The Academica and Its Influence and Distribution in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

  • Charles B. Schmitt
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idees book series (ARCH, volume 52)


Of the ancient Latin writings which have come down to us, those of Cicero contain the most extensive discussions of ancient scepticism. Most important of these is the Academica, the influence of which in later centuries will form the central focus of the present monograph. In this dialogue of Cicero are presented in some detail the main teachings of the school of Academic sceptics, active in Athens at Cicero’s time and apparently influential in various parts of the known world. Besides his dialogue which centers upon the philosophical teachings of this school, some bits of Academic doctrine are discussed and analyzed in other works of Cicero.1 Particularly important is the De natura deorum in which the critical position of the Academics regarding theology is consistently presented by the old Academic Cotta.2 The philosophical arguments of that work still had a vigorous impact upon David Hume in the eighteenth century, and they form a substantial ingredient of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).3


Fifteenth Century Fourteenth Century Academic Position Twelfth Century Sceptical Argument 
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  1. 1.
    For a list of references in Cicero to Academici, Academia, etc. see Orellius amp; Baiterus (1836–38) II, 1–4 and Gerhardt amp; Sordina (1968), 15.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See esp. Price (1964), who cites the earlier literature.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    This form will be used throughout as the title of the work, since it seems to have come into common parlance. Plasberg prefers the title Academaci libri [see Cicero (1922), esp. IX—X] and gives his edition that title. Cf. Schanz-Hosius, I4 (2927), 501. Reid, in Cicero (1885), 37, argues that Academica is the title which Cicero meant to apply to the work and gives his edition that title. Rather than to attempt to decide this point, I shall follow the common usage and call the work Academica. See also note 8 below.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    There is, of course, an enormous literature on Cicero and quite a substantial number of critical works on the Academica. Among the more important writings on the Academica and its Greek background are the following: Hirzel (1872–83) III, 1–341; Reid’s introduction in Cicero (1885), 1–63; Henry (1925); Philippson (1939); Luck (1953); Weische (1961). A useful brief introduction to Cicero’s philosophical thought in general is McKeon (195o).Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Plasberg has collected the relevant passages in Cicero (1922), III—VIII.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    I use the terms Academica priova and Academica posteriora throughout, following the Renaissance editors, to distinguish the two redactions of the work. It is, nevertheless, realized that there is probably no ancient authority for it. Cf. Rackham in Cicero (1933), 401. I shall also follow the practice of referring to the extant book of the Academica priora as the Lucullus from time to time.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Rackham provides a useful outline of speakers, arguments, and the parts of the two redactions which actually survive in Cicero (1933), 402.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Reid provides a useful detailed summary of the extant parts of the work in Cicero (1885), 74–83.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    In the present study I rely principally on the editions of the Academica by Reid [Cicero (1885)] and Plasberg [Cicero (1922)]. The latter is the most recent and most accurate edition of the text, the former has the most complete and illuminating notes of any edition to date. I have, of course, consulted many other editions of the work and shall have occasion to refer to some of them from time to time.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Seine Philosophie musste ihrem Wesen nach ohne unmittelbaren Fortsetzer bleiben; auch fand seine akademische `Skepsis’ bei den Zeitgenossen und der folgenden Generation wenig Resonanz ’ Becker (1957), 93.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    For a general analysis of the Fathers’ attitude toward Academic philosophy with specific references see Wilpert (195o), esp. 206–208.