Marcus Tullius Cicero's On Moral Ends is probably among the least read of his works, limited to a scholarly audience. (His "best seller" remains the collection of letters to his friend Atticus.) I happened on this book by chance, rescuing it from a batch about to be tossed out. It was the original 1914 Loeb Classical Library edition, with the Latin and English translation on facing pages. After a century it was in delicate shape, and eventually the pages started coming loose from the binding as I turned them; although I was able to read it through, it was beyond my attempts to repair it. I will be the last person to read this copy.
Obscure it may be, but only because Cicero's other literary creations outshine it, as the sun dims the stars by day. I found it thoroughly absorbing and finished reading it with an even greater respect for its author.
Cicero wrote this at a bad time in his life, although nothing in the text suggests that. In 45 B.C. his beloved daughter Tullia had recently died; the storm clouds of the Civil War that would end the Roman Republic were gathering, and Cicero the lawyer and politician was out to pasture. Perhaps to divert his mind, he turned his attention to moral philosophy, his subject here.
The form is a fantasy debate among spokesmen for three philosophical schools (and some derivatives) that vied for acceptance in his day: the Epicurean, the Stoic, and the Academic -- in the sense of the then-current version of Plato's Academy at Athens. (In fact, part of the book is "set" in Athens.)
This is far more profound than a mere "he said, then he said" kind of debate. Each advocate is given the opportunity for an extended argument. Then the narrator, "Cicero" (it's not clear to me whether the character actually represents the historical Cicero's views) answers each point. If this sounds dry and academic in the modern sense, it seemed to me anything but. It's a fabulous intellectual showpiece.
"Cicero's" criticisms of each school of thought aren't so much an attempt to arrive at Truth as to counter arguments by either showing the weaknesses of the premises or accepting the premises but trying to show that they lead to false conclusions or unacceptable consequences.
Reading De Finibus one gets a vivid impression of why Cicero was a much admired (and feared) courtroom advocate. Rome had no state prosecution office for criminal accusations; individuals accused and prosecuted (with the representation of their attorneys) other individuals. A Roman lawyer worked as both accuser and defender, depending on his client. You can observe in the book how cleverly Cicero could argue either side of a case. In character for the advocate of a philosophical position, he makes a detailed, organic pitch for that view. I found myself thinking each time, in effect: this is devastating. Then he argues against it just as cogently.
It's impossible to convey the spirit of the book through quotation, because of this extended combat of ideas. But for a taste, here is the Epicurean, arguing that pleasure (in its most refined sense) is the ultimate good:
We are inquiring, then, what is the final and ultimate Good, which as all philosophers are agreed must be of such a nature as to be the End to which all other things are means, while it is not in itself a means to anything else. This Epicurus finds in pleasure; pleasure he holds to be the Chief Good, pain the Chief Evil.This he sets out to prove as follows: Every animal, as soon as it is born, seeks for pleasure, and delights in it as the Chief Good, while it recoils from pain as the Chief Evil, and so far as possible avoids it. This it does as long as it remains unperverted, at the prompting of Nature's own unbiased and honest verdict. Hence Epicurus refuses refuses to admit any necessity for argument or discussion to prove that pleasure is desirable and pain to be avoided.
Anticipating the reply that people do choose painful things at times for various reasons, he adds:
No one rejects, dislikes or avoids pleasure itself, because it is a pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? ...In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammeled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. But in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted.The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or he endures pains to avoid worse pains.
There is much more sophisticated argument about the Epicurean system, pro and con, as there is about the other concepts of the most important ends to seek in life.
Cicero was obviously an extraordinary figure in his time, and he probably invented most of the dialogue as a mental exercise. I doubt that he could have found such eloquent real-life champions of the philosophies considered. Still, Romans who had any ambitions to be known as learned did emulate the Greeks whose culture was so admired, including their philosophical systems. Say this for them: important men, among the most powerful in the world, took seriously the ultimate question, what is life's highest goal?
But ... even they seemed to have no spiritual life. The gods are scarcely mentioned, and then casually, as a figure of speech (like atheists today say, "Oh my God!"). Lucretius, who lived not long before Cicero, wrote a celebrated poem whose theme was not to worry about imaginary gods, just enjoy the lovely play of matter.
It was one of many ways in which Roman culture was similar to the dominant outlook in the West now.