Roman Philosophy

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016

The philosophical system most closely associated with the Ancient Rome, particularly during the Republic - although there was a resurgence of interest during the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aureliue - was Stoicism.


Zeno of Citium 
Stoicism is a school of Greco-Roman philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC.
The Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and the active relationship between cosmic determinism and human freedom, and the belief that it is virtuous to maintain a will (called prohairesis) that is in accord with nature.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius 
Because of this, the Stoics presented their philosophy as a way of life, and they thought that the best indication of an individual's philosophy was not what a person said but how that person behaved.
To live a good life, one had to understand the rules of the natural order since they taught that everything was rooted in nature.
Later Stoics - such as Seneca and Epictetus - emphasized that, because "virtue is sufficient for happiness", a sage was immune to misfortune.
This belief is similar to the meaning of the phrase "stoic calm", though the phrase does not include the "radical ethical" Stoic views that only a sage can be considered truly free, and that all moral corruptions are equally vicious.
From its founding, Stoic doctrine was popular with a following, particularly among the educated, upper classes, in Roman Greece and throughout the Roman Empire - including the Emperor Marcus Aurelius - until the closing of all pagan philosophy schools in AD 529.

Stoic Teachings

The Stoics provided a unified account of the world, consisting of formal logic, monistic physics and naturalistic ethics.
Of these, they emphasized ethics as the main focus of human knowledge, though their logical theories were of more interest for later philosophers.
Stoicism teaches the development of 'self-control' and 'fortitude' (Roman Republican virtues) as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos).
A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individual's ethical and moral well-being: "Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature."
This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; "to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy," and to accept even slaves as "equals of other men, because all men alike are products of nature."
The Stoic ethic espouses a deterministic perspective; in regard to those who lack Stoic virtue, Cleanthes once opined that the wicked man is "like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes."
A Stoic of virtue, by contrast, would amend his will to suit the world and remain, in the words of Epictetus, "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy," thus positing a "completely autonomous" individual will, and at the same time a universe that is "a rigidly deterministic single whole".
This viewpoint was later described as "Classical Pantheism".
Stoicism became the foremost popular philosophy among the educated elite in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire, to the point where nearly all the successors of Alexander professed themselves Stoics.

Origins and Development
Beginning at around 301 BC, Zeno taught philosophy at the Stoa Poikile (i.e., "the painted porch"), from which his philosophy got its name.

The Stoa Poikile ( ἡ ποικίλη στοά), originally called the Porch of Peisianax (ἡ Πεισιανάκτειος στοά), was erected during the 5th century BC and was located on the north side of the Ancient Agora of Athens. The Stoa Poikile was one of the most famous sites in ancient Athens, owing its fame to the paintings and loot from wars displayed in it. The Stoa was the location from which Zeno of Citium taught Stoicism. The philosophical school of Stoicism takes its name from having first been expounded here, and was derived from the Greek word stoa. Zeno taught and lectured to his followers from this porch. The Stoa had a Doric columnar facade, and an Ionic interior colonnade.The Stoa Poikile was decorated by fresco painter and sculptor Micon of Athens in collaboration with Polygnotos of Thasos; both artists worked around the mid-5th century BC. The paintings were most probably hung on the inner wall of the stoa. In the time of Pausanias (2nd century AD), the paintings in the Stoa included: 'The Battle of Oenoe', 'Amazonomachy' by Micon, 'The taking of Troy' by Polygnotus, 'The Battle of Marathon' by Panaenus (also ascribed to Micon and Polygnotus, who may have assisted in the work)
Unlike the other schools of philosophy, such as the Epicureans, Zeno chose to teach his philosophy in a public space, which was a colonnade overlooking the central gathering place of Athens, the Agora. Zeno's ideas developed from those of the Cynics, whose founding father, Antisthenes, had been a disciple of Socrates.
Zeno's most influential follower was Chrysippus, who was responsible for the molding of what is now called Stoicism.
Later Roman Stoics focused on promoting a life in harmony within the universe, over which one has no direct control.
Scholars usually divide the history of Stoicism into three phases:
  • Early Stoa, from the founding of the school by Zeno to Antipater.
  • Middle Stoa, including Panaetius and Posidonius.
  • Late Stoa, including Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus (see below), and Marcus Aurelius. No complete work by any Stoic philosopher survives from the first two phases of Stoicism. Only Roman texts from the Late Stoa survive.
Ethics and Morals

