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On Academic Scepticism (Academica) - Cicero, Charles Brittain Most of Marcus Tullius Cicero's (106-43 BCE) Academica has been lost to the winds of time. He produced two editions of this work, the first in two books, of which we have only the second, and the second edition in four books, of which we have only portions of the first book. And the bits of the latter we do have don't fit together very well with the former, due to changes in the dramatis personae and dates. This promises a field day for a philologist, but, for one interested in philosophy, to find most of the beginning of an argument missing is somewhat disheartening. During Cicero's time the intellectuals of the Roman empire were themselves Greek or bilingual Romans. So philosophy was simply done in Greek, by everybody. Forced out of public life by Julius Caesar's dictatorship, Cicero wanted to reach out to the non-Greek-reading Romans, and in order to do so he had to invent a philosophical vocabulary in Latin. Fortunately for the Romans, Cicero was particularly well suited for this task. The Romans accepted his neologisms and increasingly philosophized in Latin; for reasons well known to all, they subsequently influenced philosophizing in most of the European languages, as well. I mention this because, though he may not have been the most original philosopher of ancient times, he was a particularly well informed one, and because the book under review was part of his project to bring philosophy into the Latin language.The book takes the form of a debate between a character (who changed between the first and second editions for reasons I won't go into) representing the position of the Stoics and one (coincidentally named Cicero in both editions) representing that of the so-called Academic sceptics, though there are subsidiary characters participating in the discussion. Unlike many of Plato's "dialogues", Cicero's is an authentic exchange of views. The Academica was written late in Cicero's life, and by then (and possibly much earlier, but that is being argued by the experts(*)) he adhered to the positions and techniques then being taught at the Academy in Athens. Briefly summarized, they held that under close scrutiny, (almost) all philosophical positions crumbled; that there are positions more persuasive (i.e. which crumble less swiftly) than others, but there are (almost) none that a rational person could accept as the Truth. One of the techniques students of that school had to practice was to argue both sides of every question. So, when Cicero set out to present two distinct philosophical positions, he earnestly made the argument on both sides (in contrast to Plato). As he had studied all of the major philosophical schools, he correctly represented the position of the Stoics in this dialogue (according to the experts).The argument in the Academica is focused on epistemology, i.e. on truth and knowledge. What are they and can we attain them? Epistemology is still a central field of study in modern academic philosophy, but the arguments have become very technical. The basic positions argued in this dialogue are still in play today. But be warned, though the arguments in this book are less technical than those to be found in the modern literature, they are still not easy reading for many.Since much of the Stoic literature Cicero could pull out of his legendary library and unroll at his convenience has not survived, a good portion of what we know about Hellenistic Stoicism has been gleaned second hand from Latin texts like this one. Reading this book offers one of the few opportunities to catch a reliable glimpse into the thoughts of Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school in Athens, who, had his works survived as Plato's and most of Aristotle's did, could well be regarded as their equal now. Philosophical Stoicism was essentially formed in the estimated 705 books Chrysippus wrote, of which not a single manuscript has survived in more than fragmentary fashion. (Ach, wie man träumt!) By the time Cicero wrote this book, the Stoic/Academic debate about epistemology had already been underway for 250 years. One of the great services of this edition translated and commented by Charles Brittain is that he provides an overview of what we know about the historical development of this 250 year old argument from this and other sources. This eases the entry into the dialogue's topics, but Brittain also analyzes how the different historical layers of the debate are reflected in Cicero's text and, thus, significantly aids understanding an incomplete text like this. Even with these aids, the usefulness and pleasure of reading this book are mitigated by its incompleteness. Nonetheless, the entire second book of the first edition is here, and after making the necessary transition, aided by Brittain's introduction and notes, one is soon engaged in the very clear and interesting exchange of ideas that Cicero so deftly presents. It then becomes a real pleasure. How many philosophical books are written now with illustrative examples taken from mythology and literature? As for the remaining fragments of the first book of the second edition, the first 20 pages are complete, and then the text breaks off in mid-sentence... After that, only pieces. What a shame.For those who understand French, I strongly recommend that you also read the fine review by Yann of a French edition of this book:http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/312427292Our reviews supplement each other nicely.Let me close with Cicero's graceful words:However, I should come to a close, Lucullus, since it's time for me to sail, as the west wind's whispers as well as the boatman's signals are telling me, and since I have said quite enough.(*) I suspect that he did have such views much earlier, because such a philosophical position would enable him to avoid the danger that his political and oratorical manipulations, which were made with little regard for what was actually true, would be inconsistent with his philosophy - if we cannot unimpeachably know truth, then one need not and cannot take it into account in one's actions. But perhaps I have the cart before the horse.