supreme law. (III, 3)

As with book two, he gives a clipped concise statement of his ideal laws governing magistracies or public offices (sections 6 to 11, 3 pages) then a detailed commentary on them (sections 12 to 47, 14 pages).

And yet again he repeats that, since his ‘six previous books’ (i.e the De republica) ‘proved’ that the Roman constitution was the best one conceivable by the human mind, so, logically enough, the kind of Ideal Magistrate he intends to describe will also turn out to be…Roman ones!

And so indeed, it turns out, after consulting the Divine Mind, that the optimum state will feature quaestors, aediles, praetors, consuls and censors, a senate to propose laws and popular assemblies to vote on them – exactly like the Roman state! He has the good grace to have his characters admit that this is a little embarrassing:

QUINTUS: How succinctly, Marcus, you have drawn up a scheme of all the magistrates for our inspection! But they are almost identical with those of our own country, even if you have introduced a little novelty.
MARCUS: Yes, we are talking about the harmoniously mixed constitution which Scipio praised in those books and prefers to all others…and since our constitution was given the most sensible and well-adjusted form by our ancestors, I found little or nothing to change in the laws. (III, 12)

The latter part of book three goes into considerable details about all aspects of the Roman constitution, the peculiarities of the different magistracies, the age limits, the pros and cons of the tribunate, the different types of voting (by acclamation, writing down, secret ballot) and so on. This is quite interesting because it is, arguably, the most practical part of the book, describing Rome’s actual constitutional practices and debating points Cicero (or his more conservative brother, Quintus) would like to change, a bit, not too much.

Worth emphasising that the aim of all the tinkering round the edges which Cicero proposes is to ensure that power remains firmly in the hands of the aristocracy and out of the hands of the people at large.

Liberty will exist in the sense that the people are given the opportunity to do the aristocracy an honourable favour.

Thanks to my [proposed] law, the appearance of liberty is given to the people [and] the authority of the aristocracy is retained. (III, 39)

The end was nigh

This final section has a wistfully hypothetical air about it because, within a few short years the entire world it describes would be swept away.

Let us imagine that Cicero was half way through writing the book when, in 51 BC, he was called on to take up the governorship of Cilicia (the southern coast of modern Turkey) and served throughout the year 50.

This meant that he was out of Rome as the political confrontation between Caesar and the Senate came to a head. there was a flurry of proposals and counter proposals in December 50, all of which failed and prompted Caesar, in January 49, to cross with his army from Cisalpine Gaul where he held an official post, into mainland Italy, where he didn’t, thus breaking the law, making himself an outlaw, and sparking the five year civil war between himself and Pompey and his followers.

When peace was restored in 45 BC, Caesar had himself declared dictator for life thus turning the entire Roman constitution into a hollow shell and rendering On the laws, with their pages of pedantic footling about precise constitutional arrangements, redundant overnight. It became overnight a record of a specific historical moment, which was eclipsed before the book could even be completed.

Thoughts

Cicero is frequently held up as the godfather of humanism. Finding, translating and commenting on his books was a central element in the Renaissance, which saw the creation of modern ideas of humanism. (“Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance.” Lumen).

However, as my close readings of De rerum deorumDe republica and De legibus amply demonstrate, Cicero’s ‘humanism’ is crucially, vitally, centrally based on his theism, his belief in One God who created human beings and implanted in them fragments of the Divine Reason which underpin all our values, morality, law, justice and statecraft.

Thus, in a nutshell: humanism derives from religious belief. Without its religious underpinning, humanism is nothing. It becomes a wish, a hope, a dream, with no factual or logical basis. I don’t say this to undermine humanistic values. I am probably a humanistic progressive liberal myself. Where I appear to differ from most of my tribe is I don’t believe these truths to be self evident. There are other ways of being human, other cultures, other values completely different from ours, probably the majority of human lives have very much not been lived according to these values. Several points follow:

1. We do not have the right to compel these other cultures into adherence to our values. That is no different from Victorian missionaries trying to convert tribes in Africa or Asia or Australia to their narrow Christian culture.

2. If we want to defend our values effectively against those who threaten them, for example Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, we must base them on really secure foundations, not wishes or aspirations. Far stronger foundations than Cicero, who wrote all these fancy words only to have his head cut off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. The sword is mightier than the pen.

* Cicero’s self promotion

It’s further evidence of Cicero’s self-centred narcissism that in several places in book 3 he manages to showehorn into the text the famous events of 63 BC, when he was consul and saved the state from the Cataline conspiracy. He gives a melodramatic account of the tremendous dangers he faced and how he single-handedly overcame them (III, 26) and then has Atticus fulsomely thank him for his efforts.

To be sure, the whole order is behind you and cherishes most happy memories of your consulship. (III, 29)

Cicero also takes the opportunity to remind everyone that he should never have been exiled (in 57 BC) and that’s why it needed no legislation to rescind his exile (III, 47). In other words, no matter what Cicero is writing about, the text has a strong tendency to end up being about himself.

There is something irredeemably comic about Cicero, like Oliver Hardy pretending to be Napoleon. It’s this hyper-intelligent, super articulate yet comical earnestness which has endeared him to 2,000 years of readers.

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the scholarly and interesting notes. There is a useful list of names and an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation itself is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

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Roman reviews

On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 2

‘It is the task of philosophy to dispel errors so that when we talk about the immortal gods we may say only what is worthy of them.’
(Gaius Aurelius Cotta, page 219, book III, On the nature of the gods)

On the nature of Cicero’s books

Cicero’s books are extremely argumentative. By which I mean that there are no descriptive or literary passages, only the briefest autobiographical passage at the start and then – bang! – straight into 150 pages of non-stop, unrelenting argumentation. Every paragraph is arguing a point, and he sometimes makes two or 3 points on a page. On the nature of the gods is only 150 or so pages long in the Penguin paperback edition but every page is crammed with a non-stop barrage of arguments, proofs and refutations.

The one really obvious attraction of these ancient texts is that they are accessible. By that I mean that the protagonists in a text like this use examples and ideas which are completely understandable by the man or woman in the street. Unlike modern philosophy there is a complete absence of: maths and maths-style logic (as found in analytical and logical philosophy); specialised technical terms; and, above all, the clutter and detritus of hundreds of other philosophical schools which have arisen over the past 2,000 years and left their semantic and conceptual wreckage strewn across the intellectual landscape.

Instead, the three protagonists in this dialogue about the nature of the gods almost entirely use ordinary language and everyday examples to make their points. For example when Velleius says that, if God only decided to make the universe, the sun and the moon and so on at some point into infinite time, does that mean that up till that moment he had been living in darkness like a pauper in a hovel? There is a lot more like this, a lot more crude sarcasm and taunting and ridiculing than you might expect in a ‘philosophical’ work.

(Actually, that’s not strictly true: from time to time the speakers use philosophical terms coined by the original Greek philosophers. Not many and not often, though.)

The result is twofold: although a lot of the arguments come across as wrong, superficial and bizarre, nonetheless it is easy to read and enjoyable to follow the flow of each speaker’s case. The editor, J.M. Ross, points out that the text is very uneven, with chunks missing, other bits arranged in what seem to be the wrong order, with the protagonists failing to address each other’s points or wandering off the subject altogether. But this makes it all the more entertaining, like listening to a tipsy polymath holding forth at a dinner party or at the bar. I think of the comic monologues of entertainers of my youth like Victor Borge or Peter Ustinov. The combination of serious points embellished with ridicule and exaggeration are frequently more reminiscent of a comic monologue than a work of ‘philosophy’.

It also gives the book a pleasing naivety. Coming to Cicero after trying to read Derrida or Habermas is like walking from an intense undergraduate seminar down the corridor into the creche where a load of toddlers are playing with lego.

Three speakers

As explained before, the text is conceived as presenting three speakers, each of whom is a star representative of the three main philosophical schools of Cicero’s day – Epicurean, Stoic, Academic. There were many other minor schools but as his book is focusing on the specific questions of a) whether there are gods and b) what they’re like and c) how we should behave regarding them, Cicero only needed three positions or attitudes. The three interlocutors are:

  • Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view
  • Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view
  • Gaius Aurelius Cotta who represents the Academic point of view

The three positions can be summarised as:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providence / Stoic (gods exist and are identical with nature, with the visible universe and its laws)
  • sceptic (voicing objections to both the above to arrive at a ‘common sense’ view of the existence of the gods and the reverence due them)

In what follows I’m not going to give an exhaustive summary of all the points made by all the speakers, just the ones which came over to me as important or interesting or quirky.

Introduction

In the brief introduction Cicero makes a couple of points which will recur throughout the book:

Cicero takes it as axiomatic that there are gods. Only a fool or anarchist would be an atheist. Belief in the existence of the gods follows from two key axioms:

1. All of history and all of anthropology suggests that all humanity is naturally and innately inclined to believe in gods. And this universal predilection is taken as incontrovertible proof.

