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Duels, Dualities, and Double Suns: Natural Philosophy and Politics in Cicero's De re publica

Ashley Ariel Simone

Columbia University

Roman philosophy is having a good moment (Williams & Volk 2016). At the fore is Cicero, who is receiving more attention as a philosopher in his own right (Woolf 2015), especially for his conception of philosophy as a mode of political engagement (Baraz 2012). His political philosophy is often approached from the perspective of ethics, but what about his physics? For Cicero, can natural philosophy speak to politics? In this paper, I will address how Cicero navigates the opposition of natural philosophy—astronomy in particular—and political life, a problem he inherits from Socrates, whose composite portrait from Aristophanes (Clouds), Xenophon (Memorabilia I), and Plato (Republic, Timaeus) depicts a paradoxical man, both stargazer and pragmatist. I examine how Cicero uses the dialogue form in particular to dramatically play out the tensions between natural philosophy and politics in the De re publica. More specifically, I offer a close reading of the De re publica’s opening conversation about the double suns to show how it sets up the dialogue’s duel between astronomy and politics; scientific learning and political activity; and contemplation and action. I hope to illustrate that the dramatic unfolding of the dialogue complicates the boundaries between these dueling categories, suggesting they are not diametrically opposed.

I will look at three examples where the dialogue complicates these binaries: (i) the Senate’s inclusion of the double-suns portent on the agenda (Rep. 1.15); (ii) Tubero and Scipio’s debate about Socrates (Rep. 1.15–6); and (iii) Laelius’ legal joke about the double suns (Rep. 1.20 ). Here, I sketch the first example: the double-suns portent.

Upon arriving at his uncle’s villa, Tubero asks Scipio if they can talk about “what has been announced in the Senate about the second sun” (de isto altero sole quod nuntiatum est in senatu? Rep. 1.15), pointing out that many people have reported the portent, so it must be true and deserves explanation. Scipio, in turmoil about Rome’s political unrest, prefers to talk about something more practical, confessing to Tubero that he does not entirely approve of the enquiry into astronomical matters which “we can scarcely get an inkling of by conjecture” (quae vix coniectura qualia sint possumus suspicari, 1.15). Here, we see the pitting of political exigencies and astronomical musings. Scipio qua statesman wants to talk of something politically useful, while Tubero qua scholar would prefer to talk about astronomical anomalies. But the division is not so neat: the double suns were brought up in the Senate, not a philosophical dispute. Thus, we already have a meeting of the two realms: the Senate has been debating whether the double suns merit a spot on the agenda as a politically relevant portent. And, from the readers’ standpoint, they do—after all, within days after the dialogue’s conclusion, Scipio died, assassinated (it is said) at the hands of his own family.

Tubero and Scipio first appear as representatives of dueling modes: astronomy/politics, contemplation/action. But just when we think that Tubero falls into the first category and Scipio the second, the boundaries blur. The dialogue invites us to entertain the possibility that the double suns are a portent, especially relevant to Scipio (whom we know is about to die) navigating the political unrest that has all but split the Senate in half. The parallel between the two factions of the Senate and the doubling of the sun suggests astronomical phenomena and life on the ground might have some sort of relationship after all, and perhaps—at least in the dialogue—politics and natural philosophy can speak to one other. 

Session/Panel Title

Ethics and Morality in Latin Philosophy

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