Introduction to Cicero's De Finibus
By Harris Rackham (1868-1944)
This abridgement, derived from the second Loeb Classical Library edition (1931), summarizes the teachings of Epicureanism in a historical context.
The de finibus Bonorum et Malorem is a treatise on the theory of Ethics. It expounds and criticizes the three ethical systems most prominent in Cicero’s day, the Epicurean, the Stoic and that of the Academy under Antiochus. The most elaborate of Cicero’s philosophical writings, it has had fewer readers than his less technical essays on moral subjects. But it is of importance to the student of philosophy as the only systematic account from antiquity of those rules of life which divided the allegiance of thoughtful men during the centuries when the old religions had lost their hold and Christianity had not yet emerged. And the topics that it handles can never lose their interest.
The title ‘About the Ends of Goods and Evils’ requires explanation. It was Aristotle who put the ethical problem in the form of the question, “What is the Telos, or End, the supreme aim of man’s endeavors, the attainment of which his Good or Well-being lies?” For Aristotle, Telos connoted not only ‘aim,’ but ‘completion’; and he found the answer to his question in the complete development and right exercise of the faculties of man’s nature, and particularly of the distinctively human faculty of Reason. The life of the Intellect was the Best, the Chief Good; and lesser Goods were Means to the attainment of this End. Thus was introduced the notion of an ascending scale of Goods, and this affected the interpretation of the term Telos. Telos came to be understood as denoting not so much the end or aim endeavor as the end or extreme point of a series, the topmost good. To this was naturally opposed an extreme minus value, the topmost, or rather bottommost, evil. Hence arose the expressions telos agathon, telos kakon, ‘End of Goods, of Evils,’ which occur in Philodemus, Rhetoric I, 218.8 ff. (Südhans), and are translated by Cicero finis bonorum, malorum. As a title for his book he throws this phrase into the plural, meaning ‘different views as to the Chief Good and Evil.’
The de Finibus consists of three separate dialogs, each dealing with one of the chief ethical systems. The exponents of each system, and the minor interlocutors, are friends of Cicero’s younger days, all of whom were dead when he wrote. The role of critic Cicero takes throughout. In Book I, the exposition of Epicureanism probably comes from some compendium of the school, which seems to have summarized (1) Epicurus’ essay On the Telos, (2) a résumé of the points at issue between Epicurus and the Cyrenaics and (3) some Epicurean work on Friendship.
Alexander the Great died in 323 and Aristotle in 322 B.C. Both Epicurus and Zeno (of Cittium), the founder of Stoicism, began to teach at Athens about twenty years later. The date marks a new era in Greek thought as in Greek life. Speculative energy had exhausted itself; the schools of Plato and Aristotle showed little vigor after the death of their founders. Enlightenment had undermined religion, yet the philosophers seemed to agree about nothing except that things are not what they appear; and the plain man’s mistrust of their conclusions was raised into a system of Skepticism by Pyrrho. Meanwhile the outer order too had changed. For Plato and Aristotle, the good life could only be lived in a free city-state, like the little independent Greek cities which they knew; but these had no fallen under the empire of Macedon, and the barrier between Greek and barbarian was giving way. The wars of Alexander’s successors rendered all things insecure; exile, slavery, violent death were possibilities with which every man must lay his account.
Epicureanism and Stoicism, however antagonistic, have certain common features corresponding to the needs of the period. Philosophy was systematized, and fell into three recognized departments, Logic, Physics and Ethics; and for both schools the third department stood first in importance. Both schools offered dogma, not speculation; a way of life for man as man, not as Greek citizen. Both abandoned idealism, saw no reality save matter, and accepted sense experience as knowledge. Both studied the world of nature only in order to understand the position of man. Both looked for a happiness secure from fortune’s changes; and found it in peace of mind, undisturbed by fear and desire. But here the rival teachers diverged: Epicurus sought peace in the liberation of man’s will from nature’s law, Zeno in submission to it; and in their conceptions of nature they differed profoundly. Formal Logic Epicurus dismissed as useless, but he raised the problem of knowledge under the heading of Canonic. The Canon, or measuring-rod, the criterion of truth is furnished by the sensations and by the pathē or feelings of pleasure and pain. Epicurus’ recognition of the latter as qualities of any state of consciousness and as distinct from the sensations of sight, hearing, etc., marks a notable advance in psychology. The sensations and the feelings determine our judgment and volition respectively, and they are all ‘true,’ i.e., real data of experience. So are the prolepseis, or ‘preconceptions’ by which we recognize each fresh sensation, i.e, our general concepts; for these are accumulations of past sensations. It is in upolepseis, opinions, i.e., judgments about sensations, that error can occur. Opinions are true only when confirmed, or in the case of those relating to imperceptible objects (e.g., the Void), when not contradicted, by actual sensations. Thus Epicurus adumbrated, however crudely, a logic of inductive science.
