On Moral Ends

My illustrated, annotated translation of Cicero’s De Finibus (On Moral Ends) was released on October 12, 2018.  It is available in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and audio formats.  Click on the image above for Amazon purchase information.  The book is also available at all major retailers, including Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, and Books-A-Million.  This article will explain the unique features of this highly original translation, and why it represents a new direction for what may be Cicero’s most profound work.

At 365 pages, this book contains numerous special features that make it ideal for the motivated self-learner or for classroom use.  Fully self-contained, it is designed both for the serious student and for those who have no prior background in classical studies.  These special features include the following:

1.  A clear, modern, and accurate translation gained from intensive study of the Latin text.

2.  Sixty-five (65) original photographs, taken by the translator, of the actual locations where the dialogues took place in Italy and Greece (Cumae and Tusculum in Italy, the Platonic Academy in Athens, and other historical sites in Athens).  These photos enhance comprehension and appreciation of the text.  Besides photos, the book contains additional illustrations.

3.  Over four hundred sixty scholarly footnotes that explain every name, concept, and detail needed for comprehension.

4.  Greatly improved formatting of the dialogues, using modern formatting conventions for ease of reading.

5.  Detailed topical organization table for easy, fast location of topics and issues.

6.  Detailed descriptive index.

7.  Extended introduction that explains the author’s life and works, the organization and layout of the text, and summaries of the three philosophical systems discussed by Cicero.

8.  Commentaries at the end of each of the five books that assist the reader in understanding the text.

The essential question asked in “On Moral Ends” is this: what is the ultimate end or goal of human life that provides us with a rational plan for living? In a series of stimulating dialogues, Cicero examines three philosophical systems and attempts to arrive at a theory of ethics to govern life. In so doing, he eloquently voices his surpassing belief in the power of wisdom, nature, and the human soul. Until now this essential work has not been as accessible to the modern reader as it should be. This is a translation for the new millenium, and seeks to make the text accessible to a new generation of readers.

From the Foreword:

This book is a translation of Cicero’s philosophical work On Moral Ends.  Its full Latin title is De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, but this is often shortened to De Finibus.  The meaning of the title will be discussed in the introduction.  The work is a series of dialogues in which the speakers debate the competing views of three influential philosophical schools of Cicero’s day:  Epicureanism, Stoicism, and the Academic (Platonist) philosophy of Antiochus of Ascalon.  The unifying theme of the dialogues is the search for answers to the following questions:

  1. What is our “end” (i.e., the final objective or ultimate goal of human life) that provides us with a rational plan for living happily and doing good works?
  2. What is the most desirable principle sought after by nature?
  3. What is the greatest evil that nature avoids?[1]

On Moral Ends is thus a work of moral or ethical philosophy.  In three separate dialogues, Cicero’s speakers guide us through the intricacies of each of these competing schools of thought.  We thereby hear proposed answers to the questions noted above.  The beauty and value of the work lies not so much in its conclusions—for these are open to differing interpretations—but rather in how each speaker argues his corner and makes his case.  It is a rigorous treatise, and perhaps Cicero’s most intensely focused.  But the rewards it offers are beyond valuation.  If the reader can complete the journey to the end of the fifth book, he or she will have gained a deep and nuanced appreciation of some of life’s most fundamental questions.  Cicero’s passion for the subject matter shines through on every page, and help make the reader’s sojourn a memorable and moving experience.

This foreword will explain the special features included in this book.  The introduction that follows it will provide background information essential for an understanding of the text of On Moral Ends.  My goal was to produce an English rendition of the Latin text that would be as modern, clear, and faithful to the original as possible.  On Moral Ends is a detailed and sometimes technical work, yet also frequently conversational and argumentative.  It rises to soaring and inspiring eloquence, especially in Book V.  The translator must be able to articulate these divergent literary qualities in modern, lucid English.  It is his responsibility to convey the flavor of Cicero’s elegant Latin through the use of appropriate English idiom, phrasing, sentence structure, rhythm, and overall tone.  If an original author is eloquent, passionate, and disputatious, then his translator must try to convey these qualities using the tools his own language gives him.

Translators love to talk about translating, and I am no exception.  We are fond of pronouncing our theories of translation, and reminding readers of the difficulties we have overcome.  Every sculptor is proud of his chisel, and every painter defensive of his brush.  Translation is an interpretative art:  one is conveying words, ideas, idioms, and rhetorical flavors from one verbal universe to another.  The translator must not only know his text well, but he must know his author well; he must be attuned to his likes, dislikes, peccadilloes, personality, and idiosyncrasies.

