Ciceros emanzipatorische Leserführung

Christopher Diez, Ciceros emanzipatorische Leserführung: Studien zum Verhältnis von dialogisch-rhetorischer Inszenierung und skeptischer Philosophie in De natura deorum, Palingenesia 128 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021). 9783515130264.

Reviewed by Peter Osorio, University of Toronto,

Christopher Diez defends a reading of De natura deorum (ND) that is of a piece with other contemporary scholarship on Cicero’s philosophy, which credits him with literary as well as philosophical achievement. Since the book will largely be of interest to specialists, I focus my discussion on the portions central to Diez’s larger argument (chs. 3–6) to develop several points of disagreement. Not that Diez has written a bad book—on the contrary, its convincing through-line and exemplary attention to detail distinguish it—but I want to point out where I think there is promise for its ideas to be further developed or extended to other dialogues.

The book complements Wynne’s 2019 monograph, which was published too recently for Diez to address.1 Accordingly, I offer some comparisons between Diez and Wynne in their treatment of similar problems. A principal difference between the two lies in how narrowly they set their sights. Diez offers what is functionally an extended philosophical commentary of book one, whereas Wynne looks at ND and De divinatione in their entirety. In an introduction, five chapters, and a brief conclusion, Diez examines Cicero’s techniques of literary production (ch. 2), the proem (ch. 3), the dialogical framing (ch. 4), Velleius’s speech (ch. 5), and Cotta’s refutations, with the greater share of attention paid to his response to Velleius (ch. 6). Diez’s overarching argument is that, since Cicero’s proem tells us what he wants his dialogue to accomplish (viz., to emancipate readers’ critical faculty) and what he wants his readers to be doing when encountering its speeches (viz., to test speakers’ views of the gods both for the probable and for compatibility with Roman religious cult), we can identify what features of the dialogue’s construction and its speeches promote these purposes. The upshot of reading the dialogue in this way is that Diez offers more credible explanations for curious aspects of the dialogue than was possible for earlier scholars invested in the concerns and assumptions of Quellenforschung, which are extensively outlined and discredited in chapter two. This kind of refutative exercise of source criticism has itself become conventional, but Diez’s discussion is still a valuable resource for any who need reminding. For the ND in particular, source-critical analysts pointed to discrepancies in speakers’ references to the temporal setting of their conversation to conclude there were at least two editions of the dialogue and that Cicero wrote too hastily to properly remove traces of an earlier version. Diez suggests that the discrepancies (at ND 2.23 and 3.18) could instead be hyperbolic jokes, to the effect that Velleius’s view is out-of-date and that Balbus’s prolixity is making time drag. Diez’s later analysis of Velleius and Balbus as dogmatists of different stripes, to be discussed below, made this suggestion more plausible to me than it first appeared.

In chapter three Diez identifies a pair of distinct reading instructions in the proem. On the one hand, the reader is to investigate the existence and nature of the gods by impartially evaluating the dialogue’s doctrinal and refutative speeches for how likely they seem. On the other hand, the reader’s judgment ought to take into account which views carry the best political consequences. For Diez, a mitigated sceptic like Cicero conditions his judgments on both a view’s likelihood and its practical effects. According to Wynne, by contrast, Cicero is a radical sceptic with no qualms if the reader walks away uncommitted to whether the gods care for humans, let alone having chosen a politically inconvenient view. The disagreement is not as wide as it might seem, for Diez understands radical scepticism differently from Wynne. For Wynne, Cicero is a radical sceptic insofar as he accepts Clitomachus’s commitments to universal suspension of assent in favor of acting on what is persuasive, whereas Diez takes radical scepticism to refer to (what he believes is Arcesilaus’s) commitment to suspension of judgment without any criterion of action (pp. 116–17). Thus, Diez and Wynne at least agree that Cicero uses the probabile in inquiry. Still, will the Ciceronian sceptic condition his judgment about the gods on what is pragmatic in addition to what is persuasive? To my mind, Cicero does not say this. He underscores the consequences of theological inquiry to motivate readers, specifically those confident in their prior beliefs, to consider the matter carefully. This does not imply that he also wants readers to aim their examination at anything other than the truth or truth-like. Furthermore, for Wynne, Cicero’s discussion in the proem of the consequences of whether the gods are providential is only theoretical: even if people continued to act believing that the gods cared (but they did not), it would still entail the absence of iustitia and societas in human relationships. Where Diez takes theological beliefs to affect whether and how Romans would venerate the gods, Wynne reads Cicero as accepting an orthopractic view of Roman religion (so that changes in theological belief do not matter for the exercise of ritual). Accordingly, the problem of whether the sceptic should condition her judgment on how it would impact ordinary social interactions does not arise, since all that is at issue is whether certain social behaviors, which persist whichever view is true, would count as real expressions of justice and fellowship.

