Cultural Psychology

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Cicero on the Bonds of our Common Human Nature

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OF ALL the things which are a subject of philosophical debate there is nothing more worthwhile than clearly to understand that we are born for justice and that justice is established not by opinion but by nature. That will be clear if you examine the common bonds among human beings.

[29] There is no similarity, no likeness of one thing to another, so great as the likeness we all share. If distorted habits and false opinions did not twist weak minds and bend them in any direction, no one would be so like himself as all people would be like all others. Thus, whatever definition of a human being one adopts is equally valid for all humans.

[30] That, in turn, is a sufficient proof that there is no dissimilarity within the species; if there were, then no one definition would apply to all. In particular, reason, the one thing by which we stand above the beasts, through which we are capable of drawing inferences, making arguments, refuting others, conducting discussions and demonstrations — reason is shared by all, and though it differs in the particulars of knowledge, it is the same in the capacity to learn.

All the same things are grasped by the senses; and the things that are impressed upon the mind, the rudiments of understanding which I mentioned before, are impressed similarly on all humans, and language, the interpreter of the mind, may differ in words but is identical in ideas.

There is no person of any nation who cannot reach virtue with the aid of a guide.

[31] The similarity of the human race is as remarkable in perversities as it is in proper behavior. All people are ensnared by pleasure; and even if it is an enticement to bad conduct it still has some similarity to natural goodness: it gives delight through its fickle sweetness. Thus through a mental error it is adopted as something salutary; by a similar sort of ignorance death is avoided as a dissolution of nature, life is sought because it keeps us in the state in which we were born, and pain is considered one of the greatest evils both because of its own harshness and because the destruction of our nature seems to follow from it.

[32] . . . Trouble, happiness, desires, and fears pass equally through the minds of all . . . What nation is there that does not cherish affability, generosity, a grateful mind and one that remembers good deeds?

What nation does not scorn and hate people who are proud, or evildoers, or cruel, or ungrateful? From all these things it may be understood that the whole human race is bound together; and the final result is that the understanding of the right way of life makes all people better. . . .

[33] It follows, then, that we have been made by nature to receive the knowledge of justice one from another and share it among all people. And I want it to be understood in this whole discussion that the justice of which I speak is natural, but that such is the corruption of bad habits that it extinguishes what I may call the sparks given by nature, and that contrary vices arise and become established. But if human judgment corresponded to what is true by nature and men thought nothing human alien to them (to use the poet’s phrase), then justice would be cultivated equally by all. Those who have been given reason by nature have also been given right reason [recta ratio], and therefore law too, which is right reason in commands and prohibitions; and if they have been given law, then they have been given justice too. All people have reason, and therefore justice has been given to all; so that Socrates rightly used to curse the person who was first to separate utility from justice, and to complain that that was the source of all ills. . . . (Translation: Zetzel, 1999, pp. 115−117).

Additional fragment found in Lactantius, Divine Institutes 5.8.10 (Translation: Keyes, 1928, p. 519):

As one and the same Nature holds together and supports the universe, all of whose parts are in harmony with one another, so men are united by Nature; but by reason of their depravity they quarrel, not realizing that they are of one blood and subject to one and the same protecting power. If this fact were understood, surely man would live the life of the gods!

Source: Cicero, Laws (De legibus) 1.28−33.

Latin text here.


Keyes, Clinton W. (Tr.). Cicero. On the Republic. On the Laws. (Loeb Classical Library 213). Harvard University Press, 1928, p. 519.

Zetzel, James E. G. Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 115−117; cf. second edition, 2017.



