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Second Lecture on Justice

by Carneades

from De Republica III: v-xxi

new material in this edition copyright © 2016


In 155 BC, Rome fined Athens 500 talents as a penalty for pillaging the town of Oropus (near Athens). Athens sent the heads of its three leading schools of philosophy to Rome to argue against the fine, Diogenes the Stoic, Critolaus the Peripatetic, and Carneades the Academic. In Rome, Carneades lectured to the youth and gained a large following because of his eloquence. He became notorious because of his two lectures on justice: on the first day, his lecture included all the arguments for justice, and on the second day, his lecture argued that justice was merely a social convention and that only a fool would be motivated by justice rather than by self-interest - his usual method of arguing both sides of an issue to show that we cannot have knowledge.

Cato the Censor, who heard these two lectures, was already disturbed that the youth were attracted by Carneades and, under the corrupting influence of Greek culture, were becoming more interested in words than in deeds. In the Senate, he censured the magistrates for prolonging the negotiations with the Greeks and insisted that "We ought to make up our minds one way or another, and vote on what the embassy proposes, in order that these men may return to their schools and lecture to the sons of Greece, while the youth of Rome give ear to their laws and magistrates, as heretofore," trying to rush the philosophers out of Rome as quickly as possible, so they would no longer influence the youth.

We can see from the reactions of the speakers in Cicero's dialog that, unlike the youth, the Roman establishment of the time was scandalized by Carneades' lectures on justice.

Most of the second lecture on justice is preserved in Cicero's De Republica (though there are gaps in the text) and is included here. In Tusculan Disputations, Cicero wrote,

I have read a book of Clitomachus, which he sent to his fellow-citizens who were prisoners, to comfort them after the destruction of Carthage. There is in it a treatise written by Carneades, which, as Clitomachus says, he had inserted into his book; the subject was, "That it appeared probable that a wise man would grieve at the state of subjection of his country," and all the arguments which Carneades used against this proposition are set down in the book.

Cicero is probably misspeaking when he says "a treatise written by Carneades," since many other sources say that Carneades taught orally and left no writing; more likely, this is a lecture of Carneades that Clitomachus transcribed and included in his book. The relevant point here is that, if Cicero had a book where Clitomachus transcribed this lecture of Carneades, he may also have had a book where Clitomachus transcribed Carneades second lecture on justice, which he copied into De Republica.
When we read this lecture, we should remember that Carneades gave two lectures arguing for different sides of this question, following his usual method. He was expounding extreme moral relativism in this lecture, and he carries relativism to its logical conclusion and says that "it is best to do wrong with impunity," but this was part of a rhetorical exercise to show that one can argue equally persuasively on both sides of an issue.

These lectures on justice were so notorious that, in Cicero's Republica, Philus says he is ashamed to expound the views of Carneades (as quoted in Cicero's introduction below). The dialog in Republica is supposed to have taken place in 129 BC, in the time of Scipio Africanus the younger, about 25 years after Carneades gave the lectures. In this historical context, it is clear that Philus is restating Carneades' second lecture on justice. Apparently, this lecture was so notorious that Cicero seems to expect his readers to understand its historical context, even though he was writing more than a century after the lecture.

There is a gap of about two pages in the text in the early part of Philus' discourse, which is under the heading "Arguments for Justice" below. Some scholars believe that Philus summarized Carneades' first lecture here, but it seems more likely that this was the beginning of the second lecture, where Carneades states the idea of justice that he is about to refute. The gap is much shorter than the remaining part of the lecture, and it is not likely that Cicero would include a brief summary of the first lecture and a full reproduction of the second lecture.

Of course, it is impossible to know how literally the work we have reproduces the lecture of Carneades. It is possible that Clitomachus or some other student accompanied Carneades to Rome and transcribed the lecture shortly after it was delivered. Or it is possible that someone transcribed the lecture years later based on second-hand reports. Nevertheless, this lecture, in the context of the story of his two lectures on justice, does give us an idea of Carneades' method of philosophizing.