Chapter four shows that the narrative frames at the start and end of the dialogue (ND 1.15–17 and 3.95), while brief, illustrate with what attitude the reader should approach the text. Understanding these frames will also solve thorny interpretive problems about the characterization of the young Marcus Cicero. Marcus’s interlocutors all have higher social standing than he, although this is only alluded to rather than discussed. By contrast, their philosophical qualifications are directly commented upon. Cotta’s characterization as a fellow Academic with Marcus allows Cicero the author to differentiate roles between Cotta and Marcus. Since Cotta is doing the work of the refutative Academic, Marcus is not burdened with representing the Academy. His judgment is free. And given Marcus’s age, it would be inappropriate for him to represent the Academy in the company of Velleius and Balbus. To explain the absence of any Peripatetic position, as well as the attention paid to that absence (ND 1.16), Diez contrasts the nature of the inquiry of ND with that of De finibus (Fin.), where Antiochus’s Peripatetic position is represented. Diez holds that Antiochus is represented in Fin. because, first, ethics is less open to doubt than theology—Diez refers to ND’s proem on the intractability of the nature of the gods; and because, second, Marcus in Fin. finds Antiochus’s position most probable—Diez assumes this on the grounds that Piso’s speech in Fin. 5 is not given a proper refutation. Thus, ND is radically skeptical whereas Fin. is moderately skeptical (p. 141). I question both grounds of Diez’s judgment, but especially the second. Even if the two fields of ethics and theology are not similarly intractable (although see Cicero, Lucullus 129 on the ethical end: qua de re est igitur inter summos viros maior dissensio?), it is in ND, not Fin., that at least some version of Cicero approves a position. The easier solution seems to be that Balbus simply does not dispute that Antiochus’s theology, at least on the central issue of divine providence, is in fact the same as the Stoics’, just as Antiochus himself said in the book he dedicated to Balbus (see also Cicero, Academica 1.29, 1.39). Balbus mentions only that Antiochus’s ethics are not reducible to the Stoics’ (ND 1.16), which is where Stoics usually stress that they differ from Antiochus. Wynne’s explanation, incidentally, is that Cicero wants a clear and rich contrast of opposing views on the central question of providence, which is compatible with what I am saying here.

Diez then considers the matter of Marcus, that is, why he does not take part in the speeches and why he offers his concluding judgment. After refuting several alternatives, Diez’s positive account starts from the fact that while Cicero in the proem is a mature Academic capable of inventing arguments, Marcus is too young to play that role. He is restricted to being an audience of dialectic. The connection he bears to the proem is that he is the young Roman whom the proem addresses. Further, Marcus’s silence throughout the three books—as opposed to Velleius calling for Cotta to refute Balbus—provides (some) evidence that his judgment is not prejudiced. As for the difference between the Academic Cotta and Marcus, Diez thinks that, since Cotta is unwilling to give a view of his own, Cotta is a radical skeptic whereas Marcus, who adopts Philo’s (supposed) innovation of forming probable views, is of the mitigated variety. Much further work would be needed to justify this characterization: Cotta is very willing to express what he believes (which implies he assents), while Marcus’s concluding judgment seems not to involve assent, which is what mitigated skeptics in particular licensed. A similar problem appears in chapter six (pp. 304–6), where Diez finds Cotta to be a radical sceptic who despairs at the chances of discovering the truth (ND 1.94); this attitude is taken to be at odds with Cicero’s claim in the proem that more than one school cannot be correct (ND 1.5) and that accordingly, so Diez supplies, one must find what is probable in every view. For further evidence that Cotta really does despair at the prospect of discovery, Diez points to the fact that Cotta never mentions the probable, as well as Cotta’s anecdote about Simonides’ refusal to tell Hiero the nature of the gods (ND 1.60). However, in the proem, Cicero, like Cotta, accepts the very real possibility that none have discovered the truth about the gods, and he makes no mention that the reader ought to extract the probable from every view. As Diez himself recognizes (p. 305), Cotta’s supposed despair serves a polemical purpose; accordingly, we should not use it to conclude anything about his attitude towards the possibility of discovery, which even radical sceptics can accept (see, e.g., Cicero, Lucullus 76). Further, Diez seems to read Cotta’s refutative role in the dialogue as a consequence of his epistemic pessimism, but it is the other way around. Cotta does not talk about finding the probable because his role is contra dicere, not to play the judge. Concerning Cotta’s sceptical attitude, as well as the value of the Simonides anecdote as evidence for it, Diez ought to have engaged with Wynne (2014).2 All the same, the chapter is an incisive overview of the central interpretive question of the dialogue.

