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.

 

 

 

         [42] 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.[1]   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.[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4]  Knowing the world and the heavenly bodies reveals also the gods, who strive “to preserve and to protect the universe.”[5]  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.”[6]  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.”[7]  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.[8]  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).”[9]  People, on the other hand, who are “careful” (relegerent) 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’).[10]  In [43] a previous section of De Natura Deorum, 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.[11]  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 adversum deos), and “religion the pious worship of the gods (…religionem quae deorum cultu pio continetur), he protests, then how can “any claims of justice exist between us and them, if god and man have nothing in common?[12] 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.[13]

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.”

 



[1] 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.

 

 

[2] 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).

 

[3] De Natura Deorum, 166 and 167: qua ratione deum esse mundum concluditur.

 

[4] 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.

 

[5] De Natura Deorum, 181.

 

[6] De Natura Deorum, 191.

 

[7] De Natura Deorum, 193.

 

[8] 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.

 

[9]Literally, “to stand over” and by extension: “to outlive.”

 

[10] 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.

 

[11] 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.

 

[12] De Natura Deorum, 112 and 113 (I, 116 – 17).

 

[13] If “divine beneficence and divine benevolence” are extinguished, as Epicurus suggested (according to Cotto), so too will religion be exterminated from the human heart.