“The Nature of the Gods” by Cicero

The Nature of the Gods
“That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.”
More than two thousand years ago, Cicero summarized the theologies of ancient Greek philosophers, in the form of a brilliant, pungent and witty debate among the representatives of the Stoic, Epicurean and Academic schools.

The discourse is centered around four questions: Do gods exist? What is the nature of the gods? Do they govern the universe? Do they take thought for humans?

Today the same arguments are still being rehashed in the debates between the creationist and evolutionists, atheists and Christians, proponents of determinism and free will. Yet few can match the eloquence, erudition and wit of Cicero.

Is Reason a Divine Gift?

The Stoic Balbus stated that the gods had bestowed on humans many gifts, including reason. Cicero, in the person of Cotta, argued almost with passion rarely shown in the course of the intellectual debate, that few men made good use of reason whereas most used it for evil, it would be better if reason had not been granted. He quoted many instances in the Greek tragedies where men used reason for deceit, treachery and murder. It’s especially poignant, even prophetic,  as Cicero himself, an outstanding man of reason, was murdered by the sword.

Quotes:

“You take refuge in a thicket of philosophical jargons … It is not that you are hiding things from me, as Pythagoras used to do from outsiders; nor do you purposely make things obscure as Heraclitus did. Let us be frank with each other; you do not understand the doctrine either!”

“So I do beg you all kindly to refrain from wasting that wit of yours in jeering at us — after all, it is in short supply in your tribe!”

“How splendid too and divine is the power of utterance … In the first place, it provides the means of learning things which we do not know, and of teaching others the things which we do know; and second, we employ it to cajole and to persuade, to console the afflicted and to dispel the fears of the apprehensive. We deploy it to rein in the impetuous, to snuff out immoderate desires and flashes of anger. It is this which has united us in the fellowship of justice and laws and citizenship, and has weaned us from the barbaric life of savagery.”

References:

  1. Cicero, Marcus Tullius. The Nature of the Gods. Trans. P. G. Walsh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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