Cicero about cause and responsibility
Cicero is part of a rare class of men who know two largely seperated worlds of
The first and most important of these is the world of practical social and political thinking, the second is the world of philosophical thinking.
In the first world one finds thinkers keen to change the world. A good example is Hammurabi, a Mesopotamian leader in antiquity under whose rule a Codex was written down concerning private and administrative law. Some others: Koran, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, written in the French Revolution, Hitler's Mein Kampf, and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are many more examples of coherent systems of thought proposed by practical thinkers, and intended to delineate a new order of human relations.
The second world is that of philosophers. Philosophical thought typically has no concrete political message. Philosophers follow their own freely floating thoughts on matters of their interest. They do not usually receive attention of practical leaders, but if they do, they not infrequently get killed.
The big difference is, of course, that practical men have power, and philosophers have not. Hence the life of a philosopher is a perilous one. For philosophers break a basic rule of all societies: if you have no power, you shut up. Forces exerted upon philosophers who succeed in attracting general attention will shake their lives in a way that is virtually impossible for them to control ( Philosophers in Disgrace, Philosophers in Demand).
Cicero is part of the rare class of thinkers well acquainted both with the "heavy" thoughts of practical men and with the "light" thoughts of philosophers. He knew the thoughts of philosophers like Demokritos, Herakleitos, Empedokles and Aristoteles. And he knew more about them than we shall ever be able to, because of many of their books ("books", where large rolls of paper at the time) all copies were destroyed in conflicts around later Semitic (christian, muslem) take-overs of Mediterranean societies, or later got bleached by European christian monks in order to make more copies of the Bible.
All those philosophers, Cicero found, however their opinions diverted, agreed about one thing: everything that happens at a certain moment is fully determined by everything that happened before. Nothing happens accidentally. Everything is determined beforehand. We surely know far too little to be able to predict everything correctly. But though no one knows exactly, it is determined by the past.
The thought is appealing: it clears the mind of a lot of problems: nobody can blame you for anything. Moralists loose their jobs. But Cicero is an important Roman state official, so every day he needs to press people on their duties and responsibilities. Politically his time was hectic. Conspirers had to be found and killed. That matches poorly with fatalistic philosophical determinism. So he sets out to find a leak in it, in order to be justified in firing some people or having them thrown before the lions, as was one option open to him in the performance of his official duties.
Luckily for him, Cicero found another philosopher in search for a leak in determinism: Chrysippos. Some of Cicero's examples are inspired by Chrysippos: man is determined by his environment. In dry areas, people are thin, tawny and wrinkly, in fertile valley with lots of rain they are somewhat slimy-moist and a little fat. In Athens the air is thin and delicate, therefore the Athenians are intelligent. In Thebe the air is thick, hence Thebans are muscular and strong. But the delicate Athenian air does not determine whether an Athenian student prefers to take lectures from Zeno, Arcesilaos or Theophrastos, and the thick air in Thebe does not determine whether a Theban longs for a prestigious victory on Nemea or on the Isthmus.
So Cicero seeks the leak in determinism in the detail of events. Causes do determine events, but there are two types of situations: if there are "full and sovereign" causes, nothing could be changed and no one has anything in his power to do something about it. But in most cases, there are, Cicero holds, only "helping and directly related" causes. In such cases, "voluntary movements of the soul" can make a difference in details, and even can make the balance turn. Hence, in such cases, and those abound, people can be held responsible for their deeds. A Theban cannot be blamed for being muscular and warlike. That is due to the thick air in his city. But when he starts to fight at the wrong place, he can be ordered to be thrown before the lions, because that was a voluntary movement of his soul.
For those to whom the solution seems not satisfactory: later philosophers solved the problem of determinism in a completely different way. They took the daring step to turn around completely and ask determinist philosophers like Democritos, Herakleitos, Empedokles, Aristoteles and so many other philosophers: what are the causes determining all those particular events in the world called accusations, guilt and punishment? And what causes a fatalist determinist philosopher to think it useful to try to convince others that nothing can be done about anything? And if your audience does not want to believe you, was that determined too?
Post your solutions to: Help PHiLES