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
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.
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.
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
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 of―for thus, if it is broken, you can bear it:
if you embrace your child or your wife, that you embrace a
mortal―and 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.
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 bath―some 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.
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.
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.
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.
Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish
them to happen as they do happen, and your life will be
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.
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.
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.
Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at
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.
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
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.