Monday, May 12, 2008

Clever Cicero

In the first book of the Tusculan Disputations M. turns to what is in many ways akin to a common account of the harmful deprivation caused by death. Yet even here there are some interesting and surprising aspects to the discussion that I think show the careful dialectical approach taken by Cicero. M. concedes for the sake of argument at 1.87 that death does deprive someone of various goods but then asks: ‘But should it also be conceded that the dead ‘go without’ (carere) the benefits of life and that this is what is wretched?’ The subsequent discussion in 1.87–8 rejects this possibility on the grounds of an analysis of the meaning of the verb carere (‘to be without’) [1].

M. places two conditions on the appropriate use of the verb. First, he requires that some possessor be present which first has and then lacks the particular item in question. For this reason it is inappropriate to say, for example, that living humans ‘go without’ horns of feathers. Second, and surprisingly, M. also insists that the subject should in some sense wish still to possess the lost item. Hence, he explains, it would be using the word in a different sense (alio modo) to say that someone ‘goes without’ a fever when they recover from an illness. Most generally, the relevant sense of the verb is understood to have a ‘melancholy’ (triste) air, since it implies that someone ‘had, has not, wants, searches for, desires’ (1.87: habuit, non habet, desiderat, requirit, indiget.) [2].

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that whatever the precise and proper sense of this particular Latin verb, M.’s account has introduced a further complication which is not absolutely required by his argument. Certainly, the insistence that there must be both some awareness of the loss in question and also a negative evaluation of that loss seems to narrow the possible scope of his argument to those accounts which agree that all harms must be noticed and registered by the subject as somehow harmful. A more generally applicable argument would require only that some subject persists both before and after the supposed loss and would not require in addition that the subjects somehow recognises the loss and finds it harmful. Why has M. offered what looks to be a less effective argument?

Here is my best guess. Most likely, he wants to attempt an argument which will be relevant for both those who think that the soul perishes at death and those who think that it persists. Certainly at 1.88 he remarks that it has not yet been demonstrated that the soul is mortal. In that case, the additional requirement that there be some desire for what has been lost will allow M. to say that, even if our souls persist after death they do not ‘feel the need for’ the goods of life: these are either no longer the sort of things that are appropriate for them to desire (just as it is senseless for a human to ‘feel the need of’ horns) or, even if they could desire them they are in such a better state now they are incarnate that they will feel no residual impulse to possess what they have lost. Of course, should it turn out that souls are mortal then it will equally be the case that the dead will not ‘feel the need of’ the goods of life; they do not ‘feel the need of’ anything since they lack all sensation.

Clever Cicero.

[1] See the entry in the Oxford Latin dictionary s.v. 1b, particularly for the use of the verb in periphrastic expressions meaning ‘to die’, e.g. carere + vita (life), luce (light), sensu (sensation).

[2] King’s translation in the Loeb Classical Library has ‘feel the need of’ for carere throughout this section. Since M. thinks it important to explain that this is the proper connotation of the word King is probably right that this is the sense M. has in mind, but a more neutral translation (e.g. ‘go without’) would make the explicit clarification more warranted.

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