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«Article Not Even to Know That You Do Not Know: Cicero and the “Theatricality” of the New Academy Soumick De Abstract: The relation between ...»

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Not Even to Know That You Do Not Know:

Cicero and the “Theatricality”

of the New Academy

Soumick De

Abstract: The relation between philosophy and theatre has mostly

been an ambiguous one, frequently informed with a certain playful

irony. Plato’s aversion to include the tragic poets in his Republic, which

itself remains a philosophical work written in the dramatic form of

dialogues, testifies to this traditional ambiguity. It is well known that in this tradition of philosophic dialogues, the name which perhaps immediately follows Plato is that of Marcus Tullius Cicero. This paper would examine certain Ciceronian dialogues in order to argue that a certain theatricality was also prominent in Cicero’s thinking, which makes it distinct not only from other philosophical schools of his time but also from Socratic dialogues. The paper would try to argue that this theatricality was expressed not through irony but a process of masking philosophical presentations. At the same time, to such a theatrical gesture par excellence as that of masking was added the art of rhetoric to present such philosophical enunciations to an ‘audience’ in order to persuade them of the practical functions of philosophy. It is this public application of a private and leisurely practice of philosophy, which this paper would discuss through an examination of the style of Ciceronian dialogues and the nature of skeptic philosophy that Cicero’s New Academy championed.

Keywords: Cicero, Socrates, irony, skepticism T he tradition of philosophical dialogues is not new to us. In its unique way of expressing concerns about meanings of life and death, about the order of things and the nature of beauty, about what constitutes truth, and about what is ethical and what is political, the technique of employing dialogues goes as far back as Socrates. In fact, to engage in dialogues was the Socratic method par excellence. In Socrates we have the apparent duality of silence and dialogue always at work. The anonymous © 2015 Soumick De http://www.kritike.org/journal/issue_17/de_december2015.pdf ISSN 1908-7330


figure of the philosopher would on one hand stand in silence, alone in the midst of the worldly cacophony, separated from it as an absolute and independent personality in his contemplative repose. At the same time we have the “essential impact of such an original personality upon the race and its relation to the race (which) fulfil themselves partly in a communication of life and spirit, partly in a release of the individual’s locked-up powers.”1 It is the dialogues, which carry the secret force of this impact as it melts the finite boundaries of existence and allows us to stare into the nothingness of the abyss beyond. Thus, at least this much can be said, that the art of engaging in dialogues has a profound relation to Philosophy since around its inception.

As a matter of fact, the Greek word dia-legein from which the idea of dialogue is conceived belongs to a family of other Greek words like dialegesthai and dialectike, the latter being the source for the concept of dialects or the art (techne) of discourse.

What this relation perhaps also indicates, but is quite infrequently dealt with within philosophical discourses, is the constant but difficult association of philosophy with theatre. If the discursive practice of dialogues in philosophy opens up the method of dialectics, then it also provides us with a way of understanding and critiquing the nature of this philosophical theatre. Conversely, theatre in this philosophic sense or more precisely the idea of theatre will always be then subjected to this ‘movement’ within philosophy, which is identical with the dialectical movement. Thus, like dialectic which cannot function without certain fundamental but contrary propositions, which the ancients called axioma, the movement inherent to a notion of theatre cannot operate without the fundamental but oppositional proposition of an ‘actor’ and a ‘spectator.’ When Peter Brook famously quoted “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage … A man walks across this empty space while someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged,” 2 it is already a resonance of the philosophical concept of ‘movement’ which is at issue. To formally map out the relationship between philosophy and theatre through an analysis of the concept of ‘movement’ is beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless we would treat this relationship as the presupposed basis of this paper which would try to show how, not the Socratic, but another type of philosophical dialogues from antiquity—the Ciceronian dialogues—sets up this philosophical theatre through a particular way of externalizing the infinite internal dialectical movement of Socrates. Again, it is beyond the scope of this paper to follow an appropriate comparative analysis between the Socratic dialogues and the Ciceronian mimicking of them. Yet the paper would try to 1 Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony with continual reference to Socrates, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 29.

2 Peter Brooks, The Empty Space (London: Penguin, 2008).

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present its argument with constant reference to Socrates, though in a much truncated and schematic fashion.

Thus, methodologically, the paper would be divided into three sections including certain concluding remarks. The first section would deal with the style and function of the Ciceronian dialogues (in reference to Socratic dialogues). The second section would present the nature of skeptic philosophy and the problem of externalization or mimicking within skeptic philosophy through an examination of the arguments in defence of this tradition, while the third and concluding section would try to very briefly counterpose the concept of Socratic daimon with that of Ciceronian persona.

The Function and Style of Ciceronian Dialogues with Constant Reference to Socrates When Cicero retired from public life and decided to engage more openly with philosophy, in the latter part of his life, it is the dialogic method that he chose in order to express his philosophical concerns. The reason he gives for this choice has implications, which extend to the matters of the polis.

