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Zeno Peripateticus? Cicero’s Rhetorical Philosophy in De Officiis

Michael Vazquez

University of Pennsylvania

Thanks to a resurgence of scholarly work on Cicero in recent years, it is no longer viable to interpret his philosophical texts as mere transcripts of Hellenistic debates. As an adherent to the skeptical brand of Academic philosophy, and as an accomplished orator, Cicero’s authorship in his philosophical works presents numerous interpretive challenges. In this paper I would like to offer a novel interpretation of Cicero’s De Officiis that is sensitive to his philosophical and rhetorical ambitions.

Broadly speaking, interpretations of Cicero’s Stoicizing tendencies in this text can be divided into two camps. On the one hand, some take Cicero’s use of Panaetius, and Stoicism more generally, as a straightforward endorsement of the Stoic viewpoint on καθήκοντα/officia. For example, Christopher Gill writes that “in De Officiis as a whole, Cicero adopts Stoic ideas wholeheartedly as the basis of his exposition, and in Book 3 especially, he adopts what is, in effect, a rigorous version of the Stoic position, as distinct from the Antiochean one.” (Christopher Gill, "Antiochus' theory of oikeiosis,” 244 & 244 n 78). On the other hand, some interpreters insist that Cicero’s adoption of a Stoic line throughout De Officiis must be understood in the context of some broader persuasive strategy (e.g. as Charles Brittain suggests in "Cicero's sceptical methods: The example of the De Finibus," 14 n 5). While I think the latter tack is correct, it has yet to be filled out in such a way that links up with Cicero’s philosophical agenda across his corpus. It is undoubtedly true that Cicero’s use of Stoic notions must be interpreted in light of his rhetorical aim of conveying moral advice, both to his son and to a larger Roman audience, in a clear, intelligible, and compelling manner.  But I contend that this persuasive agenda is closely linked to Cicero’s theoretical vacillation, manifested across his philosophica, between the ethical position of the Stoa and that of the Academic and Peripatetic veteres (i.e. the broadly Antiochean position outlined in Book 5 of De Finibus, and referenced elsewhere across his corpus). My claim is that we can come to a more satisfactory understanding of the philosophical significance of De Officiis by highlighting the connection between Cicero’s program of rhetorical philosophy and the ethical views to which he was most sympathetic. On my interpretation, the Stoic line taken by Cicero in De Officiis is his final attempt to represent the Stoic position as one that is substantially (even if not terminologically) identical to that of the veteres. And yet this does not stop Cicero from employing the novel terminology of the Soics towards rhetorical ends, which explains his constant refrain throughout De Officiis to the Stoic thesis attributed to Zeno that ‘only the honorable is good’, even though the nearby Peripatetic view that ‘the honorable is the greatest good’ suffices, by his own admission, for Cicero’s purpose (Off., 3.11, trans. Griffin).

Before setting out this interpretation of De Officiis in more detail, I will discuss some preliminaries about Cicero’s philosophical methodology, including his ideal of ‘rhetorical philosophy’ and Panaetius’ relation to this ideal. My reading of De Officiis is consonant with recent efforts to read Cicero's philosophical project in the light of his social and political context. In particular, I have been influenced by Englert's suggestion that Cicero strove to 'bring philosophy into the life, that is, into the forum' (Walter Englert, “Bringing Philosophy to the Light: Cicero's "Paradoxa Stoicorum",” Apeiron 23 (4):117 - 142 (1990). This governing program is captured well by Englert's analysis of Cicero's Paradoxa Stoicorum.

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