Written by John Uebersax

August 9, 2017 at 7:04 pm

On the Ancient Titles of Plato’s Republic

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Politeia_beginning._Codex_Parisinus_graecus_1807IN HIS Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius cites Thrasylus (d. 36 CE) to the effect that the work of Plato we call The Republic had two Greek titles, Politeia (Πολιτεία) and peri dikaiou (περὶ δικαίου; DL 3.60). From the better-known former one, we get (somewhat indirectly) our title The Republic. We will return to that, but first let’s consider the second title. This is usually translated as On Justice, but that is incorrect. The Greek word for justice is dikaiosune. While derived from the same root (dike), the word dikaiou, a pronoun, means a just man or person. Further, the word ‘just’ here is somewhat misleading. In modern English we tend to equate justice with social justice. In that sense a just man would be one who deals fairly with others. But the Greek concept of dike is broader — more like what we call ‘in right measure’ (the goddess Dike is sometimes pictured holding a balance scale). A more accurate translation of dikaiou therefore is a rightly ordered or righteous person.

The word politeia means a system of government, a form of political regime, or, by extension, a constitution. We get the word Republic not from the Greek word, but from the title of Cicero’s dialogue, Res publica (the public thing), which he styled in imitation of Plato’s work. However, as noted by Tarrant (2012) and others, some manuscripts give this title as politeiai, a plural form. This would be translated as systems of government, constitutions, or regimes.

We end up with the possibility that (although Plato, as far as we know, himself named none of his dialogues) the title of the work we call The Republic would, by ancient readers, have been understood as something like Regimes: On the Righteous Person. This would have made it clear that the dialogue is a work on ethics and psychology, with discussion of city governments supplying an allegorical framework for investigating the good and bad government of ones soul or psyche.


Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. R.D. Hicks (tr.). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA. 1925 (repr. 1972).

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s Republics. Journal of the International Plato Society, 12, 2012.  Online version: mar 2013.

Written by John Uebersax

January 15, 2016 at 3:47 am

The Purpose of Plato’s Arguments for the Immortality of the Human Soul

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phaedo cr

ucase-T- angelsHROUGHOUT Plato’s dialogues, and especially in the Phaedo (which describes Socrates’ final conversations), he presents many logical arguments and proofs for the immortality of the human soul. He also implies that we ought to be convinced that the soul is immortal. Yet, in truth, his arguments and proofs are not fully persuasive at the logical level. Sometimes the premises of his arguments are open to question, and other times the conclusion does not automatically follow from the premises.

This has puzzled many scholars, and some have gone to great lengths to reconcile Plato’s assertion of confidence with the seemingly flawed arguments. The logical gaps are plain enough that surely even Plato sees them. So what’s going on?

I think the answer partly lies in Plato’s unique teaching method, which we might sum up in two words: dialectic and anamnesis. Dialectic is the term Plato uses for his general method for approaching philosophical and moral problems. Through the conversations between Socrates and other characters in the dialogues, Plato likes to approach problems methodically and analytically, often using specific techniques like division, collection or aggregation, contradiction, and so on. His real aim, however, is not by such methods to come up with a specific logical answer. In fact, we find that Plato’s dialogues often end in a condition of what is called aporia, or perplexity, in which none of the various solutions proposed seem correct or fully satisfactory.

But that is precisely Plato’s purpose. For him the real aim of dialectic is not to deduce an answer, but to focus ones attention, intentions, and Intellect on a problem. In making that strenuous mental effort, one may find that a spontaneous insight into the problem being considered arises. One catches a fleeting but definitive glimpse of some important thing, say the beauty of Moral Virtue.

This flash of insight Plato calls anamnesis. Etymologically, this means recollection or un-forgetting (an = not, amnesis = forgetting). Taken literally, it implies that the insight is not something seen for the first time, but is actually a remembering of a truth previously known.  That has implications, some perhaps controversial, concerning other aspects of Plato’s theories, which there is no need to consider here. It suffices to note that a hallmark formula for Plato is: perform dialectic to produce anamnesis.

With this principle in mind, Plato’s seemingly less-than-perfect arguments for the soul’s immortality make more sense. We wouldn’t expect him to prove by deductive logic that the soul is immortal. Rather, it is more characteristic of his modus operandi to use the outward form of a logical argument as an exercise of dialectic, the real aim being to have us see the true nature of the soul. And in doing this, we may see that the soul is divine and immortal.

