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STOICISM, THE PHILOSOPHY OF ROME

As Alexander swept across the known world, he founded Greek cities which helped to spread Hellenistic ideas throughout the world. The most important of these cities was Alexandria in Egypt. After his death his successor in Egypt, Ptolemy I, made Alexandria his capital. As a result it became one of the Hellenistic periods major centers of culture and learning. Of particular importance for our investigation of the evolution of western society was that the population of Alexandria included a large contingent of diaspora Jews. Diaspora Jews are the descendants of those who were driven out of Israel. Though by this time they were heavily Hellenized, they yet maintained a loyalty to their homeland and their religion. These Jewish citizens of Alexandria spoke and wrote in Greek. They translated the ancient Jewish books into Greek and formed the Greek bible called the Septaugent. The term is derived from the method of determining the validity of the translations. They were translated by a committee of seventy scholars who had to agree on the translations.

Greek philosophy was debated in the market places, became part of the everyday language of the Greek people. The pooling of religious and philosophical ideas that the Hellenistic era is noted for is now called Syncretism. The lack of a single overriding cultural structure led to an eclectic approach to both religion and philosophy. The Greek Gods took on Roman names. The Romans adopted Greek philosophy. The Stoics called themselves "citizens of the world."

Stoicism followed from the cynics. It was founded by Zeno after the death of Aristotle. The Epicureans derived their concept from Democritus' atoms. The stoics borrowed from Hericlitus for them a soul of fiery atoms existed in a materialistic universe conceived as reason and occasionally described as God. Drawing inspiration from Semitic sources, stoicism became a new religion growing out of the ashes of a failed polytheism.

The best life, said the stoics, is a life in harmony with nature. However little it gives him, man can be resigned to his world for it is the best that can be. This makes the stoic ideal, in Zeno's words, "Life in agreement with nature." Living virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature. Chrysipus said that this nature included both universal nature and the nature of man.

The Romans were a far more practical people than the Greeks, and more skilled at governing. Stoicism became the strongest force in Roman life. The two best known Roman Stoic writers were Epictetus, a slave, and Marcus Aurelius, an Emperor. Perhaps we could best get a feel for their attitudes by reading their words directly for once truth becomes of secondary importance to living then it is feelings and not logical order which tell us the real meaning of a culture.

EPICTETUS THE ENCHIRIDION

There are things which are within our power and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.

Aiming, therefore, at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself any inclination, however slight, toward the attainment of the others; but that you must entirely quit some of them, and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would have these, and possess power and wealth likewise, you may miss the latter in seeking the former; and you will certainly fail of that by which alone happiness and freedom are procured.

Seek at once, therefore, to be able to say to every unpleasant semblance, "you are but a semblance and by no means the real thing." And then examine it by those rules which you have and chiefly by this: whether it concerns the things which are within our own power or those which are not; and if it concerns anything beyond our own power, be prepared to say it is nothing to you.

This is not a search for truth, it is a search for an ideal life in a world where the forces that mold your environment are beyond your understanding. It is one final answer to the ultimate question of life and happiness. It is the refuge of the total skeptic. But most of all it is a way of life that avoids contention and searches for total quietude of the mind.

II

Remember that desire demands the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion demands the avoidance of that to which you are averse; that he who fails of the object of his desires is disappointed; and he who incurs the object of his aversion is wretched. If, then, you avoid only those undesirable things which you control, you will never incur anything which you avoid; but if you shun sickness, or death, or poverty, you will run the risk of wretchedness. Remove the habit of aversion, then, from all things that are not within our power, and apply it to things undesirable which are within your power. But for the present, altogether restrain desire; for if you desire any of the things not within our own power, you must necessarily be disappointed; and you are not yet secure of those which are within your power, and so are legitimate objects of desire. Where it is practically necessary for you to pursue or avoid anything, do even this with discretion and gentleness and moderation.

