Plot: Cicero describes the popular schools of thought regarding the existence and nature of the Gods, in the guise of a conversation between his friends Velleius the Epicurean, Balbus the Stoic, and Cotta the Skeptic priest.
I ‘read’ the Penguin edition translated by H C P McGregor (ISBN 0140442650)
My thoughts: Having read some of Cicero’s speeches and letters, the remaining area of his available writings to sample is his presentation of various philosophical treatises, summarised and recast with his own stresses on their importance, from Greek into Latin – and sometimes creating new words added to the Latin language to meet the need to describe new ideas. Cicero wrote extensively from his country home, to try and find solace after being forced again into exile after his famous attacks on Marc Antony, and suffering terrible grief with the death of his daughter Tullia.
Ancient philosophy leaves me either cold or confused, so it was a struggle to get anywhere with this, reading the first half in some detail, but only skimming through the second half. Epicurean thought as discovered in my previous read on Lucretius is essentially that the Gods do not have the slightest interest in mankind, and so there is no need to live in fear of their retribution or an eternity in Hell. On the other hand, Stoicism as described here is centred around the opposite view – that God/Gods have every part of our lives planned and our lives are therefore predestined to go where They direct. Interestingly the pantheon of Greek/Roman gods depicted in plays and epic poems are not given much credence, with the idea of a sentient Universe, stars and planets preferred by the Stoics, and unsubstantial wraithlike Gods without material bodies by the Epicureans.
The need for some Supreme Being to have organised and constructed everything, and to provide a base for morality and hence justice is strongly argued, against the random creation of atoms attracting each other. Some may think that this argument between forms of science and religion is a relatively recent divide but the Romans and Greeks were debating it 1,900 years before Charles Darwin wrote Origin of the Species.
The priest Cotta argues against both Epicureanism and Stoicism, not to say there are no Gods, but that the logic and assumptions relied upon by these philosophies are faulty.
Personal rating: For lovers of philosophy and religion. I can only give it a 3.
The reads in between: An excellent later book by P. G. Wodehouse, Frozen Assets has the hero trying to prevent his best friend from getting nicked by the local constabulary and thereby nullifying his chances of inheriting millions, while simultaneously convincing the girl of his dreams to break off her engagement and marry him instead. Lots of trouser swapping ensues.
Next : Although there are other works by Cicero still extant, I think I have had enough of him for now, and I am eager to move on and read of the events of the fall of the Republic through other eyes. So on to Caesar’s own personal recount of The Civil War.