2. Religious belief and practice are the vital glue holding society together and underpinning all moral and social values, underpinning interpersonal ethics and the rule of law and justice.

When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life…If our reverence for the gods were lost, we should see the end of good faith, of human brotherhood, and even of justice itself, which is the keystone of all the virtues. (I.2)

So although all three speakers may at points touch on the logical possibility of there being no gods, none of them actually propounds this view. Possibly this was also because, although there was no actual law against atheism, nonetheless Greek thinkers who had propounded atheism had been vilified. Cotta gives the example of Protagoras of Abdera who wrote in a book that he was not able to say whether the gods existed or not, and was as a result banished from the city and his works burned in public. Cicero himself had been elected a member of the College of Augurs in 53 BC and so was responsible for performing various religious duties in public. As he has Cotta say:

I myself hold a religious office and I believe that public religious worship and ritual ought to be reverently observed. (p.94)

If his book had openly espoused atheism, presumably he would have been sacked from that job and maybe faced further sanctions. So hidden behind the civilised chat of our three protagonists lurks a coercive social threat. (The notion that it is ‘prudent’ to profess belief in the gods is repeated on pages 104, 120 and 193.)

1a. Gaius Velleius and the Epicurean view of the gods (pages 77 to 92)

Rubbishing the opposition

A good deal of Velleius’s discourse consists of stating, then rubbishing, Stoic and other Greek philosophical views.

Velleius kicks off by rubbishing Stoic-style notions that the universe was built by a master artificer, the view put forward by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus. Can anyone actually imagine that happening? What tools did he use, what levers and pulleys and scaffolding? How came earth and air and fire and water to obey his commands?

Plato makes the world a manufactured article but he contradicts himself by saying the universe was made but at other points saying it is eternal.

We know time is infinite, eternal. Therefore the universe was created some point into infinite time. It had a beginning. Why? Why create it just at that moment? What triggered this sudden decision? What prompted God to decorate the universe with pretty lights like ‘some Minister of Public Works’? Is it because the world was created for the benefit of the wise? Then surely, never was so much trouble gone to to please so few.

Also: if the universe had a beginning, it must also have an ending.

How can the universe be a conscious being?

He mocks people who say the universe is a great consciousness, one conscious and immortal being (i.e. Stoics). They have no idea what consciousness is. They are ‘stupid’. Plato says the universe must be a sphere because the sphere is ‘the perfect shape’. How childish. He also says it must be spinning. If this sphere is conscious and is spinning at high speed, doesn’t God get giddy? And if the universe is ‘conscious’ some parts of the world are freezing ice caps, some parts are burning desert. So doesn’t it follow that god is roasting on one place and freezing in another?

Listing and rubbishing all other philosophers

Velleius then gives a long list of Greek philosophers starting with Thales, devoting a paragraph to summarising their chief contribution and then dismissing it with a sentence, being: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Alcmeon, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles, Protagoras, Democritus, Diogenes, Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes, Speusippus, Aristotle, Xenocrates, Heraclides, Theophrastus, Strato, Zeno (father of Stoicism), Aristo, Cleanthes, Persaeus, Chrysippus, Diogenes of Babylon, and more.

In his introduction Ross describes this list as an irritating digression which the reader can skip but, on the contrary, I found it an enjoyable and informative overview. Above all it is a useful counter to Cicero’s structural claim that there are only 3 schools of philosophy. On the contrary, this list demonstrates the huge jungley undergrowth of Greek philosophical opinions.

Rubbishing Aristotle

Velleius castigates Aristotle for holding at least three separate views: in one place attributing divinity to mind only, in another saying the entire universe is God, in another setting God above the universe with the power to order all its motions; in yet another claiming the fiery ether is God, so how does that square with the entire universe being God? And if heaven is a God where do the gods reside? Anyway, how could the heavens, in their endless fast revolutions around the earth, maintain consciousness worthy of a god? And if God is bodiless how can he be in motion?

See what I mean by argumentative? In just one paragraph Velleius rubbishes 9 theological propositions of Aristotle. So this list of silly philosophers also feeds into Cicero’s Academic scepticism by demonstrating what a range of absurd and contradictory opinions have been held by such ‘clever’ people. Velleius calls them ‘the fantasies of lunatics’, no better than the fictions of the poets and the wonders of the magicians.

Velleius’s exposition of Epicurus (pages 87 to 92)

Epicurus thought the gods must exist because nature has imprinted an idea of them in the minds of all mankind. This is one of the fundamental axioms of human thought without which there can be no knowledge, rational thought or argument. It is the basis of a firm and continuing consensus.

The same nature which imprints this idea also imprints the notion that they are blessed and immortal. If this is so, the gods must be free from care, anxiety and other human emotions, and must cause no care or anxiety in others i.e. mortals.

The logical consequence of this is that a) the gods deserve reverence as everything which is excellent deserves reverence, but b) we need not fear the gods because blessed and immortal beings have no motive to cause anxiety and fear in others (p.89). This is the core aim of Epicureanism – to banish anxiety, fear, worry and care from its followers.

The gods have human form

Evidence for this includes:

  1. The universal conviction of all humanity i.e. nature has implanted this idea in all human minds.
  2. Because the divine nature is perfect, it must be clothed in the most perfect form and what form is more perfect and beautiful than the human body?
  3. Reason cannot dwell in any other form but the human form.

He gives a good example of the poor, biased and sometimes absurd arguments used throughout the book when he claims that: everyone agrees that the gods are happy, and no happiness is possible without virtue, and there is no virtue without reason, and reason is associated only with the human form: therefore, the gods must have human form. Cotta picks up on this sentence to point out that the final link – that reason is only associated with the human form – does not follow but is willed (p.104 and p.114).

BUT individual human bodies are fallible, vulnerable, age and die. Not so immortal bodies. Therefore the gods have the shape of human bodies but not actual human flesh and blood.

The gods are blissfully detached

Happiness is a state of rest. The gods do not strive and work. They have attained stasis, contemplating their own holiness and wisdom (which sounds very Buddhist). Therefore they have no involvement whatsoever in the world of men, which would involve them in anxiety and endeavour.

A being which is blessed and immortal is itself without cares and brings no cares to others. (p.104)

The universe was created by natural causes

Rather than created by some God, the universe came into being quite naturally by the clash of the infinite number of atoms falling infinitely through infinite space, banging into each other, congealing and constellating. No need for any God labouring away with levers and pulleys.

Thus there is no overseeing God, no God involved in creating the universe, it and everything in it have developed by natural processes. Thus there is no reason to be afraid of a curious god poking and prying into our lives, ‘a busybody god’.

Velleius’s conclusion

Epicurus has saved us from all such fears and set us free, so that we have no terror of the gods, whom we know neither devise any mischief for themselves nor seek to bring it upon others. And so with reverence and awe we worship them in their divine perfection. (p.92)

1b. Cotta’s refutation of Velleius (pages 93 to 120)

Cotta the sceptic is ‘one of those who can more easily see why something is false than true’. Cicero, rather unfairly, gives more space to Cotta’s demolition of Velleius than to the former’s main exposition. Cotta calls Velleius’s Epicurean views ‘irresponsible and ridiculous’.

1. Velleius’s main argument for the existence of the gods is that ‘all mankind’ believes in them. Well, how does he know the opinion of all mankind? There may be any number of wild and primitive peoples who don’t believe in gods, how can he know? Also, there is a record of known philosophers in Greece who have been out-and-out atheists; it doesn’t take many instances to disprove a claim to universality.

2. Cotta comes down hard on Velleius’s theory of atoms endlessly falling in infinite space, whose collisions eventually give rise to matter and the universe. Cotta denies the existence of atoms but says that, even if they existed, the notion that from sheer chance they have created the universe and all the order and regularity and life forms which we observe is ridiculous (p.114). The entire cock and bull theory is a working backwards from the necessary core of Epicureanism i.e. the non-intervention of the gods.

More fatally, if everything is made of atoms then the gods are made of atoms too and can be dissolved as easily as they came into being. If they had a beginning they must have an end: so how can they avoid anxiety about death and dissolution? (p.115)

3. Cotta ridicules Epicurus for saying that the gods must have a human body, as that is the highest form of perfection, and yet it is not actually a body because that is subject to decay – so they have something like a body but not subject to decay. Velleius criticised all other philosophers for their absurdities; Cotta calls Epicurus’s ideas ‘fanciful dreams’.

