De finibus bonorum et malorum (Latin: About the conceptions of the most good and most evil) was a five book commentary by Cicero on three prominent philosophical schools among the intellectual elite of Rome written for his political ally Brutus in 45 BCE. Cicero organized the treatise as three dialogues between himself and symbolic proponents of the Stoic, Epicurean, and Academy schools of thought at different times and places throughout the author's life. He laid out his interpretation of their reflections on chief good and evil, then countered them with his own arguments. The end goal of the work was to elevate the Old Academy of Plato as the most accurate depiction of human virtue and vice.

Beginning with an introduction to defend the modification of old Greek philosophies with new Roman interpretations, Cicero then moved on to describe the first dialogue which supposedly occurred in the author's villa near Cumae in 50 BCE. A man named Manlius Torquatus, who during Cicero's time had been a supporty of Pompey and a solider serving in the African campaign, attempted to establish that the greatest good was accomplished by pursuing pleasure and eschewing pain; a philosophy greatly in tune with Epicurean ideals. Cicero then uses logical reasoning to deconstruct Manlius' argument. The next dialogue occurs in the villa of a friend with Cato of Utica, a descendant of the originally famous Cato of Roman antiquity. The Stoic conception of chief good, the practice of virtue and harmony with nature, is challenged by Cicero as not sufficiently thorough enough to encompass humanity's more base characteristics. Finally, a third dialogue occurs in Athens when Cicero was studying there in 79 BCE with M. Pupius Piso Calpurnianus, a consul. He combines pursuit of happiness present in Epicurean philosophy with espousal of virtue in Stoic philosophy to give a final picture of the chief good; perfection of the self through virtue, which is the only means of achieving true joy (a concept oddly parallel with certain Buddhist teachings). Cicero gives the token objection that virtuous men can still be unhappy, thus not symbolic of the chief good. Since our author was still a devotee of the Academy school, Piso still gets the last word. His counter is that a virtuous man, although not supremely happy, would nevertheless be on the whole happy.


Howatson, M. C. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Oxfod: Oxfod University Press, 1989.

The Philosophy Garden. http://www.atomic-swerve.net/tpg/index.html . Jul 15, 2000.

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