Some scholars do not realize that this lecture survives, saying that Cicero includes a summary of Carneades' two famous lectures on Justice. As you will see when you read it, much more than a summary has been preserved, and it seems to all come from Carneades second lecture.

This lecture and Cato's reaction form one of the most intriguing stories about ancient philosophy, which deserves to be better known than it is.

Cicero's Framing

v [a gap in the text] And Philus replied: "In good truth, you have allotted me a very creditable cause when you wish me to undertake the defense of vice."

"Perhaps," said Laelius, "you are afraid, lest, in reproducing the ordinary objections made to justice in politics, you should seem to express your own sentiments; though you are universally respected as an almost unique example of the ancient probity and good faith; nor is it unknown how familiar you are with the lawyer-like habit of disputing on both sides of a question, because you think that this is the best way of getting at the truth."

And Philus said: "Very well; I obey you, and willfully, with my eyes open, I will undertake this dirty business; because, since those who seek for gold do not flinch at the sight of the mud, so we who are searching for justice, which is far more precious than gold, are bound to shrink from no annoyance. And I wish, as I am about to make use of the antagonist arguments of a foreigner, I might also employ a foreign language. The pleas, therefore, now to be urged by Lucius Furius Philus are those [once employed by] the Greek Carneades, a man who was accustomed to express whatever [served his turn]. [a gap in the text] Let it be understood, therefore, that I by no means express my own sentiments, but those of Carneades, in order that you may refute this philosopher, who was wont to turn the best causes into joke, through the mere wantonness of wit.

vi "He was a philosopher of the Academic School; and if anyone is ignorant of his great power, and eloquence, and acuteness in arguing, he may learn it from the mention made of him by Cicero or by Lucilius, when Neptune, discoursing on a very difficult subject, declares that it cannot be explained, not even if hell were to restore Carneades himself for the purpose.

This philosopher, having been sent by the Athenians to Rome as an ambassador, discussed the subject of justice very amply in the hearing of Galba and Cato the Censor, who were the greatest orators of the day. And the next day he overturned all his arguments by others of a contrary tendency, and disparaged justice, which the day before he had extolled; speaking not indeed with the gravity of a philosopher whose wisdom ought to be steady, and whose opinions unchangeable, but in a kind of rhetorical exercise of arguing on each side - a practice which he was accustomed to adopt, in order to be able to refute others who were asserting anything. The arguments by which he disparaged justice are mentioned by Lucius Furius in Cicero; I suppose, since he was discussing the Commonwealth, in order to introduce a defense and panegyric of that quality without which he did not think a commonwealth could be administered. But Carneades, in order to refute Aristotle and Plato, the advocates of justice, collected in his first argument everything that was in the habit of being advanced on behalf of justice, in order afterward to be able to overturn it, as he did.

Arguments for Justice

[a gap in the text of about two pages]
viii … both to discover and maintain. While the other, Aristotle, has filled four large volumes with a discussion on abstract justice. For I did not expect anything grand or magnificent from Chrysippus, who, after his usual fashion, examines everything rather by the signification of words than the reality of things. But it was surely worthy of those heroes of philosophy to ennoble by their genius a virtue so eminently beneficent and liberal, which everywhere exalts the social interests above the selfish, and teaches us to love others rather than ourselves. It was worthy of their genius, we say, to elevate this virtue to a divine throne, not far from that of Wisdom. And certainly they neither wanted the will to accomplish this (for what else could be the cause of their writing on the subject, or what could have been their design?) nor the genius, in which they excelled all men. But the weakness of their cause was too great for either their intention or their eloquence to make it popular.

