On Friendship by Cicero (44 BC)

‘Friendship is the noblest and most delightful of all the gifts the gods have given to mankind.’
(On Friendship, section 5)

On Friendship is a treatise or long essay by Marcus Tullius Cicero, 50 pages long in the Penguin volume titled On The Good Life. The setting is a little convoluted. It is set in the year 129 BC a few days after the death of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus, also known as Scipio Aemilianus or Scipio Africanus the Younger, and referred to in the text simply as Scipio.

This is the same Scipio who is the lead character in Cicero’s dialogue De republica. He was one of the leading figures of mid-second century BC Rome, twice consul, and the victorious general who destroyed Carthage in 146 and then crushed anti-Roman resistance in Spain in 133.

This is all relevant because, in the fiction of the dialogue, his death has prompted some visitors to the house of Gaius Laelius, Scipio’s great good friend, to ask about Scipio’s character and their friendship. This relaxed conversation – between Laelius (the older man) and his two son-in-laws, Quintus Mucius Scaevola the augur and Gaius Fannius – makes up the main body of the text.

But the narrator actually opens the text by telling us that he himself used to frequent the house of Quintus Mucius Scaevola the augur, and that the latter used to tell stories about his father-in-law, Gaius Laelius and that’s where he first heard about this long discussion.

So the text is – according to this frame narrative – actually the record of the narrator’s memory of Scaevola’s describing to him his memory of the original conversation the latter took part in.

All this takes quite a few pages during which the reader is wondering why Cicero is bothering with this elaborate framing. Is it an artful indication of the multiple distance from ‘the real world’ which all texts imply? Or is it just Cicero being characteristically long-winded? Or is it an indication that we are still in the very early days of coping with the problem of narratives and who tells them and how much they can  realistically know or remember, and that Cicero is handling the issue with unnecessary complication? Is is long winded and clumsy or slyly adroit?

None of the summaries of this dialogue even mention this elaborate setup but, in a way, it’s the most teasing and thought-provoking part of the text.

Anyway, after a few pages of sorting all this out, the dialogue proper opens with Fannius asking Laelius how he is coping with the recent death of his old friend (Scipio) which prompts Laelius into delivering a couple of pages of eulogy on what a Perfect Man he (Scipio) was:

There was no better man than Africanus, and no one more illustrious.


The opening pages relating Laelius’s eulogy to the great Scipio are very proper and fitting for a pious Roman work, showing due respect to the glorious dead, but to a modern reader are wordy and verbose. The text includes not only the eulogy to Scipio but references to umpteen other great and worthy Romans from history, before we finally arrive at the dialogue proper.

(None of this surprises me because, having just read The Republic and The Laws, which purport to be objective investigations of the ideal constitution and the ideal laws and end up discovering that Rome is the Ideal State and Roman laws are the Perfect Laws, I am newly alert to the rich vein of Roman patriotism, to the profound piety and respect for the illustrious forebears, which runs very deep in Cicero.)

True friendship must be based on moral excellence or goodness

When the treatise does finally get going, the fundamental ideas are simple and typical of Cicero the ‘philosopher’:

  • true friendship is only possible between good men
  • friendship is more likely between fellow countrymen than foreigners, and between relatives than strangers
  • friendship is a following of nature and emerges naturally from human nature

Then a definition:

Friendship may be defined as a complete identity of feeling about all things on heaven and earth: an identity which is strengthened by mutual goodwill and affection. With the single exception of wisdom, I am inclined to regard it as the greatest gift the gods bestowed upon mankind…A school of thought believes that the supreme blessing is moral goodness, and this is the right view. Moreover, this is the quality to which friendship owes its entire origin and character. Without goodness, it cannot even exist. (6)

Central to the idea is the Stoic belief that Goodness is the ultimate Virtue, the only foundation for happiness and a Good Life:

Goodness is the strongest resource a man can command. (14)

And that true friendship consists of Good Souls attracting other Good Souls in a perfect bond. This is because Goodness inspires and attracts:

Goodness exercises an altogether exceptional appeal and incentive towards the establishment of affection. (8)

So that:

Only good men have the capacity to become good friends. (18)


What unites friends in the first place…and what keeps them friends is goodness and character. All harmony and permanence and fidelity come from that. (26)


No one can be a friend unless he is a good man. (27)

So. Quite a heavy emphasis on Goodness, and an insistence that True Friendship can only exist between Good Men. Would you agree?