The notion that the gods must have human form is the product of:

  • superstitious minds who created phantom images of the gods because it was easy
  • poets and painters who need to work with something tangible, and therefore promoted the idea of gods having bodily form
  • humanity’s bias or prejudice towards thinking itself fabulous and the highest of all possible life forms; it is a form of narcissism; anthropomorphism (“the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”)

Are the gods different as human beings are different, one from another? In which case, how can they be perfect? Surely there is only one model of perfection and all gods ought to embody it?

Anyway, it’s not true to say that all cultures envision the gods in human form: the Egyptians envision gods as animals (dog, crocodile, jackal, cat), as do many other cultures.

Similarly, is there a fixed number of gods with fixed identities? Because a) all cultures appear to have their own gods and b) many gods who are recognisably the same (king of the gods, queen of the gods, god of war, god of love) seem to have multiple names.

‘Do you really think that a god looks like me or like you? The fact is, you have no idea.’ (p.103)

Epicurus appears to say that there is no causal link between humans looking like gods and gods having human form, that both are just accidents of the infinite interaction of an infinite number of atoms in infinite space. This is a ridiculous assertion.

If the gods are so powerful why do they need bodies at all? Why do they need hands or feet or limbs let alone the complex internal organs? If they have godly powers they have no need of all these clumsy encumbrances. If they have bodies the gods would have to walk and climb and bend and stoop. they would have to eat and drink and pee and defecate. If they have the usual organs of generation they would have sex, with all the indignity that implies.

If the gods are vastly superior to us in mind and reason why shouldn’t they be similarly superior to us in body, inhabiting bodies whose shape and powers we can’t even conceive of?

Cotta ridicules the notion of the gods’ detachment. Even idle children get up to games. No human can rest idle indefinitely. What is the point of having the body he insists they have, if they don’t use them?

All creatures, all living things, have a sphere of operation within which they live and are active. Where is the gods’ sphere? To what objects do they use their mind and intelligence. If they know everything their minds are, in a sense, empty, because unexercised.

Velleius had said that the gods are happy because they have achieved the height of virtue. But virtue doesn’t mean anything unless it is tested in action i.e. someone has a choice of actions and decisions and acts accordingly. But Epicurus’s gods do not act in any way. Therefore they do not exercise virtue. Therefore they cannot be happy. Humans exercise decision and judgement all the time, therefore are more able to behave virtuously, therefore humans must be happier than the gods (p.115).

Epicurus derives all happiness, ultimately, from bodily pleasure (hence his reputation). Yet the gods have no bodies in the flesh and blood human sense and so cannot experience pleasure in the Epicurean sense and so cannot by happy (p.116).

Cotta attacks the Innate Theory i.e. that the notion of the gods is a universal aspect of human nature so must be true. Because plenty of other ideas and notions seem to be universal. Are they also true? And our minds can conceive and imagine all manner of things and situations. Are they all true, too?

Epicureanism undermines reverence for the gods

What reverence is due to beings who have never done anything and will never do anything? What reverence do we owe beings who have never done anything for us and never will? Piety is a bond but what bond can there be for beings who never interact? Why should we thank the gods if they have never done anything for us?

This undermining of any reason for humans to reverence or worship the gods in effect destroys religion.

One of the noblest qualities of people is their love and affection for others. Epicurus’s gods have no interest in anyone or anything else at all, but sit perfectly passively uninvolved with anything contemplating their own sterile ‘happiness’. This is to take away the ‘graciousness’ which is the highest attribute of humanity.

Compare and contrast with the doctrine of the Stoics that we should love all good and honest people as ourselves. Epicurean detachment teaches a terrible ethical lesson. A true human friendship is free and selfless. The love and selflessness of the gods ought to be that much superior to human love, yet Epicurus strips his gods of all fine feelings.

Cotta concludes by saying the whole tendency of Epicurus’s thought is atheist, he just tacked on his incoherent ‘defence’ of his very peculiar conception of the gods ‘in order to avoid the odour of atheism’. He was merely paying lip service to the gods that he had actually destroyed (p.120).

Summary of Velleius

Having read it twice I can see how Velleius’s points of view, with all their distortions of fact, the weird atomic theory and the, in the end, weird view of gods who are utterly detached from the world – I can see how these are all the tortured consequences of a reasonable premise and intention which was to free human beings from fear and anxiety.

As a philosophy it appeals to those who seek an oriental-style detachment from involvement in the trials and tribulations of life and instead seek detachment and calm.

Its weak spots are its implausible atomic theory about the creation of not one but infinite universes; and its bloodless vision of gods which are supposedly made in human form and yet utterly lifeless, like beautiful shop window mannequins.

2. Balbus’s presentation of the Stoic view of the gods (pages 123 to 190)

Balbus says he can divide Stoic views into 4 areas. The Stoics:

  • teach that divine beings exist
  • explain their nature
  • describe their government of the world
  • show how they care for mankind

The Argument from Design

If Velleius rested his case on the universal innate conviction of the gods’ existence, Balbus bases his on the Argument from Design. Look up at the sky and survey the beauty of the heavens. What more proof do you need that god exists? You might as well doubt the existence of the sun. Both god and the sun are as obvious to our senses. (It was to refute this age-old argument that Richard Dawkins wrote his long argumentative book The Blind Watchmaker.)

As ancient superstitions are sloughed off, true religion is growing more popular with every day. Balbus bases this assertion on:

  • the intervention of the gods in human history, especially at key moments of Roman history
  • predictions and prophecies
  • the special level of piety of the ancient Romans (like everyone in antiquity, Balbus thinks things, in this case religious piety, have declined in his day)

The proof of prophecies and soothsaying is that they have accurately predicted the future. Plenty of evidence from Rome’s history. So who can doubt the gods exist if they send messages?

‘Beings who do not exist can send us no messages. But the gods do have their prophets and messengers. So how can we deny they exist.’ (p.128)

The state prospers only under the guidance of men of religious faith.

In fact Balbus then echoes Velleius’s nostrum: The existence of gods is inscribed on the human mind from birth (p.128). Thus there is no debate about the existence of gods, only about their nature.

Cleanthes speaks of 4 influences which have formed men’s images of gods:

  1. the power and evidence and proof of divination and prophecy
  2. the blessings of a temperate climate and fertile soil
  3. the awe inspired by natural phenomena such as storms, hailstorms, blizzards, floods, plagues, earthquakes etc
  4. the regularity of the motion of the heavenly bodies. Movements so vast and purposive and regular must be guided and controlled by a divine intelligence. He lists the motion of the sun and moon and stars and the tides and oceans and says none of this would work unless it were powered by a divine and omnipotent spirit. These are all variations on the Argument from Design (p.129).

Only an arrogant fool would think there is nothing in the universe smarter than him. Therefore there must be something greater than Man. And that something must be God.

There is nothing more beautiful or perfect in the world than Reason or mind or intellect. The universe is perfect. Therefore the universe must be possessed of reason i.e. be rational. All natural laws, the passage of the seasons etc etc all these bespeak ‘the planning of a divine and omnipresent spirit’ (p.131).

The universe and God are one. He cites arguments formulated by Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism.

If a being is without consciousness then every part of it must be without consciousness. But some parts of the universe are conscious beings, therefore the entire universe as a whole must be a conscious being. Therefore the universe is a living intelligence.

The universe must be a rational being and the nature which permeates all things must be endowed with reason in its highest form. So God and the world of Nature must be one and all the life of the world must be contained within the being of God. As the universe is surely superior to any other being, then it must be endowed with reason. ‘The universe was endowed with wisdom from eternity and is itself divine.’ (p.137).

There is no quality higher than goodness and nothing more perfect than the universe. Therefore goodness must be a characteristic of the universe. (p.138)

[Pages 141 to 145 consist of a sluggish digression on astronomy i.e. the movements of the planets and stars.]

He then argues that the sun must be a conscious rational being, and so are all the stars, as proved by the regularity of their motions. The stars move of their own free will and motivated by their own intelligence – what other force could move them so efficiently?

I cannot understand this regularity in the stars, his harmony of time and motion in their various orbits through all eternity, except as the expression of reason, mind and purpose in the planets themselves, which we must therefore reckon in the number of the gods. (p.145)

At which point he makes the leap that the fact that the gods exist is so obvious that anyone who disagreed must be mad (p.141). Anyone who looks up and observes the beautiful order and regularity of the movement of the stars and doesn’t feel the power of God must be out of his mind (p.145, repetition of p.124).

As we have an innate idea in our minds that God must be a living God and supreme above all else in the world, there seems to me nothing more consonant with this idea than to recognise the whole universe, than which there can be nothing more sublime, as being the living God. (p.141)

The gods just exist because there must be some supreme being which is superior to all else. 

Another reason is that, although all men acknowledge the existence of the gods, to give them human form is to assign them limitations and imperfections. This, also, is an argument for equating God with the entire universe.

Balbus argues that the gods don’t of course have the form of humans with all the frailties and limitations that implies. The traditional names of the gods embody qualities of the universe which are gifts to humankind and which we ought to worship (p.147).

[Pages 147 to 151 consist of a digression on the etymology of the names of the gods.]

On the providence of the gods

Balbus then sets out to prove that the world is governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods.

My belief is that the universe and everything in it has been created by the providence of the gods and is governed by their providence through all eternity. (p.154)

Stoics like him give three reasons:

  1. if you grant the existence of gods, you must grant their providence
  2. all things are ordered by a sentient natural power impelling them towards their own perfection
  3. the wonders of the earth and sky (Argument from Design)

1. All men acknowledge that the gods exist. If they exist, they must be active. What kind of activity could be better than the government of the world. Therefore the world is governed by the wisdom of the gods (p.154). There is nothing greater or more wonderful than the universe. Therefore it must be governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods (p.156).

2. Nature is a principle of reason which pursues its own methodical course. His explanation of nature/God is based on the ancients’ belief that the world was made of four elements (earth, air, water, fire) and theories about reason and mind, all of which are twaddle, so it’s difficult to follow in its complexity something you know is rubbish. A central problem is the interchangeability of the words universe’ and ‘nature’ throughout this book.

  • Nature is the power which rules the universe.

There follows an extended passage (pages 161 to 177) describing the wonders of the stars and the planets and the sun and then of geography (seas and rivers and forests and deserts) and then a lot of ‘wonders’ of the natural world, every one of which Balbus recruits as evidence for his simple-minded insistence that every single one proves the universe is controlled by an intelligent and caring providence.

From all this evidence we must conclude that everything in the world is marvellously ordered by divine providence and wisdom for the safety and protection of us all. (p.177)

Wrong. The ludicrously naive self-centredness of this view becomes apparent when he goes on to ask for whom all this wonder was laid on? Well, obviously not for the lifeless rocks or even for mindless animals. Obviously for those with mind and reason, ta-dah! Us humans!

We can therefore well believe that the earth and everything in it was created for the gods and for mankind. (p.177)

Balbus then goes on to consider the ‘perfection’ of the design of man, how perfect the human mouth is for drinking, how perfect the lungs for drawing in air, the stomach for digesting food and so on, the gift of speech, the wonder of the human hand (pages 178 to 184). Balbus attributes all this to:

the wise and careful providence of nature, which shows the great and gracious benefits the gods have bestowed upon mankind. (p.180)

Everything in the world which we enjoy was made and ordered for our sake. (p.185)

I attribute it to evolution. Balbus’s anthropocentric narcissism leaps out when he claims that ‘every human sense far surpasses the sense of beast’ (p.182) which is plumb wrong, as we now know that all human senses are far excelled by any number of other animals.

To sum up: man has been given all manner of gifts in the design of the universe, the beauty of the world, the provision of plants and animals to rear and eat, in the wonderfully apt design of his own body and, above all, in the gift of reason so we can understand it all. Contemplating all this must lead to awareness of a guiding and kindly providence working throughout the universe and in our favour, and from this stems Religion and a sense of the virtues, of the good life which is living in harmony with the universe, in loving-kindness and generosity to our fellow men.

Summary of Balbus

Although every factual claim he makes about the universe, the solar system and the natural world are howlingly wrong, I can see the aim of Balbus’s Stoic philosophy. It is for those who appreciate the beauty of the night skies and the wonders of the natural world and believe that they indicate some natural law or harmony and that, in order to live well, in order to live wisely and virtuously, we humans should acknowledge these gifts and try and bring our way of living into harmony with the natural world. A not unreasonable ambition.

Its weak spot is Stoics odd insistence on the importance of ‘prophesy’ as a strong proof of providence. Both Epicureans and Academics were quick to ridicule this and it’s hard to see why it is needed in their system and couldn’t be quietly dropped.

3. Cotta puts the academic view (pages 193 to 235)

Cotta introduces himself as a member of the College of Augurs and a priest. He will never abandon the views he has inherited from his Roman forebears about worship of the gods. He doesn’t require a load of fancy arguments to prove the existence of the gods: the traditional belief of their Roman ancestors was enough. As a rational man, he simply wants to question the arguments of the other two more closely in order to base his own belief on a sound foundation.

Remember that a substantial portion of Cotta’s book is missing, and it feels like it. Anyway, he says he will not refute Balbus’s argument in its entirety but ask him about specific aspects. He attacks Balbus’s stories about ‘prophecy’ and ‘omens’ as superstitious hearsay.

Then he attacks one of the central arguments of both Velleius and Balbus, that the gods exist because the notion of immortal gods is innate in human nature. Not so, says Cotta. Just because a large number of people believe something to be true does not make it true.

More importantly, for me, Cotta refutes most of the arguments Balbus put forward to prove that the universe, the sun and the moon and the stars are all gods. No, says Cotta. Just because something behaves with mechanical regularity and is beautiful to look at (like the stars) doesn’t mean it is either conscious or immortal (p.202).

One flaw in his argument is to assume that anything bigger than man must be Perfect and Immortal, such as the movement of tides, and rivers and the seasons and the stars. not at all. They might just be part of the mechanical rhythm of the universe. The parts of nature move in consonance but this does not require a guiding intelligence.

Nature persists and coheres by its own power without any help from the gods. (p.204)

Just because something is bigger than man doesn’t make it a god. Otherwise all mountains would be gods. Every hill, every bluff, every tree would be a god.

Cotta’s critique of Balbus is less effective than his attack on Velleius. This seems to be because he is actually missing a lot of Balbus’s point. He says that all things made up of the elements will eventually decompose and die but this isn’t as effective an attack on Balbus as on Velleius. He says the so-called gods experience no evil so cannot judge between good and evil so cannot really enact virtue. How can we respect a god who doesn’t exercise reason or moral qualities?

Then he moves on to attack the way many humans, either legendary or historical figures, have, allegedly been translated into gods. This didn’t strike me as central to Balbus’s argument. What both of them seem to be missing is the centrality of prophecy to Stoic beliefs and the enormous problems thrown up by trying to reconcile God’s Preknowledge of the future and human free will (without which there can be no morality), a topic which was to bedevil Christian theology for 2,000 years.

Instead he wastes his time on the secondary argument of which of the actual Roman gods who have temples devoted to them Balbus includes in his pantheon, and which he excludes, and why. As he rattles off an enormous list of gods major and minor and then nymphs and satyrs and demi-gods and so on, it dawned on me he is missing a major distinction to be made between religion as theology and religion as practice. I’m betting most people are attached to their religions as traditions and practices which bind together families and communities. Cotta’s attack on the pantheon of the gods makes it clear just how futile it is trying to come up with a coherent intellectual underpinning for the super-diverse world of actual religious practice. Religious practices just are.

This reductio ad absurdem list of gods goes on for some time (pages 208 to 219), with Cotta asking Balbus whether he allows the rainbow to be a god or clouds and so on, ridiculing the idea that qualities such as Faith or Courage or objects of desire such as Victory and Honour can be gods.

Lacuna in the text.

He spends so much time on it because, apparently, many Stoic writers have devoted a lot of time to giving philosophical rationales for all these gods. But, says Cotta, this is all superstitious twaddle.

Lacuna in the text.

Balbus had assumed all through his speech that Reason is the highest attribute imaginable. So Cotta sets out to destroy this view by quoting an extensive number of examples where people have used their reason for evil i.e. have acted rationally in order to achieve wicked ends.

If the divine mind willed the good of men, when it endowed them with reason, then it willed only the good of those whom it also endowed with the power to use their reason well, whom we see to be very few indeed, if any. (p.222)

Maybe it would have been better if the gods had never given man reason at all. Maybe philosophy does more to lead students astray into immoral or unnatural beliefs and activities than improve them.

The problem of pain

Then Cotta moves on to a version of the perennial ‘problem of pain’, asking why the gods gave men the power of ‘reason’ instead of the ability to act virtuously? Instead, monsters have thrived and honest men met violent ends. If the gods do look upon our world they apparently make no distinction between good and bad men.

There can be no divine guidance of human affairs if the gods make no distinction between good and evil. (p.230)

And:

The prosperity and good fortune of the wicked absolutely disprove the power of the gods. (p.232)

Why don’t the gods intervene on the side of good while letting evil prosper? It’s the central question which has plagued the Abrahamic religions with their notion of an all-powerful all-loving god down to the present day, crystallised by the central catastrophe of the twentieth century: if there is an all-powerful, all-loving God why did he allow the Holocaust?

Abrupt ending

Right at the last minute on the last page Cotta re-emphasises that he doesn’t say this to argue against the gods but to submit men’s arguments to strict scrutiny and show how difficult the issue is. This feels very much like a last-minute cop-out designed to avert accusations of atheism which most of the rest of the document strongly endorses.