Justice Is Different in Different Societies

"In fact, this justice on which we reason is a civil right, but no natural one; for if it were natural and universal, then justice and injustice would be recognized similarly by all men, just as the heat and cold, sweetness and bitterness.

ix "Now, if any one, carried in that chariot of winged serpents of which the poet Pacuvius makes mention, could take his flight over all nations and cities, and accurately observe their proceedings, he would see that the sense of justice and right varies in different regions. In the first place, he would behold among the unchangeable people of Egypt, which preserves in its archives the memory of so many ages and events, a bull adored as a Deity, under the name of Apis, and a multitude of other monsters, and all kinds of animals admitted by the same nation into the number of the Gods.

"In the next place, he would see in Greece, as among ourselves, magnificent temples consecrated by images in human form, which the Persians regarded as impious; and it is affirmed that the sole motive of Xerxes for commanding the conflagration of the Athenian temples was the belief that it was a superstitious sacrilege to keep confined within narrow walls the Gods, whose proper home was the entire universe. But afterward Philip, in his hostile projects against the Persians, and Alexander, who carried them into execution, alleged this plea for war, that they were desirous to avenge the temples of Greece, which the Greeks had thought proper never to rebuild, that this monument of the impiety of the Persians might always remain before the eyes of their posterity.

"How many - such as the inhabitants of Taurica along the Euxine Sea; as the King of Egypt, Busiris; as the Gauls and the Carthaginians - have thought it exceedingly pious and agreeable to the Gods to sacrifice men! And, besides, the customs of life are so various that the Cretans and Aetolians regard robbery as honorable. And the Lacedaemonians say that their territory extends to all places which they can touch with a lance. The Athenians had a custom of swearing, by a public proclamation, that all the lands which produced olives and corn were their own. The Gauls consider it a base employment to raise corn by agricultural labor, and go with arms in their hands, and mow down the harvests of neighboring peoples. But we ourselves, the most equitable of all nations, who, in order to raise the value of our vines and olives, do not permit the races beyond the Alps to cultivate either vineyards or oliveyards, are said in this matter to act with prudence, but not with justice. You see, then, that wisdom and policy are not always the same as equity. And Lycurgus, that famous inventor of a most admirable jurisprudence and most wholesome laws, gave the lands of the rich to be cultivated by the common people, who were reduced to slavery.

x "If I were to describe the diverse kinds of laws, institutions, manners, and customs, not only as they vary in the numerous nations, but as they vary likewise in single cities - in this one of ours, for example - I could prove that they have had a thousand revolutions. [We omit examples from Roman history]

xi [gap in the text] "[If this justice were natural, innate, and universal, all men would admit the same] law and right, and the same men would not enact different laws at different times. If a just man and a virtuous man is bound to obey the laws, I ask, what laws do you mean? Do you intend all the laws indifferently? But neither does virtue permit this inconstancy in moral obligation, nor is such a variation compatible with natural conscience. The laws are, therefore, based not on our sense of justice, but on our fear of punishment. There is, therefore, no natural justice; and hence it follows that men cannot be just by nature.

"Are men, then, to say that variations indeed do exist in the laws, but that men who are virtuous through natural conscience follow that which is really justice, and not a mere semblance and disguise, and that it is the distinguishing characteristic of the truly just and virtuous man to render everyone his due rights? Are we, then, to attribute the first of these characteristics to animals? For not only men of moderate abilities, but even first-rate sages and philosophers, as Pythagoras and Empedocles, declare that all kinds of living creatures have a right to the same justice. They declare that inexpiable penalties impend over those who have done violence to any animal whatsoever. It is, therefore, a crime to injure an animal, and the perpetrator of such crime [gap in the text]

Self-Interest Versus Justice

xii "For when he [Alexander the Great] inquired of a pirate by what right he dared to infest the sea with his little brigantine: 'By the same right," he replied, "which is your warrant for conquering the world.' [gap in the text]

"Wisdom and prudence instruct us by all means to increase our power, riches, and estates. For by what means could this same Alexander, that illustrious general, who extended his empire over all Asia, without violating the property of other men, have acquired such universal dominion, enjoyed so many pleasures, such great power, and reigned without bound or limit?