The philosopher’s fault (seeking perfection)

Reading the opening section my heart sank. Cicero’s text only tangentially sheds light on friendship as it exists among normal people in the real world. Instead it very clearly demonstrates the way Cicero, and the Greek philosophers he copied, turned every subject under the sun into a vehicle to promote their same old hobby horses: human reason is a gift from the gods; therefore, of all the human virtues, the correct use of this divine reason i.e. wisdom, is supreme; and so cultivating this divine reason in order to attain its maximum potential / wisdom, is the noblest human aim; and managing your life so as to put wisdom into action i.e. implement moral virtue (goodness) is the highest goal to aspire to in life; and all this shouldn’t be a strain because it is following nature i.e. our minds are made that way.

The tendency in all this is always to ignore the chaotic real world experience of ordinary, far-from-perfect people, and the unexpected friendships many of us experience in a world full of flawed strangers, in order to focus on the exceptional, ‘the pure and faultless kind’:

I am not now speaking of the ordinary and commonplace friendship — delightful and profitable as it is — but of that pure and faultless kind, such as was that of the few whose friendships are known to fame.

Although he makes scattered concessions to the ‘ordinary’ friendships of the likes of you and me, Laelius/Cicero really focuses on the super friendship of a moral elite.

Friendship built on shared values

The essence of friendship is sharing experience:

It is the most satisfying experience in the world to have someone you can speak to as freely as your own self about any and every subject upon earth.

Other things we aim at give only one pleasure – the pursuit of wealth gives us money, of power to secure obedience, of public office to gain prestige. Friendship, by contrast, brings a host of different rewards, rewarding all levels of our minds and characters.

Friendship isn’t contingent on day to day events; it is available at every moment; no barriers keep it out.

Friendship adds a glow to success and relieves adversity by sharing the burden. A friend is like a mirror of the self. Even when absent he is present. Even when dead he is still here. Knowledge of him raises and ennobles life.

Reference to the De republica

At this point Laelius is made to take a break in his exposition. Interestingly, Scaevola is made to refer to the colloquy held recently at Scipio’s own house in which the latter held forth about state affairs and Laelius and Philus debated the role of justice in politics and the reader realises Cicero is referring to his own book, De republica which, in the fictional world of these dialogues, appears to have taken place only a little time before this one i.e. while Scipio was still alive.

Amicitia and amor

The the dialogue resumes and it’s back to friendship. Laelius goes on to say the Latin word for friendship, amicitia, is clearly derived from the word for love, amor. Both are selfless. Friendship is not calculating, it does not seek to repair deficiencies in a person by extracting services and favours: it is an overflowing, a surplus of affection.

He compares the love between parents and children, natural and deep; sometimes this can be replicated between friends. Sometimes we find a person whose habits and character attract us so much that we look upon him as ‘a shining light of goodness and excellence’.

The positive effects of goodness

Goodness is always attractive. When we hear about a good act we feel better. When we think of people famous for their goodness, we feel better. How much better do we feel when we meet and get to know someone who demonstrates goodness in their lives. We share in it. Their goodness elevates us too. Another source of friendship is simply seeing a lot of someone in everyday life.

Friendship has no ulterior motives, is not out for gain. We do not behave kindly in expectation of gain. Acting kindly is the natural thing to do. The expression of kindness is a good in itself requiring no return or profit.

Feelings of affection and attachment to other people are entirely natural, and inspired by the other person’s fine qualities. Because true friendship is based on nature, and nature is everlasting, a true friendship is everlasting too.

How friendships end

Friendships may end for a number of reasons: you may end up competing for something only one can have, such as a wife or political position. People’s political views change. ‘Altered tastes are what bring friendships to an end’ (20). A person’s character changes, due to misfortune or age. The most destructive force which ends friendships is falling out over money. Or, if friendship is based on goodness, if one or other friend falls off into vice, behaves badly, then the friendship must end. (11).

Thus if your friend asks you to do something dishonourable, turn him down flat. In fact Laelius turns this into The First Law of Friendship:

Never ask your friends for anything that is not right, and never do anything for them yourself unless it is right. But then do it without even waiting to be asked! Always be ready to help; never hang back. Offer advice, too, willingly and without hesitation, just as you yourself, if you have a friend whose advice is good, should always pay attention to what he says. But when you are the adviser, use your influence, as a friend, to speak frankly, and even, if the occasion demands, severely. And if you are the recipient of equally stern advice, listen to it and act on it. (12)

Cicero’s patriotism

It is characteristic of Cicero that he demonstrates this point by using examples of patriotic and unpatriotic behaviour among their Roman forebears. His example of a bad person who his friends ought to have abandoned is the reformer Tiberius Gracchus.

