Philosophy 66 - 4.2.7 Roman Philosophy

Just as Hellenistic philosophy developed in the long shadows cast by Plato and Aristotle, Roman philosophy also used these two giants of Greek philosophy as reference points. While Roman philosophical traditions were built upon their Greek forebearers, they developed in a Roman cultural context. Rome began as a republic before becoming an empire, and Roman philosophy was affected by this political transformation. Still, Roman philosophical schools were thoroughly grounded in Greek philosophy, with many Roman philosophers even choosing to write in Greek rather than Latin, since Greek was viewed as the language of scholarship.

Rhetoric and Persuasion in Politics

Recall that Plato defined philosophy in opposition to sophistry. Whereas the philosopher sought the truth in a dispassionate way using reason as a guide, the Sophist addressing a crowd was indifferent to truth, seeking power and influence by appealing to the audience’s emotions. This harsh critique of rhetoric, which can be defined as the art of spoken persuasion, softened with subsequent philosophers. Indeed, Aristotle wrote a text called Rhetoric in which he sought to analyze rhetoric as the counterpart to philosophy. The tension never disappears entirely, however, and the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric and, more generally, the relationship between philosophy and politics remains a perennial question.

Despite the fact that his ideal statesman was a philosopher, Plato generally sought to keep philosophy distinct from the grubbiness of real politics and was concerned about the messiness of democratic politics in particular. In the Roman political context, this ambivalence becomes less apparent. Examples of philosophers who were also statesmen include Cicero (106–43 BCE) and Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE). Marcus Aurelius even served as emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 CE. However, as the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire, philosophers shifted inward by focusing on things that were in their control.

Stoicism

Aristotle held that eudaimonia is worthwhile at least in part because it helps us to better deal with various inevitable misfortunes. The Roman Stoics further developed this idea, proposing four core virtues: courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom. The Stoics were wary of the type of false judgments that might arise from the emotions. They were also uneasy with the loss of control associated with strong emotions, observing that some people can become enslaved to their passions. The Stoics prized rational self-control above everything else. This constant work at maintaining inner freedom epitomizes the Stoic conception of philosophy (Hadot 2002).

Write Like a Philosopher

Marcus Aurelius was both a Roman emperor and a Stoic philosopher. His writings, which he meant only for himself, were eventually published in Meditations, a work that serves as one of the major sources of Stoic thought. Although much of Marcus Aurelius’s reign fell under a period known as the Pax Romana, when the empire enjoyed relative stability and peace, the end of his reign occurred during a period of major wars and a plague. This famous passage, taken from Book VII, Section 47 of the Meditations, provides advice about how to deal with pain or grief called by an external source. Translate it into your own language. Then explain why you agree or disagree with Marcus Aurelius’s conclusions.

If you are grieved about anything external, ’tis not the thing itself that afflicts you, but your judgment about it; and it is in your power to correct this judgment and get quit of it. If you are grieved at anything in your own disposition; who hinders you to correct your maxims of life? If you are grieved, because you have not accomplished some sound and virtuous design; set about it effectually, rather than be grieving that it is undone. “But some superior force withstands.” Then you have no cause of sorrow; for, the fault of the omission lies not in you. “But, life is not worth retaining, if this be not accomplished.” Quit life, then, with the same serenity, as if you had accomplished it; and with good-will, even toward those who withstand you.

The Stoics were systematic philosophers whose writings focused on ethics, physics, logic, rhetoric, and grammar. For the Stoics, the world consists of material bodies in motion, causally affecting each other. Real entities are those capable of causally affecting one another. The Stoic god is a material entity who exists in nature and meticulously manages it, the material first cause of the universe, Aristotle’s unmoved mover incarnated as a material entity. In other words, God is an animating reason that gives life to the universe. Unlike the Christian God who transcends the universe, the Stoic god is found within it, a force immanent to the universe who combines and recombines the four elements into things we can experience because they act upon us and we upon them. Stoicism developed at a time when politics in the Roman world was increasingly seen as something outside individuals’ power to change. So Stoics let politics go. While turning away from politics may indeed promote a tranquil life, it also promotes passivity. Thus, Stoicism reached a conclusion similar to that reached by Daoism, as explored in the chapter on early philosophy.

Podcast

Stoic ideas are enjoying something of a revival, as evidenced by the popularity of Ran Holliday’s Daily Stoic podcasts.

Academic Skepticism

Academic Skepticism is another aspect of Roman philosophy that developed out of a tendency found in earlier Greek thought. Recall that Socrates questioned whether we could ever know anything at all. The Academic Skeptics opposed the Stoic claims that sense impressions could yield true knowledge, holding instead that knowledge is impossible. Instead of knowledge, Academic Skeptics articulated the idea of degrees of belief. Things are more or less believable based on various criteria, and this degree of believability is the basis for judgment and action. Disciples of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho (c. 360–270 BCE) held that we had to suspend judgment when it comes to knowledge claims, going so far as to say that we cannot even reliably claim that we cannot know anything. Rather than suspending all judgment, Academic Skeptics sought to demonstrate that knowledge claims lead us to paradoxical conclusions and that one can argue cogently both for and against the same proposition.

The philosopher, orator, and statesman Cicero (106–43 BCE) was the most prominent of the Academic Skeptics. His works provide much of the information we have about the school. He had a decisive influence on Latin style and grammar and was decisive in the introduction of Hellenistic philosophy into Rome. The rediscovery of his work in the 15th century ushered in the European Renaissance.

Page of an illuminated manuscript, with an image of several figures in an ornate hall, a panel of text, and decorative scrolls and flowers.
Figure 4.6 This Flemish illuminated manuscript, dated to approximately 1470, is a French translation of Cicero’s philosophical treatise De amicitia. The rediscovery of Cicero’s work in the 15th century has been connected to the European Renaissance. (credit: “Cicero’s De amicitia (French Translation), Presentation of the Book to Its Patron, Walters Manuscript W.312, Fol. 1r” by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts/Flickr, CC0)

Neoplatonism

Plotinus (c. 204–270) led a revival of Plato’s thought in the late Roman Empire that lasted until Emperor Justinian closed Plato’s Academy in 529. Plotinus believed that he was simply an expositor of Plato’s work, but the philosophy he developed, known as Neoplatonism, expanded on Plato’s idea. Neoplatonism arose during a time of cultural ferment in the Roman Empire, incorporating ideas borrowed from sources such as Judaism and early Christianity. The key metaphysical problem in Neoplatonism was accounting for how a perfect God could create a universe that was manifestly imperfect. Plotinus solved this problem by applying ideas similar to Plato’s theory of forms. The perfect, unchanging realm is the one inhabited by God, but creation inhabits the changing realm, which only mirrors forms imperfectly. Plotinus claims that creation emanates from God, but the further one is from this source the less perfect things become.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax