When one thinks of Cicero, images of an enlightened orator, statesman and philosopher come to mind. We think of him preaching about the Roman republic, political philosophy and denouncing his enemies.
Whenever Romans and Stoicism are in the same sentence, we assume that it has to do with Marcus Aurelius, and his immortal work Meditations. And although I know little about the Roman Empire, Cicero never seemed to be the poster boy for Stoicism. But in the Stoic Paradoxes we see that Stoic ideology did have an impact on Cicero, mainly towards the end of his life.
For reference, these paradoxes are not actually paradoxes like the ones we know as logical conundrums. Rather, as Quintus explains:
Cicero is not proposing “paradoxes” here in the sense that he is reaching unexpected conclusions. What he is doing is laying out the basic principles of Stoic thought. The word questions would probably have been a better choice. Paradoxa is an imported word from Greek, and Cicero could not resist using it as a badge of his philosophical training.
Reading Cicero here is a treat. I always find it fascinating to read such powerful people giving us lucid thoughts from their mind, such as in the aforementioned Meditations. Compare that with politicians today who put out a drab (likely ghost-written) autobiography after being edited to death by lawyers and publishers. This uncensored dialogue is truly refreshing, in addition to providing such profound wisdom.
Before we dive into the content, I want to take a look at this revised edition. For one, I have never read the Stoic Paradoxes, nor had I even heard of it, so I can’t speak to other translations and their quality. That said, I certainly enjoyed Quintus’ translation. It reads fluidly, and Quintus was able to get creative with the vocabulary without, seemingly, veering too far from the original text.
I also enjoyed the footnotes scattered throughout. Being a novice (if that) in Roman history, many of the names of politicians, generals, among others don’t ring a bell in the slightest. These footnotes often provided pertinent brief bio’s on such people.
Background of Cicero
Another welcomed aspect of this new translation is that a large portion of the book deals with Cicero’s life. Again, for those who aren’t proficient in Roman history, this is not only helpful for putting this work in context, but just as a general interest.
Cicero is indeed a figure worthy of the history books, and I laud Quintus for his efforts at keeping his ideas, especially those less recognized ones, in the light.
The Paradoxa Stoicorum
When reading the Paradoxes, the work fits right in with any other classic piece of Stoicism. From the railings against obsession with material wealth, to the promotion of values and virtue above all else.
The former of which is discussed in the first paradox: What is honorable is the only true good.
Again, stoicism condemns materialism, for what good is it?
So someone may ask, “What, then, is a good?” I believe the only true good–that which is truly said to be a good thing–is that which is done rightly, honestly, and with virtue.
Materialism leads to nothing—it is an end onto itself. Whereas with virtue, it is something man can always strive for.
I ask you this: did those who so brilliantly founded our republic, and left it for our safekeeping, have any thought of silver, or greed, or lavish places for their enjoyment, or sumptuous furniture for their delight, or exquisite dinners for their pleasure?
There are six paradoxes in total, the first of which was just discussed. My favorite of the paradoxes was the fifth: Only wisdom liberates a man, and only the fool is a slave.
In this paradox, you can clearly see the change of tone in which Cicero elicits this diatribe. He is disgusted by the behavior of ‘slaves’, and no, not actual slaves, but men who have succumbed to hedonism and materialism, abandoning virtue.
…Will he order around a free man, this person who cannot even control his own passions? He should first contain his own libido, reject excessive pleasures, keep his anger in check, restrain his greed, and ward off all the disgraces of the mind. Only then may he begin to issue orders to others, when he has stopped obeying the most unworthy masters of moral turpitude and bad judgment. While he remains subservient to these masters, he can be neither a commander, nor even a free man.
So how does one liberate themselves?
No one is free except for the wise man. But what is freedom? It is the power to live as you wish to live. The man who really lives is the man who wants nothing except to follow the right path; who finds satisfaction in his responsibility…
Who else is a slave?
All bad men are slaves I tell you, slaves!
This is something I’ve thought about at times: Do you think criminals are truly happy? I can’t imagine a scenario where people who commit crimes, legal or moral ones, die with dignity.
Imagine every mob or gangster film you’ve seen. No one truly ‘gets away with it’ and always ends up dying prematurely or going to jail.
If you’re a student of stoicism (and if you’re not yet, what are you waiting for?!?), then this work of Cicero will undoubtedly add to your collection of wisdom on the subject. Quintus’ new translation also provides an accessible reading of the work, coupled with footnotes and explanations to help even the novice reader of philosophy enjoy this work.
Click here to get your copy of Stoic Paradoxes by Cicero (A New Translation by Quintus Curtius) from Amazon.
Notes & Further Reading
- QCurtius (Quintus’ primary website)
- Pantheon by Quintus Curtius
- Stoic Paradoxes Is Now Available (Overview of the book by QC)