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    An important reader of the Academica was the grammarian Nonius Marcellus (early fourth century). This is evident from the many direct quotations to be found in Nonius’ De compendiosa doctrines. Since Nonius was merely a compiler and in no wise an analytic thinker, he did little with Cicero’s words other than repeat them. His copying of them is important, however, for the De compendiosa doctrines is the major source for the extant fragments of the lost sections of the A cademica posteriova. See Cicero (1885), 161–68 for a collection of the fragments, 28 of the 36 listed coming from Nonius. Cf. Nonius Marcellus (1903) III, 939 for a full listing of the quotations from the Academica. Other fourth-century writers, who mention the Academica specifically, but make no direct use of the ideas contained in it, are Ammianus Marcellinus and Diomedes. The former quotes the famous passage, which will hold such an interest for the Renaissance humanists, in which Aristotle’s style is described as a “flumen orationis aureum” (Acad. II, 38, 119). See Ammianus Marcellinus (1965), 816 [Rerum gestarum libri XXVII, 4, 8]. See Diomedes (1857), 377 for a mention of Acad. II, 9, 27.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    See, for example, Tertullian’s De anima 17 in Tertullianus (1947), 21–24 and Waszink’s illuminating notes on this text (pp. 236–53).Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    For a general survey of Lactantius and further references see Quasten (í950–60) II, 392–41o. For more detailed treatments see esp. the still fundamental Pichon (19or) and the more recent Wlosok (1960).Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    The origin of this appellation is not clear, but it may have originated with Gianfrancesco Pico, who in his De studio humanae et divinae philosophiae (1496) says: ‘Si enim (ut inquit Fabius) Cicero expressit vim Demosthenis, copiam Platonis, iocunditatem Isocratis et plures etiam a seipso virtutes extulit eloquentiae. Quis apud nos non videat esse Ciceronem, sed Christianum, hoc est aliquem qui eum ad lineam unguemque expresserit? quis enim non advertit Lactantium Firmianum aequasse ipsum et forte praecelluisse in eloquendo?’ De studio I, 7 in Picus (1601), 15. It is at least the supposition of S. Brandt in Lactantius (1890), pars I, xi, that the phrase may have originated with Pico. It was already in use at the time, however, as we learn from Erasmus’ letter to Henry of Bergen, dated November 7, 1496, which says: `Qua in re Baptista ille Mantuanus palmariam meo iudicio operam nauauit. Qui vt cum Marone communem patriam sortitus est, ita ad Maronis eruditionem non parum accessit; qui mihi non alio iure Christianus Maro videtur appellandus quam quo Firmianum Lactantium Agricola Christianum Ciceronem solebat appellare.’ Erasmus (1906–58) I, 163. Erasmus also used the same phrase in a letter to Damiâo de Gois, dated August 18, 1535. See ed. cit. XI, 206–07. Various sources attribute the origin of the phrase to Giovanni Pico. See, inter alia, Schanz-Hosius III3 (1922), 436 and Pease in Cicero (1955) I, 55n7. Fessier (1913), r, merely says: `Seit alters her führt Lactanz den Beinamen des “Christlichen Cicero”, und gewiss nicht mit Unrecht.’ I have not been able to consult B. Barthel, Ueber die Benutzung der philosophischen Schriften Ciceros durch Lactanz (Strehlen, 1903) or H. Limberg, Quo iure Lactantius appelletur Cicero Christianus (Münster, 1896 ).Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    Lactantius (1890–93) I, 177–273. I shall generally give the Latin text of Lactantius only in cases where it is particularly crucial, since this edition should be readily available to most readers. In citing Lactantius, I shall give book, chapter and section number, followed by the page number of vol. I of the Brandt and Laubman edition, which contains the Divinae institutiones.Google Scholar
  17. 36.
    There is an immense literature on Augustine’s Contra Academicos and his attack on scepticism. See especially Alfaric (1918); Boyer (1920), 12–46; Testard (1958) I, 81–129; Gilson (1961), 38–43; Holte (1962), 73–109 (further bibliography); Hagendahl (1967), 498–510; O’Connell (1968), esp. 236ff.Google Scholar
  18. 37.
    Direct influence of the Contra Academicos seems to have been less than we might expect. For some general remarks on Augustine’s influence see Grabmann (1926–56) II, 1–62. For further bibliography see the references contained in `Augustine and the Early Renaissance’, in Kristeller (1956), 355–72. For detailed discussion of the influence of the Confessions see Courcelle (1963).Google Scholar
  19. 39.