The host, Lucilius, is made to say that he would take up arms to defend their venerable religious traditions and temples and so on, and Cotta repeats that he agrees and will join him and has been merely working through the arguments not denying religion. Perish the thought!

It’s worth quoting the final sentence for two reasons. It purportedly gives the view of Cicero who has been a silent witness throughout the previous 3 books, never saying a word.

The conversation ended here, and we parted. Velleius judged that the arguments of Cotta were truest; but those of Balbus seemed to me to have the greater probability.

It has puzzled commentators that Cicero came down on the side of Balbus rather than sympathising with his fellow Academician, Cotta. It rather suggests that the debate was never between three points of view, but between two major points of view both of which were then critiqued by Cotta, with the result that onlookers (such as Cicero) only had a choice of two.

Lastly, its abruptness has convinced most commentators that the work was never finished properly and would probably have been revised and polished if Cicero had lived long enough.


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On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 1

A mine of curious information about ancient science, religion and philosophy…
(J.M. Ross in his introduction to De natura deorum, p.62)

Cicero wrote this book to examine a central problem of theology, namely do the gods have any impact on human life and, if so, what? It approaches the issue by focusing on a specific question, namely: Is there a Providence? Meaning: are events predetermined and preordained by the gods? Because if they are, then this calls into question the entire concept of ‘free will’ upon which most concepts of ‘morality’ rest. No free will = no morality, no law, no justice.

The 1972 Penguin edition I own contains a translation of Cicero’s De natura deorum by H.C.P. McGregor and an introduction by J.M. Ross. The introduction is unusually long, at 64 pages, and gives a thorough introduction to Cicero, the sources and aims of De natura deorum and its place in the overall plan of Cicero’s works.

Cicero had already written extensively about social duties and responsibilities, about friendship, personal morality, politics and the state. But, in a sense, a person’s views about all these topics depends on the fundamental question, is there a God or not. Your position on the existence and nature of a god or gods stands at the centre of your position on all those issues, underpinning or undermining them all.

Very broadly, there are four possible positions:

1. There are no gods or God, in which case there is no divine sanction or underpinning for morality, for virtue or wisdom, for right and wrong. Human behaviour and values are completely up to us to define and judge.

Pessimists or theological propagandists denigrate this situation as Anarchy and Cicero is among them: he is of the atheism = anarchy party and strongly believed that religion was necessary to underpin morality.

If the Gods have neither the power nor the inclination to help us; if they take no care of us, and pay no regard to our actions…then what reason can we have to pay any adoration, or any honours, or to prefer any prayers to them? Piety, like the other virtues, cannot have any connection with vain show or dissimulation. When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life. (I.2)

2. There are immortal gods who in some sense underpin our moral values, but they are completely indifferent to human affairs or don’t intervene, don’t respond to sacrifices or prayers or human suffering.

As I understand it, this was the view of the Epicureans, the followers of Epicurus. Some Epicureans went so far as to claim that worshipping gods – any form of state religion – was such an irrelevance and a distraction from the problems of good governance that it amounted to a social evil.

3. There are gods but they, like humans, are caught in the mechanism of the universe, which is entirely mechanistic and deterministic. Everything has been pre-ordained by fate and nothing they or we can do can change that.

This, as I understand it, is the Stoic position. Some Stoics went so far as to claim that God is identical with the universe and that both are governed by iron rules i.e. even God himself doesn’t have free will.

4. There are immortal gods and they do intervene in human affairs, do respond to sacrifices and prayers and try to make things right.

Position 4 is Cicero’s: there are gods, they underpin a moral law, they do answer prayers and sacrifices. However, Cicero doesn’t believe this with the dogmatism that would later be associated with Christian religion, because in his time there were no widely agreed texts laying down precise rules of behaviour in the manner of Christian teaching.

Instead, Cicero was an adherent of the Academic philosophy, so-called because it was taught by members of the Academy in Athens founded by Plato back in the fourth century BC. The Academic approach was to question everything, to attack all positions and points of view with the most powerful arguments possible, until only the strongest, most likely position remained. That was then adopted. It was a thorough-going scepticism.

In his introduction Ross quotes the theory of scholar H.A.K. Hunt that Cicero’s purpose in this book was to clear the decks of the jungle of contemporary misunderstandings about the gods in order for all his other writings about friendship, citizenship and so on to make sense. The need to address the specific question of predestination (as the Christians would call it) or Providence (as Cicero’s contemporaries called it) explains why he devoted a long book to the subject of Divination, at first sight a slightly cranky choice of subject, until you realise that, if divination works and the future can be foretold, then there is no human free will, in which case all his other moral and political arguments collapse.

In fact, it turns out that Ross cites Hunt’s theory in order to refute it. Ross thinks Cicero wasn’t as narrowly focussed as Hunt suggests. He takes Cicero at his word when he says that his aim was to introduce the entirety of Greek philosophy into Latin, to ‘by devoting myself to the examination of the whole body of philosophy’ (I.4).

Ross interprets Cicero’s writings as a systematic attempt to translate all the key philosophical debates of his time from Greek – where they had a long provenance – into Latin, where they were relatively new and where some key concepts didn’t even have an adequate Latin translation. These topics included:

  • Epistemology, the problem of knowledge: can we be certain of anything, can we trust the evidence of our senses – which Cicero addresses in his book titled the Academics
  • Ethics, what is the highest ‘good’ we should aim at – treated in The Ends of Good and Evil
  • consolation for death, whether our souls survive after death – treated in the Tusculan Disputations
  • the relationship between god and the world, treated via a translation of Plato’s Timaeus
  • a more detailed look at applied ethics in On Duties

Method

The Academic tradition Cicero followed was sceptical. It held that absolute truth is impossible for humans to find and may not even exist. All we can do is weight the balance of probabilities. In order to do this we need to consider all the available evidence before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Cicero’s philosophical position is very similar to a lawyer or judge’s approach in a court of law, a comparison he himself draws:

I am asking everyone to come into court, weight up the evidence, and return their verdict (I.6).

Therefore, in their written treatises, adherents of the Academy set down all the possible views on a topic and subject them to criticism. Only at the end of this process does a likely contender for ‘the truth’ remain standing.

The dialogue form

And this explains two things about the De naturam deorum. First, the way Cicero systematically lays out the beliefs of all the existing schools before, only at the end, revealing his own position. Secondly, the book is, like most of Cicero’s works, in dialogue format. This format perfectly suits the Academic approach as it assigns each of the key positions to an individual and then lets their position be probed and questioned by all the others.

Thus the text takes the form of an imagined conversation between four educated Romans in the year 77 BC. It is set in the house of Gaius Aurelius Cotta, who is the senior representative of the Academic point of view and features Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view, and Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view. And the fourth? Cicero is depicted as a late-comer, who arrives at Cotta’s house after the debate has begun and is invited to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So he doesn’t take part in the main debate at all.

Why only three schools of thought, when the Greek world pullulated with philosophies? Because a) to most educated Romans there were only 3 philosophical schools to choose from, Epicurean, Stoic or Academic; b) because the question itself boils down to only 3 positions:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providential / Stoic (gods exist and have foreordained everything )
  • sceptic (voicing objections to the 2 dogmatic views above and trying to find pragmatic compromises)

In fact in the text itself Cicero mentions a fourth school, the Peripatetic school, which could have been represented by its leading Roman proponent, Marcus Piso. But 1. he has Cotta explain that by the time the debate takes place the Peripatetics’ main beliefs about theology had become almost indistinguishable from Stoicism and 2. Ross suspects that Cicero probably knew less about the Peripatetics than he did about the two other schools, so preferred to stay on safe ground.

Early on, Cicero indicates that although he belongs to the sceptical Academy the last thing he wants to do is undermine religion, as he believes it provides a vital underpinning to society, is the foundation of personal morality and public justice (as per the passage quoted above). He just wants to remove the bad arguments for this position, to establish the really good arguments and then promote them. His book is a form of spring cleaning or decluttering. He wants to banish superstition (which he defines as ‘a senseless fear of the gods’), not religion (which he defines as ‘the science of divine worship’) (p.117).

It is also worth noting that Cicero himself held a post in Rome’s state religion. In 53 BC he was elected member of the college of augurs. According to Wikipedia, an augur:

was a priest and official in the classical Roman world. His main role was the practice of augury: interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds – whether they were flying in groups or alone, what noises they made as they flew, direction of flight, and what kind of birds they were. This was known as ‘taking the auspices’. The augural ceremony and function of the augur was central to any major undertaking in Roman society – public or private – including matters of war, commerce, and religion. Augurs sought the divine will regarding any proposed course of action which might affect Rome’s pax, fortuna, and salus (peace, good fortune, and well-being).

So we can probably hear his own opinion expressed through Cotta in I.61.