Diez starts chapter five by outlining what others have seen as structural problems with Velleius’s speech: namely, the disordered nature of its lengthy doxography (ND 1.18–43), the relative brevity of the subsequent doctrinal exposition (ND 1.43–56), and the duplication of polemics in both halves of the speech. Others have also found instances where Velleius seems to distort others’ or his own views, which then become used as evidence of Cicero’s ignorance or at least anti-Epicurean prejudice. Diez aims to settle both complaints by defending Velleius’s speech as both coherent (so not disordered) and competent (so not distorted) once Velleius’s character as an Epicurean is understood. 

Concerning his coherency, Diez shows that Velleius crafts his speech to proselytize and to save others from theological dread. Thus, Velleius spends a disproportionate amount of time in the doxography arguing that others’ theological accounts are wrong, and only briefly lays out Epicurus’s doctrine. For Velleius, others need only a cursory grasp of Epicurean doctrine. The sticky details can be mentioned but a lengthier exposition would distract from the point. At the end of the chapter (pp. 268–86), Diez contrasts Velleius with Balbus, a dogmatist of a different sort, who sees didactic value in a lengthy exposition which staves off potential objections before they arise. Diez ties Velleius’s and Balbus’s respective brevity and long-windedness to core aspects of their dogmatism. For instance, while each wants in his own way to reach doctrinal conclusions which transcend the limits of rational argument, Velleius tries getting there by largely setting arguments aside when the time comes for revealing Epicurus’s mysteries, whereas Balbus hopes his heap of arguments leaves his audience somewhere higher than the sum of its parts. This basis of comparison is perceptive, as it plausibly reflects Cicero’s own sceptical perspective: consciously or not, dogmatists inevitably take themselves to achieve more than their arguments warrant. Diez’s reflection on the use of brevity and length in dogmatic speeches is compelling, powerfully explains Cicero’s literary choices, and saves the scholar from hazardous conjectures about Cicero’s bungling of his source material. 

To defend Velleius’s competency, one of Diez’s methods is to schematize the argument-types Velleius uses in the opening polemic (ND 1.18–24; pp. 193–206), the doxography proper (ND 1.25–43; pp. 207–38), and the Epicurean exposition (ND 1.43–56; pp. 244–62). He roughly divides between, on one hand, arguments that rely only on common norms of rationality (e.g., that true views are not internally inconsistent) and generally accepted premises (e.g., that others’ consensus about a view is a reason for believing it) and, on the other, those that rely on premises peculiar to Epicureans (e.g., that gods are blessed and immortal). Diez then assigns grades of probability to species of each argument type. Thus, Epicurean arguments which rely solely on Epicurus’s testimony are less probable than ones which also provide reasoning consistent with Epicurean canonic (pp. 210–11). But Diez also holds that general arguments are more probable than Epicurean ones. From this schema Diez concludes that Velleius progressively moves from general, high-probability arguments in the opening polemic to specifically Epicurean, low-probability ones in the doctrinal exposition. In between lies the doxography. Mixing both argument types makes a pretense of objectivity and exemplifies Cicero’s sceptical principle that within a single argument is a web of truth and falsity (p. 266). (In measuring the probabilities of the dialogue’s arguments, Diez is indebted to the approach of Görler [p. 267].3) Such an attempt to measure the probable is counterproductive, for a few reasons.