    See Testard (1958) I, 209–10 and II, 332 for a discussion of the editions used by Augustine and a list of his references to the Academica. Reid in Cicero (1885), 38 and Hagendahl (1967), 498 insist that Augustine knew only the Academica posteriora.Google Scholar
  20. 49.
    For a discussion of the different interpretations and references to further literature see O’Meara (1958) and Testard (1958) I, 355–76.Google Scholar
  21. 41.
    I have made use of the following editions and translations: Augustinus (1922), 1–81; Augustinus (1939), 7–214 (with a French translation); Augustinus (1951b), 3–233 (with a Spanish translation); Augustinus (3956), II-72; Augustinus (1951a), with O’Meara’s important introduction and notes, as well as an English translation. Our translations will be taken from this edition.Google Scholar
  22. 42.
    Contra Acad. III, zo, 43; Cf. the famous passage in the Confessions (VII, 9) where Augustine emphasizes Platonism as the philosophy by which he was able to conquer scepticism. For further information see Courcelle ( 1963, 3968 ).Google Scholar
  23. 43.
    Contra Acad. III, 14, 30; translation from Augustinus (195ra), 334. Cf. Enchiridion 20, where Augustine emphasizes that the Academic objections must be overcome before genuine philosophy can begin, as well as Confessions V, io, 19.Google Scholar
  24. 44.
    Contra Acad. III, 20, 43; translation from Augustinus (1951a), 15o. Augustine later assuaged his regard for the Platonists (cf., for example, Retractatzones I, i, 4), although his esteem for Platonic doctrine was never reduced as much as some scholars would like to maintain.Google Scholar
  25. 45.
    As one example see Retractationes I 48 in Augustinus (1902) 24–25.Google Scholar
  26. 47.
    According to Oberleitner (1969), 18–19, who lists the manuscripts of Augustine’s writings, which are at present in Italy, there are twenty-two manuscripts of the Contra Academicos in Italian libraries. This compares with 81 of the Confessions (pp. 38–41), 105 of the De civitate Dei (pp. 32–36), and 72 of the De trinitate (pp. 177–88 ). When Oberleitner’s work is completed we shall be in a better position to evaluate Augustine’s influence in later centuries. The first volume, however, gives an indication of the relative popularity of the various works during the period before the printed book.Google Scholar
  27. 48.
    Norden (1909), 708, who says: ‘Für eine Geschichte Ciceros im Mittelalter fehlt uns noch so gut wie alles.’ General studies on Cicero and his influence are all rather meager. The most comprehensive, but still very inadequate, is Zielinski (1912). See also Rolfe (1923), Traub (1933), and Paratore (1961), as well as Norden (1909) himself, esp. 708–710 (on the Middle Ages).Google Scholar
  28. 49.
    The most detailed study seems to be that of N. Nelson (1933) on the De officüs. This work formed the basis of the extremely popular twelfth century Moralium dogma philosophorum of uncertain authorship, extant in over a hundred Latin manuscripts, in addition to numerous others of French, Italian, German, and Icelandic translations. Of the large literature on the work see esp. Holmberg (1929), Williams (1931 amp; 1957 ), Delhaye (1953), and Gregory (1955), 19–40. For further bibliography see Grabmann (1926–56) III, 37n8 and, especially, Williams (1957) for a review of recent literature. Otherwise, Graf (1915), 567–74 treated various medieval attitudes toward Cicero. Miscellaneous information has been collected by Manitius (1911–31), ad indicem and (1935), 19–41; Rand (1946); and Sandys (1903–08) I, 623–27.Google Scholar
  29. 50.
    See Sweeney (1968) for a discussion of the need for comprehensive listings of the manuscripts of Latin authors. A very useful list of mss. of the philosophical works of Cicero, compiled by Pease, is to be found in Cicero (192o-23, 1955 ). Much more work remains to be done on this, however.Google Scholar
  30. 51.
    See, however, Orellius and Baiterus (1836–38) I, 193–477 for what is probably the most extensive list. See also Deschamps (1863) and Engelmann-Preuss (1959) II, 127–227, as well as standard catalogues such as the Index Aureliensis and the BM and BN catalogues for further listings.Google Scholar
  31. 54.
