Cultural Psychology

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Platonism as Psychotherapy

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Christian Platonism

Portrait of Plato. Luni marble. Roman copy after a Greek original of Silanion. Inv. No. MC 1377. Rome, Capitoline Museums, Museum Montemartini.

Question: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?

Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.

To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.

Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?

Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our…

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Written by John Uebersax

July 24, 2014 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Prolegomena to the Study of Cicero

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Maccari-Cicero-detailWhy Cicero Today?

The study of Cicero is more relevant today than ever. To form any just appreciation of the man and his work, one needs to understand his times. As this topic is neglected in modern universities, a brief summary is supplied here. Those wishing to know more about Roman and Greek history might, in addition to reading, wish to consult some of the excellent ancient history courses offered by The Teaching Company.

Life and Times of Cicero

Cicero lived from 106 BC to 43 BC. He reached maturity and the height of his ability at just the time the mighty Roman Republic imploded. The Roman Republic was a marvel of efficient and just (for its time), government. In addition to several lesser institutions, the Senate made laws, and two consuls, elected yearly, performed executive duties. As the Republic grew strong, it conquered rivals, and expanded its territory. A social and economic gulf between the landed equestrian order, to which Cicero’s family belonged, and a lower class existed. The latter increasingly located to the city of Rome where, easily manipulated by demagogues, they demanded more favorable re-distribution of money and land.

Cicero’s youth had seen several bloody coups and shakeups of the Roman government. A series of civil and social wars occurred, of which the famous events involving Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Augustus were only the end results. While patriotic and virtuous as a rule, the equestrian order and its political manifestation, the Senate, either could not or would not take adequate steps to satisfy the masses. Some suggest that the Republic had simply grown to large to continue.

A major change seemed inevitable in any case. If Roman culture excelled at one thing, it was the production of a class of talented and supremely ambitious men — of just the sort who would vie with each other to seize the initiative under unstable conditions. The motif of a disgruntled general marching into Rome and declaring himself dictator became almost prosaic.

In 60 BC the First Triumvirate was formed — an alliance between Julius Caesar, the immensely wealthy Crassus, and the great general Pompey. (Cicero was been asked to be a fourth member but declined.) The First Triumvirate, of course, was short-lived, and eventually came to bitter conflict, in which Caesar prevailed. The Roman Republic, patched up, staggered on a few years more.

By 44 BC, following ceaseless political and social conflict, Caesar dissolved the Republic, and declared himself dictator. To say this broke the heart of Cicero, the fierce lover of everything traditionally Roman, is an understatement. For reasons unknown, Cicero did not join his close friends Brutus and Cato, and other members of the Senate in assassinating Caesar on 15 March 44.

With the Roman government now in complete shambles, Cicero assumed moral leadership, but not for long; Marc Antony was determined to step into Caesar’s role. Against this Cicero launched his famous Philippics, a series of public speeches that denounced Marc Antony in the most acrimonious of terms, and so-named after the comparable speeches in which the famous Greek orator Demosthenes had denounced Philip of Macedonia three centuries earlier.

Meanwhile Cicero worked with Octavius (Julius Caesar’s nephew, later named Augustus), to restore traditional government. But to no avail. Octavius joined Marc Antony and Lepidus to form the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC. Each member supplied a list of political rivals to execute. High on Antony’s list was his nemesis, Cicero; Octavius, under the terms of their agreement, did not prevent Cicero’s killing.

Not long afterward Octavius defeated Marc Antony and declared himself sole Emperor of Rome. A brief renaissance was enjoyed during the reign of Octavius; the Pax Romana had commenced. Yet many historians concede that it was the formation of the Roman Empire from the original Republic that marked the beginning of Rome’s decline.

Cicero’s Relevance

Understanding Cicero’s historical context helps us see several features of his modern relevance.

1. Cicero is poised at the crossroads between the ancient and modern worlds. Greece had already fallen, but Greek scholars flocked to Rome and brought their learning with them. Cicero, who studied under Greek teachers, acquired this learning. He transmits to us the philosophical treasures of antiquity. Many Greek philosophers and their doctrines are known to us only from Cicero’s works.

2. Cicero was witness to the political convulsions that marked the end of the Roman Republic. Moreover, he both held high political offices himself, and was on intimate terms with virtually all the leading figures. Hence he is an invaluable source of information on affairs which arguably parallel in several respects the situation of the US today.

3. Cicero was not only a lawyer, statesman, and writer, but one of the greatest orators the ancient world knew — an equal of the great Demosthenes. Further, he was not only a good writer, but an unsurpassed prose stylist, an artistic genius of the written word who mixed every manner of rhetorical, poetic, and literary device to produce works that are as fresh, enjoyable, and illuminating today as they were 2000 years ago.

4. A distinct advantage of studying Cicero is the extent and relative completeness of his extant works. A complete collection would cover 20 volumes, and include letters, legal and political speeches, works on rhetoric, and his philosophical writings.

5. It cannot be emphasized too strongly the deep imprint Cicero has made on Western civilization. Among secular figures, only Plato has exerted comparable influence. In truth, we have no way of quantifying Cicero’s influence. It is so ubiquitous that it is like the air we breathe. It is in our institutions, our culture, our government, our modes of thought. It is sometimes said that St. Augustine invented the modern mind, but this claim, arguably, could more properly be said of Cicero (and, lest we forget, Cicero himself was a towering influence on Augustine).

6. Then why is Cicero so little studied today? One can, by comparison, find dozens of books written in the last 50 years about Plato and Plato’s ethical philosophy. The same period has seen but one creditable book on Cicero’s social ethics (Neal Wood, Cicero’s Social and Political Thought, 1988). The superficial explanation is that this is because classics in general have been banished from the university since around 1900. But for those who are willing to probe more deeply, almost the reverse hypothesis suggests itself: that classics were eliminated in part so that people would not read Cicero and his like; for if they did they would become enlightened, and able to cast of their chains.

It is perhaps ironic to see Cicero, the champion of tradition and aristocratic Republicanism, as being vitally relevant to the struggle of “the 99%” today. But that is even further testimony to the genius and character of the man — who wrote, especially at the end, from a pure and elevated consciousness, always concerned with truth and virtue for their own sake, always placing clear-sighted regard for honestum (honesty and dignity) and humanitas above any particular belief, theory, or doctrine.

Written by John Uebersax

July 17, 2014 at 12:10 am