Tusculan Disputations

Tusculan Disputations is considered by many to be Cicero’s richest and most profound philosophical work. This new, original translation is available in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover. An audiobook edition will also be forthcoming.

The book is a series of stimulating dialogues that take place at Cicero’s villa at Tusculum, outside of Rome. Five topics are debated and discussed: why we should not fear death, how we can endure pain, how we can alleviate distress, what are the other distresses of the mind, and why virtue is needed for a happy life. These are some of the most fundamental, basic questions of human existence.

Until now, there has been no complete, annotated, modern translation of this philosophical classic into English in nearly one hundred years. Readers will find that this translation meets a critical need for an edition that is modern, vigorous, readable, and faithful to Cicero’s unique turns of phrase and moral intensity.

Details about the book can be found in this podcast:

The many extras in this edition make it ideal for the general reader or serious student. It contains:

  • A detailed foreword and introduction
  • Summaries of the arguments of each book
  • Over six hundred and thirty annotations that explain names, places, and textual nuances
  • Illustrations
  • A detailed name and subject index for easy reference

A review of Tusculan Disputations can be found in the October 2021 issue of The New Criterion.

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Below is the book’s Foreword:

Late in his life, the novelist Herman Melville posted a quote by Friedrich Schiller on the wall beside his heavy mahogany desk.  It said, “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.”[1]  Cicero in his later years would have approved of this sentiment.  For by the time he began to write the Tusculan Disputations in 45 B.C., his youthful dreams were among his few remaining consolations. 

 Cicero’s world lay in ruins, and his list of heartaches was long.  The republican institutions he had worked all his life to support were wrecked beyond repair, having long since been dashed against the jagged rocks of factionalism and civil war.  His worst fear—the rise of a charismatic authoritarian leader—had now materialized in the form of the victorious and popular Caesar.  Historical events had overwhelmed him, and he found it difficult to adapt to the tenor of the times.  Cicero’s personal life had also devolved into a succession of crippling sorrows.  His marriages to Terentia and the much younger Publilia had been failures.  When his beloved daughter Tullia died unexpectedly in 45 B.C., the old consul was so grief-stricken that he nearly suffered a mental breakdown. 

He was in his early sixties, and he was exhausted.  The closing words of the Tusculans[2] make no effort to hide the author’s state of mind:  “I cannot easily judge how useful my efforts will be to others.  Nevertheless, for the grim sufferings and various adversities that surround me completely, no other source of relief could have been devised.”[3]  Philosophy, which he had studied in Greece as a young man and had continued to love all his life, came to his rescue.  It soothed his restless temperament, gave him strength of purpose, and provided unyielding support in his hour of need.     

In all probability Cicero began composing the Tusculans in the latter half of 45 B.C. (after completing On Moral Ends) and finished it early in the following year.[4]  Comments in his other works point to this conclusion.[5]  We may speculate that it was completed before the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C.  Cicero’s text makes no mention of Caesar’s death, and it is unlikely he would have passed over without comment an event of such importance.  The work was intended for the general public.  It is structured as a series of expository dialogues that take place during five days at Cicero’s villa at Tusculum (now the town of Frascati near Rome).  Cicero dedicated the composition to his friend Marcus Junius Brutus, the same Brutus to whom he had inscribed On Moral Ends and several other works.  Tutored by his maternal uncle Cato, Brutus had long been a student of philosophical studies. 

One of the goals Cicero had for the Tusculans was to give the average Roman an acquaintance with the beauty and profound significance of moral philosophy.  “For if I have been useful to my fellow citizens during my political career,” he announces, “my hope is that I may likewise prove useful to them, if possible, in my retirement.”[6]  The five books of the Tusculans deal with questions that are just as essential in the modern era as they were in Cicero’s day.  The first book discusses the fear of death; the second, enduring pain; the third, the management of anxiety and distress; the fourth, the various other disorders of the mind; and the fifth, whether virtue alone is sufficient for leading a happy life.  What questions in life could be more important than these?

 The Tusculans is a less technical work than On Moral Ends, and covers a much broader range of topics than On Duties.  Although there is a subtle unity and organization to the treatise, Cicero does not feel bound to follow a rigid set of didactic formulas.  The tone is relaxed, intimate, and yet commanding.  Someone suggests a topic for discussion and offers his view; Cicero then attempts to rebut that view. 

