Clerestory

Cultivation of the Soul

June 27, 2020

Part of a series on culture.

In 45 BC, when Cicero was 61, his daughter Tullia died shortly after she gave birth. “I have lost the one thing that bound me to life,” he wrote. He left public life, retiring to Asterra, an estate of his near Tusculum, where he devoted himself to philosophy.

Cicero was executed two years later. But in the interim he wrote both the Tusculan Disputations and De finibus bonorum et malorum (“On the Ends of Good and Evil”), each in five short books.

Together, the two comprise his most extensive philosophical work. The latter summarised and criticised Epicureanism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and a branch of Platonism. The former includes the transcripts of philosophical debates he had with friends who had accompanied him in his mourning.

You may have learned, as I did in school, that the Romans “stole” Greek culture (a word we’ll come back to). But I do not recall learning that this effort (and the Romans’ own estimation of their inadequacy in comparison with the Greeks) was quite so self-conscious as it appears to have been. Cicero writes, for example, in the Tusculan Disputations:

But yet I am so far from desiring that no one should write against me, that it is what I most earnestly wish; for philosophy would never have been in such esteem in Greece itself, if it had not been for the strength which it acquired from the contentions and disputations of the most learned men; and therefore I recommend all men who have abilities to follow my advice to snatch this art also from declining Greece, and to transport it to this city; as our ancestors by their study and industry have imported all their other arts which were worth having.

As an orator, his focus on disputation is perhaps unsurprising, but I like his perspective: that it is in discussion and cross-examination that we find out whether ideas are true, and that it was in dialogue that Greek philosophy reached its zenith. (He has shade for Epicurus and Metrodorus, who did not encourage debate, and whose writing he found too boring to read: “I do not despise them, for indeed, I never read them.”)

Cicero intended not just to appropriate, but to popularise Greek philosophy in Rome, to address a lack of ability and introspection which he perceived in his own people. But his efforts clearly had a personal and therapeutic purpose as well. Titles of the Tusculan Disputations include “On the contempt of death,” “On bearing pain,” “On grief of mind,” and “Whether virtue alone be sufficient for a happy life.”

Middleton, who made his life work his three-volume Life of Cicero, summarised the Tusculan Disputations like this in 1741:

“The first book teaches us how to contemn the terrors of death, and to look upon it as a blessing rather than an evil;
“The second, to support pain and affliction with a manly fortitude;
“The third, to appease all our complaints and uneasinesses under the accidents of life;
“The fourth, to moderate all our other passions;
“And the fifth explains the sufficiency of virtue to make men happy.”

It is this second book, “On bearing pain,” which interests me today, because in its few dozen pages occurs the first use of the term culture as a metaphor. I find this doubly interesting given the self-conscious appropriation of culture that Cicero himself was undertaking — at the Tusculan villa, where he and his friends engaged in their dialogues, he even had a gallery which he called “the Academy.”

As a reminder (I needed one), the first entry in the OED for culture is “The cultivation of land, and derived senses.” The original meaning of culture, Latin cultura, then, is in the tilling of the fields. Here’s Cicero’s famous passage:

It is not every mind which has been properly cultivated that produces fruit; and, to go on with the comparison, as a field, although it may be naturally fruitful, cannot produce a crop without dressing, so neither can the mind without education; such is the weakness of either without the other. Whereas philosophy is the culture of the mind: this it is which plucks up vices by the roots; prepares the mind for the receiving of seeds; commits them to it, or, as I may say, sows them, in the hope that, when come to maturity, they may produce a plentiful harvest.

The phrase is cultura animi, here translated as “culture of the mind,” but equally well-translated as “culture of the soul.”1

Cicero does not explain what harvest a cultivated mind should yield, and after this quote, he changes the subject back to pain. Fields may be naturally bountiful, but without cultural management they will not produce a crop. Minds may be naturally bountiful, but without cultural management they will not yield… What, precisely?

All we can take from the metaphor at this point is philosophy is preparation for the mind.

In an earlier post I thought about Aristotle’s assumption that art evolved to perfection. It’s worth quoting another section of the Tusculan Disputations, where Cicero proposes that rhetorical study be replaced by philosophical:

Thus the praise of oratory, raised from a low degree, is arrived at such perfection that it must now decline, and, as is the nature of all things, verge to its dissolution in a very short time. Let philosophy, then, derive its birth in Latin language from this time, and let us lend it our assistance, and bear patiently to be contradicted and refuted […]

In other words, Cicero seems to think that cultural forms decline over time. And rather quickly, too; he was famous for his oratory, and yet he thinks (modestly, no doubt) that the form’s decline is imminent. Prima facie this seems the opposite of Aristotle, who assumed that art forms would rapidly reach their perfection, and thereafter freeze.

I think, as I said in reference to tragedy, that the rate of change of an art form declines. And perhaps Cicero is right; neither tragedy nor oratory seem to be at any current apex.

In the next post I’ll continue tracing the use of the word “culture.”


  1. I’ll probably write about anima (breath/spirit) and animus (mind/soul) a bit more later; Cicero brings up this distinction, later reanimated by Jung, in the first of the Disputations.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.