The rejection of desire has always been considered a trait of eastern religions. But unlike the east, the Stoics were living and breathing members of a culture dedicated to a rational world. If the source of all evil lies in man himself, then it is here that it can be cut out. And who better to tell us how than the magnificent slave.

With regard to whatever objects either delight the mind or contribute to use or are tenderly beloved, remind yourself of what nature they are, beginning with the merest trifles: if you have a favorite cup, that it is but a cup of which you are fond offor thus, if it is broken, you can bear it: if you embrace your child or your wife, that you embrace a mortaland thus, if either of them dies, you can bear it.

To live rationally, that was the goal of all Roman philosophies. The Greeks believed that within each man was a spark of the divine, a touch of the unchanging and eternal. But if the soul is nothing but a particular arrangement of senseless atoms which upon death would simply disintegrate leaving nothing, then to live rationally is to live with the full knowledge that the world and all that is in it is ephemeral.

IV

When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, represent to yourself the incidents usual in the bathsome persons pouring out, others pushing in, others scolding, others pilfering. And thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, "I will now go to bathe and keep my own will in harmony with nature." And so with regard to every other action. for thus, if any impediment arises in bathing, you will be able to say, "It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus if I am out of humor with things that happen "

Even in our twentieth century culture we recognize people who maintain what we are likely to call a "stoic" attitude. But to us it is unique. It takes more than a moment of thought to realize that given the underlying skeptic attitude of the period the stoic attitude is a rational approach to a changing world.

V

Men are disturbed by the views which they take of things. Thus, death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death, that it is terrible. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never impute it to others, but to ourselves--that is to our own views. It is the action of an uninstructed person to reproach others for his own misfortunes; of one entering upon instruction, to reproach himself; and one perfectly instructed, to reproach neither others nor himself.

Given the lack of truth in the Hellenistic period, opinion is a poor substitute. But to know it is only an opinion is to have taken a step closer to truth.

VI

Be not elated at any excellence not your own. If a horse should be elated and say, "I am handsome," it might be endurable. But when you are elated and say, "I have a handsome horse," know only that you are elated only on the merit of the horse. What then is your own? The use of the phenomena of existence. So that when you are in harmony in nature, in this respect, you will be elated with some reason, for you will be elated at some good of your own.

In Aristotle's ethics, happiness is derived from actions which develop ones own self. The virtue of a given act was particular to the specific act itself and to the specific individuals involved in it. Stoics were unaware of Aristotelian philosophy because during the roman period Aristotle's works were lost to the world. However, we can see that much of his thought would have been very much in line with the stoic attitude.

VII

As in a voyage, when the ship is at anchor, if you go on shore to get water, you may amuse yourself with picking up a shellfish or a truffle in your way, but your thoughts ought to be bent toward the ship, and perpetually attentive, lest the captain should call, and then you must leave all these things that you may not have to be carried on board the vessel, bound like a sheep; thus likewise in life, if, instead of a truffle or a shellfish, such a thing as a wife or a child be granted you, there is no objection; but if the captain calls, run to the ship, leave all these things, and never look behind. But if you are old, never go far from the ship, lest you should be missing when called for.

Once you accept the idea that the world around you as well as much of what you are faced with in your everyday life is determined by a nature you have no control over, it is a small step to being ready for whatever it calls upon you to experience.

VIII

Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will be serene.

But the life of the self is not the life of the body for the self is what you do have control over. To forget this is to lose sight of the advantages of the stoic attitude.

IX

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will unless itself pleases. Lameness is an impediment to the leg but not to the will: and say this to yourself with regard everything that happens. For you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.

Like Aristotle, the Stoic is committed to direct willful rational acts, and not to arguments concerning the nature of the acts.

LI

The first and most necessary topic in philosophy is the practical application of principles, as, We ought not to lie; the second is demonstrations as, Why is it that we ought not to lie; the third, that which gives strength and logical connection to the other two, as, Why this is a demonstration. For what is a demonstration? What is a consequence? What a contradiction? What truth? What falsehood? The third point is then necessary on account of the second; and the second on account of the first. But the most necessary and that whereon we ought to rest is the first. But we do just the contrary. For we spend all our time on the third point an employ all our diligence about that, and entirely neglect the first. therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are very ready to show how it is demonstrated that lying is wrong.