To excuse oneself for committing a misdemeanour on the grounds that it was done for the sake of a friend is entirely unacceptable. Such an excuse is no justification for any offence whatever, and least of all for offences against our country. (12)

This is the peg for a lengthy digression on how Gracchus led a number of followers astray, into populist, crowd-pleasing policies (the redistribution of land to Rome’s poor) which led to street violence and serious schisms in the Roman political class. And this itself leads onto references to leaders who turned against their own countries, Coriolanus the Roman and Themistocles the Greek. And all this to make the rather obvious point that one shouldn’t let friendship lead you into treason and betrayal.

It is, on the face of it, an odd digression, but a vivid reminder of the highly embattled worldview which underpinned Cicero’s patriotic conservatism. Throughout his life, in all his writings, he acts on the belief that the Republic is in mortal danger which explains why he has Laelius say at one point: ‘I am no less concerned for what the condition of the commonwealth will be after my death, than I am for its condition today.’

Anti Epicurus

It is just as revealing that the text then moves on from addressing one set of bogeymen (populists and traitors) to another, familiar, enemy – the Epicureans. Laelius is made to attack the Epicurean notion that the Wise Man should hold aloof from all passions and therefore all ties with any other human being.

Cicero has Laelius say that the Epicurean ideal of complete detachment is impossible because any man with values must hurt to see those values breached and trampled and will be prompted by nature to intervene.

Any good act implies involvement, helping someone, charity. It is difficult to imagine a life where we don’t involve ourselves to try and alleviate others’ pain or suffering or discomfort or help their situations. Therefore, even the wisest man cannot possibly avoid feelings.

To remove friendship from our lives just because it might bring us worries would be the greatest mistake.

Friendship is sensitive. It is, by definition, an involvement with another. Precisely insofar as we share our friend’s ups and downs, do we vicariously experience their emotions, of triumph or abjectness. Therefore the Epicurean ideal of non-involvement renders friendship, one of the greatest gifts of the gods, inoperable. So yah boo to Epicureanism.


The final third of the text more on from the theoretical to suggest some practical rules of friendship:

  • friendship is based on trust so friends should always be open and candid
  • friends should be amiable and congenial, good humoured, pleasant with one another
  • when a new friendship beckons one should be cautious and sound out the person in order to discover whether you really do share enough in common to qualify for friendship (‘Become devoted to your friend only after you have tried him out’)
  • if one friend is notably superior in rank or wealth, if he is a true friend then the superior one will support the lowlier one and encourage his best interests
  • but you only ought to support a friend to the limit of their capacity to receive help i.e. not be showy or drown them in generosity
  • if a friendship comes to an end try to do it gently, not by tearing but slowly detaching oneself
  • do anything to avoid an old friend becoming a bitter enemy

Laelius links these rules to the actual life and sayings of Scipio. He ends his presentation by repeating how much he loved Scipio, how they shared a perfect union, how the memory of his goodness doesn’t make him sad but inspires him every day. Next to moral excellence / goodness / virtue, friendship is the best thing in the world. (27)


As mentioned, it feels that, rather than being a genuinely objective investigation of friendship, this is more like a shoe-horning of Cicero’s familiar concerns (with the primacy of wisdom, virtue and the need to ‘follow nature’ in everything, on the one hand; and his anxieties about the welfare of the Republic, on the other) into the subject.

Admittedly, many of the things Laelius says do shed light on the ideal friendship, and the essay as a whole forces you to reflect on your own friendships, their origins and histories, and you may find yourself agreeing with many of his formulations. Wouldn’t it be nice if life was as pure and simple as these high-minded sayings indicate.

Psychological simplicity

Nonetheless, it comes from a world 2,000 years before Freud introduced much more subtle and complicated notions of human nature, human needs and the complex interactions between all of us, which characterise the intellectual and cultural world we now live in.

This psychological simple-mindedness explains the childlike feel of the entire text, because it deals in such monolithic, unexamined terms – friendship, nature, wisdom, virtue, love. It’s like a painting made entirely with primary colours, with no subtlety of shading or design.

As always with Cicero, quite a few phrases or sentences stick out and are very quotable, would look good on t-shirts or mugs.

Nature abhors solitude and and always demands that everything should have some support to rely on. For any human being, the best support is a good friend. (23)

But overall, the impression is of an odd superficiality, and the entire thing, like the proverbial Chinese meal, seems to disappear from your memory half an hour after you’ve consumed it.

