Book Review: On Life And Death

On Life And Death, by Cicero, a new translation by John Davie

This book is not one of Cicero’s strongest, but it the reasons for that are rather complicated. There are no doubt some readers who will really appreciate this work, as it is an obscure work by a noted Roman politician who also fancied himself to be a philosopher, even if he was largely aping the Greek models he knew. And for me, as a reader, it is the obvious Greek aspect of the author’s philosophizing that comes off somewhat less than triumphantly, not least because it is far from original, but also because I happen to disagree quite strongly with the author about some of his assumptions, not least the assumption that mankind has an immortal soul, a complex subject of conversation which is far beyond the scope of a book review, but which has a major influence on the way that I see a book in which this particular idea is front and center and assumed as a given in the author’s thinking. It is often the case that where a reader and writer do not meet in agreement, that the reader is likely to be less than kind to a writer, and while I do not wish to be unkind to the author, I certainly cannot walk with him in agreement, and that diminished my own enjoyment of the book.

This book is mercifully a rather short one at less than 200 short pages. It begins with an introduction, a note on the text, a select bibliography, as well as a chronology of Cicero, all of which make for excellent starting material that is very well worth having in any book by the author. Following this, the main part of the book, about 3/4 or so of the total contexts, is made up of the five books of the Tusculan Disputations, which is set up as a discussion about the matter of how one should live and die, where the author sets himself up as an expert whose thoughts are supposed to matter and supposed to carry a great deal of weight, making critical comments about the Greek schools of philosophy like the stoics and epicureans. This particular book does not include the complete version of this, having books 1 and 2 as well as 5, but only the preface to books 3 and 4, for some reason. After that the book contains two generally good essays from the author on Old Age (which the author was sadly not to enjoy because his own life was cut short), as well as on the subject of friendship. The appendix includes two letters to friends that demonstrates his own warmth as a friend and then some explanatory notes.

There are, to be sure, other reasons why I do not feel that this book is the author’s strongest. One of those is the generally high standard of Cicero’s rhetoric when it is devoted to practical ends, such as his letters to his brother as well as his efforts to make speeches in court as well as in the Senate, where he remains one of the most notable and influential leaders of Rome during the dark last days of the Roman Republic, where he was a martyr to the Republican cause. This also hints at one of the other aspects of the book which is less than entirely satisfying, in that the book does not make the reader any wiser about the writer’s on dealings with death. The writer approaches the subject matter of life and death in a very lofty and abstract manner, and does not really get to brass tacks about how it is one goes about dealing with the reality of one’s demise, which for the author was in an unexpected and deeply unpleasant way. At any rate, if you want to see Cicero as a philosopher in the tradition of the Greek philosophers who came before him, this book is certainly about a worthwhile subject even if the author is not particularly original or accurate in his musings.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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