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Brutus' Philosophical Position in On Virtue

Peter Ishmael Osorio

Cornell University

The study of Antiochus of Ascalon by historians of philosophy has, in recent years (cf. Sedley 2012), progressed to the point that critics are beginning to take a closer look at the philosophy of Varro, a known supporter of Antiochus (cf. Blank 2012 and the panel, “Varro the Philosopher” organized by Grant Nelsestuen and Sidney Horky at the 2019 SCS Meeting). This paper seeks to advance our understanding of another Roman Antiochean, M. Junius Brutus, by re-examining our evidence for his treatise, On Virtue, a work that, we are told, incited Cicero to write several of his dialogues (viz. Brutus, On Ends, and Tusculan Disputations). Since the critical work of Hendrickson 1939 to reconstruct its contents, scholarship on On Virtue has stalled—although it has been put to good use in studies of Cicero (esp. Dugan 2005) and Brutus’ Antiocheanism has received occasional attention (esp. Sedley 1997). Now that Kathryn Tempest (2017) has provided a vivid, new biography of Brutus, it seems opportune to look afresh at the testimonia for On Virtue in light of the research on Antiochus over the last several decades.

            I focus on Seneca ad Helv. 9, from which we see that Brutus held (a) an Antiochean distinction between happy and happiest lives and (b) the view that exile, an external evil in Peripatetic taxonomies of value, does not prevent a wise person from having the happiest life. First, I place (b) in the context of earlier Peripatetic ethical accounts, to outline two Peripatetic views of non-moral (sc. bodily and external) goods and their relation to the ethical end that could help motivate (b): either they are parts of the end or mere instruments of virtue. Since (a) and Brutus’ broader Antiocheanism provides a constraint on what reasons may motivate his holding (b), I then turn to our two best sources for Antiochus’ account of the end: Cic. Ac. 1.19-22 and Fin. 5. I argue the Antiochean accounts, insofar as they both treat external and bodily goods differently, together allow us to reject either Peripatetic view as the motivation for (b). At the same time, the two Antiochean accounts differ with respect to the place of externals in the end, in such a way, I argue, that the view of the end in Ac. 1.19-22 cannot be used to motivate (b), while that in Fin. 5 can. Piso’s speech in Fin. 5, therefore, plausibly reproduces Brutus’ view of the end and of the conditions for the happiest life.

            The results of this study are double. First, I draw attention to what other scholars frequently elide when discussing Antiochus’ ethics (e.g.  Dillon 1977: 73; Annas 1993: 420–23; Irwin 2012: 155–59): our sources meaningfully diverge on the status of external goods relative to bodily ones. I take this to mean that Antiochus was open to interpretation among his followers, and that we can glean what interpretation Brutus followed. Second, we now have reason to think that Cicero deliberately crafts Piso’s speech to capture Brutus’ view (cf. Fin. 5.8) in the face of plural interpretations. This tells us something meaningful, I think, about Cicero’s philosophical method in On Ends: Cicero’s sceptical attacks, though directed against three dogmatic schools, are nevertheless targeted to affect a particular, idealized reader.

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Ancient Ethics

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