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Renewing Greek Philosophy at Rome

Renewing Greek Philosophy at Rome


No “Roman” Philosophy?. Greek mythology was the matrix, the inexhaustible store of material out of which evolved not only Greek literature but also Greek science and philosophy. The people who would become the Romans were related to the Greeks, and they originally shared that mythology, but they converted much of it into their founding legends and early political history. Lacking that core material and the productive contacts that the Greeks had with the East and Egypt, Rome had no native philosophy.

Awareness of Greece. Classical Greek culture flowered during the mid fifth century b.c.e., especially in Athens. Greek influence extended to southern Italy through the many Greek colonial cities there, and to central Italy through trade and political contacts with the Etruscan aristocracy. At that very time Rome was still a small rural town, struggling to preserve its recently established republican government after expelling its last Etruscan king. A political crisis then erupted between the patrician and plebeian social classes. The plebeians, who felt increasingly excluded from positions of power in the new state, demanded the written codification of Roman law, until then the exclusive property of the patricians. A plebeian revolt brought about the establishment of a committee to write such a code. According to Roman historical legend, these men travelled to Athens to study the laws composed in 594 b.c.e. by the Athenian lawgiver Solon, who had them inscribed on revolving pillars and set in a public place. The Romans’ journey to Athens for this purpose is probably fictitious, but the kernel of the story seems true: that aristocratic Romans were aware of Greek culture and looked to Greece as a model for some of their own institutions, even at that early time. Certainly, Rome’s wars with Carthage, beginning in the third century b.c.e., brought the Romans into increasing contact with the wider Greek world throughout the Mediterranean basin. By then the classical Greek philosophical schools begun in the fifth and fourth centuries had evolved into many distinct sects, each with a fairly clear set of doctrines, but also with much mutual borrowing of ideas.

Greek Philosophy Comes to Rome. By the mid second century b.c.e. Rome was clearly the center of power throughout the Mediterranean. States in Greece, Asia, and Africa had to go to Rome to settle any international affairs. In 156-155 b.c.e. a delegation was sent from Athens to speak to the Roman Senate on some diplomatic matters. This delegation included the heads of the three most important schools of Greek philosophy: the Stoic Diogenes of Babylon, Carneades of the Academy, and the Peripatetic Critolaus. While there they gave demonstrations of their knowledge. Carneades, for example, known for his criticism of belief in the gods, delivered two show-speeches on successive days, one on behalf of Justice, the next against it. Such events sparked, according to Cicero, a remarkable desire for learning among the Roman youth, and we might say that Greek philosophy really had its firm beginnings in Rome at this time. But they also aroused deep suspicions, for Romans generally disapproved of idle intellectual activity as unfit for proper gentlemen. Cato, a traditional Roman statesman of the time, was worried about the effect philosophy might have on morals, so he arranged for the Athenian delegation to leave Rome as soon as possible. Certain Romans, however, most notably the family of the Scipios, admired Greek culture and welcomed it more warmly. Even so, Roman moral sensibility always felt it necessary to justify the study of philosophy by the practical value it might bring in the management of the state. Thus at Rome those aspects of Greek philosophy that had a more direct bearing on ethics and the practical virtues were most attractive, while the merely theoretical aspects tended not to be of such interest.

Development of Stoicism. Panaetius of Rhodes (circa 185-109 b.c.e.), a student of Diogenes of Babylon, was another Stoic who was favorably received by Scipio Aemilianus and who had an impact on Roman thought, particularly on Cicero. Like Polybius, Panaetius insisted on the role of divine providence in world affairs. He also emphasized the everyday practice of ethics and morals in fulfillment of that divine plan. Posidonius (circa 135-circa 51 b.c.e.), Panaetius’s student in turn, visited Rome in the 80s before establishing his school on the island of Rhodes, to which many young Romans came to further their education. Posidonius taught that all knowledge is interconnected, and he sought to integrate it all in a universal world history. The physical sciences, and history, too, he argued, should serve to instruct mankind in moral virtue.

