Dr. James Patrick, “Cicero’s Faith” (MP3 Download)


Run Time: 46 minutes

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In this lecture, Dr. Patrick examines the religious world of Cicero and contrasts the similarities and differences between Roman religion and the Christian faith that inherited the Roman world. One of the most dramatic differences lay in the endless influences from the spiritual world that the Romans identified in their everyday lives. Springs, wells, stands of trees, the features of houses and of the natural world, and all activities were subject to the influence or governance of an endless list of gods and lesser sprites and fairies. Although this multiplicity was derided by some, Cicero has more in common with Polybius, who identified the unity of pious respect for the gods as a key strength of Rome and a key to political success. Religious practice, however, did not concern personal sanctification, the expiation of guilt, or the cultivation of virtue. Rather, Cicero’s religion concerned the natural obligations of humans in the hierarchy of powers. Romans met specific challenges, routines, and the misfortunes of life by ritual sacrifices and particular prayers whose meticulousness was supposed to reflect the correct internal attitude of respect and devotion to the divine powers. Cicero did not believe religious ritual aided the soul, but rather was the outward form of the orderly man. Cicero’s religious man thanked the gods “for riches and honors,” but studied the order of the universe in order to discipline himself in virtue.

Cicero’s ethics here reveal another contrast with the notions of our own age, for his meditations on sin focus on the injury the wicked do to themselves and reveal his understanding of virtue and vice as harmonies or violations of human nature, and not arbitrary or artificial standards. This schema Dr. Patrick compares with the ethics of consent that dominate much reasoning today about ethics, in which good and evil are determined by individual will in cooperation or alone. This element of Cicero’s faith, founded in his a priori belief in the Roman gods, undergirded both pagan and Christian piety and belief in the transcendent justice of God. These elements were reiterated by generations of Christian writers who operated in the same tradition, and Dr. Patrick notes that a number of harmonious practices from the pagan world were inherited by the Christian faithful along with the beliefs in harmony with Christian theology.

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