Tuesday, December 3, 2019


Orazio Cappello, The School of Doubt: Skepticism, History and Politics in Cicero's 'Academia'. Brill studies in skepticism, volume 1.. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Pp. xiii, 382. ISBN 9789004389861. €175,00.

Reviewed by Peter Osorio, Cornell University (pio3@cornell.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Orazio Cappello has written the only Anglophone monograph devoted entirely to Cicero's Academica. Cappello studies the dialogue's two substantive fragments (Luc. and Ac. 1) intensely and only occasionally brings Cicero's other dialogues and works in for discussion. The School of Doubt examines the dialogue's paratextual letters (Part One), historical methods (Two), and skepticism (Three) in a way that yields a sustained argument for a radically skeptical interpretation of the text. Since Cappello's study is so wide ranging in the questions it poses, its review of scholarly literature, and its appeals to modern theorists and philosophers as foils for Cicero, I focus my comments on a selection of its more important claims.

Part One, in three chapters, argues that the letters relating the dialogue's tortured publication, (i) form a narrative of uncertainty that is designed to complement the skeptical persona of the dialogue's author-narrator; and, following Sean Gurd on literary revision,1 (ii) creates the persona of an author who works collaboratively. From a commitment to dialogic inquiry Cicero aims to create a literary community of critics, and this ideal community reappears in chapters 6.3 and 7.3. Regarding (i), Cappello chastises scholars for failing to see how Cicero's epistolary self is continuous with that of the dialogue. At fault, says Cappello (p. 67), is the field of Classics, slow to change paradigms, and analytic philosophy's obliviousness to literary and rhetorical effects. But a more charitable reason why scholars haven't picked up on (i) is that Cappello's order of explanation seems backwards. Cappello wants to explain the intentional function of the letters for Cicero's philosophical project, whereas the same aspects of Cicero's epistolary self are usually read as the incidental effect of a writer writing about himself: we tend to think that Cicero appears anxious in his letters because he is an anxious person, rather than that Cicero holds philosophical views that privilege doubt and so chooses to depict himself in letters as doubt-ridden in order to complement his dialogue. More is needed to show either explanation is right, and I suspect they interrelate in an interesting way.2

The next four chapters (Part Two) treat Cicero's interest in the historical character of philosophy. Chapter 4 contextualizes the history of philosophy in Plato, Aristotle and the later Academy, while chapter 5 argues that Cicero uses disputes about perception to show the connection between epistemological and historical inquiry in Luc. In chapter 6 Cappello surveys the various historiographical modes of philosophy in the Academica as reflected in, for instance, debates about the unity of the Academy and the views of Arcesilaus and Carneades. Cappello stresses that no historical approach is rejected outright; the Academica is inclusive of historiographical difference, insofar as it doesn't settle which interpretive models work best.

Part Two builds towards the claim in chapter 7.1 (and cf. 10.1) that Cicero recreates interpretive puzzles about Carneades by representing himself as a character whose views are by design in conflict. So, on the one hand, 'Cicero' accepts Clitomachus' radical skepticism; on the other, Cappello refers to four arguments that 'Cicero' is a mitigated, Philonian skeptic: (i) 'Cicero' is committed to truth as the end of inquiry, (ii) he says he holds opinions, (iii) he reveals rather than conceals his views, and (iv) at Fam. 9.8 and Ac. 1.13 he aligns himself with Philo. These do not strike me as persuasive: (i) there is good reason to think Clitomacheans are pretheoretically committed to truth as discoverable (for otherwise why keep inquiring?), (ii) his opinions are a lapse from his normative position, (iii) it is inconsistent for both Philonians and Clitomacheans to reveal beliefs/views, and (iv) we aren't bound to interpret these passages as evidence that 'Cicero' accepts Philo's mitigated skepticism in particular. Cappello explains scholarly impulses to "rein in incoherences" (p. 185) by the pursuit of making Cicero's philosophy serve a clear political function. But again, we can be more charitable to Cappello's opponents. Cappello relies on Thorsrud's reading of a Philonian framework in Lucullus (p. 181) in order to set up one half of the incoherence in Cicero's position.3 Yet Cappello rejects Thorsrud's global interpretation of Cicero's mitigated skepticism (p. 297). In effect, Cappello supports a radically skeptical interpretation not because we can consistently read its narrator as a radical skeptic but because its narrator defeats attempts at interpretation. This is puzzling: how exactly is uninterpretability a base from which to understand the narrator as a radical skeptic?4 Either he is interpretable as a skeptic of some kind or other, or he is uninterpretable. Cappello's position looks unstable and is unnecessary, for one who reads the narrator as a consistently radical skeptic can still acknowledge that the author gives compelling voice to other skeptical and non-skeptical perspectives in ways that open up space for disagreement.

