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Stoic Rome

Stoicism and Ancient Rome

Stoic philosophy was first developed in the Hellenistic world after 300 B.C. The Stoic worldview is one of a rationally governed universe of material entities, each answering to its controlling principle ("logos") and thus participating in the overall cosmic logos. In its most developed form, Stoicism takes the lawfulness of the cosmos as the model on which human life is to proceed. The rule of law is the defining mark of our humanity, installing locally what the logos furnishes universally. The overarching philosophy of Rome was that of the Stoics, whose commitment to rationality and the rule of law provided a durable intellectual foundation for Rome's imperial administration of much of the known world.

According to the Stoics, the cosmos is ruled by law, which is evidence enough of a rational principle behind all natural phenomena. The cosmos is understood by rational beings to be itself a model of rational order. The intrinsic ordering principle ("logos") of the world can be known only to a creature in possession of a kindred principle. Only by way of language does one qualify for membership in that moral order of the universe, and thus human beings stand apart from the balance of nature. Man is the only creature capable of thought and speech. The human community is, above all, a linguistic community.

What has real existence for the Stoic is "body," but Stoicism accepts as "body" that which may take the form of fire and breath (pneuma). To regard something as existing is to recognize it as having causal power, which entails corporeality of some sort. Thus, justice and moral precepts are "bodies" in that they have perceptible consequences. They are "active" principles as contrasted with passive principles of "dead matter."

It can be argued that the Stoics (not the French of the 1780s or the authors of the Constitution) first formulated the concept of "natural rights." Natural rights are different from rights guaranteed by a constitution or the laws of a polis; those can be taken away. Natural rights are those inhering in a being because of its nature as a being of a certain sort. The rational and linguistic nature of human beings means they have certain liberties others do not. Since the rule of law is something a rational being recognizes as natural, rational linguistic beings have the right to question whether the laws of a polis are in accord with reason, or are tyrannical and arbitrary. No person has the right to legislate for himself. Deviations from the rule of law are unnatural, a threat to the very rule of nature itself.

EpictetusEmotion and passion are what most contradict reason. Only a man is able to control his animality and ultimately to surface as a fully rational being, now sharing in the universal logos. The right disposition to have is that of apatheia; not "apathy" in the sense of indifference, but "resignation" before the fact that the cosmic order is determinative. "Never say of anything that I've lost it," writes Epictetus, "only that I've given it back." We bring about our own suffering and unhappiness by corrupting our reason and surrendering it to irrational desires and aspirations. It is only by violating the dictates of reason -- for example, by wanting what is either unattainable or what is not in our interest -- that we bring about our own unhappiness.

What is "natural" must be "good," for there can be no standard of goodness external to nature itself. The apparent errors of creation, evil in the world, accidents, and seemingly chance vents are illusory. The percipient sees the cosmos only from a local perspective. Behind a local chaos stands the larger order of things, the entire system, as it were, being the expression of the logos. The only real evil, then, is not in the "logos" but in the moral weakness of men. This argument will later be taken up by the Christians in theorizing about sin.

The Stoics depart from the Epicureans on the nature of the good life. The Epicureans are resolutely materialistic. But their creed was not "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" -- far from it. The sole goal of life is to avoid pain and get pleasure, and put off the day of death. Where the Stoics valued friendship as central to rational community, the Epicureans use friends to achieve their central goal. Apatheia and resignation have a similar end: the avoidance of suffering. The Epicurean creed is never to want anything so much -- drink, pleasure, money -- that its absence will cause pain.

The Epicurean personal code and the Stoic therefore resembled one another. The only way to tell a Stoic from an Epicurean was to ask where they would choose to live. The Epicurean would be found on his country estate, living moderately away from the dangerous excitements of the city. The Stoic would be found in the city, in the senate, and the court, arguing cases and making law -- the frank, upright figure we see in a hundred Roman portrait busts.

The Stoics hold a debt to Aristotle and Plato and it is twofold. They claim the authority of these great figures of a past very different from the imperialistic Hellenistic and then Roman world. They take from Aristotle and Plato's Republic the view of reason as the defining human characteristic, the emphasis on the rule of reason over passion, and the idea of law as the expression of rationality.
The Roman educated class was brought up by Stoics; the Roman intellectual spoke and read Greek and looked to Greece for models in philosophy and art. The Stoic philosophy was exactly suited to the Roman empire that would govern the Western world for a millennium, in its rule bringing into being much that we call "Western civilization." It was the supporting philosophy of a society that had little devotion to doing philosophy. It was the very air that Roman civilization breathed, and would be breathing as Christianity arrived on the scene.

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My Rome, today

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