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Cicero-About Philosophy, Wisdom And Self-Knowledge.

Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a quote from Cicero’s ‘De Legibus’, book I-58 to its end_68, about Philosophy, Wisdom and Self-Knowledge.


“Marcus.—…But you must allow me, that since it was necessary there should be a Law, which by censuring vice and advocating virtue, becomes the source of the precepts we most need to direct us in our conduct; it is also necessary that there should be a wisdom from the love of which, the Greeks have composed the word Philosophy, which is the parent of all the fine arts; for it is beyond contradiction the richest, the brightest, and the loveliest of the gifts the gods have bestowed on us. She has taught us, among other things, the most difficult of all lessons, namely, [69]to know ourselves, a precept so forcible and so comprehensive, that it has been attributed not to a man, but to the God of Delphi himself, and that not without reason.

For he who knows himself must be conscious that he is inspired by a divine principle. He will look upon his rational part as a resemblance to some divinity consecrated within him, and will always be careful that his sentiments, as well as his external behaviour, be worthy of this inestimable gift of God. A serious and thorough examination of all his powers, will inform him what signal advantages he has received from nature, and with what infinite help he is furnished for the attainment of wisdom. For, from his first entrance into the world, he has, as it were, the intelligible principles of things delineated on his mind, by the enlightening assistance of which, and the guidance of wisdom, he may become a good, and, consequently, a happy man.

And what can be conceived more truly happy, than the state of that man, who, having attained to an exact knowledge of virtue, throws off all the indulgences of sensual appetite, and tramples on voluptuousness as a thing unbecoming the dignity of his nature—the man who is not terrified at the approach of affliction, or even at death itself—who maintains a benevolent intercourse with his friends, and under that endearing name [70]includes the whole race of mankind, as being united together by one common nature; who preserves, in short, an unfeigned piety and reverence towards the gods, and exerts the utmost force of his rational powers to distinguish good from evil, just as we strain our eyes, in order to view a beautiful object with greater attention.

When this man shall have surveyed the heavens, the earth, and the seas, studied the nature of all things, and informed himself whence they were generated, to what state they return, the time and manner of their dissolution, what parts of them are mortal and perishable, and what divine and eternal?—when he shall have attained in a great measure, the knowledge of that Being who superintends and governs them, and shall look on himself as not confined within the walls of one city, or as the member of any particular community, but as a citizen of the universe, considered as a single Commonwealth:—on such a grand representation of things as this, and on such a prospect and knowledge of nature, how well, O heavens! would such a one understand the precepts of the Pythian Apollo by knowing himself? How insignificant would he then esteem, how thoroughly would he contemn and despise, those things which by vulgar minds are held in the highest admiration.

All these acquirements he would secure and [71]guard as with a fence, by the science of distinguishing truth from falsehood, and that logical art of reasoning which teaches him to know what consequences follow from premises, and how far one proposition clashes with another. When such a person was convinced that nature designed him for society, he would not rest contented with these subtle disquisitions, but would put in practice that comprehensive eloquence, which is necessary for governing nations, enacting laws, punishing malefactors, defending the honest part of mankind, and publishing the praises of great men. He would likewise use his persuasive eloquence to recommend salutary maxims to his countrymen, to rouse them to the practice of virtue, and turn them from wickedness, to comfort the afflicted, and, in fine, by his writings, to immortalize the wise consultations and noble actions of the prudent and brave, and to punish the shame and infamy of wicked men. So many excellent capacities will be found in man, by those who desire to know themselves, of all which Wisdom is the parent and director.

Atticus.—You have made a very sublime and just eulogium on self–knowledge. But how do you mean your remarks to bear?

Marcus.—In the first place, my Atticus, I mean them to bear on those jurisprudential topics which we shall hereafter discuss, which are well nigh [72]as important as the preceding. For these moral principles we have already developed, would not be so grand and so interesting, if their practical consequences were not full of sublimity and beauty. And for the rest, I prosecute this enquiry with pleasure, and I trust with fairness; for law is my favourite study, and since it has made me all that I am, I cannot with any conscience pass it by without due panegyrics.

Atticus.—So indeed it seems, if I may judge by your practice. And I commend you for it,—it is but proper to bestow all the praises we can on the topics under discussion.

The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero: Comprising his Treatise on the Commonwealth; and his Treatise on the Laws. Translated from the original, with Dissertations and Notes in Two Volumes. By Francis Barham, Esq. (London: Edmund Spettigue, 1841-42). Vol. 2. Note: This nineteen century translation differs on many choice of words with the Loeb edition (1928-2000 revised). The later is the reference to be taken in account due to progress in the scholarship and in the manuscript editions process. Full text here:
Cicero-About Philosophy, Wisdom And Self-Knowledge.

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