Chapter 8, the first in Part Three, contains an interesting reading of Philo's Roman Books. Cappello says that in Luc. 11–12 Lucullus' recounting of the Alexandrian episode, or the Sosus Affair, mythologizes Antiochus' break from Philo as "clean and instantaneous" (p. 229) and that Cicero combats this myth by showing that Antiochus had already broken from Philo before his reading of the Roman Books (because Antiochus had already rejected Philo's skepticism). The upshot is that "Cicero is teaching us how to read the Sosus Affair" (p. 238). Cappello is opposing older work that treats both Cicero's response (Luc. 69–70) and Lucullus' recounting of the affair (Luc. 11–12) merely as documentary evidence for Hellenistic figures. The aim of this reading is admirable, but it is not clear that Lucullus does imply that Antiochus broke for the first time from Philo due to the Roman Books—Antiochus is shown to differ already from Heraclitus of Tyre, who studied with Clitomachus and then Philo. If Antiochus already differs from Heraclitus, whose position was at least at one point that of Philo's, then Antiochus already differs from Philo regardless of the Roman Books.

In the rest of the chapter Cappello takes the parallel portraits of Philo and Antiochus—parallel in that they both weakened their skeptical positions in response to external criticisms—to draw attention to the institutional crisis of the Academy by the time of Cicero's writing, so that Cicero can "legitimize" an "inheritance claim" (p. 259). This discussion looks back to chapter 6.4 (also cf. 283 n.368, 299, 324–25), where Cappello compares Cicero's history of philosophy to a constructive Hegelian project—Cicero wants to "drive the discipline forward" (p. 170)—and even casts it as superordinate to his skepticism—"the explanation that imputes his continuous shifts of historiographical models and incoherent (self- contradicting) positions to his skepticism [is not] satisfactory" (p. 166). This, if right, produces a tension between Cicero's skepticism, according to which deference to tradition impedes inquiry, and the view that Cicero seeks to legitimize the skeptical Academy in Rome. It is left for others to explore this tension.

The School of Doubt culminates in its last chapter (10), where Cappello argues most directly for his interpretation of the Academica. The argument turns on the point that Cicero's text reproduces the interpretive difficulties, and doubts, that surround the persuasive impression. So, while Cicero claims to follow Clitomachus' interpretation of Carneades' pithanon, Cappello takes as significant that at Luc. 139 Clitomachus is said to affirm that he could never understand what Carneades found to be persuasive; in context this refers to Carneades' ethical views, but Cappello takes it as generalizing. Cappello also thinks it is significant that Clitomachus "never claims ... that Carneades did not approve or was not persuaded by anything. Such a claim would have allowed certainty to take root" (p. 304, italics for emphasis). The worry is that negative statements like denials lead to negative dogmatism, but what leads to negative dogmatism are not negative statements as opposed to positive ones, but statements of certainty, whether positive or negative. Cappello also takes Cicero's criticisms of dialectic and logic to undercut any infrastructure on which the probabile could offer rational warrant.

In a conclusion Cappello seeks to figure the Academica as a clear break from Cicero's earlier (Stoic) political philosophy, whereas others have either overlooked the work or subordinated it to more general accounts of Cicero's conservatism. In 45 BCE Cicero, in response to the Republican losses, is "razing all certainties to the ground" (p. 337). In this context Cappello reads Cicero's contrast of the concepts auctoritas, on one hand, and libertas and ratio, on the other, as indicative of a radical critique of traditional concepts. Tying all these threads together: "Balancing the task of laying the groundwork for a Roman philosophical tradition with the challenges of translating Carneadean skepticism into a hermeneutic instrument for rethinking the paradigms of Roman political and intellectual life deserves recognition as Cicero's great achievement in the Academica" (p. 338).

There follows an index locorum and a general index. A generous range of scholarship is represented in the monograph, revised from a doctoral dissertation. Aggressive editing of literature reviews would have better showcased Cappello's daring arguments. It would also have avoided some mistakes in representing others. For instance, Cappello, recapping Charles Brittain on Philo's Roman view,5 says (p. 208) a "kataleptically perceived object" may not be "truly perceived." But only impressions that are perceived in the relevant (sc. evident) way and are true are kataleptic. That an impression is true "does not automatically imply" that it is kataleptic—not the other way around as Cappello reports. This error leads Cappello to say (p. 208) that "Philo is able to claim that it is a kataleptically valid impression, even if the observer sees the wrong twin [in the case of thinking one is seeing Quintus Servilius while one is actually seeing Publius]." The Roman view of the twins case is that there is no katalepsis, only a false impression that was perceived under correct perceptual conditions. Cappello also misreports the evidence of Luc. 18, saying Philo weakened Zeno's definition of an impression, not just the definition of the kataleptic impression. This slip perhaps leads Cappello to say falsely that Philo's Roman period involved the view that the truth of an impression is not related to its causal history (p. 248). While such errors do not usually effect Cappello's immediate arguments, they produce a work whose utility will remain limited to specialists already familiar with the literature. For those anticipating Tobias Reinhardt's new edition and commentary of the Academica, The School of Doubt still provides much for consideration in the meantime.


1.   Sean Gurd. 2012. Work in Progress: Literary Revision in Classical Antiquity. Oxford.
2.   Cf. Demetr. Elocut. 227: "the letter should best capture character, as dialogue also does, for nearly everyone writes a letter as an image of their own soul. It's also possible to see a writer's character in every other genre, but in none so well as in a letter."
3.   Harald Thorsrud. 2002. "Cicero and his Academic Predecessors: The Fallibilism of Arcesilaos and Carneades." Journal of the History of Philosophy 40: 1-18.
4.   Cappello does not appeal to a distinction between author and narrator-character.
5.   Charles Brittain. 2001. Philo of Larissa: The Last of the Academic Sceptics. Oxford.

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