We do not know the identities of the interlocutors in the dialogues, but they do not seem to be Cicero’s peers, as were the speakers in On Moral Ends.  As an older man with considerable experience in politics and law, Cicero enjoyed being surrounded by young men of good character whom he could instruct in philosophy.  It seems he held at his villa what we might today call “private seminars” for select students.  In the mornings the attendees received instruction in rhetoric, then later in the day spent time at the academia where philosophical questions were discussed.[7]

Although each of the five books of the Tusculans deals with a discrete topic, there is a common theme pulsing through the work, centered on the question of how to live a happy life.  What principles form the basis of the happy life?  How should we go about acquiring and implementing these principles?  The fact that Cicero was able to focus his mind on such profound human questions while mired in extreme personal grief says a great deal about his character and intellect.  The reader of the Tusculan Disputations is carried along not just by the nobility of the ideas, but by the striking grandeur and loftiness of the language.  It remains one of the greatest and most accessible works of Western philosophy; and, in raw honesty, depth of sentiment, and stylistic power, it would find no prose rival in Europe until the advent of Montaigne, Bacon, and Descartes.    

For all of its compelling merits, the Tusculans has been relatively neglected by scholars in the modern era.  As far as I can tell, the only complete English translation in print is that of J.E. King for the Loeb Series, which dates to 1927.  Now almost a hundred years old, however, it is unavoidably dated; its language and syntax make it nearly inaccessible for the contemporary reader or student.  There have been several partial translations of the Tusculans in recent decades, but the fact remains that until now no complete, annotated, modern translation of the text designed for the general reader has been available.  This situation encouraged me to conclude early in 2020 that the time was ripe for a new and fully annotated translation of this neglected classic. 

 Why has the Tusculan Disputations been relatively overlooked?  The answer, I think, has something to do with our modern era’s discomfiture with what is termed “moral philosophy.”  I suspect many uninitiated readers are likely to wince at hearing the phrase.  Moral philosophy—so they think—smacks of preachiness, of stodgy rules and restrictions, of intimidating old men in marble statues with wrinkled visages, wagging their fingers scoldingly at onlookers down the centuries.  Perhaps we moderns have also grown too confident in the ability of our medical science and technology to alleviate the kind of existential distress that Cicero discusses.  What can the wisdom of the ancients teach us about pain, fear, anxiety, and sorrow, when we can simply reach for another bottle of pills, anesthetize ourselves with more food and drink, or submerge our anxieties in mindless entertainments and frivolous distractions?     

If those who hold these views were actually to open and read the Tusculans, they would quickly discover how mistaken they are.  The book is an agonizingly honest personal testament written by a suffering man who was groping in the dark for answers that might save his sanity and his soul.  What predicament could be more “modern” than this?  Who among us is not looking for ways to alleviate the fear of death, to deal with pain, and to cope with anxiety and grief?  Who among us has not wondered if virtue was truly necessary for living a happy life?     

Moral philosophy, it turns out, has nothing to do with being lectured or scolded.  It is, rather, a courageous attempt to make sense of the human condition, and to find techniques of coping with the world’s heartless cruelties and injustices.  After many generations of neglect, our era is rediscovering that Cicero’s ideas on moral philosophy offer a fresh, relevant perspective on timeless problems, and provide a soothing antidote to the toxic stresses, pressures, and anxieties that modern consumerist society generates.     

Let us say a few words on the art of translation.  In his essay On Translation, the poet and scholar John Dryden suggested that translations fall into three general types.  The first kind he called metaphrase, by which he meant a literal rendering of a work in a word-for-word equivalence.  The second kind he called paraphrase, where “the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense.”  The third type he called “imitation,” where the translator takes his own liberties with the text as he sees fit. 

I reject out of hand Dryden’s third category as not qualifying as a translation at all.  True translations inevitably fall somewhere between the poles of metaphrase and paraphrase; and it is the translator’s art to decide when and where to gravitate towards one pole or the other.  The brilliant Wilhelm von Humboldt, in the introduction to his translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, offered these astute observations:

The inability to attain the peculiar beauty of the original easily entices one to embellish [a translation] with foreign decoration, which as a rule simply produces a false coloring and a different tone…A translation cannot and should not be a commentary…Never expect that what is sublime, immense, and extraordinary in the original language will be easily and immediately comprehensible in the translation.  Ease and clarity always remain virtues that a translator attains only with the utmost difficulty, and never through mere hard work and revision:  they are due for the most part to fortuitous inspiration…[8]