Development of Scepticism. A successor, after one generation, of Carneades to the directorship of the Academy, the philosophical school begun by Plato, Philon also was at Rome in the 80s at the same time as Panaetius of Rhodes. While there he taught many well-to-do Roman youths, most importantly Cicero. Since none of Philon’s writings survives, we depend on Cicero for our knowledge of his teachings. Between the time of Plato and Carneades, a sect of the Academy had formed under Pyrrhon the Sceptic. The Sceptics held, as certain Presocratics had earlier, that certain knowledge of things in this world is not possible. Therefore, to avoid error, they held that it is best to with hold judgment at all times. Philon modified this radical view somewhat. He said that, in the absence of absolute knowledge, one must at least rely on the plausible in order to make informed decisions and to act morally. In some respects he moved the thought of the Academy closer to that of the Stoic school, which held that absolute knowledge was not only possible but essential.

Cicero as Philosopher. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 b.c.e.), one of the leading political figures during the collapse of the Roman republican government in the first century b.c.e., is also the man most closely associated with philosophy at Rome. Cicero enjoyed an excellent education in his youth and studied in the leading schools of the Epicureans, Academics, Stoics, and Peripatetics. After Julius Caesar defeated Pompey, his chief rival for personal control of Roman politics, in the civil war that ended in 48 b.c.e., Cicero’s public career was over, for he had long supported Pompey’s interests. In 45 b.c.e. his beloved daughter Tullia died in childbirth, an event that deeply affected him. He retired and committed himself to the writing of philosophy as a consolation for his grief.

Cicero’s Philosophic Works. Almost all of Cicero’s philosophical writings are in the form of dialogues, that is, fictional conversations between persons of Cicero’s own time or earlier on some given topic. In doing this Cicero deliberately imitates Plato and Aristotle, who wrote many of their treatises in this same style. A dialogue between two or several persons allows the alternate presentation and criticism of ideas, a process that brings the participants closer to the truth. In Cicero’s dialogues the debt to Greek thinkers is always acknowledged, and his characters usually outline the doctrines of one school of philosophy or another on the given topic. Cicero was no mere translator or paraphraser of Greek philosophers, however. One of his greatest achievements was his creation of a Latin philosophical vocabulary. Compared to classical Greek, Latin has an archaic, almost primitive quality, but in Cicero’s hands it became the equal to Greek in its refined philosophical terminology. His philosophical works can be organized into three groups: rhetoric, political philosophy, and ethics.

Cicero’s Rhetorical Works. Cicero was especially attracted to those lines of philosophical inquiry that included rhetoric, the art of persuasive public speaking. Ever since Socrates’ critical questioning of the Sophists in fifth-century Athens, rhetoric had always been a branch of philosophy, for Greek thinkers had long been interested in the relationship between fact and word. To gain power and prestige in Greco-Roman antiquity, one had to be able to speak well and convincingly in public assembly. Oratory, having a practical application for the common good, was thus more acceptable to many Romans than “idle” philosophical speculation. Much of Cicero’s surviving writings consists of speeches he delivered as a politician and a private lawyer; many of them reflect his philosophical training as well. Cicero felt that the orator must use his abilities wisely and for the greatest good. Therefore he must develop not only his speaking ability but also his soul in moral virtue. In such works as On the Orator, The Orator, and Brutus, Cicero explored various arguments about the relationship between moral philosophy and rhetoric. In these works he follows Plato, who had dealt with the topic in several of his dialogues.

Political Philosophy. Oratory, of course, makes sense only in the context of active politics. Cicero also devoted himself to the study of political philosophy, that is, of the philosophical foundations of a good state. In his On the Republic, which exists now only in fragmentary form, Cicero dealt with the problem of the ideal state and its constitution. He resumed a topic dealt with earlier by Aristotle and Polybius, the theory of the mixed constitution, but he incorporates an element of Platonic thought, that a state should be guided by a wise man thoroughly trained in philosophy. Though it contains elements of the thought of several schools, this work is greatly influenced by Stoicism, especially in its concluding vision of Rome, its place in the divine plan of the universe, and of the rights of all men for justice and good government. His dialogue On Laws is a critique of Roman law from the point of view of the schools of philosophy. It is influenced greatly by Stoic thought, derived from Diogenes of Babylon.

