Feb 24, 2013

Classic Arguments About God's Existence in Cicero

My Introduction to Philosophy class is currently one-third of the way into Cicero's dialogue The Nature of the Gods -- a work that, like many others of Cicero, I unhesitatingly endorse as a philosophical analogue to undervalued stock.  It's a text that rarely gets taught in Ancient Philosophy classes, let alone Philosophy of Religion (where I taught it years back), or as a text by which to induct freshmen non-majors into the canons and practices of the philosophical profession.  I suspect that one reason for this lack of attention and use is that relatively few practicing philosophers have encountered it themselves -- whether in their own educational formation or in the course of their further studies.

That's a shame -- not only for On the Nature of the Gods, but also for other Ciceronian great works like the Academics, Republic, Laws, On Obligations . . .  one could go on and on.  A quite understandable tendency to underrate Cicero's role in philosophy -- construing him as merely an unoriginal eclectic who brought the philosophy he had learned in the Greek world into Roman culture -- tends to conceal the high level of philosophical discussion and debate contained in his dialogues.  If his is borrowed  brilliance, the words and arguments he places in the mouths of his characters become no less valuable or valid for replicating saying and speeches he learned from leaders of major philosophical schools in Athens or Rhodes -- particularly since it is his own artful arrangements we have to thank for passing them on to us, and down the ages.  Cicero is more than a mere digest-creator or textbook-scribbler, though -- he creates, he replicates, he articulates clashes and conflicts of modes of thought of the highest order available in his own time and place -- and like every playwright, every novelist, every poet of genius, he understands all that his characters do, and more.

Religious Views in Ancient Philosophy

What I find particularly interesting about On the Nature of the Gods -- a dialogue in which members of three of the major schools of Hellenistic philosophy, the Stoics, Epicureans, and (skeptical) Academics square off -- is what it reveals about the level of sophistication in philosophical speculation and systematic reflection about religious matters on the parts of pagan Greeks and Romans.  In matters of the history of ideas, it is always dangerous, in my view and experience, to arrange or articulate one's understanding of matters by relying indiscriminately upon textbooks, the assessments of one's teachers, or even on histories of philosophy.  All too often, knowledge of the map -- whether cursory or fetishistic or somewhere in between -- substitutes for actual exploration and experience in observantly roving through the terrain, the means of attaining knowledge whether the ranger is attempting to learn the lay of forests and fields, or to ascertain the contours of the land of ideas.

All too often one hears that after a golden age of Greek philosophy, illuminated by the three great lighthouses arranged in a pedagogical progression -- Socrates, then his best student Plato, followed by his finest pupil Aristotle -- philosophy soldiered on, proliferated, but for all of its greater breadth and variety moved in courses of shallower thought in the Hellenistic schools.  The Stoics and Epicureans were mainly moralizers, dogmatic in their systematic studies carried into logic, natural philosophy, and even theology.  Counterposed to them, the heirs to Plato's Academy took a skeptical turn, advocating epoche -- a suspension of assent or belief -- in place of ideals of ataraxia or apatheia advocated by the other, dogmatic schools.  All one need do is read Cicero with an open and attentive eye, unblinkered by preconcieved dogmas about the history of philosophy in that period between Plato and Aristotle on the one side, and Christian thinkers like Augustine at the cusp between antiquity and the early middle ages -- and this illusion wanes.

Likewise, there is a tendency -- really a kind of lazy inertia on the part of philosophers --  when it comes to classical philosophical arguments for the existence of God, to superimpose questionable schematized categories confining the possible sorts of proofs into those few recognized by Kant (and, for his part, by Hegel, by . . .  all the way down to the manualists of our present-day, dull sort of academic scholasticism) -- you all know them, the ontological, the cosmological, the teleological, rounded out with some species of moral argument, and a pragmatic argument (drawn alternately from Pascal or from James).  Along with this goes a kind of blind faith in the judgement that, while Aristotle put forth some fairly crude and underdeveloped version of the cosmological argument, there really was no philosophical interest to speak of in arguments for (or against) the existence of God or gods -- any sort of divine being transcendent to (and typically also creative of) human beings.  That would have to wait for the intrusion or irruption of monotheistic thought -- Judaism, Islam, and in particular Christianity -- into philosophy.  I'll come back to these assumptions shortly. . .

