Cicero and the Absurd

Philosophers can come up with some pretty wacky ideas. Or at least it seems so. When Cicero said that , “Somehow or other no statement is too absurd for some philosophers to make,” he was mulling over some odd philosophical recommendations of his day, including Platonic instructions for dreaming and the Pythagorean prohibition on eating beans.

At first blush, this dietary and dream advice may seem a bit bizarre. Then again, we may want to find out more. That’s because philosophers often have ideas that initially seem silly, but later turn out to be reasonable. Even right.

Morally speaking, this is certainly the case. John Rawls (arguably the most important moral and political philosopher of the 20th century), called the moral principles we accept at any given time “considered judgments.”

Considered judgments can’t be proven logically or mathematically, but they can nevertheless be pretty compelling. Some examples of considered judgments we have today are that (1) slavery is wrong; (2) religious freedom should be guaranteed. Rights to self-ownership and religious belief are common today, but they weren’t always. This shows that considered judgments can change over time. One way to change them is to make the case for why things should change. Philosophers have been up to this for a long time, and they aren’t always immediately successful, even when they seem right in retrospect.

In particular, I am thinking of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and his advocacy for women’s suffrage in Victorian England. Mill’s On the Subjection of Women remains one of the founding works of feminism in western philosophy. But people at the time thought it was such an absurd idea that Mill’s logic should be called into question entirely.

The Sedona International Film Festival recently screened Suffragette, which was a disturbing reminder of the physical and emotional brutality that women faced when they campaigned for the vote in Britain. Even in America, women have only been voting since 1920—less than a hundred years. The only thing absurd about Mill’s advocacy for women’s suffrage is the length of time it took people, all over the globe, to come around to it.

Suffragette Official Trailer #1 (2015) - Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep Drama HD

But back to Cicero. He wasn’t talking about things that seemed morally absurd. He was referring to absurdities of another kind—about dreams, souls, and generally, about spiritual experiences.

These days there is a tendency to simply omit the spiritual aspects of the ancient schools. But not everybody does this. Some people still aren’t afraid of having an “absurd” idea.

Pierre Hadot has reminded us of the comprehensive nature of the ancient schools. Whether we are talking about Plato or Pythagoras, the Epicureans or the Stoics, Hadot notes that their philosophies attended to the whole person, including spiritual practices. He breaks down the Stoic and Epicurean stereotypes to show how much their philosophies overlapped.

Hadot’s own work has been used as a resource for coping with life’s challenges. Hadot reminds us that philosophy can and should address the whole person, including the spiritual side. This takes philosophy back to its roots as a resource for daily living.

Speculating about the spiritual seemed absurd to Cicero. Indeed, it will seem absurd to many today. Many cull through ancient philosophy retrieving only what suits rationalist sensibilities. Is the spiritual absurd? On the contrary, failing to attend to this dimension of human experience is what is absurd. Spirituality is a meaningful dimension of the human lived experience. Trying to deepen our understanding of spirituality can be just as sensible as giving women the vote. There is nothing absurd about either one.

So the next time an idea seems absurd. Maybe think it over for a while—whether it’s moral or metaphysical, there may be something to it.

Happy trails,


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