Borrowing from the 'Cynics', the foundation of Stoic ethics is that good lies in the state of the soul itself; in wisdom and self-control.
Stoic ethics stressed the rule: "Follow where reason leads."
One must therefore strive to be free of the passions, bearing in mind that the ancient meaning of "passion" was "anguish" or "suffering", that is, "passively" reacting to external events, which is somewhat different from the modern use of the word.
A distinction was made between pathos (plural pathe) which is normally translated as passion, propathos or instinctive reaction (e.g., turning pale and trembling when confronted by physical danger) and eupathos, which is the mark of the Stoic sage (sophos).
The eupatheia are feelings that result from correct judgment in the same way as passions result from incorrect judgment.
The idea was to be free of suffering through ἀπάθεια - apatheia, or peace of mind (literally, "without passion"), where peace of mind was understood in the ancient sense - being objective or having "clear judgment" and the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life's highs and lows.
For the Stoics, reason meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature - the logos, or universal reason, inherent in all things.
Living according to reason and virtue, they held, is to live in harmony with the divine order of the universe, in recognition of the common reason and essential value of all people.
The four cardinal virtues of the Stoic philosophy is a classification derived from the teachings of Plato: wisdom (Sophia) courage (Andreia) justice (Dikaiosyne) temperance (Sophrosyne).
Following Socrates, the Stoics held that unhappiness and evil are the results of human ignorance of the reason in nature.
If someone is unkind, it is because they are unaware of their own universal reason, which leads to the conclusion of kindness.
The solution to evil and unhappiness then, is the practice of Stoic philosophy: to examine one's own judgments and behavior and determine where they diverge from the universal reason of nature.
The Stoics accepted that suicide was permissible for the wise person in circumstances that might prevent them from living a virtuous life.
Plutarch held that accepting life under tyranny would have compromised Cato's self-consistency (constantia) as a Stoic and impaired his freedom to make the honorable moral choices.
Suicide could be justified if one fell victim to severe pain or disease, but otherwise suicide would usually be seen as a rejection of one's social duty.
Philosophy for a Stoic, however, is not just a set of beliefs or ethical claims, it is a way of life involving constant practice and training (or askesis, see asceticism).
Stoic philosophical and spiritual practices included logic, Socratic dialogue and self-dialogue, contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment, and daily reflection on everyday problems and possible solutions.
Philosophy for a Stoic is an active process of constant practice and self-reminder.


Although he was Greek, Epictetus (Ἐπίκτητος; c. AD 55 – 135) was an outstanding Stoic philosopher during the Roman period.
He was born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey), and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in north-western Greece for the rest of his life.
His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian in his 'Discourses'.
Epictetus taught that philosophy is a way of life, and not just a theoretical discipline (see above).
To Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control; we should accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately, however, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.