    See, for example, Manitius (1935), 19–39, where the small number of copies of the Academica listed in medieval manuscript catalogues contrasts with the many copies of the more popular works Manitius’ list should not be taken as complete, but the sample is probably large enough to give some indication. He lists only two manuscripts of the Academica from before the fifteenth century; one owned by Richard of Fourni-val about 125o (p. z8) and another at Peterborough in the fourteenth century (p. 32). In the fifteenth century copies of the work were found at Vienna (p. 25), Reims (p. 3r), Pavia (p. 34), Florence (p. 36–37), Urbino (p. 37), and Fiesole (p. 38). For the influence of the De o f ficiis, as an example of how widely one of the better known works was used, see N. Nelson (1933), the literature on the Moralius dogma philosophorum, cited above in note 49, and Delhaye (x949–5o).Google Scholar
  32. 58.
    Cicero (1922), XVI. The other manuscripts all seem to date from the late fourteenth century or later.Google Scholar
  33. 57.
    See Manitius (1935), 19–41.Google Scholar
  34. 58.
    The manuscript is edited in full with a detailed introduction and collations in Schwenke (1889). See also Manitius (1911–31) I, 478–83 and Bischoff (1961).Google Scholar
  35. 60.
    On this manuscript see esp. Cicero (1915), which contains a facsimile (Academica, fols. 88r-1o4V) and an introduction by O. Plasberg concerning the manuscript itself (fols. I—XIV).Google Scholar
  36. 61.
    On these see Cicero (1922), XXI—XXIV. Included are Vienna, Vindobonensis 189 (s. X); Florence, Laurenziana, S. Marco 257 (s. X); Leiden, Vossianus lat. fol. 86 (s. XI ?); Munich, CLM 528 (s. XI); and Paris, BN lat. 17, 812 (s. XII).Google Scholar
  37. 64.
    Delisle (1868–81) III, 61; Sabbadini (1967) II, 33. This library went to the Sorbonne upon Gerard’s death in 1272. For further details and additional bibliography see Rouse (1967), 47f.Google Scholar
  38. 65.
    Vincent of Beauvais (1938), 21. Roger Bacon (1859), 5o, refers to `quinto Academicorum,’ but this seems to be a mistake and to refer to another of Cicero’s works, perhaps De finibus V, 4, as the editor suggests.Google Scholar
  39. 68.
    Such was the judgement of C. C. J. Webb in the Prolegomena to Ioannes Saresberiensis (1909) I, xxix. In my reading of the relevant sections of the Policraticus, I have found no reason to dispute Webb’s conjecture. The only more or less direct reference to Cicero’s work is at VII, 9 (ed. cit. II, 229, lines 4–5) which reads: `Denique et ipse Tullius huic tale testimonium perhibet ut in libris Achademicis dicat….’ But, as Webb points out in a footnote, this comes from Augustine’s De civitate Dei VI, 2, 9. See also Ioannes Saresberiensis (1938).Google Scholar
  40. 69.
    For a list of the 22 manuscripts still extant in Italian libraries see Oberleitner (1969), 18–19.Google Scholar
  41. 72.
    Ibid. II, 93. On John’s espousing the Academic position see Gilson (1955), 150–53, 624–25 and Liebeschütz (195o), 75.Google Scholar
  42. 73.
    The title of Book VII, Chapter 1 is ‘Quod Achademici modestiores fuerunt aliis philosophis quos temeritas excecavit ut darentur in sensum reprobum.’ Ed. cat. II, 93. Cf. II, 95 (lines 13 and 26) and II, 99 (line 16).Google Scholar
  43. 78.
    VII, 2; ed. cit. II, 96–97. For further information on this tradition with particular reference to the seventeenth century, but with also some attention paid to earlier writers, see Boas (1933).Google Scholar
  44. 80.
    so For example, John’s statement that, ‘Pauci cunt qui Achademicorum imitatores esse dignentur, cum unusquisque pro libitu potius quam ratione eligat quid sequatur’ (VII, 9; ed cit. II, 122); and his discussion of the certitude of mathematics as compared to the dubious quality of sense knowledge (VII, 7; ed. cit. II, 114–17 ).Google Scholar
  45. 81.