Again, I present this only as a proposal or conjecture. The best or perhaps only way to verify it is to study Plato’s arguments, become engaged with them, and see if they may indeed elicit some experiential insight into the soul’s divine nature.

As noted, this view comports with Plato’s general didactic method (whereas an attempt to logically prove the soul’s immortality would not). Some corroboratory evidence comes from Plotinus, in Enneads 4.7. In this treatise, Plotinus reviews arguments for the immortality of the soul. In section 4.7.1 he says:

To know the nature of a thing we must observe it in its unalloyed state, since any addition obscures the reality. Clear, then look: or, rather, let a man first purify himself and then observe: he will not doubt his immortality when he sees himself thus entered into the pure, the Intellectual. For, what he sees is an Intellectual-Principle looking on nothing of sense, nothing of this mortality, but by its own eternity having intellection of the eternal: he will see all things in this Intellectual substance, himself having become an Intellectual Kosmos and all lightsome, illuminated by the truth streaming from The Good, which radiates truth upon all that stands within that realm of the divine. (Plotinus, Enneads 4.7.10; MacKenna translation)

This comes just after Plotinus has referred to some of Plato’s logical arguments for the soul’s immortality. Plotinus’ language is, as is often the case, a bit obscure, but it seems he is basically saying: “If you want to know without doubt that the soul is immortal, see it.” (cf. “Know Thyself”), which I take to generally support the claim I’m raising.

It also seems fitting to note a comment Cicero makes in Book 1 of the Tusculan Disputations. (The latter part of this Book is in many respects a commentary on Plato’s Phaedo.)

Even if Plato gave no reasons for his belief—see how much confidence I have in the man—he would break down my opposition by his authority alone; but he brings forward so many reasons as to make it perfectly obvious that he is not only fully persuaded himself, but desirous of convincing others. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.21; Peabody translation.)

In other words, even if his arguments are not fully convincing at the logical level, we sense the conviction of Plato in the skillful and earnest way that he presents the issue to us, and this itself is evidence that his beliefs in the soul’s immortality are correct.

I hope in future posts to list, categorize and summarize all of Plato’s arguments for the soul’s immortality, and perhaps to explore some of them in detail. It might be mentioned that the four main arguments in the Phaedo for the immortality of the soul are the cyclicity argument, the recollection argument, the affinity argument, and the Form of Life argument. A good summary of these can be found here. Other major proofs Plato presents include the self-moved mover argument of Phaedrus 245c–246a, and the vitiating principle argument of Republic 10.608e–10.611a.


A few hours after writing the above, the thought occurred — in connection with a different project — to consult Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology. There I was first surprised to learn that its full title is actually The Platonic Theology: On the Immortality of the Soul (Theologia Platonica De immortalitate animorum).  He says much of value in the proem, for example:

Whatever subject he [Plato] deals with, be it ethics, dialectic, mathematics or physics, he quickly brings it round, in a spirit of utmost piety, to the contemplation and worship of God. He considers man’s soul to be like a mirror in which the image of the divine countenance is readily reflected; and in his eager hunt for God, as he tracks down every footprint, he everywhere turns hither and thither to the form of the soul. For he knows that this is the most important meaning of those famous words of the oracle, “Know thyself,” namely “If you wish to be able to recognize God, you must first learn to know yourself.” So anyone who reads very carefully the works of Plato that I translated in their entirety into Latin some time ago will discover among many other matters two of utmost importance: the worship of God with piety and understanding, and the divinity of souls. On these depend our whole perception of the world, the way we lead our lives, and all our happiness. (Marsilio Ficino, The Platonic Theology, proem; Allen translation)

Ficino also says that “in the sphere of moral philosophy one must purify the soul until its eye becomes unclouded and it can see the divine light and worship God,” and that it is a mistake to “divorce the study of philosophy from sacred religion.” (Ibid.)


Written by John Uebersax

June 16, 2015 at 9:25 pm

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