There is a third set of common assumptions I'd like to point out first, namely, that the genre of positions that will later come to be called fideism in religious matters -- views that the existence or nature of God or the gods can't be adequately known by philosophical means, requiring instead an unreasoned (or perhaps supra-rational) acceptance of some information by divine revelation or epiphany, or religious tradition, even unquestioned engagement in religious practice -- are again, at least in intellectual life, something that again waits for the advent of monotheism, the replacement of Logos by Torah in their age-old contention.  In On the Nature of the Gods, Cotta the Academic is both a skeptical philosopher and a practicing Roman priest -- and he not only makes a clear distinction between what he believes, or doesn't as a philosopher, and what he is committed to as a priest, he actually goes so far as to say that the only proof or argument that anyone ought to accept is the argument from tradition -- this after, as a philosopher, he has torn into each of the arguments made by the Stoics and the Epicureans.

Cicero's Contribution

So, in this work by a pagan Roman, who spent a good portion of his available time busied in speech-writing, pleading cases, engaging in politics -- but who clearly had drawn everything offered in his student days from the most authoritative, astute, even (for instance in the case of Posidonius the Stoic) innovative representatives of the great philosophical schools -- we get to glimpse not only faithful representations of the thoughts of others, but Cicero's own puzzling around about these matters -- which he considers as vital, as important, as they are obscure.  He begins with a kind of prologue, setting the problem:
While there are many questions in philosophy which have not as yet been by any means satisfactorily cleared up, there is in particular. . .  much difficulty and much obscurity attaching to the inquiry with reference to the nature of the gods, an inquiry which is ennobling in the recognition which it affords of the nature of the soul, and also necessary for the regulation of religious practices. The opinions of the greatest thinkers with regard to it conflict and vary to an extent which should be taken as strong evidence that the cause of their doing so is ignorance, and that the Academics were wise in refusing to make positive assertions upon uncertain data.

In this inquiry, to give an instance of the diversity of opinion, the greater number of authorities have affirmed the existence of the gods; it is the most likely conclusion, and one to which we are all led by the guidance of nature; but Protagoras said that he was doubtful, and Diagoras the Melian and Theodorus of Cyrene thought that there were no such beings at all. Those, further, who have asserted their existence present so much diversity and disagreement that it would be tedious to enumerate their ideas separately. For a great deal is said about the forms of the gods, and about their locality, dwelling-places, and mode of life, and these points are disputed with the utmost difference of opinion among philosophers.
While upon the question in which our subject of discussion is mainly comprised, the question whether the gods do nothing, project nothing, and are free from all charge and administration of affairs, or whether, on the other hand, all things were from the beginning formed and established by them, and are throughout infinity ruled and directed by them,  on this question, especially, there are great differences of opinion, and it is inevitable, unless these are decided, that mankind should be involved in the greatest uncertainty, and in ignorance of things which are of supreme importance.
Notice, working backwards, that while the question about whether the gods involve themselves in the affairs of the world is accorded a kind of practical precedence, Cicero also concerns himself (and his book) with determining the nature of the gods more generally -- out of a dizzying array of possibilities proffered and professed by philosophers -- and even with what would appear to be a more fundamental question -- is there even a God?

Over the years of reading and rereading Cicero, I have started to think that rather than simply a didact who artificially arranged encounters between mouthpieces for the philosophical movements he encountered in his youth and remembered in his rather early retirement, as an author -- and as a thinker -- he bears much more resemblance with writers like Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, in whose works characters expose their views, attempt to convince each other, engage in fair and foul play -- and about which one can never be entirely sure about where the author really stands.  One can be sure of one thing, though, that the writer, breathing all these beings and voices and thoughts into complex existence, knows all of them, weighs them, is tempted by them, and likely even loves if not all most of them.  His work is not just dialogues -- like these authors, and also like Plato, Pascal, and Kierkegaard -- what he has written is dialogical.