Logical inconsistencies

There are also logical flaws or inconsistencies in his presentation. In some places Laelius says he will not describe the impossible perfection demanded by some philosophers; and yet for the majority of the discourse he does precisely that, as quoted above and here:

Friendships are formed when an exemplar of shining goodness makes itself manifest and when some congenial spirit feels the desire to fasten onto this model.

This super high-minded model contrasts with the different tone, more prosaic tone when, for example, he acknowledges that the soundest basis for friendship is shared interests:

Our tastes and aims and views were identical and that is where the essence of a friendship must always lie. (4)

So sometimes he describes a Platonic ultra-perfection:

Friendship may be identified as a complete identity of feeling about all things in heaven and earth.

Since nature is the originator [of friendship] and nature is everlasting, authentic friendship is permanent too.

But at other times is much more frank and down-to-earth:

The greatest of all possible incentives to friendship remains congeniality of temperament.

In another onconsistency, sometimes he says, as in the quotation above, that authentic friendship is permanent or, later on, that ‘Friendship remains a firm and durable asset’. Yet he has a half page devoted to all the reasons which can cause a friendship to end.

I think this unevenness, these apparent contradictions, point to Cicero’s inability to fully reconcile the many different Greek sources he was copying. He takes the best bits from his sources and stitches them together and if they don’t perfectly dovetail, so be it. There is an overarching unity in his concerns and he repeats the same ideas quite a lot, but nonetheless, this eclecticism renders his own text ‘bitty’.

On the plus side, it leads to all these quotable quotes which can be cherry-picked, pasted onto photos of vibrant young people, and turned into sweet internet memes (and who cares if you spell his name wroing – pedant!)

On the down side, these inconsistencies leave the text wanting if you’re looking for a really logical and precise exposition; it makes it more of an amiable ramble by a man who has a bit of an obsession with Divine Reason. but then his genial good-humoured ramblingness is what a lot of Cicero’s devotees enjoy about him.

Cicero’s mono-mindedness

To come at it from this angle, you could argue that the presentation is not inconsistent enough, in the sense that the inconsistences are only about a very narrow range of topics. For example the way in one place Laelius says friendship is based on shared interests, but in other places sticks more to the Stoic line that friendship is based on the moral goodness of the friend. Mulling over the difference between these premises open doors in the text which momentarily suggest escape from than Cicero’s hyper-idealised world into the actual, flesh and blood, difficult-to-understand and navigate world which most of us live in.

In my critique of On the Republic I became increasingly aware of its tremendously reductive worldview – Cicero’s repeated insistence that there is One God, with One Divine Mind, who created One World, in which only One Species (Mankind) can rule over all the other animals because He Alone is blessed with Right Reason, and so into a train of thought which leads up to the conclusion that there can be only One Ideal State with One Ideal Constitution and that this state, happily enough, turns out to be the ancient Rome of Cicero’s time! Reading it I felt highly coerced towards this rather absurd conclusion.

What makes the Stoic philosophy Cicero espoused so boring is the way it is quite literally monotonous, mono-toned, in the sense that it is always looking for the One Thing which is best and unique – the best species (Man), the best human attribute (Reason), the best mental quality (Virtue), the Ideal Statesman, the Ideal State, the Ideal Laws and now, in this text, the One, Ideal, Friendship.

Hence the umpteen repetitions throughout the exposition of the Spock-like, logical but bloodless axiom that true friendship can only exist between morally good i.e. wise men.

It is a narrow-minded and ultimately coercive worldview, which tends to erase the diversity, weirdness, and unpredictability of human beings, human cultures and human life. For me life is about the strange and unpredictable and tangential aspects of human nature and human relationships, fleeting moments or unexpected friendships which flourish between the most unlikely people. And that’s why I studied literature and not philosophy, because it is wild and anarchic and unexpected and all kinds of illogical, irrational, immoral and inexplicable things happen in it – as in real life.

As a teenager I realised I was more interested in literature with its endless celebration of diversity than in philosophy with its underlying drive towards joyless uniformities and bloodless abstractions. I find Cicero’s relentless attempts to reduce the world of unpredictable human interactions down to One Thing – to The Good, The Virtuous, The True – have an airless, asphyxiating and ultimately unreal quality.


I read the translation of On Friendship by Michael Grant included in the Penguin volume On The Good Life, published in 1971.

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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.


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)


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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