Rome and Christianity
Ciceronian Religion


The more supple Cicero voiced the same convictions as his friend [Varro] with more conceptual refinement through the figures of his De natura deorum, especially through the princeps civis and pontifex Cotta. In the debate about the existence of the gods there stand against each other the opinions of the philosopher and of the Roman social leader. Subtly Cicero suggests the different sources of authority when he opposes the princeps philosophiae Socrates to the princeps civis Cotta; the auctoritas philosophi clashes with the auctoritas majorum.

The dignitary of the Roman cult is not inclined to doubt the immortal gods and their worship whatever anybody may say. In matters of religion he will follow the pontiffs who preceded him in the office and no Greek philosophers. The auspices of Romulus and the rites of Numa laid the foundations of the state that never could have achieved its greatness without the ritual conciliation of the immortals in its favor. He accepts the gods on the authority of the forebears, but he is willing to listen to the opinion of others; and not, without irony he invites Balbus to give the reasons, rationem, for his religious beliefs that as a philosopher he ought to have, while he the pontiff is compelled to believe the forebears without reason.

The Varronic and Ciceronian expositions are precious documents for the theorist. The Roman thinkers live firmly in their political myth but at the same time have been made aware of the fact through contact with Greek philosophy; the contact has not affected the solidity of their sentiments but only equipped them with the means of elucidating their position.

The conventional treatment of Cicero is apt to overlook that in his work something considerably more interesting is to be found than a variant of Stoicism—something that no Greek source can give us, that is, the archaic experience of social order before its dissolution through the experience of the mystic philosophers.

In the Greek sources this archaic stratum never can really be touched, because the earliest literary documents, the poems of Homer and Hesiod, are already magnificently free reorganizations of mythical material—in the case of Hesiod even with the conscious opposition of a truth found by him as an individual to the lie, the pseudos, of the older myth.

It was perhaps the unsettlement in the wake of the Doric invasion that broke the compactness of Greek social existence so much earlier, a type of shock that never disturbed Rome. Anyway, Rome was an archaic survival in the Hellenistic civilization of the Mediterranean and still more so with its advancing Christianization; one might compare the situation with the role of Japan in a civilizational environment that is dominated by Western ideas.

Romans like Cicero understood the problem quite well. In his De re publica, for instance, he deliberately opposed the Roman style of dealing with matters of political order to the Greek style. In the debate about the best political order ( status civitatis ), again a princeps civis, Scipio, takes his stand against Socrates.

Scipio refuses to discuss the best order in the manner of the Platonic Socrates; he will not build up a "fictitious" order before his audience but will rather give an account of the origins of Rome. The order of Rome is superior to any other—this dogma is heavily put down as the condition of debate. The discussion itself may freely range through all topics of Greek learning, but this learning will have meaning only in so far as it can be brought usefully to bear on problems of Roman order.

The highest rank, to be sure, is held by the man who can add the "foreign learning" to his ancestral customs; but if a choice must be made between the two ways of life, the vita civilis of the statesman is preferable to the vita quieta of the sage.

The thinker who can speak of philosophy as a "foreign learning," to be respected but nevertheless to be considered as a spice that will add perfection to superiority, has, one may safely say, understood neither the nature of the spiritual revolution that found its expression in philosophy nor the nature of its universal claim upon man. The peculiar way in which Cicero mixes his respect for Greek philosophy with amused contempt indicates that the truth of theory, while sensed as an enlargement of the intellectual and moral horizon, could have no existential meaning for a Roman.

Rome was the Rome of its gods into every detail of daily routine; to participate experientially in the spiritual revolution of philosophy would have implied the recognition that the Rome of the ancestors was finished and that a new order was in the making into which the Romans would have to merge—as the Greeks had to merge, whether they liked it or not, into the imperial constructions of Alexander and the Diadochi and finally of Rome.

The Rome of the generation of Cicero and Caesar was simply not so far gone as was the Athens of the fourth century B.C. that engendered Plato and Aristotle. The Roman substance preserved its strength well into the empire, and it really petered out only in the troubles of the third century A.D. Only then had come the time for Rome to merge into the empire of its own making; and only then did the struggle among the various types of alternative truth, among philosophies, oriental cults, and Christianity, enter into the crucial phase where the existential representative, the emperor, had to decide which transcendental truth he would represent now that the myth of Rome had lost its ordering force.

For a Cicero such problems did not exist, and when he encountered them in his "foreign learning" he emasculated the inexorable threat: The Stoic idea that every man had two countries, the polis of his birth and the cosmopolis, he transformed deftly into the idea that every man had indeed two fatherlands, the countryside of his birth, for Cicero his Arpinum, and Rome. The cosmopolis of the philosophers was realized in historical existence; it was the imperium Romanum.

CW VOL 5,
The New Science of Politics
The Struggle for Representation
in the Roman Empire ,

§4 pp 159-162.
[U.Chicago ed., pp 88-91]

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