Laurie A Wilson
This paper argues that in epistemology and ethics, Cicero and Augustine are not diametrically opposed. In Contra Academicos, Augustine attempts to disprove the skepticism of Cicero’s Academica. The two positions appear irreconcilable, since Augustine says that truth may be grasped and perceived, in contrast to Cicero’s claim that the wise man assents to nothing and instead is guided by probabilitas or veri similitudo. Nevertheless, both authors share a belief in the existence of truth, a desire to seek that truth, a wariness of dogmatic claims, and the practical concern of enabling people to make moral decisions within their social and political communities. Although Augustine condemns Cicero’s skepticism, he does not wholly depart from Cicero in his attempt to reconcile human fallibility and epistemological limitations with an apprehension of truth. Additionally, even as Cicero maintains his commitment to skepticism, the practical application of his position closely resembles Augustine’s.
Even the strictest of the Stoics, Cicero notes in Academica, withheld assent on some matters (2.33.107). His skeptical position merely takes this a step further by withholding assent on all matters because certain knowledge is impossible (2.24.78). Cicero’s position in his ethical writings becomes more complex (Thorsrud 2012), and scholars have recognized the dogmatic tone of De Officiis (Dyck 1996, Fox 2000). Nevertheless, in De Officiis, Cicero maintains his commitment to the New Academy by saying that he can articulate praecepta officii that are probabilia without declaring that knowledge can be perceived (2.2.7). At the same time, Cicero’s exclusion of the Epicurean position as improbable functions like a dogmatic rejection, he picks sides between Stoic teachers on practical moral dilemmas, and he praises exemplars like Regulus, who were willing to accept torture and death in their adherence to virtue. When faced with the necessity of ethics in society, Cicero’s skepticism aligns in practice with Stoic dogma, as he himself acknowledges.
Augustine’s commitment to dogmatism is a matter of debate. A trend in theology and political theory looks to Augustine as a model of interpretative charity and a corrective to dogmatic belief (Elshtain 1995, Kolbet 2015, Wood 2017). Such perspectives overlook the significance of Augustine’s rejection of academic skepticism. He asserted that certainty could be attained in some matters even as he recognized that truth is often concealed in others (Dutton 2016). Cicero’s influence, however, still pervades Augustine’s thought (Foley 2019). In particular, Augustine’s frequent acknowledgment of human limitations in perceiving truth supports an intellectual humility and openness to alternative perspectives.
Therefore, Augustine’s relationship with Cicero proves more nuanced than Contra Academicos makes it initially appear. When Augustine is most open-minded, Cicero’s skepticism is discernible. Furthermore, Cicero’s standard of probability leads to the same steadfast course of action as does Augustine’s assent. In their practical approach, both authors achieve a delicate balance between doubt and approval. As philosophers continue to consider the nature of truth claims within a pluralistic society, Augustine’s engagement with Cicero illustrates the longstanding tension between dogmatism and skepticism and the difficulty of constructing an ethical imperative on skepticism alone.
Philosophy in a Roman Context