First, it is doubtful that an argument of the generally rational type necessarily provides a better ground of approval than an argument rooted by, say, Epicurean criteria. All else being equal, an argument is more probable if its reasoning is acceptable to many than if it were not, but we should not thereby treat Velleius’s general arguments as blanketly more probable than those using Epicurean premises. Take, for instance, arguments from consensus, one of the general arguments Velleius most frequently uses. Consensus can be a guide to what is probable (Sextus Empiricus, Adversos mathematicos 7.184), but there are plenty of reasons why the sceptic might discount it in a given case (Sextus Empiricus, Adversos mathematicos 7.327–34). Cicero’s care to promote autonomy in readers would look odd if he also wanted to teach that the most probable views can simply be reduced to the most popular (cf. ND 3.11). Diez reads things differently. While discussing in the next chapter moments where Cotta seems to spare his opponents (pp. 332–40), Diez finds it telling that Velleius’s consensus argument for the gods’ existence is highly probable (because it is not dependent on Epicurean doctrine), Cotta’s counters to the same argument are brief and weak (ND 1.62–63), and Cicero in the proem says that the existence of the gods is the most probable theological view (ND 1.1). Cotta’s counterarguments are weak, Diez says, because (i) he posits but cannot actually name a people who do not believe there are gods, (ii) his list of non-believers (viz., Diagoras, Theodorus, and Protagoras) are treated as curious exceptions in the proem (ND 1.2), and (iii) his argument that any who willingly commit perjury or similar crimes must not believe there are gods is irrelevant, for Velleius could respond that the gods do not punish criminals anyway. To defend Cotta, refutations that are brief are not for that reason weak.4 Against (i), Cotta supposes there are atheistic communities not to give a (failed) counterexample but to point out that Romans have not made contact with all nations of the earth, so neither he nor Velleius are in a position to say what all people believe. Against (ii), Diagoras, Theodorus, and Protagoras are named in the proem precisely to show that even the most probable theological view, that there are gods, merits inquiry. And against (iii), the argument about what perjurers must believe given their actions can only rely on their own folk (and not Epicurean) conception of divinity—that Velleius would judge this indirect kind of testimony to be false does not make it irrelevant. Second, Diez’s account of how the probability of Velleius’s speech develops presumes a reader who evaluates arguments in the same manner as Diez. But how probable something is depends, even if only partly, on the perspective of the person judging, and Diez is not clear what philosophical points of view he imagines readers to have. Are they partial to Cotta (cf. p. 266) and perhaps disposed to approve neither dogmatic speaker? Or will they, like Marcus, be pulled by Balbus’s rational defense of a provident cosmos? Alternatively, the dialogue’s dedication to Brutus may push us to imagine how an Antiochean would regard the fictional debates, or Cicero’s preface may imply the readers are not tasked with judging what is probable from any perspective but their own. Finally, the project of affixing relative probabilities to arguments is in any case unnecessary for Diez’s larger and more incisive point, that Velleius aims to indoctrinate his audience by moving from general to specifically Epicurean forms of reasoning.

In chapter six, Diez identifies three kinds of refutation strategies in Cotta’s two speeches, although attention is squarely on Cotta’s response to Velleius. First are more nasty strategies that do not satisfy norms of dialectical refutation, including personal attacks and distortions of others’ views; second are devices not apparently refutative in nature; and third are the prim and proper refutations that either fairly identify deficiencies in opponents’ views or address their compatibility with Roman religious cult. For many of the nasty devices, Diez persuasively argues that Cotta has some ulterior but reasonable motive. Thus, Cotta attacks Epicurus’s character to balance Velleius’s tendency to heroize him (p. 301); he attacks doctrines Velleius failed to mention (like the gods’ home between worlds) to force him to face the more implausible aspects of the Epicurean system (pp. 301–2); and for a similar purpose he distorts Velleius’s own words when paraphrasing him (pp. 309–15). Often, when Diez cannot so apologize for Cotta, he supposes that Cicero wants his readers to spot where Cotta is behaving badly (pp. 303, 323, 331, 340, 351, 352–54). Since we could thus exculpate any fault or error in the dialogue, Diez might have set out some criteria limiting when to turn to extradiegetic solutions.