His points are well taken.  My own goal has always been to remain as faithful as possible to the words and ideas in Cicero’s text, while at the same time being mindful of my responsibility to convey these words and ideas in an English idiom that is modern, accurate, and seasoned with Ciceronian flavorings.  Judgment calls must inevitably be made.  Not every complex Ciceronian sentence, for example, should be mechanically reproduced in a single English sentence if the result would sound absurd or clumsy.  Perhaps Dryden said it best when he noted, “He [the translator] ought to possess himself entirely and perfectly comprehend the genius and sense of his author, the nature of the subject, and the terms of the art or subject treated of.  And then he will express himself as justly, and with as much life, as if he wrote an original:  whereas he who copies word for word loses all the spirit in the tedious transfusion.”[9] 

Textual presentation and formatting are underappreciated arts.  In formatting the dialogues, I have opted for modern conventions in which each statement by a speaker begins with its own separate indented paragraph.  This was the method used in my translation of On Moral Ends and the result proved to be very satisfactory.  The reader can see who is saying what to whom, and can easily track the flow of discourse.      

The footnotes in the text are designed to assist readers by identifying unfamiliar names, places, and terms.  References to passages in the Tusculans are given by book (Roman numeral) and chapter (Arabic numeral).  I have added a title page and frontispiece written in Latin so that readers might see the language used in a contemporary context.  Illustrations have been included to provide visual refreshment, and to augment enjoyment of the text.  They have been reproduced from several older reference works.[10] 

The Latin text used was Tischer and Sorof’s excellent 1884 critical edition (Tischer, G. & Sorof, G., M. Tulii Ciceronis Tusculanarum Disputationum Ad M. Brutum Libri Quinque, Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung (1884)).  For the first book of the Tusculans, I also consulted Rockwood, F.E. (ed.), M. Tulii Ciceronis Tusculanarum Disputationum Liber Primus Et Somnium Scipionis, New York:  Ginn and Company (1903).         

Finally I would especially like to thank Dr. Michael Fontaine of Cornell University, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the project from the beginning.  His unmatched erudition, patience, and irrepressible sense of humor for the past year and a half have been greatly appreciated.  Gratitude is also owed to my friend Gianni Di Poce, who kindly allowed me to include several of his photographs of Arpino, Cicero’s hometown.  James Seehafer, as always, lent his artistic skills in the preparation of the cover art and was a consistent supporter from beginning to end. 

I am also indebted to the many readers of my earlier translations for their helpful comments and recommendations, all of which I found insightful.  A characteristic of any noble enterprise is the maximum effort that it demands; and I have taken to heart the poet Lucan’s counsel when he said:

I beg you, do not hold back on what is needed;

Give to things their names and places,

And furnish a voice through which

Fate may speak to me.[11]

                                                                                                Quintus Curtius

                                                                                                (George Thomas)

                                                                                                Overland Park, Kansas

                                                                                                June 2021     


[1] Laurie Robertson-Lorant, Melville:  A Biography, New York:  Clarkson Potter (1996), p. 565. 

[2] This is the shortened name (Tusculanae) used by the ancient writers (Priscian, Nonius, Tertullian’s Apol. 50, etc.).

[3] V.41.

[4] A comment in V.11 of the Tusculans indicates that On Moral Ends was finished.

[5] Academica II.2, On Moral Ends V.11, and On Divination II.1.

[6] I.3. 

[7] II.3. 

[8] Schulte, R. & Biguenet, J. (ed.) Theories of Translation, Chicago:  Univ. of Chicago Press (1992), p. 59.  

[9] Id. at 31. 

[10] These are:  Baumeister, A. (ed.) Denkmäler des Klassischen Alterums, Munich:  Druck & Verlag Von R. Oldenbourg (1889); J.C. Ridpath, Cyclopedia of Universal History, New York:  Hunt & Eaton (1885); C.F. Horne (ed.), Great Men and Famous Women, New York:  Selmar Hess (1894); Allen, J.R. (ed.), The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist, Vol. X, London:  Bemrose & Sons Ltd. (1904).  

[11] Pharsalia VI.773.

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Below are previews of pages in the book:

I made a Latin frontispiece and dedication page, so that readers might derive some enjoyment from seeing Latin used in a contemporary setting.

I hope readers find this translation to be a useful in exploring a world that has until now been largely unseen. Readers who have additional questions can email the publisher at: qcurtius@gmail.com.