LII

Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand:

Conduct me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,

Wherever your decrees have fixed my lot.

I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,

Wicked and wretched, I must follow still.

Who'er yields properly to fate is deemed

Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven.

And this third:

"O Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be." "Anytas and Melitus may kill me indeed; but hurt me they cannot."

The idea of a philosopher as one who presents a way of life rather than a searcher after truth was a natural outcome of a culture where truth is something that is unattainable. Epictetus was a slave who earned his freedom and went on to become a great teacher. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor whose brooding and melancholy treatises still have inspirational ideas to bring us.

Stoicism prepared the world for the coming of Neo-Platonism, but what aspect of it played the most important part? Was it its simple beauty? Or perhaps its impracticality. When we think about Zeno dreaming of a world not of separate states but of one city where all citizens were members of one another bound together not by human laws but by their own willing consent, by their mutual love, it makes us think of a beautiful but impossible dream. It is difficult in our twentieth century thought to pin down the real essence of stoicism. However, a few of the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius might suffice to put our minds in a condition to understand the Neo-Platonist fascination. To begin with he said to throw away thoughts concerning how we are seen by others. He told us to do what our nature requires. Alexander and Gaius Caesar and Pompeius, he said, to how many things were they slaves? Compare them with Diogenes, Heraclitus, and Socrates, they were acquainted with things, their causes, and their matter. He called on us to ask ourselves concerning any act, " How does this affect me? Shall I repent of it?" If I am now doing the work of an intelligent being living in society under a common law of God, what more do I seek? "Be not perturbed," he said, " all things are according to the universal and in a little time you will be nobody and nowhere." The ultimate striving of the stoic is for a life in harmony with a natural universe. The unique potentiality of man is his reason. This makes the goal of man the achievement of perfect reason. Considering the disintegration of society that was occurring during the third century, this must have required a tremendous amount of devotion.

MARCUS AURELIUS

Men seek retreats for themselves houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thy shalt choose to retire into thyself. for nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.

Although these two schools were the most influential throughout the Hellenistic period, they were not alone. The differences between them expresses what we have been discussing since the beginning of this work, that is the ultimate source of truth and knowledge. Both the Stoics and the Epicureans were simply convinced that truth was nature and one needn't search for it, simply learn to live with it. Another group, called the Academicians, claimed that truth was completely unattainable. The skeptics, of whom we have spoken of concerning their founder Pyrhho, as you may recall, called both dogmatists because one claimed they new the truth and the other that they could not. The skeptics claim was that to assert either was foolish because one can never know whether he knew the truth or not.

Sextus Empiricus, said, "We assert still that the skeptic's end is quietude in respect in respect of matters of opinion and moderate feeling in respect of things unavoidable. For the skeptic, having set out to philosophize with the object of passing judgment on the sense-impressions and ascertaining which of them are true and which false, so as to attain quietude thereby, found himself involved in contradictions of equal weight, and being unable to decide between them suspended judgment; and as he was thus in suspense there followed, as it happened, the state of quietude in respect of matters of opinion. For the man who opines that anything is by nature good or bad is forever being disquieted: when he is without the things which he deems good he believes himself to be tormented by things naturally bad and he pursues after the things which are, as he thinks, good; which when he as obtained he keeps falling into still more perturbations because of his irrational and immoderate elation, and in his dread of a change of fortune he uses every endeavor to avoid losing the things which he deems good. On the other hand, the man who determines nothing as to what is naturally good or bad neither shuns nor pursues anything eagerly; and, in consequence, he is unperturbed." From this we can see that the ultimate aim of all of these Hellenistic philosophies is quietude of mind at the cost of a search for truth.

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