Do the gods exist? If so, do they intervene in worldly affairs? Do they care about humans at all? If so, why is there so much evil in the world and why do wicked men profit so often? These questions, which seem so relevant to us now, were just as relevant to a man struggling in the first century BC. Cicero had seen his beloved Roman Republic fall into the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. He also needed to bury his own child, his daughter Tullia who he was close to. All of this came at him at once, and as part of a coping mechanism, he retreated from public life to write works of philosophy. What can you learn from one of the products of a great man’s mental anguish? On the Nature of the Gods takes one on a metaphysical journey and ends in a climactic, empowering way.
The Epicurean View
As in Cicero’s other work, On Moral Ends, he explores the different philosophical schools of his day, the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics. Like his other works, it is a dialogue set at the house of a distinguished man, this time Gaius Aurelius Cotta, the Pontifex Maximus, who speaks at the end of the dialogue for the Academics. Joining them are Gaius Vellius for the Epicureans and Quintus Lucilius Balbus for the Stoics.
The Epicurean viewpoint, presented in Book I, is a blistering cannonade against the established belief systems of the day and the philosophers who preceded Cicero’s epoch. For Vellius, this was part of his belief that the divinity takes the form of a human being with the capacity to reason:
Has any other divine form made itself known to anyone, either when awake or asleep? But in order not to refer everything back to first notions, reason itself declares this same judgment. Since it seems to make logical sense that the most transcendent nature is the most beautiful (either because it is happy, or because it is eternal), what arrangement of limbs, what conformation of features, what architecture of form, and what face could be more beautiful than the human?
As a matter of fact, Lucilius, you – for my friend Cotta jumps from one viewpoint to another – are accustomed to describing, when you portray this artistry and divine workmanship, how perfectly adapted everything in the human figure is, not just for practical utility, but for pure physical beauty as well. If the human figure outshines the forms of all other living things, and if god is indeed a living being, then without doubt his figure is that which is most beautiful of all. And because it is understood that the gods are especially happy, and that no one can be happy without virtue, and that virtue neither exists without reason, nor does reason exist anywhere except in the human form, then it must be conceded that the gods take the form of human beings. That form, however, is not equivalent to a physical body, but is a quasi-corporeal form; it does not have real blood, but a veneer of blood (pg. 59-60).
There is something uplifting about this notion of divinity. It closely mirrors later Christian belief and shows the nobility and aspirations of humanity. We cannot be perfect, but we have the capacity to resemble the divine. We can be better than the other creatures that inhabit the world with us, trapped as they are in their inherited behaviors. With our capacity for virtue, we can free ourselves from these limitations.
All the same, toward the end of Book I, the Epicurean view is harshly criticized:
Where does your god dwell? What reason does he have to move about, if in fact he does move? And since it is a specific trait of sentient beings to strive after something that agrees with their nature, what does god want? Towards what goal does he use his mind and reason? Finally, how is he happy, and in what sense is he eternal? Whichever of these questions you touch is a festering sore (pg. 82).
To the critics, since the Epicurean god is idle and therefore lacks virtue. Virtue is by its nature something that needs to be cultivated. Values like courage are steadily built by actively confronting one’s fears. Wisdom is built by acquiring the necessary experience to use one’s knowledge properly and so on. If the Epicurean god exists but is otherwise idle, what is the point in worshiping it? To critics like Balbus, the Epicurean god promotes human laziness. It is in this regard much like Epicurean philosophy itself. While Epicurus is often mischaracterized and Cicero had a high regard for the man himself, his ideas tend to lead one to justify some of the worse aspects of human nature. Cicero does not say so himself, but always presents this as unacceptable in his dialogues. On The Nature of the Gods is no exception.
It is noteworthy, however, that in terms of science, Epicureanism came closest to what we understand today about the nature of physics. We see glimpses of this in the work and it is fascinating in how it reveals the extent of ancient people’s instinctual understanding of the way our universe works.
The Stoic View
The Stoics had a much more interventionist view of the gods than the Epicureans did, although their interpretation of the forms of the divine was much different. For the Stoics, the world itself was divine and capable of reason:
It cannot be said that in any arrangement of coherent things, there is not something ultimate and perfect. For example, in the case of a grapevine or with sheep, we see that nature arrives at its own ultimate destination unless some force obstructs it. And just as painting, craftsmanship, and the other arts produce a certain result with a completed work, so in all of nature (and even more so) there must be some movement towards consummation and fulfillment.
Man can, in fact, gain wisdom. But the world can certainly never gain wisdom if it has been continuously unintelligent for all ages, and thus it will be weaker than man. Yet because this conclusion is absurd, the world must have been wise from the beginning and should be considered a god. For there is nothing else except the world that has no deficiencies, and which is everywhere perfectly right, complete and superlative in all its tiny details and constituent parts (pg. 106-7).
Balbus spends some time building to this conclusion. He talks about the divine nature of the planets in motion and the stars, which is a lovely thing to read. However, we can accuse him of being a tad bit idealistic with his conclusions. Our world is anything but perfect, a fact which both ancient and modern people know. This fact presents problems in believing in the gods.
Cotta lays out some of the problems with the Stoic viewpoint, which Cicero treats much more favorably than the Epicurean but still has problems with, in Book III of On the Nature of the Gods.
The Academic Skeptics’ View
Cotta makes one of his most important points by refuting the notion that the world is not a god:
“There is nothing in all creation greater than the world.” Neither is there anything on this earth greater than our city. Don’t you believe, then, that in our city there is reason, thought, and intellect? Or because there is not, don’t you believe that an ant should be considered superior to this beautiful city, since a city lacks sense-perception while an ant not only has the faculty of sense, but also mind, reason, and memory?
You have often said that nothing comes about unless it arises from the world, and that nature does not have the ability to create things different from itself. Should I concede that the world is not only alive and intelligent, but also a lyre-player and a trumpeter, because men who practice these arts are created by the world? That father of the Stoics [Zeno] offers no argument why we should believe the world employs reason, nor why we should consider it animate (pg. 175-6).
Cotta is a religious traditionalist. He does not seem totally pious but respects the traditional Roman religion of his ancestors. For him, tradition is enough to prove the existence of the gods. This would fall on deaf ears today, but in a sense, the tradition is what mattered in physical reality. It was a useful tool of communal cohesion. Without such guardrails, there was the potential for social anarchy, which modern readers will take note of.
Part of Book III of On the Nature of the Gods is unfortunately lost. Nevertheless, the dialogue ends beautifully.
Every human being believes good fortune must be sought from god, but each person must acquire wisdom by himself (pg. 206).
The quotation is short and sums things up. We cannot know for sure whether a divine being or beings exist or not. We can only seek the aid of heaven in conjunction with our actions. Louis XIV noted this when he mentioned that it, along with time and action itself provided a thousand unexpected solutions.
We must acquire virtue for ourselves and seek good fortune from our thoughts and actions. There may be a divinity, but it is disinterested enough that in most cases, we must make our own good fortune. On the Nature of the Gods therefore ends with an empowering of the human animal and his unique capacity for reasoned judgment. For Cotta and Cicero, this was enough.
Like all of his translations, Quintus Curtius has made On the Nanture of the Gods easy to read. The table of contents tells you were specific topics in the dialogue are so you can easily return to a specific topic. The translation is also concise and easy for modern readers to understand, which was the reason he made the effort in the first place.
If you want to read the work, you can do so here.