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The Rhetoric of Cicero's Laudatio Sapientiae: de Legibus 1.58-62

David West

At the conclusion of de Legibus 1 (58-62), Cicero, as a character in his own dialogue, delivers a lofty speech in praise of wisdom and the pursuit of self-knowledge.  This passage has seen several studies on the Quellenforschung model which speculate about Cicero's philosophic sources (cf. e.g. Heinemann 1928, Giusta 1967, Boyancé 1975); Schmidt (1959) argued that it contains echoes of doctrines presented in the body of Book 1; Dyck (2004) has argued that "this passage, together with Marcus' following remarks (63), serves to buttress his authority, not merely to speak on ius... but to do so in a philosophical vein" (223).  Though the high style and epideictic qualities of this passage are frequently observed, scholars have yet to consider how this speech, as such, engages in rhetorical strategies with regard to its imagined audience, the interlocutors Atticus and Quintus, the one an Epicurean whose very surname "Atticus" indicates his relative detachment from Roman political affairs, the other a member of the Roman elite bent on the pursuit of a political career, and relatively indifferent to philosophy.  By implication, the speech's intended readership comprises those whose temperaments are similar to Atticus' or Quintus'.  In this talk, I will show how Cicero's speech appeals to the Attici, even as it draws them away from Epicurean political quietism and into the forum, and simultaneously, to the Quinti, drawing them towards the pursuit of philosophy in tandem with a life of public service.

Marcus’ strategy of persuasion with regard to the Attici entails initially stating a notion which Atticus as a philosophical man and Epicurean would accept, but immediately following it up with an idea which undermines Epicureanism.  For example, Marcus appeals to the classic Greek dictum to “know thyself,” but immediately afterwards recalls its Delphic origin (1.58) and even its status as a command of a particular god (quod Apollo praecepit Pythius, 1.61), thereby positing contra Epicureanos a providential concern of the gods for men.  Again, in his discussion of physics, Marcus starts by encouraging study “de rerum natura” in a sentence with strikingly Lucretian overtones (idemque cum caelum terras maria rerumque omnium naturam perspexerit), and yet he also claims that the divine elements in the universe are evident and that this study concludes in the realization of divine oversight (1.61).  Marcus also draws Atticus in by condemning the fear of death, but in conjunction with a condemnation of pleasure seeking and the fear of pain (1.60).  The speech culminates with a passionate declamation on the true nature of self-knowledge as leading to the realization that, as a member of a polity, one is bound to cultivate and practice oratory in the service of one’s fellow citizens (1.62).

The speech simultaneously appeals to the Quinti among the Roman elite.  Marcus rhetorically downplays the Greek associations of the philosophic life by repeatedly using Latin terminology— Cicero significantly insists on calling it sapientia (1.58; 1.59; 1.62, where it is the last word of the whole speech) and employs several periphrases for the Greek γνῶθι σεαυτόν such as ut nosmet ipsos nosceremus (1.58; cf. 1.59; 1.61; 1.62).  The study of ethics is made palatable to the Roman statesman by Marcus’ emphasis on a noble appreciation of virtue and contempt of pleasure seeking or fearing death (1.60); physics provides the benefit of perspective on one’s city vis-à-vis the vast universe considered as a whole (1.61), thus moderating political passions; and philosophy is ultimately made to seem politically relevant and useful since it culminates in oratory (1.62). 

Finally, both Atticus and Quintus are encouraged to these studies by the initially repeated claim that the insights gained will lead to individual happiness (1.59; 1.60).  And yet in the end, this rhetorical appeal drops out— only the duty of oratory remains, accompanied by the implicit appeal to the reader’s desire for glory contained in Marcus’ statement that sapientia has made him the person he is (1.63).

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Civic Responsibility

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