Three books

Since it expounds and critiques three schools of thought, the text is divided into three volumes, although not quite as neatly as you might imagine. In the first half of book I Velleius propounds the Epicurean position at length; in the second half, Cotta the academic enthusiastically demolishes Velleius’s arguments, with a wealth of exuberant abuse. Book II is devoted to a lengthy exposition of the Stoic position by Balbus. Then Book III consists of Cotta’s extensive criticism of everything Balbus has said.

Three problems with philosophy

The three things I’ve always disliked about philosophy ever since I started reading it at school are:

  1. The terrible state of most of its key texts, many of which exist in such poor shape it’s not at all clear what the authors intended.
  2. The need nearly all philosophers have felt to invent new words and terms to describe their views, terms which invariably lead to endless squabbling among their acolytes and among academics about what they actually mean, resulting in needless obscurity.
  3. The way most of philosophy’s key authors changed and developed their positions, sometimes so much so that their later philosophy ends up completely contradicting their earlier views (Wittgenstein springs to mind).

De rerum deorum demonstrates all three of these problems. Regarding the text, there are gaping holes. The master manuscript, which appears to have been the source of all the later manuscripts which survive, appears to have come to pieces and been reassembled, not in a particularly rational order, and with some big and important sections (like Cotta’s refutations of key Stoic points) altogether missing. Maybe a third of book III is missing.

Then it is patchily organised. Even without this textual confusion, it’s clear that Cicero, when he has a character refuting the previous character’s presentation, often omits key points in what they said and answers points they never made. In other words, even if we had a perfect text, it would still be uneven, and badly assembled. This is because Cicero was copying his arguments from a variety of Greek sources and didn’t manage to fully assimilate them into a smooth flow or argument.

This also explains why the text contains a number of irritating digressions, when Cicero seems to have inserted vaguely relevant topics (such as the origins of the names of gods, pages 147 to 152, or a passage on astronomy) just because he had them to hand and they were sort of relevant to the topic, but which damage the flow of the argument.

To further add to the confusion, there were not one but two main traditions of Stoicism in regard to conceptions of God and Providence, and Cicero doesn’t distinguish clearly between them, either in Balbus’s presentation or in Cotta’s refutation. Early Stoicism was pantheistic, believing that God was just another name for nature and that everything in the world is divinely determined. Later, a more Platonic conception was overlaid onto this, in which God is a free rational deity caring for men, and interfering in the world for their welfare. As you can see, these are two quite distinct beliefs, but they are bundled together in Balbus’s presentation and (in what survives of) Cotta’s refutation.

Mess

All this explains two things: why De rerum deorum has been heavily criticised by commentators and why it is one of Cicero’s less popular texts. The central criticism is that it was written at great speed and so is riddled with inconsistencies in the main argument and littered with distracting digressions. Ross concludes that it was never really finished and Cicero intended to revise, trim and make it more coherent.

In addition, all readers have criticised the way the book just stops, without any kind of summary of the results of its long-winded investigation. If it was intended to be useful, then the most potentially useful part, the conclusion, is missing. Instead Cicero seems to have decided to address to sub-aspects of the problem of gods in the supplementary works, On divination and On fate.

In other words, this book is prime evidence for my case against philosophy, a good example of the way the self-proclaimed ‘lovers of truth’ in fact produce badly organised, badly thought-through, inconsistent texts which are so badly written that even their own pupils can’t agree what they mean and, instead of shedding light on ‘the truth’ serve to sink it miles deeper into oceanic depths of murky obscurity.

The philosophical buffet

In reality:

  • although reading philosophy is entertaining and often intellectually challenging (for example when, as so often, it is written in deliberately obscure language using ad hoc invented terms and phrases designed to tease you away from your normal perceptions or habits of thought);
  • although philosophical debates, especially about ‘morality’ are inevitable, can result in real changes in people’s opinions, in social attitudes and even the law;

nonetheless, there are now so many philosophical schools, systems and arguments that, as with the Bible, almost any position you care to take, from extreme idealism to extreme pragmatism, from moral altruism to cynical selfishness, from rigid obedience to strict laws to the wildest anarchism, have been fully worked out, named, popularised and made into t-shirt slogans.

With the result that, far from being the pursuit of any kind of ‘truth’, the vast realm of philosophic discourse is more like an enormous breakfast buffet where people interested in this kind of thing can choose from a huge range of options, mix and match, and cobble together whichever belief and value systems suit them. In other words, 3,000 years of philosophy has left the world and human beings in even worse conceptual and moral confusion than it found them.

In the following two blog posts I’ll summarise the arguments used in De rerum deorum in detail.


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The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

The short paper by James Watson and Francis Crick establishing the helical structure of the DNA molecule was published in the science journal, Nature, on April 25, 1953. The blurb of this book describes it as the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Quite probably, although it was a busy century – the discovery of antibiotics was quite important, too, not to mention the atom bomb.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their DNA model at the Cavendish Laboratories in 1953

Anyway, what makes this first-person account of the events leading up to the discovery such fun is Watson’s prose style and mentality. He is fearless. He takes no prisoners. He is brutally honest about his own shortcomings and everyone else’s and, in doing so, sheds extraordinarily candid light on how science is actually done. He tells us that foreign conferences where nobody speaks English are often pointless. Many scientists are just plain stupid. Some colleagues are useless, some make vital contributions at just the right moment.

Watson has no hesitation in telling us that, when he arrived in Cambridge in 1951, aged just 23, he was unqualified in almost every way – although he had a degree from the University of Chicago, he had done his best to avoid learning any physics or chemistry, and as a graduate student at Indiana he had also avoided learning any chemistry. In fact the book keeps referring to his astonishing ignorance of almost all the key aspects of the field he was meant to be studying.

The one thing he did have was a determination to solve the problem which had been becoming ever-more prominent in the world of biology, what is a gene? Watson says he was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger’s 1946 book, What Is Life? which pointed out that ‘genes’ were the key component of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must understand what genes are and how they work. The bacteriologist O.T. Avery had already shown that hereditary traits were passed from one bacterium to another by purified DNA molecules, so this much was common knowledge in the scientific community.

DNA was probably the agent of hereditary traits, but what did it look like and how did it work?

Our hero gets a U.S. government research grant to go to Copenhagen to study with biochemist Herman Kalckar, his PhD supervisor Salvador Luria hoping the Dane would teach him something but… no. Watson’s interest wasn’t sparked, partly because Kalckar was working on the structure of nucleotides, which young Jim didn’t think were immediately relevant to his quest, also because Herman was hard to understand –

At times I stood about nervously while Herman went through the motions of a biochemist, and on several days I even understood what he said. (p.34)

A situation compounded when Herman began to undergo a painful divorce and his mind wandered from his work altogether.

It was a chance encounter at a conference in Naples that motivated Watson to seek out the conducive-sounding environment of Cambridge (despite the reluctance of his funding authorities back in the States to let him go so easily). John Kendrew, the British biochemist and crystallographer, at that point studying the structure of myoglobin, helped smooth his passage to the fens.

Head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where Watson now found himself was Sir Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of crystallography. The unit collecting X-ray diffraction photographs of haemoglobin was headed up by the Austrian Max Perutz, and included Francis Crick, at this stage (in 1951) 35-years-old and definitely an acquired taste. Indeed the famous opening sentence of the book is:

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.

followed by the observation that:

he talked louder and faster than anybody else, and when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious.

So he had found a home of sorts and, in Francis Crick, a motormouth accomplice who was also obsessed by DNA – but there were two problems.

  1. The powers that be didn’t like Crick, who was constantly getting into trouble and nearly got thrown out when he accused the head of the lab, Bragg, of stealing one of his ideas in a research paper.
  2. Most of the work on the crystallography of DNA was being done at King’s College, London, where Maurice Wilkins had patiently been acquiring X-rays of the molecule for nearly ten years.

There was a sub-problem here which was that Wilkins was being forced to work alongside Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, who was an independent-minded 31-year-old woman (b.1920) and under the impression that she had been invited in to lead the NA project. The very young Watson and the not-very-securely-based Crick both felt daunted at having to ask to borrow and interpret Wilkins’s material, not least because he himself would have to extract it from the sometimes obstreperous Franklin.

And in fact there was a third big problem, which was that Linus Pauling, probably the world’s leading chemist and based at Cal Tech in the States, was himself becoming interested in the structure of DNA and the possibility that it was the basis of the much-vaunted hereditary material.

Pauling’s twinkling eyes and dramatic flair when making presentations is vividly described (pp.37-8). Along the same lines, Watson later gives a deliberately comical account of how he is scoffed and ignored by the eminent biochemist Erwin Chargaff after making some (typically) elementary mistakes in basic chemical bonding.

