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Cicero’s Platonic Methodology

Christina Maria Hoenig

Cicero’s partial translation of Plato’s Timaeus poses somewhat of a conundrum. The author makes no mention of this translation in the preface to his De Divinatione II, where he provides a catalogue of his philosophical writings, and it appears that it was not included among his publications. Aside from Cicero’s intention, voiced in his treatise De Finibus, to produce a literal translation of Greek philosophy, what might have attracted his interest in this Platonic dialogue? 
Through an examination of the vocabulary used by Cicero in the Latin version of the Timaeus, we find a noticeable overlap of technical terms from both forensic rhetoric and sceptic dialectical method. Based on this observation I shall argue, firstly, that Cicero’s project allowed him to promote the rhetorical method as a tool well-suited to sceptic philosophical investigation. Cicero capitalized on the similarities between rhetorical and dialectical method in order to lobby for the techniques of forensic oratory, often regarded as empty and potentially dangerous sophistry, as an honorable pursuit suitable for treating questions of philosophical import.
Secondly, I shall argue that Cicero’s deliberate correlation of rhetorical and Academic dialectical methodology allowed him to claim the dialogue as a signature-text for the Academic school. The fact that Cicero took up his Timaeus project not only points to the significance of Academic-Stoic epistemological dispute during this period, but suggests further that the Timaeus was experiencing renewed attention from both factions as a text considered representative of the Platonic heritage, portrayed either according to dogmatic or sceptic policy. Cicero’s translation of the dialogue may have been motivated by his desire to represent the text in explicitly sceptic terms, thereby emphasizing this school’s rightful claim to the continuation of Platonic philosophy as opposed to Stoic doctrine. In producing a reasonably literal translation of the dialogue, Cicero would have been all the more convincing in claiming the master’s allegiance for the sceptic cause.

Session/Panel Title

Nec converti ut interpres: New Approaches to Cicero’s Translation of Greek Philosophy

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