Moral Philosophy or Ethics. Cicero was also interested in the more private or personal application of philosophy, that is, in the conduct of one’s own life. Concerning the Purposes of Good and Evil Things is an examination of the proper response to success and adversity. His Concerning Duties is an outline of moral obligations to one another and how one must train in philosophy to meet them. The Tusculan Disputations, on the other hand, concerns those things that make for a happy life. Two dialogues on more intimate subjects are On Growing Old and On Friendship. Cicero used famous characters from earlier Roman history, such as Cato and Scipio Aemilianus, as examples of Roman moral virtue in composing these works. Finally, in two dialogues, On the Nature of the Gods and On Divination, Cicero attempts to reconcile traditional Roman religious customs and beliefs with Greek rationalism. It is a difficult task, which Cicero does not quite succeed in, but he does reveal that human beings are really capable of that kind of inner contradiction: belief in the divine is something that cannot always be rationally justified. Certainly, Cicero says, the traditional practice of religion and veneration of the gods confers many benefits on a state.

Epicureanism in Verse. Though Stoicism had the greatest influence on Roman philosophy, the opposing school, Epicureanism, also had its adherents. Epicurus (341-270 b.c.e.) derived his theories from earlier Greek thinkers such as Leucippus and Democritus, men whom we would call “atomists.” They held that all physical reality is simply a result of the random joining of particles falling in infinite space. Even the gods are merely composites of atoms, and they too, like everything, will eventually decompose and reform in different ways. The object for human beings, then, is to overcome the fear of death, of the gods, of divine punishment for sin, and to live in such a way as to avoid either causing or experiencing pain. Lucretius (circa 94-circa 55 b.c.e.), a contemporary of Cicero, was the chief proponent of Epicurean philosophy in Rome. In a long epic poem, On the Nature of Reality, following the tradition of some Pre-Socratic thinkers, Lucretius sets out the principles of Epicurean philosophy. His poem is meant to be a “protreptic,” that is, an invitation to philosophy. Lucretius explains all physical and mental phenomena, including dreams, emotions, and other insubstantial forces, in this materialistic way. There is no divine plan; if the gods exist, they are far removed and take no interest in human affairs and troubles. The wise man, he says, is like a person sitting on a hill-side near the sea, watching a naval battle far in the distance. He is unconcerned about their agony and observes all with complacency. Epicureanism and Stoicism were diametrically opposed, and Cicero regularly finds fault with the Epicurean school of thought.

Imperial Stoicism. The Roman Stoic philosopher and writer Seneca was born in Spain at the close of the first century b.c.e. Of a wealthy family, he was taken to Rome for his education, where he was attracted to philosophy at an early age. He became private tutor to the young man who would eventually become the emperor Nero. Upon Nero’s accession to power, Seneca became his speechwriter and personal adviser. As Nero’s personality began to disintegrate and he engaged in more and more serious criminal activity, Seneca grew disgusted and retired. By 64 c.e. he occupied himself solely with writing philosophy and tragedy. Accused by Nero of participating in an assassination plot, he was forced to commit suicide. His philosophical works include Dialogues, On Mercy, On Acts of Kindness, Natural Questions, and Moral Letters. He was very influential, especially on some of the Christian Fathers.


Brad Inwood, Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Inwood and L. P. Gerson, eds., Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988).

A. A. Long, Hellenistic Philosophy (London: Duckworth, 1974; New York, Scribners, 1974; second edition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

Long and D. N. Sedley, eds., The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 volumes (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Phillip Mitsis, Epicurus’ Ethical Theory: The Pleasures of Invulnerability (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988).

Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Malcolm Schofield and Gisela Striker, eds., The Norms of Nature: Studies in Hellenistic Ethics (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

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