    One person who had access to the Lucullus during the Middle Ages was William of Malmesbury (ca. io8o-ca. 1143 ). Cambridge University Library ms. Dd. 13.2, dated 5444, is apparently a copy of an earlier ms. of various Ciceronian writings with marginal annotations by William. The Lucullus is contained in this ms. (fols. 88–106) and is accompanied by substantial marginal glosses. I have consulted a microfilm of this section of the manuscript, but the annotations seem to have little of philosophical interest. This whole manuscript, however, should be studied with more care and related to William’s other interests and activities. For further information see A Catalogue… (1856–67) I, 507–09 and Reid in Cicero (1885), 66–68.Google Scholar
  46. 82.
    The basic studies on this direction of late medieval thought still remain, those of Konstanty Michalski. Though they deal with ‘scepticism and criticism’ in a much broader sense than we are here considering, they are essential for any future comprehensive history of scepticism in the later Middle Ages in the West. The most important of his articles are collected in Michalski (1969).Google Scholar
  47. 83.
    The majority of the later medieval writers whose works I have consulted seem to mention seldom, if ever, the Academici. Albertus Magnus, for example, seems not to have realized that the Academy underwent changes in orientation during its life. The following passage from his Liber de natura et origine animae, in Albertus Magnus (1955) are illustrative. ’… Quaerimus igitur primum de Platonis et Socratis et Speusippi sententia, quam tota suscepit schola Academicorum et Bragmanorum. Horum enim communis sententia est animas a comparibus stellis descendere et post mortem iterum ad compares stellas redire…’ (tract. II, cap. 7; p. 3o); ’… Socrates, Pythagoras et Speusippus et omnes Academici et Bragmanici philosophi…’ (tract. II, cap. II; p. 36). Cfr. p. 31. Though Cicero is included in Walter Burley’s Liber de vita et moribus philosophorum, he barely mentions ‘de achademicis librum unum’ and no further attention is paid to Cicero’s Academic interests. Rather, the entire emphasis is on the moral philosophy. See Burlaeus (1886), 318–28.Google Scholar
  48. 87.
    The Academic position is stated at the very beginning as follows: `Ut autem iuxta processum Augustini et eius intentionem in libris de Academicis, argumenta eorum quae multis ingerunt veri inveniendi desperationem, dicentium scilicet omnia esse incerta et nihil posse sciri…’ Henricus a Gandavo (1953), fol. Ir. I have corrected the text of this and subsequent notes on the basis of the Ferrara 1646 ed. of Henry’s work.Google Scholar
  49. 88.
    E.g.: ‘Ordiamur a sensibus, quorum ita clara iudicia et certa sunt ut si optio naturae detur, non videam quid quaeratur amplius. Meo iudicio ita maxima est in sensibus veritas, si et sani sunt ac valentes et omnia removentur quae obstant et impediunt.’ Ibid., fol. 2r. Compare this text with Cicero, Acad. II, 7, 19, which shows only minor differences. This passage could not have been taken from Augustine’s Contra Academicos, for it is not quoted therein, as can be gathered from Testard (1958), vol. II, who has compiled a répertoire of all Ciceronian texts used by Augustine. It is possible, of course, that Henry took it from another intermediary source, but it seems more likely that he got it from a direct reading of the Academica. See also note 90 below for further evidence of Henry’s direct knowledge of the Academica.Google Scholar
  50. 92.
    Schmitt (1963). I should like to say here that in publishing this article I did not mean to explain the full dependence of Gianfrancesco Pico on the Franciscan philosophical and theological tradition, but merely attempted an explication of his treatment of a single issue in the Examen Vanitatis. I have never claimed to do otherwise in my 2963 paper. Consequently, I do not understand why Garin (2969), 132, has criticized me on this point.Google Scholar

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