I believe an original text should be preserved in form and spirit by a careful attention to its rhetorical style, grammatical constructions, and idiomatic peculiarities.  When a literary work in Latin (or any other language) is translated into English, all of English’s flexible tools must be deployed with these purposes in mind.  The act of translation must challenge and—I am not afraid to say it—torment the translator, so that he or she is forced to invent novel structures, phrases, and stylistic devices to evoke a different world.  Brute labor must be enlightened by bursts of innovative creativity.

But this is not all.  In a serious and detailed philosophical work, it is important to present the text in a way that enhances understanding.  Too often, translators of classical literature have failed to appreciate just how much a text’s appearance, formatting, and presentation can contribute to—or detract from—a reader’s comprehension.  As I explain below, I have opted to use modern conventions in the formatting of the dialogues.  It is often forgotten that On Moral Ends is, after all, a series of dialogues.  It was written as a set of dialogues, and we should read it as such.  Its interpretation should begin from this reference point.

Some editors of classical texts choose to format dialogues such that the successive statements and responses of speakers are placed alongside each other, one after the other, in single, cumbersome paragraphs.  This may be due to a desire to save printing space or costs; or it may be due to a lack of concern for the needs of readers.  In any case, the final result resembles a hodgepodge of quotation marks, commas, and verbiage that is frustratingly difficult for the eyes to follow.  The reader begins to lose track of who is saying what to whom, and inevitably loses interest.  The reader of a philosophical text deserves better.  He has enough challenges on his plate without having to suffer through bad formatting and presentation.

Clearly, the old printing conventions were unacceptable.  A new approach was needed in presenting the dialogues.  I have opted to use modern dialogue formatting, where each speaker’s statement gets its own separate indented paragraph.  Statements and responses follow in succession down the page, and the reader can easily see who is saying what to whom.  Legibility is enhanced, and comprehension is strengthened.

Footnotes explain every name, concept, or point that requires explanation.  Preceding this Foreword, I have created a topical “table of contents” as an aid in perusing the text and locating subjects easily.  The reader can see at a glance what topics are in each book and chapter, and will know on what page that subject can be found.  This method is more efficient and useful than embedding marginal notes within the text.  Commentaries are included at the end of each book.  In the Introduction, I have also included something that was sorely needed:  a table that cross-references each dialogue by speaker, topic, date, and location.

I strongly believe that, before plunging into the waters of On Moral Ends, the reader should have a basic understanding of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and the moral philosophy of the later Academy.  I have provided this information in the introduction.  My goal is to equip the reader with no prior experience in the subject matter with every tool needed to understand and appreciate On Moral Ends, and to do this in one self-contained volume.  This was the approach taken in my translations of On Duties and Sallust, and it was well-received by readers.  For this reason I believe this book is ideal for classroom use as well as for the motivated self-learner.

I have included original photographs of the three locations of the dialogues:  Tusculum and Cumae in Italy, and Athens in Greece.  All of the photographs in this book were taken by me in the spring and summer of 2018.  There are two reasons why I believe the inclusion of photographs is important.  Firstly, the fatigued mind needs visual refreshment when working its way through a serious text.  The presence of photographic images can provide a psychological break, a cheerful distraction, and will contribute to preserving the reader’s endurance.  To this same purpose, I have included additional illustrations on the opening page of each of the five books.

Secondly, I thought that if the reader could actually see what Tusculum, Cumae, and the Platonic Academy in Athens looked like, he or she would gain a more intimate appreciation of the settings of the dialogues.  I have included photographs of other locations in Athens and Italy where their presence would contribute to an appreciation of the text.  Thus the reader will find images of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, the Dipylon Gate in Athens (mentioned in V.1), Aristotle’s Lyceum (the home of the Peripatetics), Kerameikos, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, and the Roman Agora in Athens.  The charm of a place becomes indelibly linked to the understanding of an idea.  As Cicero himself says (V.4), “The intangible spirit that resides in the former haunts of great men evokes their memories with more clarity and resonance.”  We very much agree with him.  If we can see what a place looks like, if we can get a sense of the terrain, then we will add something special and intangible to our comprehension.

Perhaps the reader will bear with me as I explain these pilgrimages.  I visited the secluded ruins of Tusculum in May 2018.  It is located in the beautiful Alban Hills outside Rome.  To get there, I took a train from Rome to Frascati in the early morning, then walked along winding roads for about an hour to reach the site.  The conditions for such a visit could not have been more ideal.  The weather was pristine; the spot was almost deserted; and an archaeological dig happened to be in progress.  As I walked about Tusculum, I happened to see an exposed skull lying in view in one of the pits, which to me was a startling reminder of the Stoic admonition to remember our own mortality.

