Sunday, October 7, 2012

An Outline in Cicero

As I have argued in a previous post, what we call "outlines" today are are a certain typographical convention or, perhaps better, a convention in how we represent in writing hierarchical lists. Such lists can already be found in antiquity. Her is one example. Cicero, in the second book of his work on Moral Ends presents the following classification of views on the highest good:

A. The highest good is to live in accordance with nature

  1. Those who think it involves virtue
    1. Old Academy and Peripatetics
    2. Calipho, added nothing but pleasure to virtue
    3. Diodorus, added nothing but freedom from pain to virtue
  2. Those who think it consists of just pleasure
    1. Aristippus, pleasure and pain, pure and simple
    2. Epicurus
    3. Hieronymus
    4. Carneades
  3. Those who think it is virtue plus some other thing, i.e. not pleasure
    1. Polemo
    2. Calipho
    3. Diodorus
  4. Those who think it is just decency or morality and non-complex
    1. Zeno or the Stoics

After giving this account, he "narrows down the competition," that is, he tries to show which theory is actually true. The details of this argument shall not concern us here. All that interests me in this context is pointing out that he proposes what we might call an outline, though he does not, of course, present in the form of an outline. All we have in a modern translation is two paragraphs, in which he states this classification. It is by the way not unambiguous (and my particular reconstruction can be criticized).

But even the organization into two paragraphs was probably not there when Cicero wrote this. In fact, there was no mark for the paragraph or even spacing between different words. It was all jumbled together as one continues string of letters.

There is no doubt in my mind that the convention of putting spaces between words, starting new paragraphs with a new line and indicating clearly the different headings of the classification are making it easier for us to read and understand what is said. They also make it easier for us to think about the matter at hand. But it cannot be denied that they are not absolutely necessary either. Clearly, Cicero (and Cicero's contemporaries) could do without these conventions. But outliners, in the end, are based on a convention that is similar in kind to the convention of putting spaces between words when writing. It's a kind of microformat. This microformat is superior to the lack of format in Cicero, but it represents in no way a new way of thinking.

I do not claim that this "outline" by Cicero is anything special. Such passages can be found everywhere in ancient texts that discuss systematic matters.


gregor said...

But see Dave Winer's recent post
He's arguing that the ability to simultaneously work with content and structure is what's new about outlining on computer -- "Outlining works on a computer, as long as you revise. It doesn't work on paper because revision, especially of structure, is too hard."
Of course this is a quite different thing than (necessarily) static outlines as a presentation format.

ballantrae-reprint said...

Hello. Have you seen Redhaven Outliner? It's at
John W

ballantrae-reprint said...

Hello. Have you seen Redhaven Outliner? It's at
John W