"But justice commands us to have mercy upon all men, to consult the interests of the whole human race, to give to everyone his due, and injure no sacred, public, or foreign rights, and to forbear touching what does not belong to us. What is the result, then? If you obey the dictates of wisdom, then wealth, power, riches, honors, provinces, and kingdoms, from all classes, peoples, and nations, are to be aimed at.

"However, as we are discussing public matters, those examples are more illustrious which refer to what is done publicly. And since the question between justice and policy applies equally to private and public affairs, I think it well to speak of the wisdom of the people. I will not, however, mention other nations, but come at once to our own Roman people, whom Africanus, in his discourse yesterday, traced from the cradle, and whose empire now embraces the whole world. Justice is [gap in the text]

xiii "How far utility is at variance with justice we may learn from the Roman people itself, which, declaring war by means of the fecials, and committing injustice with all legal formality, always coveting and laying violent hands on the property of others, acquired the possession of the whole world.

"What is the advantage of one's own country but the disadvantage of another state or nation, by extending one's dominions by territories evidently wrested from others, increasing one's power, improving one's revenues, etc.? Therefore, whoever has obtained these advantages for his country - that is to say, whoever has overthrown cities, subdued nations, and by these means filled the treasury with money, taken lands, and enriched his fellow-citizens - such a man is extolled to the skies; is believed to be endowed with consummate and perfect virtue; and this mistake is fallen into not only by the populace and the ignorant, but by philosophers, who even give rules for injustice.

xiv [gap in the text] For all those who have the right of life and death over the people are in fact tyrants; but they prefer being called by the title of king, which belongs to the all-good Jupiter. But when certain men, by favor of wealth, birth, or any other means, get possession of the entire government, it is a faction; but they choose to denominate themselves an aristocracy. If the people gets the upper hand, and rules everything after its capricious will, they call it liberty, but it is in fact license. And when every man is a guard upon his neighbor, and every class is a guard upon every other class, then because no one trusts in his own strength, a kind of compact is formed between the great and the little, from whence arises that mixed kind of government which Scipio has been commending. Thus justice, according to these facts, is not the daughter of nature or conscience, but of human imbecility. For when it becomes necessary to choose between these three predicaments, either to do wrong without retribution, or to do wrong with retribution, or to do no wrong at all, it is best to do wrong with impunity; next, neither to do wrong nor to suffer for it; but nothing is more wretched than to struggle incessantly between the wrong we inflict and that we receive. Therefore, he who attains to that first end [gap in the text]

xv "This was the sum of the argument of Carneades: that men had established laws among themselves from considerations of advantage, varying them according to their different customs, and altering them often so as to adapt them to the times; but that there was no such thing as natural law; that all men and all other animals are led to their own advantage by the guidance of nature; that there is no such thing as justice, or, if there be, that it is extreme folly, since a man would injure himself while consulting the interests of others. And he added these arguments, that all nations who were flourishing and dominant, and even the Romans themselves, who were the masters of the whole world, if they wished to be just - that is to say, if they restored all that belonged to others - would have to return to their cottages, and to lie down in want and misery.

"Except, perhaps, of the Arcadians and Athenians, who, I presume, dreading that this great act of retribution might one day arrive, pretend that they were sprung from the earth, like so many field-mice.

Carneades' Response to the Stoics

xvi "In reply to these statements, the following arguments are often adduced by those who are not unskillful in discussions, and who, in this question, have all the greater weight of authority, because, when we inquire, Who is a good man? - understanding by that term a frank and single-minded man - we have little need of captious casuists, quibblers, and slanderers. For those men assert that the wise man does not seek virtue because of the personal gratification which the practice of justice and beneficence procures him, but rather because the life of the good man is free from fear, care, solicitude, and peril; while, on the other hand, the wicked always feel in their souls a certain suspicion, and always behold before their eyes images of judgment and punishment. Do not you think, therefore, that there is any benefit, or that there is any advantage which can be procured by injustice, precious enough to counterbalance the constant pressure of remorse, and the haunting consciousness that retribution awaits the sinner, and hangs over his devoted head.

