Cicero considered On Moral Ends to be his finest work. At the heart of it was how to live the best life. This was the most important question to the classical philosophers, and not enough people ask it today. Remember that the questions we ask ourselves will ultimately determine our lives. Cicero devoted a lot of time to finding the answer to this question. On Moral Ends is a long book, one which looks at the question from various angles – that of the Epicurean school, the Stoic school, and the Peripatetic school, to hone in on the answer.
He devotes his chapters in On Moral Ends to examining each school and then, crucially, finding counterarguments against it. Like many of Cicero’s other works, this book had been inaccessible for a long time. The translations were all dated in 19th century jargon. It was here where Quintus Curtius stepped in and again modernized a classic, thereby making it available and easily comprehensible to modern readers.
Is pleasure the supreme good?
The first two parts of On Moral Ends deals with the topic of Epicureanism. This school held that pleasure – defined as the complete absence of all pain – was the highest good. As you would imagine, Cicero was very uncomfortable with this idea, and he rapidly exposes and demolishes its weaknesses in the second portion of his book.
Epicurean definitions amount to hair-splitting. The absence of pain usually isn’t considered a pleasure by common understanding of the word, then or now. While pleasure such as sex is a positive, simply feeling no pain is usually understood as being neutral. To get around this, the Epicurean school discusses “dynamic pleasure,” which would include sex, and “static pleasure,” which is the absence of pain, or in other words, the highest good. Cicero easily defeats these arguments in the second portion of the book. He rightly points out that this is a semantic fig leaf to paper over Epicureanism’s fundamental weaknesses.
More importantly though, Cicero goes at great length to show just how weak Epicureanism is as an organizing principle for life. There will inevitably be times when pleasure or the absence of pain will be in short supply. To make this the foremost pursuit of a life is a poor way to live. It doesn’t prepare you well to deal with life’s hardships and struggles. Furthermore, it opens the door to pursuits that aren’t worthy of a wise man. Though this was not Epicurus’ intention, his ideas inevitably make themselves open for abuse. Not only can they be construed to justify a descent into wasteful hedonism, but can be interpreted to actively encourage it. Epicurus didn’t want it, but the consequences of an idea matter more than its form. Cicero could not accept this doctrine as one that was worthy of being considered the ultimate good and thus the guide to a good life.
Is virtue the supreme good?
In the third portion of On Moral Ends, Cicero gets to the Stoic school. The Stoics held that virtue was the supreme good and that there could be no good without moral rightness. Everything that isn’t morally good is therefore an evil. The wise man will be content only with virtue, which is something that he can cultivate within himself and therefore isn’t external to himself, because virtue is the consequence of living life according to nature.
Cicero had certain inclinations to the Stoics. It offered many attractions, including an exhortation to live with a certain ethical compass. It discouraged indolence and inconsequential pleasure-seeking.
However, Cicero had his problems with Stoicism. While it lacked the glaring flaws of the Epicurean school, it was a system that was prone to collapse if you could find the right pillars to knock down. Stoicism was axiomatic. It painted the world in absolutes. By saying there was no good to be found outside of virtue, it seemed closed to many possibilities that could enhance the art of living well. More importantly, it was prone to accepting bad things, since it wouldn’t regard them as moral villainy and therefore, not evils. This lack of variation, or recognition of degrees in life, can cause needless suffering. Pain is inevitable in life, and if you need to endure it for a noble purpose, it must be endured manfully, but to not acknowledge its being at least suboptimal is tantamount to denying reality, and being demoralized as a result.
A further problem with Stoicism (as well as the Peripatetic doctrine), one that I found independent of Cicero, is that its foundation on “living in accordance with nature” is deceptive. While it’s certainly true that our bodies should function according to how nature designed them if we want to live well, the doctrine of virtue or good-living arising from following nature’s design is itself open to abuse. There are many things in nature which we shouldn’t imitate. To say the least of the harm this would do to civilization, it also can encourage poor habits, such as overeating, since those, too, arise from “natural” inclinations.
Though Cicero had affinities for Stoicism, its axiomatic nature and its repackaging of other ideas in a more confusing way ultimately forced him to conclude that it wasn’t the way to the ultimate good.
The ultimate good
Finally, we arrive to the ideas of the Peripatetics. They are similar to, but less axiomatic than, the Stoics. Virtue arises from living in accordance with nature, but the school isn’t so narrow to consider it the only good. There are other goods, though lesser, which should be pursued. It’s also misguided to assume that things that aren’t morally good are automatically evils, or that things which you need to painfully endure aren’t at least bad. Living with a disability, for example, is bad, no matter its moral ambiguity. You need to call a spade a spade.
Ultimately, the Peripatetic school keeps most of Stoicism’s virtues, but is less axiomatic, and therefore more capable of dealing with the real world. Any philosophy on what the ultimate good is will need to do so.
Despite this, Cicero never outright says what school he endorses, leaving it up to the reader to decide. This is one of the virtues of On Moral Ends.
Aside from his new translation of On Moral Ends, which avoids complicated language and makes the text accessible to anyone, Quintus Curtius actually went on a journey to retrace Cicero’s footsteps. He went to Italy and Greece, taking pictures of the ruins of the buildings Cicero would have been inside of. The reader gets a feel for how the people of the time lived and consequently how they would have come up with their ideas. We see the environment in which works like On Moral Ends were written. We also see the dedication that Quintus Curtius has to bringing them back to life.
His translation of On Moral Ends is a pilgrimage of sorts. He takes us on the journey with him and exposes us to ideas which are sadly neglected today, but which make us better men in the process. That’s probably why they’re neglected in the first place.
Support Quintus’ work and pick up a copy of On Moral Ends here.