It is fascinating to read the insights scattered throughout the book about the relative reputations of the different areas of science – physics, biology, biochemistry, crystallography and so on. Typical comments are:

  • ‘the witchcraft-like techniques of the biochemist’, p.63
  • ‘In England, if not everywhere, most botanists and zoologists were a muddled lot.’ p.63

In a typical anecdote, after attending a lecture in London given by Franklin about her work, Watson goes for a Chinese meal in Soho with Maurice Wilkins who is worried that he made a mistake moving into biology, compared to the exciting and well-funded world of physics.

The physics of the time was dominated by the aftershock of the massive wartime atom bomb project, and with ongoing work to develop both the H-bomb and peacetime projects for nuclear power.

During the war Wilkins had helped to develop improved radar screens at Birmingham, then worked on isotope separation at the Manhattan Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Now he was stuck in a dingy lab in King’s College arguing with Franklin almost every day about who should use the best samples of DNA and the X-ray equipment and so on. (Later on, Watson tells us Wilkins’ and Franklin’s relationship deteriorated so badly that he (Watson) was worried about lending the London team the Cambridge team’s wire models in case Franklin strangled Wilkins with them. At one point, when Watson walks in on Franklin conducting an experiment, she becomes so angry at him he is scared she’s going to attack him. Wilkins confirms there have been occasions when he has run away in fear of her assaulting him.)

It’s in this respect – the insights into the way the lives of scientists are as plagued by uncertainty, professional rivalry, and doubts about whether they’re in the right job, or researching the right subject, gnawing envy of more glamorous, better-funded labs and so on – that the book bursts with insight and human interest.

Deoxyribonucleic acid

By about page 50 Watson has painted vivid thumbnail portraits of all the players involved in the story, the state of contemporary scientific knowledge, and the way different groups or individuals (Wilkins, Franklin, Pauling, Crick and various crystallographer associates at the Cavendish) are all throwing around ideas and speculations about the structure of DNA, on bus trips, in their freezing cold digs, or over gooseberry pie at their local pub, the Eagle in Cambridge (p.75).

For the outsider, I think the real revelation is learning how very small the final achievement of Crick and Watson seems. Avery had shown that DNA was the molecule of heredity. Chergaff had shown it contained equal parts of the four bases. Wilkins and Franklin had produced X-ray photos which strongly hinted at the structure and the famous photo 51 from their lab put it almost beyond doubt that DNA had a helix structure. Pauling, in America, had worked out the helical structure of other long proteins and had now began to speculate about DNA (although Watson conveys his and Crick’s immense relief that Pauling’s paper on the subject, published in early 1953, betrayed some surprisingly elementary mistakes in its chemistry.) But the clock was definitely ticking very loudly, rivals were closing in on the answer, and the pages leading up to the breakthrough are genuinely gripping.

In other words, the final deduction of the double helix structure doesn’t come out of the blue; the precise opposite; from Watson’s account it seems like it would have only been a matter of time before one or other of these groups had stumbled across the correct structure.

But it is very exciting when Watson comes into work one day, clears all the clutter from his desk and starts playing around with pretty basic cardboard cutouts of the four molecules which, by now, had become strongly associated with DNA, adenine and guanine, cytosine and thymine.

Suddenly, in a flash, he sees how they assemble the molecules naturally arrange themselves into pairs linked by hydrogen bonds – adenine with thymine and cytosine with guanine.

For a long time they’d been thinking the helix had one strand at the core and that the bases stuck out from it, like quills on a porcupine. Now, in a flash, Watson realises that the the base pairs, which join together so naturally, form a kind of zip, and the bands of sugar-phosphates holding the thing together run along the outside – creating a double helix shape.

The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour-coded by element and the detailed structures of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. (Source: Wikipedia)

Conclusion

I am not qualified to summarise the impact of the discovery of DNA has had on the world. Maybe it would take books to do so adequately. I’ll quote the book’s blurb:

By elucidating the structure of DNA, the molecule underlying all life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionised biochemistry. At the time, Watson was only 24. His uncompromisingly honest account of those heady days lifts the lid on the real world of great scientists, with their very human faults and foibles, their petty rivalries and driving ambition. Above all, he captures the extraordinary excitement of their desperate efforts to beat their rivals at King’s College to the solution to one of the great enigmas of the life sciences.

The science is interesting, but has been overtaken and superseded generations ago. It’s the characters and the atmosphere of the time (the dingy English rooms with no heating, the appalling English food), the dramatic reality of scientific competition, and then the genuinely exciting pages leading up to the breakthrough which makes Watson’s book such a readable classic.

Rosalind Franklin

I marked all the places in the text where a feminist might explode with anger. Both Watson, but even more Crick, assume pretty young girls are made for their entertainment. They are referred to throughout as ‘popsies’ and Crick in particular, although married, betrays an endless interest in the pretty little secretaries and au pairs which adorn Cambridge parties.

It is through this patronising and sexist prism that the pair judged the efforts of Franklin who was, reasonably enough, a hard-working scientist not at all interested in her appearance or inclined to conform to gender stereotypes of the day. She felt marginalised and bullied at the King’s College lab, and irritated by the ignorance and superficiality of most of Watson and Crick’s ideas, untainted as they were by any genuine understanding of the difficult art of X-ray crystallography – an ignorance which Watson, to his credit, openly admits.

Eventually, Franklin found working with Wilkins so intolerable that she left to take up a position at Birkbeck College and then, tragically, discovered she had incurable cancer, although she worked right up to her death in April 1958.

Franklin has become a feminist heroine, a classic example of a woman struggling to make it in a man’s world, patronised by everyone around her. But if you forget her gender and just think of her as the scientist called Franklin, it is still a story of misunderstandings and poisonous professional relations such as I’ve encountered in numerous workplaces. Watson and Crick’s patronising tone must have exacerbated the situation, but the fundamental problem was that she was given clear written instructions that she would be in charge of the X-ray crystallography at King’s College but then discovered that Wilkins thought he had full control of the project. This was a management screw-up more than anything else.

It does seem unfair that she wasn’t cited in the Nobel Prize which was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962, but then she had died in 1958, and the Swedish Academy had a simple rule of not awarding the prize to dead people.

Still, it’s not like her name has disappeared from the annals of history. Quite the reverse:

Impressive list, don’t you think?

And anyone who hasn’t read the book might be easily persuaded that she was an unjustly victimised, patronised and ignored figure. But just to set the record straight, Watson chooses to end the entire book not with swank about his and Crick’s later careers, but with a tribute to Franklin’s character and scientific achievement.

In 1958, Rosalind Franklin died at the early age of thirty-seven. Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements. The X-ray work she did at King’s is increasingly regarded as superb. The sorting out of the A and B forms [of DNA], by itself, would have made her reputation; even better was her 1952 demonstration, using Patterson superposition methods, that the phosphate groups must be on the outside of the DNA molecule. Later, when she moved to Bernal’s lab, she took up work on tobacco mosaic virus and quickly extended our qualitative ideas about helical construction into a precise quantitative picture, definitely establishing the essential helical parameters and locating the ribonucleic chain halfway out from the central axis.

Because I was then teaching in the States, I did not see her as often as did Francis, to whom she frequently came for advice or when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed with her reasoning. By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realising years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosalind’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death. (p.175)

That is a fine, generous and moving tribute, don’t you think? And as candid and honest as the rest of the book in admitting his and Crick’s complete misreading of her situation and character.

In a literal sense the entire book leads up to this final page [these are the last words of the book] and this book became a surprise bestseller and the standard source to begin understanding the events surrounding the discovery. So it’s hard to claim that her achievement was ‘suppressed’ or ‘ignored’ when this is the climax of the best-selling account of the story.


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Nature’s Numbers by Ian Stewart (1995)

Ian Stewart is a mathematician and prolific author, having written over 40 books on all aspects of maths, as well as publishing several guides to the maths used in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, writing half a dozen textbooks for students, and co-authoring a couple of science fiction novels.

Stewart writes in a marvellously clear style but, more importantly, he is interesting: he sees the world in an interesting way, in a mathematical way, and manages to convey the wonder and strangeness and powerful insights which seeing the world in terms of patterns and shapes, numbers and maths, gives you.

He wants to help us see the world as a mathematician sees it, full of clues and information which can lead us to deeper and deeper appreciation of the patterns and harmonies all around us. It makes for a wonderfully illuminating read.

1. The Natural Order

Thus Stewart begins the book by describing just some of nature’s multitude of patterns: the regular movements of the stars in the night sky; the sixfold symmetry of snowflakes; the stripes of tigers and zebras; the recurring patterns of sand dunes; rainbows; the spiral of a snail’s shell; why nearly all flowers have petals arranged in one of the following numbers 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89; the regular patterns or ‘rhythms’ made by animals scuttling, walking, flying and swimming.