Arguments for Existence of God or the Gods

By my view, there seem to be at least five classical types of arguments for the existence of God or the gods made in On the Nature of the Gods.  Only one of them gets made by the Epicurean Velleius (Cicero consistently portrays that school as lightweight in relation to the others).  That argument gets reappropriated and added to by the Stoic, Balbus, who brings forth four additional arguments.  So, what are these various "proofs" for the existence of God?  Some of them -- the third and perhaps the fifth (at least for those who know their Thomas's Five Ways) -- will be immediately noted as among typical arguments discussed in Introduction to Philosophy and Philosophy of Religion textbooks.

Among the others, two of them -- the first and second -- are likely to be dismissed as unphilosophical, as lightweight.  Perhaps one might be attracted to the idea that the ancients lacked adequate insight into these matters to realize their weakness -- though that would be a rather tough prejudice to defend, considering that Cicero does not only present those arguments, but also criticizes those arguments as well!  One of the other arguments -- the fourth -- is likely to be rather puzzling to those who are used to shoehorning arguments for God's existence, a la Kant, into categories of either cosmological or teleological proofs (Descartes' third meditation argument ought to baffle them for analogue reasons).

So, what are these arguments?
  • a first argument put forth by the Epicurean and by the Stoic -- the argument from common consent
  • a second argument put forth by the Stoic -- the argument from miracles
  • a third argument -- the argument from design, or the teleological argument
  • a fourth argument -- the argument from intelligence
  • a fifth argument -- the argument from degrees of being
We might also add the argument declared by the Academic to be the only one worth making:
  • a sixth argument -- the argument from tradition
I'm not going to explain in detail what each of these arguments or rational appeals typically involves, nor explore each of them as Cicero puts them in the mouths of his debators.  But, I would like to do three things here, as I bring this post to a close.

The first is to reemphasize that what we see going on in On the Nature of the Gods is philosophical discussion about the divine that introduces a considerable number of distinct arguments for the existence of divinity.  Cicero clearly thought it was important for philosophers of religion to consider many proposed proofs -- and perhaps for those which appear to be weaker ones (e.g. tradition, miracles, common consent) to exercise their minds to see if they can be strengthened.  He also thought is was equally important to engage in rational critique of these arguments.  And, why did he think all of this?  Was he on his own, in the proverbial ivory tower of the academician playing with arguments about difficult subjects for amusement's sake?  No, he was echoing the members of these philosophical schools -- those who made, debated, criticized, and attempts to shore up these very arguments.  He is providing us a glimpse into the philosophical and religious culture of pagan antiquity -- the culture that later Jewish and Christian philosophy would either reject or critical assimilate.

The second is to suggest that although the argument from common consent -- usually framed in terms of arguing from the fact that every culture believes in some sort of divinity, through the mediating term of an assumption that if all cultures believe in something it must therefore be true, real, existent, on to the conclusion that divinity exists -- is actually given a stronger case in the hands of Velleius and Balbus, not strong enough perhaps to entirely avoid bring scorched by the lens of Cotta's critique -- but worthy of study.  Put in other terms, an argument that is typically brushed off rather than seriously discussed by philosophers of religion might merit a second look in On the Nature of the Gods.

The third thing I'd like to do is simply to set out the "argument from intelligence", and to say just a few things about it.

