Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods

November 22, 2018

On the Nature of the Gods
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by P.G. Walsh
(Oxford, 1998) [44 BC]
lv + 230 p.

When Cicero was in his 60s he embarked on an ambitious project to write a series of philosophical works. Though he, when a young man, had studied with several of the leading philosophers in Athens and Rhodes, he was by profession a lawyer and politician, not an original philosopher, which he knew quite well, but he did his contemporaries a service by translating Greek ideas into elegant Latin prose, and summarizing the views of various philosophical schools, often in a dialogue format.

Such is the case with De Natura Deorum, which explores the views of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics as to the nature of the gods. There are four characters in the dialogue, each of them, interestingly, based on a real person: Velleius presents the Epicurean view; Balbus defends the Stoic tradition; Cotta is an Academic; and Cicero himself is an interested listener. The principal school missing from the dialogue is the Aristotelian.

Though formally a dialogue, the give and take familiar from Plato’s dialogues, for instance, is mostly absent. Instead, Cicero gives us a series of set speeches in which individual characters present, at length, their views on the question, or rebut the views of others. In the seams between these monologues there is some back-and-forth, but little more.

**

The dialogue opens with Velleius presenting the Epicurean view. As we recall from reading Lucretius, the Epicureans were materialists who believed that everything is made of indivisible and eternal atoms. Lucretius himself didn’t discuss the gods, apart from a few references here and there, and the present dialogue is actually our best surviving source for what the Epicureans thought about these matters. For them, the gods were akin to material beings (they are said in this translation to have “quasi-bodies”) having human form, but living a life of idleness and bliss — which does, indeed, sound divine. They held that the gods pay no heed to human affairs.

Cotta, the Academic, then steps forward with a critique. He ridicules the anthropomorphism of the Epicurean gods, the ad hoc quasi-materialism, and wonders why we should bother to reverence these beings who care not for us. He contests Velleius’ simple argument that we know the gods exist from common consent.

In the next stage of the dialogue Balbus presents the Stoic case. The Stoics, too, defended the existence of the gods on the grounds that belief in their existence is nearly universal, but added other arguments too: from design of the world, from divine interventions, and from religious practices like divination. Balbus then proceeds to construct something like an ontological argument: God (or a god) is the greatest being, and therefore possesses every good, including reason, sensation, and even sphericity; and, since the universe as a whole is the greatest being possible, the universe itself must be this divine being. In this way, the Stoics arrived at something like a pantheist theology. Against the Epicureans, the Stoics maintained that the gods providentially ordered the world, and that therefore religious practices were right and salutary.

But this view, too, is subjected to an Academic critique by Cotta, who contests essentially every point in the Stoic case apart from the bare existence of the gods. The arguments offered for their existence he finds weak. He rebuts the ontological argument by deducing from it absurdities, such as that if the universe possesses every good then it must be adept at reading, writing, and flute-playing. In one interesting section he even challenges the premise that reason is a good thing, arguing to the contrary that reason makes men cunning in their evil-doing. “That Providence of yours is blame-worthy for bestowing reason on those who she knew would use it unreasonably and wickedly.” He catalogues inconsistencies in stories about individual gods, and concludes that, in the end, we cannot trust much of what the religious tradition has handed down about the nature of the gods. Likewise the pious belief in divine providence is misguided, for if the gods took care for the affairs of men then the good would prosper and the wicked suffer, contrary to fact.

At the conclusion of this critique the dialogue draws to a close. Cotta, who has been the principal critic, never does present his own positive case, if he has one. (He may not; the Academics were largely skeptics.) He only states that he has offered his criticisms out of simple honesty, though he “longs to be refuted”. As the interlocutors disband, Cicero remarks, rather unexpectedly, that his sympathies are with the Stoics, perhaps because this was the school that sought to preserve the rationale for the state’s religious practices, which Cicero was, as a public figure, responsible for upholding and observing.

**

It is striking that the gods in this dialogue are seen simply as “superior beings”. They are better than us, but not transcendent. They are corporeal, existing alongside us as beings in the world, akin to the “flying spaghetti monster” beloved by modern armchair atheists. Nowhere in the dialogue does the conversation turn to what it could mean to conceive of a high god (i.e. God) as the origin of the being of all else. Had Cicero seen fit to include Aristotelian natural theology in the dialogue this problem could have been partly addressed. As it is, however, the rudimentary metaphysics of these philosophers is in high contrast to what Christian and Islamic philosophers would produce in centuries to come.

**

Its shortcomings notwithstanding, this dialogue has enjoyed a long tradition of influence in the West. Parts of it (especially the critique of the stories of the Roman gods) were cited by early Christian apologists against paganism. Augustine himself references or quotes from this dialogue more than a dozen times in The City of God. It was also read by the great medieval philosophical schools, and we find citations from it in Abelard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Roger Bacon. It was even more important to Renaissance thinkers, for whom Cicero was a touchstone: it was a favourite of Petrarch, and Montaigne cited it nearly 50 times in his writings. The skepticism of Cotta was especially influential in this period.

Among early modern thinkers, Locke and Hobbes both knew it, and Hume gave his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion the same structure and cast of characters (though with different names). Voltaire, with a characteristic lack of temperance, saw fit to describe it as “le meilleur livre puet-être de toute l’antiquité”, but this, it seems, had the nature of a last hurrah, for in the nineteenth century its influence declined along with the prevailing appraisal of Cicero’s value as a philosopher.

Today it is not widely read, and I would argue that its value as an historical document, describing the leading arguments in theology at the time, eclipses its value as a living source of reflection on the questions it poses. But I am, nonetheless, pleased to have read it.

One Response to “Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods”


  1. […] recent blog review of Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, in which one version of the ontological argument is […]


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