72 - Raphael Woolf on Cicero

Posted on 18 March 2012

Peter talks to Raphael Woolf about the method and philosophical allegiance of Cicero, focusing on the work On Ends (De Finibus).

Further Reading

• J. Annas (ed.), R. Woolf (trans.), Cicero: On Moral Ends (Cambridge: 2001).

• R. Woolf,  "Particularism, Promises and Persons in Cicero's De Officiis," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 33 (2007), 317-46.


Marissa 21 March 2012


As I understand what you've said, the Academic Skeptics say that all opinions about what is true are provisory, subject to further evidence, but that the Sage will accept those opinions that are most plausible and/or credible.
I like this. It sounds like a philosophy of science to me; science being (in my opinion) the closest any of us will ever get to Truth.
BUT I can't help noticing that you haven't given us any guidelines for how to assess plausibility or credibility (which are also not quite the same thing).
When you and Raphael got to talking about local culture, I thought that was where you were going. Did Cicero see it that way? Did he(or any of his teachers) proposed any other yardsticks?


Hi Marissa,

Yes, this is the key question, but unfortunately very hard to answer. As you'll see in the next episode on Sextus, some skeptics (the Pyrrhonists) distanced themselves from this whole "plausible" idea, since they held that all beliefs are in balance as to truth vs falsehood. But Philo's position is clearly saying that truth will outweigh falsehood for some beliefs -- so why? One clear case would be sense perception. If you see/hear/taste etc that things seem a certain way that gives you fallible (defeasible) grounds to believe they are that way. Since it is defeasible and always remains so, you have to be open to the possibility that you are wrong, but if you see an apple on a table you can pretty much go ahead and believe there's an apple on the table unless there is reason to distrust the perception. In the case of more abstract issues, considerations of coherence with other beliefs would come into play (and maybe this is what we're testing when we do Socratic-style argument about these beliefs). It's interesting that a non-skeptic like Galen often invokes the notion of "to pithanon" which is the skeptics' word for persuasive. He tends to say that philosophical argument can only give you plausibility, whereas empirical evidence can give you something stronger (evidence or certainty), so that he may be retaining the Philo-style skeptical attitude but only as it bears on philosophical arguments.

Hope that helps?


Glenn Russell 10 March 2013

Hi Peter,

A question if I may. Raphael Woolf spoke about how Cicero was not a Pyrrhonian skeptic but a skeptic nonetheless. Curiously, I am reading Tusculan Disputations, Book 1, where I read what strikes me as out-and-out Platonism. For example, here are 4 short quotes from the text: 1) “And so without a doubt we’ll see things much more clearly and distinctly once our soul, being free, has reached its natural destination” 2) “Were it necessary, I could go on at length about the many and varied marvels the soul will encounter in the heavens.” 3) “Even if Plato offered no logical explanation, his authority would convince me, so much do I respect the man.” 4) When he says ‘know thyself’ he means ‘know your soul’. The body is just a receptacle of the soul” ----- The notes by the translator of this Penguin edition, Thomas Habinek, state the dialogue is between an unnamed interlocutor and Cicero. Now, I suppose the question is: Would Raphael Woolf agree? In other words, are these quotes to be taken as Cicero’s actual position, or are they being put forth by a fictional Platonic philosopher and Cicero is still keeping his distance and maintaining a degree of skepticism? Thanks. Since you mentioned Raphael Woolf also teaches at Kings College, I hope my question isn’t too much of an imposition. Also, I look forward to reading Professor Woolf’s new book on Cicero.

Best, Glenn

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