“Tusculan Disputations” by Cicero

Tusculan Disputations

“Life is not an easy matter…. You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.”
–Leon Trotsky “Diary in Exile”

For Cicero, the Roman statesman who was beset by sorrows and troubles in his old age (death of his beloved daughter, his political exile and the decline and imminent demise of the Republic), that great idea is philosophy, i.e. the pursuit of virtue. Philosophy is the refuge from fear, grief and distress, and the medicine to heal the disorders of the soul. Cicero wrote these philosophical treatises, not only as a valiant effort to raise himself above personal misery (self-help), but also as a last service to the Roman State, which he believed could not flourish or even survive without the practice of justice and virtue.

Disorders of the Soul

The Stoics define disorder as “an agitation of the soul alien from right reason and contrary to nature”. There are four divisions of disorders: lust and delight, in the sense of delight in present good and lust in future good, originate in what is good; fear and distress originate in what is evil, feature in future and distress in present evil. Wish is a rational longing for anything, whereas lust is alien from reason and is too violently aroused. When the soul has satisfaction in the possession of some good in a rational, tranquil and equitable way, it is joy; when the soul is in a transport of meaningless extravagance or irrational excitement, it is excessive delight.

Distress is a shrinking together (as if from a sword-stroke) of the soul in conflict with reason. Disorders originate in judgments, based upon beliefs, and upon consent of the will.

Death, Pain and Distress

“For who can fail to be wretched with the fear of death or pain upon him, one of which is always close at hand and the other always threatening? Further, if the same man (and this happens frequently) is afraid of poverty, disgrace, dishonour, if he is afraid of infirmity, blindness, if lastly he is afraid, of slavery (the frequent fate, not of individual men but powerful communities ), can anyone be happy with such fears before him? Again, the man who not merely fears such misfortunes in the future, but actually suffers and endures them in the present (add to the list exile, sorrow, childlessness), the man who is broken down by such blows and shipwrecked by distress, can he fail, pray, to be utterly wretched? Further, where we see a man passionately stirred with the madness of lust, desiring all things in a fury of unsatisfied longing, and the more copiously he drains the cup of pleasure wherever offered, the deeper and more consuming his thirst, would you not rightly pronounce him utterly wretched? Again, when a man is frivolously excited, and in a transport of empty delight and reckless extravagance, is he not all the more wretched, the happier his life appears in his own eyes?”


  • Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Tuscan Disputations. Trans. J. E. King. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927.

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