2. What Mathematics is For

Mathematics is brilliant at helping us to solve puzzles. It is a more or less systematic way of digging out the rules and structures that lie behind some observed pattern or regularity, and then using those rules and structures to explain what’s going on. (p.16)

Having gotten our attention, Stewart trots through the history of major mathematical discoveries including Kepler discovering that the planets move not in circles but in ellipses; the discovery that the nature of acceleration is ‘not a fundamental quality, but a rate of change’, then Newton and Leibniz inventing calculus to help us work outcomplex rates of change, and so on.

Two of the main things that maths are for are 1. providing the tools which let scientists understand what nature is doing 2. providing new theoretical questions for mathematicians to explore further. These are handy rules of thumb for distinguishing between, respectively, applied and pure mathematics.

Stewart mentions one of the oddities, paradoxes or thought-provoking things that crops up in many science books, which is the eerie way that good mathematics, mathematics well done, whatever its source and no matter how abstract its origin, eventually turns out to be useful, to be applicable to the real world, to explain some aspect of nature.

Many philosophers have wondered why. Is there a deep congruence between the human mind and the structure of the universe? Did God make the universe mathematically and implant an understanding of maths in us? Is the universe made of maths?

Stewart’s answer is simple and elegant: he thinks that nature exploits every pattern that there is, which is why we keep discovering patterns everywhere. We humans express these patterns in numbers, but nature doesn’t use numbers as such – she uses the patterns and shapes and possibilities which the numbers express or define.

Mendel noticing the numerical relationships with which characteristics of peas are expressed when they are crossbred. The double helix structure of DNA. Computer simulations of the evolution of the eye from an initial mutation creating a patch of skin cells sensitive to light, published by Daniel Nilsson and Susanne Pelger in 1994. Pattern appears wherever we look.

Resonance = the relationship between periodically moving bodies in which their cycles lock together so that they take up the same relative positions at regular intervals. The cycle time is the period of the system. The individual bodies have different periods. The moon’s rotational period is the same as its revolution around the earth, so there is a 1:1 resonance of its orbital and rotational periods.

Mathematics doesn’t just analyse, it can predict, predict how all kinds of systems will work, from the aerodynamics which keep planes flying, to the amount of fertiliser required to increase crop yield, to the complicated calculations which keep communications satellites in orbit round the earth and therefore sustain our internet and mobile phone networks.

Time lags The gap between a new mathematical idea being developed and its practical implementation can be a century or more: it was 17th century interest in the mathematics of vibrating violin strings which led, three hundred years later, to the invention of radio, radar and TV.

3. What Mathematics is About

The word ‘number’ does not have any immutable, God-given meaning. (p.42)

Numbers are the most prominent part of mathematics and everyone is taught arithmetic at school, but numbers are just one type of object that mathematics is interested in.

Stewart outlines the invention of whole numbers, and then of fractions. Some time in the Dark Ages the invention of 0. The invention of negative numbers, then of square roots. Irrational numbers. ‘Real’ numbers.

Whole numbers 1, 2, 3… are known as the natural numbers. If you include negative whole numbers, the series is known as integers. Positive and negative numbers taken together are known as rational numbers. Then there are real numbers and complex numbers. Five systems in total.

But maths is also about operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. And functions, also known as transformations, rules for transforming one mathematical object into another. Many of these processes can be thought of as things which help to create data structures.

Maths is like a landscape in which similar proofs and theories cluster together to create peaks and troughs.

4. The Constants of Change

Newton’s basic insight was that changes in nature can be described by mathematical processes. Stewart explains how detailed consideration of what happens to a cannonball fired out of a cannon helps us towards Newton’s fundamental law, that force = mass x acceleration.

Newton invented calculus to help work out solutions to moving bodies. Its two basic operations – integration and differentiation – mean that, given one element – force, mass or acceleration – you can work out the other two. Differentiation is the technique for finding rates of change; integration is the technique for ‘undoing’ the effect of differentiation in order to isolate out the initial variables.

Calculating rates of change is a crucial aspect of maths, engineering, cosmology and many other areas of science.

5. From Violins to Videos

He gives a fascinating historical recap of how initial investigations into the way a violin string vibrates gave rise to formulae and equations which turned out to be useful in mapping electricity and magnetism, which turned out to be aspects of the same fundamental force, electromagnetism. It was understanding this which underpinned the invention of radio, radar, TV etc and Stewart’s account describes the contributions made by Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz and Guglielmo Marconi.

Stewart makes the point that mathematical theory tends to start with the simple and immediate and grow ever-more complicated. This is because of a basic approach common in lots of mathematics which is that, you have to start somewhere.

6. Broken Symmetry

A symmetry of an object or system is any transformation that leaves it invariant. (p.87)

There are many types of symmetry. The most important ones are reflections, rotations and translations.

7. The Rhythm of Life

The nature of oscillation and Hopf bifurcation (if a simplified system wobbles, then so must the complex system it is derived from) leads into a discussion of how animals – specifically animals with legs – move, which turns out to be by staggered or syncopated oscillations, oscillations of muscles triggered by neural circuits in the brain.

This is a subject Stewart has written about elsewhere and is something of an expert on. Thus he tells us that the seven types of quadrupedal gait are: the trot, pace, bound, walk, rotary gallop, transverse gallop, and canter.

8. Do Dice Play God?

This chapter covers Stewart’s take on chaos theory.

Chaotic behaviour obeys deterministic laws, but is so irregular that to the untrained eye it looks pretty much random. Chaos is not complicated, patternless behaviour; it is much more subtle. Chaos is apparently complicated, apparently patternless behaviour that actually has a simple, deterministic explanation. (p.130)

19th century scientists thought that, if you knew the starting conditions, and then the rules governing any system, you could completely predict the outcomes. In the 1970s and 80s it became increasingly clear that this was wrong. It is impossible because you can never define the starting conditions with complete certainty.

Thus all real world behaviours are subject to ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’. From minuscule divergences at the starting point, cataclysmic differences may eventually emerge in mature systems.

Stewart goes on to explain the concept of ‘phase space’ developed by Henri Poincaré: this is an imaginary mathematical space that represents all possible motions in a given dynamic system. The phase space is the 3-D place in which you plot the behaviour in order to create the phase portrait. Instead of having to define a formula and worrying about identifying every number of the behaviour, the general shape can be determined.

Much use of phase portraits has shown that dynamic systems tend to have set shapes which emerge and which systems move towards. These are called attractors.

9. Drops, Dynamics and Daisies

The book ends by drawing some philosophical conclusions.

Chaos theory has all sorts of implications but the one Stewart closes on is this: the world is not chaotic; if anything, it is boringly predictable. And at the level of basic physics and maths, the laws which seem to underpin it are also schematic and simple. And yet, what we are only really beginning to appreciate is how complicated things are in the middle.

It is as if nature can only get from simple laws (like Newton’s incredibly simple law of thermodynamics) to fairly simple outcomes (the orbit of the planets) via almost incomprehensibly complex processes.

To end, Stewart gives us three examples of the way apparently ‘simple’ phenomena in nature derive from stupefying complexity:

  • what exactly happens when a drop of water falls off a tap
  • computer modelling of the growth of fox and rabbit populations
  • why petals on flowers are arranged in numbers derived from the Fibonacci sequence

In all three cases the underlying principles seem to be resolvable into easily stated laws and functions – and in our everyday lives we see water dropping off taps or flowerheads all the time – and yet the intermediate steps between simple mathematical principles and real world embodiment turn out to be mind-bogglingly complex.

Coda: Morphomatics

Stewart ends the book with an epilogue speculating, hoping and wishing for a new kind of mathematics which incorporates chaos theory and the other elements he’s discussed – a theory and study of form, which takes everything we already know about mathematics and seeks to work out how the almost incomprehensible complexity we are discovering in nature gives rise to all the ‘simple’ patterns which we see around us. He calls it morphomatics.

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Nature

In flower in the back garden are crocuses and daffodils, in the front garden snowdrops, hyacinths and lesser celandines. Buds appeared overnight on the lilac tree and the flowering blackcurrant.

In wide Thornton Avenue numerous trees are decorated with delicate pink or white blossoms, already beginning to scatter like confetti on the pavements, the magnolia trees are coming into their brief, creamy bloom, and lush pinky-red cammelia flowers are burgeoning out from their dark green foliage.

In the back garden in the last few minutes I’ve seen a coal tit, some blue tits, a pied wagtail, a fat thrush preening itself, two wood pigeons canoodling on next door’s fence, a robin on the climbing frame, two striking black and sheeny-blue magpies, and a green woodpecker inquisitively poking at my overgrown lawn. All that’s missing is the sun!

Flowering blackcurrant blossom in my back garden

Flowering blackcurrant blossom in my back garden

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