Boni Gone Bad: Cicero’s Critique of Epicureanism in De Finibus 1 and 2

In: Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought
Michelle T. Clarke Associate Professor, Department of Government, Dartmouth College Dartmouth, NH USA

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This paper argues that Cicero’s critique of Epicureanism in De finibus is motivated by a concern about its degrading effect on the moral sensibility of Rome’s best men. In place of earlier objections to Epicureanism, which centered on its inability to explain or recommend the virtuous conduct of Roman maiores, De finibus focuses on its inability to do so properly and, more prospectively, to assist boni in the work of maintaining the dignity and respectability of Roman civic life. Responding to optimates like Cassius who claimed that Epicureanism was compatible with Roman politics because it treats virtue as being necessary for pleasure, Cicero holds that instrumentalizing virtue in this way is actually a grave corruption of it. Not only do Epicureans debase politics by reducing it to considerations of utility alone: they also introduce deeper forms of civic confusion by distorting and abusing the very idea of honorableness.

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