As the reader will see from the photographs in the text, Tusculum is a tranquil and secluded place, an ideal setting for a gathering of friends to talk philosophy.  Cicero’s villa there must have been a restful escape from the fury of Roman politics.  Several days later I drove with a friend to Naples, seeing the Amalfi Coast along the way.  We explored the impressive ruins of Cumae, with its strange mixture of seaside charm and prophetic gravity; after all these centuries, one feels that the Cave of the Sibyl still jealously guards its secrets.

Athens I visited in August 2018.  The dialogue in Book V takes place at the site of the Platonic Academy, and it was this hallowed ground that I needed to visit.  It turned out to be a very short walk:  first along Elefsinion Street, then Lenorman, then Alexandrias, and then finally the ground of the Academy itself.  The ruins are located in a public park in a residential area; in early morning it is serene and quiet, with dog-walkers, joggers, and elderly people starting their days.  We are told that the site was only discovered in the 20th century; before that, scholars had a general idea of its location, but not a precise one.  In classical times it was located in the midst of groves away from the city; now, of course, it is within the city, since Athens has expanded to absorb it.

The only site that was marked was that of the old gymnasium; the palaestra dates from a later period, probably the 1st century A.D.  There was even a cistern for the students’ bathing.  Book learning and physical fitness went hand-in-hand, a lesson that should not be lost on us today.  The site is still largely unmarked.  It deserves restoration, but this is likely to have to wait future generations.  It appeared to me that the Academy originally had different clusters of buildings, possibly lecture-halls, classrooms, or libraries.  As I walked the grounds, I indulged my romantic impulses with some fanciful musings:

O stones, ye have here rested three and twenty centuries!  Ye sturdily kept a continent’s foundation  when Europe was young; ye heard the laughter of  youth, the pleas of truth’s seekers, and the disputations of the great; ye have witnessed the Master speak of the Divine Forms, and of the secrets of the their emanations; ye knew Aristotle in his noble prime, and felt the learned perambulations of Speusippus, Xenocrates, Polemo, and a hundred other names now lost in time’s swirling mists; and ye laughed at the follies of empires and kingsSpeak, ye stones, and say what secret lieth within ye!

There was no response, of course.  Yet as I walked through the place, the bees still hummed about the ruins, and the birds, engrossed in their domestic tasks, still tweeted and chirped; and the groves still rioted with tangled foliage and brambles.  Life has inherited the Academy.  Its stones speak not, but the living world surrounds and envelops them, and speaks for them in its own reverential tones.  And so we may say that the Academy is, in its own way, still alive:  it lives in accordance with nature.  As I left the place, I reflected much on these things.

Every era needs instruction on how to live.  We desire counsel on what is important, and what is not; we wish to know what our ultimate goals and purposes should be in this life, and how such goals may be attained.  Modern science, as we know, continues to advance so rapidly that we feel imprisoned in a perpetual state of bewilderment; we have come to expect dislocating surprises around nearly every corner.  Science has achieved undoubted glories in the advancement of health, the banishment of disease, and the understanding of the natural world; and yet, despite all this, we feel keenly the fraying of the social fabric, the marginalization of ancient institutions, and the steady replacement of the solace provided by community and neighbor with the frightening atomization of the individual.  These are not insignificant problems.  What is needed, perhaps, is rigorous instruction on the science of living life and the importance of virtue.  As Leo Tolstoy once noted:

People must live.  But in order to live they must know how to live.  And men have always obtained this knowledge—well or ill—and in conformity with it have lived and progressed.  And this knowledge of how men should live has—from the days of Moses, Solon, and Confucius—always been considered a science, the very essence of science.[2]

On Moral Ends rises to this challenge, and gives us this crucial instruction.  We may not agree with some of its conclusions, but what matters is how it arrives at those conclusions; our exposure to its methods stimulates the engine of character development.

[1] See I.11 and the final paragraph of I.29.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, Recollections and Essays, London:  Oxford Univ. Press (1961), p. 178.

Questions about the book can be directed to Quintus Curtius at qcurtius@gmail.com.

Remains of the Dipylon Gate in Athens, mentioned in the text in Book V. It was one of the largest such gates in antiquity, covering over 1800 square meters.
A partially excavated skull at Tusculum in Italy.

Frontispiece and dedication pages, written by the translator.

Questions about On Moral Ends can be directed to Quintus Curtius at qcurtius@gmail.com.