Although scarcely read today, until the last century Cicero was one of the most widely admired writers of classical antiquity. His reputation was especially high in the period from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and it must be recognized that his writings have had an incalculable influence on the development of modern education and ethical and political thought, an influence so pervasive that it is still active even on those millions who have never read a word of Cicero. The writings of Cicero, the “typical” Roman, fall into three broad categories, each with its own interest and importance: the orations, magnificent and forceful speeches Cicero delivered in the various law courts and political assemblies of the late Roman republic; the epistles, a large body of personal letters written to close friends and associates, full of historical and biographical information, and masterly in style; and the treatises, a group of essays and studies.
The treatises themselves fall into five main categories: works on speculative philosophy, pagan theology, the art of rhetoric, politics, and morals.
With the exception of the five books of the TUSCULAN DISPUTATIONS, perhaps the least interesting of the treatises to the general reader are those concerned with speculative philosophy and pagan theology. These works, like most of Cicero, rely heavily on Greek antecedents. The theological works include ON THE NATURE OF THE GODS, Cicero’s major work in this category, which explains the views on the subject of the Epicurean, Academic, and Stoic philosophers. The author’s proof in this treatise of a benign providence is much admired. ON DIVINATION and ON FATE are supplements to ON THE NATURE OF THE GODS. In the first, Cicero discusses the kinds of divination practiced by the Romans. In the fragmentary ON FATE the subject is the problem of free will.
Earliest among the speculative works is the ACADEMICS, an only partially surviving study of the philosophy of the Athenian Academy. ON THE GREATEST DEGREES OF GOOD AND EVIL, in five books, is a consideration of the basic ethical problem: the determination of what is the chief good and ultimate aim of life. In this treatise is found a survey of the various ethical doctrines influential in Rome; Cicero decides for the philosophy of the Academy, whose teachings are fit for aristocrats, leaders, and scholars. The five books of the TUSCULAN DISPUTATIONS, a treatise much read in later times, are concerned with the essential constituents of happiness: contempt of death, endurance of affliction, alleviation of grief and other disturbing emotions, and the idea that virtuous living is in itself the happy life.
Among the rhetorical treatises is found Cicero’s earliest prose work, ON INVENTION. This book was to have been a complete and systematic survey in Latin of the best of Greek rhetorical instruction. Cicero never completed it. This work is of little interest except to the scholar. The same may be said of three other works in this category: THE DIVISIONS OF ORATORY, a catechism of rhetorical practice in dialogue form and written for the instruction of his young son; ON THE BEST KIND OF ORATOR, a surviving introduction to a now lost translation of certain orations of the great Greek speakers of the fourth century B.C., Demosthenes and Aeschines; and the TOPICA, an abstract of the TOPICS (methods of drawing conclusions) of Aristotle.
Three other of the rhetorical works, however, are of more general interest: BRUTUS, THE ORATOR, and ON THE ORATOR. BRUTUS is a literary history, in dialogue form, of Greek and Roman eloquence. Cicero includes in this work an interesting discussion of his own rhetorical development and discusses important problems of style. THE ORATOR is a detailed treatise written in...
(The entire section is 1616 words.)