He spent his youth as a slave in Rome to Epaphroditos, a wealthy freedman and secretary to Nero.
Early in life, Epictetus acquired a passion for philosophy, and with the permission of his wealthy owner, he studied Stoic philosophy under Musonius Rufus, which allowed him to rise in respectability as he grew more educated.
Epictetus obtained his freedom some time after Nero's death in 68 A.D., and began to teach philosophy in Rome.
About 93 A.D. Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from the city, and Epictetus fled to Nicopolis in Epirus, Greece, where he founded a philosophical school.
Epictetus maintains that the foundation of all philosophy is self-knowledge, that is, the conviction of our ignorance and gullibility ought to be the first subject of our study.
Logic provides valid reasoning, and certainty in judgment, but it is subordinate to practical needs.
The first and most necessary part of philosophy concerns the application of doctrine, for example, that people should not lie; the second concerns reasons, e.g. why people should not lie; while the third, lastly, examines and establishes the reasons.
This is the logical part, which finds reasons, shows what is a reason, and that a given reason is a right one.
This last part is necessary, but only on account of the second, which again is rendered necessary by the first.
He maintained that philosophy should provide a standard for good and evil.
This process is greatly facilitated because the mind, and the works of the mind are alone in our power, whereas all external things that aid life are beyond our control.
The essence of God is goodness; we have all good that could be given to us.
The gods too gave us the soul and reason, which is not measured by breadth or depth, but by knowledge and sentiments, and by which we attain to greatness, and may equal even with the gods. 
We should, therefore, cultivate the mind with special care.
If we wish for nothing but what God wills, we shall be truly free, and all will come to pass with us according to our desire; and we shall be as little subject to restraint as Zeus himself.
Every individual is connected with the rest of the world, and the universe is fashioned for universal harmony.
Wise people, therefore, will pursue, not merely their own will, but will also be subject to the rightful order of the world.
We should conduct ourselves through life fulfilling all our duties as children, siblings, parents, and citizens.
It is only our opinions and principles that can render us unhappy, and it is only the ignorant person that finds fault with another.
Every desire degrades us, and renders us slaves of what we desire.
We ought not to forget the transitory character of all external advantages, even in the midst of our enjoyment of them; but always to bear in mind that they are not our own, and that therefore they do not properly belong to us.
Thus prepared, we shall never be carried away by opinions.
As one can see, it is difficult to disagree with most of Epictetus's noble and thoroughly worthwhile sentiments, and it is easy to see how such teaching became widespread among the more responsible intelligentsia in Rome.


Emperor Nero
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (often known as Seneca the Younger c. 4 BC – AD 65) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and in one work humorist, of the Silver Age of Latin literature.
He was a tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero.
His father was Seneca the Elder, his elder brother was Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus, and his nephew was the poet Lucan.
Among his many works of moral philosophy are “De Ira” (“On Anger”), “De Providentia” (“On Providence”), and “De Brevitate Vitae” (“On the Shortness of Life”).
In his many works of moral philosophy, Seneca consistently maintains that the key to a virtuous life is freedom from passion.
Virtue, in turn, is necessary for happiness and also sufficient to produce it.
Very little survives of the Greek Stoics, whom Seneca must have read, but the tradition placed great emphasis on austerity and self-mastery.
Seneca praises poverty, and argues that the wise man will allow neither joy nor grief to affect him, for both are mere distractions.

Seneca, however, failed to practice what he preached, glossing over Nero's murder of his mother, Agrippina, and of his rival Britannicus, (more of that later).
Seneca grew rich from Nero’s crimes, and following Britannicus’ murder, the boy’s wealth was divvied up, and Seneca, it seems, got a piece.
By the end of the decade, the 'stoic philosopher' owned property not just in Rome, but also in Egypt, Spain, and southern Italy.
And he had so much cash on hand that he loaned forty million sesterces to Rome’s newest subjects, the British. (The annual salary of a Roman soldier at that time was around nine hundred sesterces.) The recall of the loans purportedly prompted the British to revolt.
Seneca’s fortune made possible a life style that was lavish even by Roman standards.
Seneca’s end came in 65 A.D., when he was implicated in a plot to assassinate Nero, and install in his place a good-looking nobleman named Gaius Piso.
By some accounts, there was within this conspiracy a sub-conspiracy to kill Piso, too, and make Seneca emperor.)
The plotters bungled things, and Nero cut them down one after another.
To the end, Seneca maintained his innocence, and he may even have been telling the truth, but, as no one knew better than he, truth was not the issue.
He was ordered to commit suicide.
As a good Roman, and a good Stoic (?) he cut his wrists, and when that didn’t work he tried the veins behind his knees.
Supposedly, as he died, he called in his secretary, so he could dictate one last speech.

to be continued......