By the time Cicero came to write, in 45, his series of ﬁve discussions on the emotions and related themes, named (after the location of his villa in Tusculum where they are set on ﬁve consecutive days) the Tusculan Disputations, there was a rich history of debate among the various philosophical schools on the role of the emotions in the good human life. Aristotle had argued that happiness consisted in the exercise of the virtues and that this in turn required a certain sort of emotional responsiveness. Famously, his theory of the mean proposed that virtue was constituted in part by the disposition to feel the appropriate emotion in appropriate contexts – where the ‘appropriate’ emotion was one that was, relative to the context, neither excessive nor deﬁcient. Thus it might, for example, be as ethically incorrect to feel only mildly irritated if one’s parents were grievously wronged as it would be to ﬂy into a rage if one’s toe were accidentally stepped on. Opposing this Aristotelian view, in which the expression of a range of emotion is a
central part of living well, was the outlook that characterized (albeit in diﬀerent ways) the Stoic and Epicurean schools. Here the emotions were regarded with rather more suspicion, and in particular ‘negative’ emotions – such as anger, fear or grief – were considered undesirable. The ideal psychological state was a kind of calmness or tranquillity, in Greek ataraxia, which literally means ‘lack of disturbance’. Any emotions that cause disturbance to the agent (which might include, in addition to those just listed, passions such as lust) were ideally to be eliminated. The wise and happy person, on this view, is one who does not suﬀer psychological disturbance, and is thus liberated from the stress and tyranny of unpleasant or constricting emotion. Cicero, though heavily inﬂuenced by prevailing theory (particularly Stoic
theory) in the Tusculans, adopts as ever his own viewpoint. It is fair to say that his concern overall is with how emotions can be combatted, and to investigate ways in which emotional disturbance can be mitigated or removed. But above all his attitude is sceptical in both the philosophical and more colloquial senses of that term. He
does not claim certainty for his opinions, only at most plausibility (cf. I.17); and while respectful of philosophical theory, he is suspicious of sweeping or overly general claims about the emotions that take no account of psychological realities. In a matter so central to lived human experience, Cicero insists that philosophical theory must never become too far removed from questions of applicability to the very humans whose psychological wellbeing must be theory’s main objective. That said, as a philosopher Cicero is interested in the normative realm – that is,
in the question of what role the emotions should play in our lives, and in particular what emotional disposition will give us the happiest life. He does not wish simply to describe the vicissitudes of human emotional engagement, but to oﬀer strategies for improving our emotional health and leading better lives thereby. To this eﬀect Book I of the Tusculans discusses death and the correct attitude towards it; Book II is on pain; Books III and IV treat, respectively, grief and the place (if any) of the emotions more generally in a good life. Book V addresses the question of how virtue and happiness are related, a topic not directly concerned with the emotions, but (as we saw above in relation to the Aristotelian theory) that was the chief instigator of the ancient debate about their role, one that is highly relevant to questions about their proper place.