[gap in the text of about one page]

xvii [Our philosophers, therefore, put a case.] Suppose, say they, two men, one of whom is an excellent and admirable person, of high honor and remarkable integrity; the latter is distinguished by nothing but his vice and audacity. And suppose that their city has so mistaken their characters as to imagine the good man to be a scandalous, impious, and audacious criminal, and to esteem the wicked man, on the contrary, as a pattern of probity and fidelity. On account of this error of their fellow-citizens, the good man is arrested and tormented, his hands are cut off, his eyes are plucked out, he is condemned, bound, burned, exterminated, reduced to want, and to the last appears to all men to be most deservedly the most miserable of men. On the other hand, the flagitious wretch is exalted, worshipped, loved by all, and honors, offices, riches, and emoluments are all conferred on him, and he shall be reckoned by his fellow-citizens the best and worthiest of mortals, and in the highest degree deserving of all manner of prosperity. Yet, for all this, who is so mad as to doubt which of these two men he would rather be?

xviii "What happens among individuals happens also among nations. There is no state so absurd and ridiculous as not to prefer unjust dominion to just subordination.

[We omit an example from Roman history from Philus' own consulship]

[gap in the text]

xix "If a man should have a faithless slave, or an unwholesome house, with whose defect he alone was acquainted, and he advertised them for sale, would he state the fact that his servant was infected with knavery, and his house with malaria, or would he conceal these objections from the buyer? If he stated those facts, he would be honest, no doubt, because he would deceive nobody; but still he would be thought a fool, because he would either get very little for his property, or else fail to sell it at all. By concealing these defects, on the other hand, he will be called a shrewd man - as one who has taken care of his own interest; but he will be a rogue, notwithstanding, because he will be deceiving his neighbors. Again, let us suppose that one man meets another, who sells gold and silver, conceiving them to be copper or lead; shall he hold his peace that he may make a capital bargain, or correct the mistake, and purchase at a fair rate? He would evidently be a fool in the world's opinion if he preferred the latter.

xx "It is justice, beyond all question, neither to commit murder nor robbery. What, then, would your just man do, if, in a case of shipwreck, he saw a weaker man than himself get possession of a plank? Would he not thrust him off, get hold of the timber himself, and escape by his exertions, especially as no human witness could be present in the mid-sea? If he acted like a wise man of the world, he would certainly do so, for to act in any other way would cost him his life. If, on the other hand, he prefers death to inflicting unjustifiable injury on his neighbor, he will be an eminently honorable and just man, but not the less a fool, because he saved another's life at the expense of his own. Again, if in case of a defeat and rout, when the enemy were pressing in the rear, this just man should find a wounded comrade mounted on a horse, shall he respect his right at the risk of being killed himself, or shall he fling him from the horse in order to preserve his own life from the pursuers? If he does so, he is a wise man, but at the same time a wicked one; if he does not, he is admirably just, but at the same time stupid."

Cicero's Conclusion

xxi Scipio. "I might reply at great length to these sophistical objections of Philus, if it were not, my Laelius, that all our friends are no less anxious than myself to hear you take a leading part in the present debate, especially as you promised yesterday that you would plead at large on my side of the argument. If you cannot spare time for this, at any rate do not desert us; we all ask it of you."
Laelius: "This Carneades ought not to be even listened to by our young men. I think all the while that I am hearing him that he must be a very impure person; if he be not, as I would fain believe, his discourse is not less pernicious.

"True law is right reason conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome, and another at Athens; one thing to-day, and another to-morrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must forever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author, its promulgator, its enforcer. And he who does not obey it flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man. And by so doing he will endure the severest penalties even if he avoid the other evils which are usually accounted punishments."

This internet preview does not include footnotes.