The dialogic form was re-employed by Cicero as a response against what he thought was a growing dogmatism of the dominant schools of philosophy in his time, namely, the stoics and the epicureans. We find numerous references of this move against dogmatism in Cicero, a move which was not only embodied in the skeptic philosophy of the new academy and its dependence on a concept of probability (we shall return to this point) but also expressed through a form which would not harm those who hear it by making them obstinate followers of these camps or schools. The challenge was to find a method of pursuing philosophy, which would lead one to a state where he can be guided by his own reason in forming his own judgments. The exercise of philosophy as a matter of personal freedom of judgment was a fundamental principle of Ciceronian philosophy. And what better way to counter dogmatism that flourished on a stylistic use of positive statements (which in its turn produced a definite science of philosophy), than to revive the Socratic spirit of doubt. But now, the spirit of disputation would be brought back not only to counter dogmatism within philosophy but also to make philosophy accessible to the citizen subject. To make philosophy “the most useful means of educating (our) fellow-citizens.”3 This pedagogic function of philosophy allied to the state was perhaps first fully expressed in Cicero because in Socrates, though there was certainly a pedagogic function to his philosophy, the tendency to ally it with the state was perhaps missing.

3 Cicero, De Natura Deorum & Academica, trans. by H. Rackham (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1933), 423.

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Philosophy employed through the dialogic method could now be the perfect discursive technique, which could be concretely practiced by the citizen subject, thus making philosophy a useful tool for the republic. In the Nature of Gods, Cicero quite explicitly expresses his desire to philosophize as not only guided by the existential imperative of leading a truthful and virtuous life but also as a public service. He writes, “So my first thought was that I should explain philosophy to my fellow-citizens as a public duty, for I believed that the glory and reputation of the state would be greatly enhanced if such weighty and celebrated issues were discussed in Latin works as well as Greek.”4 But what happens to the Socratic method of doubting everything when applied to produce citizen-subjects, who can be made capable of exercising their freedom of judgment in order to appear in public? More specifically, how does the Socratic dialogue transform itself stylistically in the hands of Cicero to become a useful tool not only to educate but also to persuade individuals to follow certain principles, which would effectively provide them with the persona of the citizen?

Stylistically speaking, we observe in Cicero a complete change of situation for the dialogues as compared to Plato. While Plato gives the greatest importance to the date and place which establish a context in which the ensuing conversation is to be understood, in Cicero we have the leisurely retreat of the erstwhile statesman himself in either of his two gymnasia (one named the Academica, in honor of Plato and the other, Lyceum, in honor of Aristotle) or the home of a friend (like the home of Gaius Cotta, which serves as the backdrop for the dialogues in The Nature of the Gods), which keeps coming back as the location for these dialogues, while the time is mostly not specified or when it is—as in case of the First book of Academica—it is fictional. There is hardly any variation to the time and place of the dialogues in Cicero, which makes the situation effectively quite boring and repetitive.

As Michael Foley correctly observes, “What is remarkable about the Platonic dialogues is the variety of their settings and situations: on a lonely road, at a drinking party, before a grand jury, etc. while Cicero also uses this technique his dialogues more often than not takes place at his Tusculan Villa in either of his two gymnasia.”5 If there were variations in the settings of Socratic dialogues, it was perhaps because—as Kierkegaard so brilliantly argues—for Socrates, the true centre was never fixed. The Socratic stage was always everywhere and nowhere. Socrates took any place and situation and made it into any other

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1997), 5-6.

5 Michael P. Foley, “Cicero, Augustine and the Philosophical Roots of the Cassiciacum Dialogues” in Revue des Etudes Augustiniennes, 47 (1999), 55.

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place and any other situation through a process of conversation, which essentially operated though a concept of irony. The Socratic art of asking questions was not to gain any profound answer which would give meaning and substance to a situation and thus speculatively move ahead to a resolution but to make all and every answer empty of its substance and every situation devoid of its meaning. As Kierkegaard writes, “This emphasis on situation was especially significant in order to indicate that the true centre for Socrates was not a fixed point but an ubique et nusquam (everywhere and nowhere) … in order to make graphic the Socratic method, which found no phenomenon too humble a point of departure from which to work oneself up into the sphere of thought.”6 This hollowing out of the world stage made possible a veritable theatre of philosophy to take place through a movement which was infinitely carried out in its multiple and contingent forms but which always leads to the inevitable necessity of the negative. It is about this concept of negation epitomized by the Socratic slogan of knowing only and inevitably that one does not know that Kierkegaard informs us in his book The Concept of Irony with continual reference to Socrates. It is beyond the scope of this paper to engage in detail with the various movements of this irony, but suffice it to say here that the effect of such irony is to produce dialogue not in the form of merely contradictory speech, dialectically opposed to each other.

In fact, as Kierkegaard goes on to show, the effect of irony through conversation—that is the technique of asking questions par excellence—was not speech at all. What such conversation necessarily leads to is silence. The interlocutor in participating in the conversation is slowly but inevitably caught in the trap, which Socrates lays out for him such that in the end he must become like Socrates—an ignorant and anonymous figure. The philosopher never achieves any superior position but conversely and ironically brings every superior position to his own level, which is that of ignorance and, hence, silence. This is the unexpected virtue of ignorance that every participant either realizes in order to become wise minimally7 or resents in prejudice. The Socratic movement thus begins from a “modest frugality” 8 of speech to the absence of speech altogether, achieved through conversation by the anonymous figure of the philosopher. This movement is completely and, if one might add, ironically absent in Cicero.

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of knowledge. The idea of frugality or minimalism that Kierkegaard informs us of in the philosophy of Socrates is rather a qualitative moment where although you have the least of knowledge which is your simple ability of not knowing, it paradoxically becomes the condition of possibility of maximum impact because it is on the basis of this minimum affirmation that the entire world of phenomenal knowledge is to be negated.

8 Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, 18.

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