Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE)
De Natura Deorum
[Note: This discussion of Cicero’s view of religion is excerpted from
James A. Santucci’s “Religion and Culture”
Hsi Lai Journal of Humanistic Buddhism
Volume VI, 2005: 40 – 54.
The Western foundations of the term “religion”—in this case I am discussing
only definitions and not a phenomenon existing outside of language—are
enunciated by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE) in his De Natura
Deorum. Therein, his definition of “religion” is perhaps the
first extensive discussion of “religion,” and it is of interest that it is
discussed in the context of Stoicism through the Stoic Quintus Lucilius
Balbus. He discusses the topic
under four headings: (1) that the gods exist; (2) their nature; (3) that they
govern the world; and (4) that they care for the fortunes of humans.
On the first point, proof of the gods’ existence is determined by the heavenly
bodies and the sky. The second
point concludes that the world is god.
It is under this second heading that “religion” comes into play. Balbus argues that “the regularity … in
the stars, this exact punctuality throughout all eternity … is incomprehensible
without rational intelligence and purpose.” Knowing the world and the heavenly
bodies reveals also the gods, who strive “to preserve and to protect the
universe.” After a discussion of the gods and
their names, we come to the basis of the argument that Cicero is making: that
there is a “true and valuable philosophy of nature” that has evolved into an “imaginary
and fanciful pantheon.” The popular stories of the gods, such
as those of the epics of Homer, carry little weight, but “though repudiating
these myths with contempt, we shall nevertheless be able to understand the
personality and the nature of the divinities pervading the substance of the several
elements.” Cicero then concludes that the best way
to worship the gods is to venerate them with purity, sincerity and innocence
both in thought and in speech. It is in this context that religion is
contrasted with superstition.
According to the etymology of the latter, those who are superstitious
wish their children to survive them, for the term derives from superstes “survivor (of another’s death).” People, on the other hand, who are “careful”
in undertaking all items involving worship of the gods are termed “religious” (religiosi): a term deriving from “being
careful,” “retracing,” and “selecting” (relegendo). Words such as “selective,” “discriminative,” and “mindful”
seem to capture the sense of relegere, with the root leg- also incorporated in intellegere (to understand) and neg-legere (‘to neglect’). In  a previous section of De
religion and superstition are described in the following manner: superstition
implies a groundless fear of the gods, but religion consists in the pious
worship of the gods. This is a view of the Academic skeptic,
Cotta, who states, in answer to Valleius’ Epicurianism, the question as to why
worship is owed the gods if the gods do not respect humans. If piety (pietas), i.e., the “sense of
responsibility,” and “loyalty,” is defined as justice towards the gods (iustitia
and “religion the pious worship of the gods (…religionem quae deorum cultu
he protests, then how can “any claims of justice exist between us and them, if
god and man have nothing in common?
And so the argument goes. What is
learned from this discussion are the following:
1) “Religion” is characterized by worship.
2) This worship is directed toward the
gods—not the gods trivialized in Homer—but rather the gods who are
known through the regularity of the heavenly bodies, thereby revealing an
intelligence and design behind this regularity.
3) Not only do the gods reveal the order,
the intelligence and design of the universe, they also preserve and protect the
universe from disorder.
4) The worship of the gods must be correct
and “pious,” implying a sense of duty.
5) Worship that is not proper, but rather is based upon the fear of the gods or ignores the gods by wishing merely to be survived by the worshipper’s children is not classified as religion but as superstition.
6) Religion as conceived by Cicero is more
subjective due to his emphasis on the correct intellectual and emotional stance
towards the gods.
7) In sum, “religion” is the “responsible and proper worship of the gods.”
 Cicero, De Natura Deorum, with an English translation by H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1961). Cicero seems to reflect much of the early Roman sentiment about religion, but through the lens of a version of Stoicism as understood by Cicero. On an overview of the Latin term, see Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991 [1962, 1963], 19 – 22.
 Cicero, De Natura Deorum, with an English translation by H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1961), 124 and 125 (Book II, 3).
 De Natura Deorum, 174: “Hanc igitur in stellis constantiam, hanc tantam tam variis cursibus in omni aeternitate convenientiam temporum non possum intellegere sine mente ratione consilio.
 De Natura Deorum, 191.
 De Natura Deorum, 193.
 De Natura Deorum, 192 and 193: Cultus autem deorum est optimus idemque castissimus atque sanctissimus plenissimusque pietatis ut eos semper pura integra incorrupta et mente et voce veneremur.
 De Natura Deorum, 193 (Book II, 72): qui autem omnia quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent diligenter retractarent et tamquam relegerent, sunt dicti religiosi ex relegendo, ut elegantes ex eligendo ex diligendo diligentes ex intellegendo intellegentes.
 De Natura Deorum, 112 and 113 (I, 117 – 18): Horum enim sententiae omnium non modo superstitionem tollunt in qua inest timor inanis deorum,sed etiam religionem quae deorum cultu pio continetur.
 De Natura Deorum, 112 and 113 (I, 116 – 17).
 If “divine beneficence and divine benevolence” are extinguished, as Epicurus suggested (according to Cotto), so too will religion be exterminated from the human heart.