Five questions that will change your life
A brief discussion of practical ethics inspired by Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations
These days I spend a significant amount of time reading ancient Greco-Roman ethical philosophy. That’s because I think those authors got a lot of things right, and that for a variety of reasons their approach to ethics—broadly construed as being concerned with how to live a good life—is superior to the post-Enlightenment stuff (Kant, Mill, and so forth) that has shaped the modern conception of moral philosophy.
This year in particular—which I’m lucky enough to spend on a sabbatical leave from my university—is devoted to reading and writing about Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman advocate, statesman, and philosopher who lived near the end of the Republican period and almost single handedly brought philosophy from Greece to Rome.
One of Cicero’s books that is on my list to re-read is his Tusculanae Disputationes, or Tusculan Disputations, which he wrote around 45 BCE, at age 61, two years before he died. His daughter Tullia had recently passed away, on top of which things were perilous in Rome in terms of politics. So Cicero retired to his villa in Tusculum, on the Alban Hills south-east of Rome. He wanted to make good use of his time away from the capital, as well as to employ writing as a source of distraction and self-consolation for his grief.
But this essay is not about Cicero’s writings. At least, not directly. As an experiment in developing my own thoughts I am going to try to address the same five questions that structure the Tusculan Disputations before I re-read the book. In other words, I want to see what comes out of my own keyboard if I tackle the same issues that concerned Cicero without having the benefits of a fresh and recent reading of his work.
The five questions, I think, are still very much of concern to all of us. Each one is treated in one of the chapters (“books”) of the original Disputations. Here they are:
1. What should our attitude be toward death?
2. How do we bear pain?
3. How do we deal with grief?
4. How do we handle emotions more generally?
5. What is the source of a happy life?
Of course, the ideas expressed below are very much informed by my interest in Greco-Roman philosophy, as well as by my practice of Stoicism. That said, are you ready? Let’s go.
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