Table of Contents

1. Einleitung (11–28)
2. Cicero und die Quellen: Zur Rekonstruktion der ciceronischen Produktionsbedingungen (29–104)
3. Das Proömium als Ort der direkten Leserführung (105–28)
4. Die dialogische Rahmenpartie als Mittel der indirekten Leserführung (129–62)
5. Die Modellierung einer dogmatischen Rede am Beispiel der Rede des Epikureers Velleius (163–286)
6. Zu den Widerlegungsstrategien in Cottas skeptischen Gegenreden (287–357)
7. Schlussüberlegungen zur emanzipatorischen Dimension der Schrift (358–63)


1. John P. F. Wynne, Cicero on the Philosophy of Religion: On the Nature of the Gods and On Divination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

2. John P. F. Wynne, “Learned and Wise: Cotta the Sceptic in Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods,” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 47 (2014): 245-74.

3. Woldemar Görler, Untersuchungen zu Ciceros Philosophie (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1974). Görler saw Cicero as persuaded by speculative Platonist views and as unaffected by more commonly grounded arguments, whereas Diez imagines Cicero’s readers will or ought to sympathize with general arguments and therefore to reason that Velleius’s theology relies on too many peculiarly Epicurean premises to be credible.

4. Cf. Margaret Graver, review of Ciceros Kritik der Philosophenschulen by Jürgen Leonhardt, Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews 2000.06.04,


1. To what extent do you take Cicero’s aims and techniques to mark his own developments of the Academic tradition? For instance, do you think the second goal of finding what is pragmatic (besides what is probable) characteristic of an Academic, Roman, or uniquely Ciceronian sensibility?

In fact, Cicero’s own genuinely Roman achievement can be seen in this: On the one hand, he adopts Philon’s approach of a moderate scepticism quite precisely, but on the other hand, he combines it with the aim of testing all positions for their political suitability. In my opinion, it is precisely this tense juxtaposition of epistemological and pragmatic examination, which is due to Cicero’s position as a philosophising politician, that is Cicero’s own Roman achievement.

2. Do you think it’s fair to say that readers of your book can accept your reading of the dialogue’s proem, frames, and speeches without accepting your accounts of Cicero’s epistemological views? Or do you think it’s crucial that a particular brand of scepticism (specifically, that of a mitigated Philonian) grounds his emancipatory project?

To a certain extent, my observations on the literary form of the text of “De natura deorum” can be shared even without accepting my interpretation of Cicero’s scepticism. In this case, one would at least be able to acknowledge that Cicero has artfully shaped the dialogue and that certain literary staging techniques can be observed throughout. On this basis, one then has to decide whether one wants to adhere more traditionally to the thesis of Cicero’s secret manipulation of his readers or whether one sees these staging techniques (as I do) as epistemological tools for developing one’s own judgement.

3. Your character analyses of Velleius and Balbus were a highlight when reading your book. Do you have thoughts on what characters from other Ciceronian dialogues could be better understood with more careful attention paid to their techniques of argumentation?

I can only give a rudimentary answer to this important question; rather, it calls for further research into Cicero’s dialogue speakers. I would consider such studies to be particularly fruitful for those dialogues that are formally similar to “De natura deorum” – that is, the group of decidedly sceptical dialogues, to which I primarily count “De finibus” and the “Academica”.

4. Now that your co-edited volume, Zwischen Skepsis und Staatskult: Neue Perspektiven auf Ciceros & “De natura deorum,” is out, how would you advertise it to your readers: how does the volume develop ideas of this book and in what new directions does it advance?

The volume “Zwischen Skepsis und Staatskult”, which I edited together with Christoph Schubert, shows, in my opinion, on the one hand, that many fundamental questions about the objective and position of “De natura deorum” have still not been answered consensually. On the other hand, it became clear that especially in the case of “De natura deorum” it is helpful to bring together research traditions from different countries in order to become aware of one’s own “blind spots” and to look at one’s own research with new approaches.

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