Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Philosophy

Cicero on Nature and Wisdom

An excerpt from Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum (On the ends of goods and evils) on how Wisdom relates to Nature:

Ut Phidias potest a primo instituere signum idque perficere, potest ab alio inchoatum accipere et absolvere, huic est sapientia similis; non enim ipsa genuit hominem, sed accepit a natura inchoatum. Hanc ergo intuens debet institutum illud quasi signum absolvere. (De finibus 4.34)

A Pheidias can start to make a statue from the beginning and carry it to completion, or he can take one rough-hewn by someone else and finish that. The latter case typifies the work of Wisdom. She did not create man herself, but took him over in the rough from Nature; her business is to finish the statue that Nature began, keeping her eyes on Nature meanwhile. (trans. H. Rackham)

Obviously, there is much more than can (and really should) be said, but even in this brief segment there are principles that are of perennial importance. Nature comes first, and it is given. Wisdom doesn’t create man, but cultivates, refines, completes him.

But note well how she does this: she doesn’t take up a formless mass of mud, turn her back, and do her work with no reference to anything outside of herself, solipsistically watching herself in the mirror as she labors. Wisdom is not a Narcissus. She can only do her work by “keeping her eyes” on Nature (hanc … intuens) throughout. For Wisdom really to be Wisdom, she must ever fix her gaze on Nature while accomplishing the “finishing” of man.

Both points are of crucial importance: (1) that man progresses in wisdom over time and (2) that wisdom is not a self-referential product of the mind operating upon itself, but is always directed outward, informed by the real external world.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.