Cicero and the Socratic method

Robert Joseph Gorman, University of Pennsylvania


This is a study of dialectic in Cicero's philosophical works. It concentrates particularly on Cicero's representation and evaluation in his dialogues of the Socratic method and closely related concepts. Through consideration of the Socratic method Cicero informs his views about how philosophy should be conducted and its teachings presented, and much can be learned by examining the ways in which Cicero characterizes the elenchus--for better or worse. Therefore, I present detailed interpretations of the passages in which Cicero dramatized Socratic argumentation and of his more general discussion of it. As a result I show that through these passages Cicero seeks to establish the heritage and identity of his dialogues: He both locates them within the Socratic tradition and distinguishes them from the discourse of the Greek philosophical schools. For his dramatization of the Socratic method contributes to his representation of the attitude and behavior necessary for proper philosophical discussions--a representation that acts to Romanize such debates by offering a picture of philosophizing in which there was no place for the stereotypical Graeculus ineptus. However, despite the advantageous qualities of Socratic dialectic, Cicero is aware of its limitations. Through study of a group of passages involving Stoic interlocutors, I demonstrate that Cicero considers this mode of discourse to be subject to criticism for its inability to handle a subtle and complicated philosophical system: Socratic question and answer is too limited in range and narrow of focus for this purpose. In addition, through his presentation of Socratic conversation, Cicero makes another, more serious, criticism of dialectic. It is insufficient for the therapeutic aims of philosophy. Philosophy alone cannot bring consolation to suffering minds, for it is hindered by the form of its discourse: Book 1 of the Tusculan Disputations shows dialectical argumentation at its best, but, all the same, it fails most explicitly and emphatically to give solace. As here the elenchus gives way to the schola and dialectic to rhetoric, Cicero demonstrates the need to join the acumen and learning of the one with the persuasion and therapeutic power of the other to produce perfecta philosophica.

Subject Area

Classical studies|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Gorman, Robert Joseph, "Cicero and the Socratic method" (1995). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9543080.