His Natural Philosophy is touched on in de Finibus, I. It is fully set out in the great poem of Cicero’s contemporary, Lucretius, who preaches his master’s doctrine with religious fervor as a gospel of deliverance for the spirit of man. Epicurus adopted the Atomic theory of Democritus, according to which the primary realities are an infinite number of tiny particles of matter, indivisible and indestructible, moving by their own with through an infinite expanse of empty space or Void. Our perishable world and all that it contains consists of temporary clusters of these atoms interspersed with void. Innumerable other worlds beside are constantly forming and dissolving. This universe goes on of itself: there are gods, but they take no part in its guidance; they live a life of untroubled bliss in the empty spaces between the worlds. The human soul, like everything else is material; it consists of atoms of the smallest and most mobile sort, enclosed by the coarser atoms of the body, and dissipated when the body is dissolved by death. Death therefore means extinction.
Thus man was relived from the superstitions that preyed upon his happiness,—fear of the gods and fear of punishment after death. But a worse tyranny remained if all that happens is caused by inexorable fate. Here comes the doctrine of the Swerve, which Cicero derides, but which is essential to the system. Democritus ahead taught that the heavier atoms fell faster through the void than the lighter ones, and so overtook them. Aristotle corrected the error; and Epicurus turned the correction to account. He gave his atoms a uniform vertical velocity, but supposed them to collide by casually making a slight sideway movement. This was the minimum hypothesis that he could think of to account for the formation of things; and it served his purpose by destroying the conception of a fixed order in Nature. The capacity to swerve is shared by the atoms that compose the human soul; hence it accounts for the action of the will, which Epicurus regards as entirely undetermined. In this fortuitous universe man is free to make his own happiness.
In Ethics, Epicurus based himself on Aristippus, the pupil of Socrates and found of the School of Cyrene. With Aristippus he held that pleasure is the only good, the sole constituent of man’s well-being. Aristippus had drawn the practical inference that the right thing to do is to enjoy each pleasure of the moment as it offers. His rule of conduct is summed up by Horace’s Carpe diem. But this naïf hedonism was so modified by Epicurus as to become in his hands an entirely different theory. Its principal tenets are: that the goodness of pleasure is a matter of direct intuition, and is attested by natural instinct, as seen in the actions of infants and animals; that all men’s conduct does as a matter of fact aim at pleasure; that the proper aim is to secure the greatest balance of pleasure over pain the aggregate; that absence of pain is the greatest pleasure, which can only by varied, not augmented, by active gratification of the sense; that pleasure of the mind is based on pleasure of the body, yet that mental pleasure may far surpass bodily in magnitude, including as it does with the consciousness of present gratification the memory of past and the hope of future pleasure; that ‘unnatural and unnecessary’ desires and emotions are a chief source of unhappiness; and that Prudence, Temperance or self-control, and the other recognized virtues are therefore essential to obtain a life of the greatest pleasure, though at the same time the virtues are of no value save as conducive to pleasure.
This original, and in some respects paradoxical development of hedonism gave no countenance to the voluptuary. On the contrary, Epicurus both preached and practiced the simple life, and the cultivation of the ordinary virtues, through under utilitarian sanctions which led him to extreme unorthodoxy in some particulars. Especially, he denied any absolute validity to Justice and to Law, and inculcated abstention from the active duties of citizenship. To Friendship, he attached the highest value; and the School that he founded in his Garden in a suburb of Athens, and endowed by will, was as much a society of friend as a college of students. It sill survived and kept the birthday of its founder in Cicero’s time.
Epicurus is the forerunner of English Ultilitarians; but he differs from them in making no attempt to combine hedonism with altruism. ‘The greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is a formula that has no counterpart in antiquity. The problem that occurs when the claims of self conflict with those of others was not explicitly raised by Epicurus. But it is against the egoism of his Ethics at least as much as against its hedonistic bases that Cicero's criticisms are really directed.