The Argument from Intelligence

This kind of argument for the existence of the divine might be interpreted as a strange variation on the traditional cosmological or the teleological arguments.  I've become leery, for a variety of reasons, of carrying out that kind of reduction.  I'll just note these three points of interest:

First, this was an argument that seemed attractive to many thinkers in pagan antiquity and in Christian philosophy -- Augustine would be a prime example on the Christian end. Second, there's an entire tradition of working out and making arguments of this sort -- starting with Socrates (one of the Stoic's great heroes), and continuing through the great early Stoic thinkers -- and these thinkers clearly considered it something distinct from design or teleological arguments.   Third it stakes out its basis by using human rationality to work out some interesting implications about the very existence of rationality -- or intellect, mind, understanding. . .  really, whatever cognitive quantum leap from the mere animal you'd choose to substitute in rationality's place.
. . .  on the ground even of man’s intelligence, we ought to consider that there exists some mind of the universe, one that is keener than his and divine. “For whence,” as Socrates says in Xenophon, “did man get hold of the mind he has?” Why, if any one were to ask whence we derive the vital juices, the heat that is distributed through the body, even the earthy firmness of the flesh, and lastly the breath we draw, the answer is clear, that we have received one element from earth, another from water, another from fire, and another from the air which we take in with our breath.
And the element which surpasses all these, I mean reason, and if we care to express it by a variety of terms, intelligence, design, reflection, foresight, where did we find, whence did we secure it? Shall the universe possess all other qualities, and not this one which is of most importance? Yet surely in all creation there is nothing nobler than the universe, nothing more excellent and more beautiful. There not only is not, but there cannot even be imagined anything nobler, and if reason and wisdom are the noblest of qualities, it is inevitable that they should exist in that which we acknowledge to be supremely noble.
. . .  .And this position, if argued, as I intend to argue it, in a fuller and more flowing style, is better able to escape the cavilling of the Academics, whereas if expressed more briefly and concisely in syllogistic form, as it used to be by Zeno, it is more exposed to criticism. For just as it is either difficult or impossible for a running stream to be tainted, while this may easily happen to water that is confined, so the onward flow of argument sweeps away the detractions of the critic, while that which is confined within narrow limits has hard work to defend itself. These arguments, for instance, which are expanded by modern Stoics, used to be compressed by Zeno as follows:
. . . “Nothing,” he says, “that is inanimate and without reason can produce from itself a being that is animate and possessed of reason; the universe produces beings that are animate and possessed of reason, therefore the universe is animate and possessed of reason.” He also, as his habit frequently was, stated the argument in the form of a comparison, which was to this effect: “If melodiously piping flutes sprang from the olive, would you doubt that a knowledge of flute-playing resided in the olive? And what if plane trees bore harps which gave forth rhythmical sounds? Clearly you would think in the same way that the art of music was possessed by plane trees. Why, then, seeing that the universe gives birth to beings that are animate and wise, should it not be considered animate and wise itself?”
Balbus not only makes the argument from intelligence in book 2, he sketches out for us a short history of the line of reasoning, from insight to argument, to better-thought-out argument.  He gives us what we might call a narrative of its fortunes and its adaptations.   Later on, in book 3, Cicero will allow Cotta his chance to demolish this kind of argument, and to poke fun at its celebrated adherents -- but is that the last word?  Does Cicero himself ultimately deem the argument from intelligence without merit?  It is worth wondering whether that argument forms part and parcel of the body of belief that Cicero qualifiedly endorses at the very end of the dialogue.
After these words had passed, we separated, the result attained being that Velleius thought Cotta’s arguments the truer, while I thought that those of Balbus came nearer to what appeared to be the truth.


  1. "one-third of the way into". Maybe I can catch up. I'll ask my new group if they're interested in reading the book. Are you placing the lectures online?

  2. I am indeed placing the lectures -- three of them -- online. We finish up with it this week in class.

    It would be a good book to read, as would a few other works by Cicero -- but I had thought you were going to start with earlier stuff.

  3. I'm figuring it out--and making it up--as I go along. Hard for me to believe the group is less than three days old. I have a terrible sense of time. I once talked with someone and mentioned "When we talked last week." and she said, "You mean yesterday?" It really is like that with me. :)

    Right now I have 15 members, 12 of whom signed in. I might need to get 50 members in order to get 5 active members. Well, actually, five active members plus myself wouldn't be too bad. Time will tell.