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Incompletion, Revision, and the Ethics of Reading: Cicero on Appropriate Action

Sean Gurd

Ancient Literacy (Harris 1989) has provoked three major developments in the study of literacy and textual practice: first, an interest in the history of the book and the realia of textual dissemination (Starr 1987; Starr 1990; Small 1997; Dorandi 2007; Gurd 2010); second, an emphasis on the sociology of reading and writing, particularly among elite communities where literacy was most widespread and valued (Johnson and Parker 2009; Gurd 2011; Johnson 2012); and, third, an awareness that literacy had been deployed not only in the service of social organization, but also, in a not unrelated development, as a crucial element in ethical practice, that is, the formation of selves (Foucault 1988; Hadot 1995; Stock 1998; Stock 2001; Patočka 2002; Stock 2003). Despite this significant bibliography, writing’s ethical function has tended to be eclipsed in the face of its sociological significance -- an underemphasis already evident in Harris’s primarily socio-functional and “epidemiological” approach). While these three developments have each had major effects on the way literacy is understood in its ancient contexts, they have rarely been explicitly combined. 

My paper explores the possibility of a synthesis of the material, the social, and the ethical. Is it possible to understand an individual writer’s practice as using the specific the materiality of writing in a project aimed both at social reform and individual ethical development? To develop an answer to this question, a second emphasis needs to be introduced: on writing, rather than reading. In approaching textual practice through the procedures of the writer (a topic on which Harris is largely silent), I believe we are better able to assess literacy’s role in the formation of both subjects and their societies. A provisional attempt in this direction is occasioned by a curious “coincidence:” both Panaetius’s On Appropriate Action and Cicero’s On Duties, an attempt to adapt Panaetius’s work for a Roman republic in terminal crisis, were left unfinished -- the first because Panaetius apparently failed or neglected to address his final theme, the second because Cicero was assassinated before being able to revise his text. Not insignificantly, Panaetius’s and Cicero’s theme is provoked by the Stoic belief that only the wise are capable of right action: the rest (which is to say everyone), can only perform “appropriate action.” These unfinished works of Panaetius and Cicero were thus attempts to sketch out an ethical system for unfinished people. I argue -- counter-intuitively, but, I believe, reasonably -- that what facilitates this curious sequence of coincidences, in which works meant to express an ethics for unfinished people are themselves unfinished, is the materiality of writing: in antiquity, because of the way texts were circulated, and because of the inherent formal instability of MS traditions, literary “completion” is as notional -- that is, non-factual -- as are “perfection” or “wisdom” in the philosophical sense. Drawing on data concerning the genesis, revision, and circulation of literary texts in antiquity, I argue that Cicero and Panaetius could expect their works to be taken as unfinished, and could expect this incompletion to be seen as an aspect of their social and ethical arguments. Cicero’s death shortly after completing the surviving draft of the de Officiis is, thus, less important than the resonances between textual materiality, ethics and politics which he may well have meant to exploit.

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