HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
26 June, 2013
History of Philosophy
Philosophy of the Romans
by Turner, William (S.T.D.)

[1] The Pythagoreans of Magna Graecia were the first to introduce greek philosophy into Italy. Pythagorean philosophy, however, never took deep root in Roman soil. Indeed, although Pythagorean speculation flourished in Italy as early as the sixth century, it was not until the beginning of the second century before Christ that Rome began to feel the power of Greek literature and Greek art, and it was about the same time that the influence of Greek philosophy was first felt. That the Romans did not accept without a struggle this imposition of a foreign culture is evident from the fact that in 161 B.C. residence in Rome was, by a decree of the Senate, forbidden to philosophers and rhetoricians. Later, however, the conquest of Greece and the military expeditions of Pompey, Caesar, Antony, and Augustus broadened the minds of the Romans, rendered them susceptible to the beauty of Greek literature, and led to the inflow of Greek learning and to the establishment in Rome of the representative teachers of Greek philosophy. Cicero was, therefore, contrasting his own age with the more conservative past when he said: "Philosophia jacuit usque ad hanc aetatem."
[1] Cf. Zeller, Eclectics, pp. 5 ff.; Ritter and Preller, op. cit., pp. 452 ff.
In accepting the philosophy of Greece, the Roman spirit asserted its practical tendency, selecting what was more easily assimilated, and modifying what it accepted, by imparting to it a more practical character. Thus it was the ethical philosophy of the Epicureans and Stoics and the Eclectic systems of later times, rather than the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, that throve when transplanted to Roman soil.


Life. Marcus Tullius Cicero is the best known representative of Roman Eclecticism. He was born at Arpinum 106 a.c. and died at Formiae 43 B.C. He had for teachers Phaedrus the Epicurean, Philo of Larissa, representing the New Academy, Diodotus the Stoic, and Antiochus, an exponent of the later Eclecticism of the Academy. In addition to the advantages to be derived from such a training, he possessed a knowledge, widely extended if not always accurate, of the philosophical literature of pre-Socratic and Socratic schools. He did not lay claim to any great independence as a philosopher, being willing, as he tells us, to take credit merely for the art with which he clothed Greek philosophy in Roman dress: "Verba tantum affero, quibus abundo." [2] In this self-appointed task Cicero is not ways successful, his account of the doctrines of the pre-Socratic philosophers being especially inaccurate.
[2] Ad Atticum, XII, 52.
Sources. Cicero's principal philosophical works are: Academica, or Quaestiones Academicae, Tusculanae Disputationes, De Finibus, De Natura Deorum, De Officiis, De Divinatione (unfinished), De Republica (of which about a third part was discovered and published in 1822 by Cardinal Mai), Paradoxa Stoicorum, De Senectute, De Amicitia, De Fato.


General Idea of Philosophy. Cicero describes himself [3] as a member of the New Academy. His philosophy is, in point of fact, an Eclecticism based on Scepticism. So impressed was he with the war of philosophical systems that he despaired of arriving at certainty and was content to accept probability as the guide of conduct. But whenever he discovered that philosophical schools could be reconciled, he strove to coordinate the common elements into a system loosely connected, as is every system Eclecticism.
[3] Tusc., V, 4.
Theory of Knowledge. All our knowledge rests, in ultimate analysis, on immediate certainty, which is variously called notiones innatae, notiones nobis insitae, or, since immediate knowledge is common to all men, consensus gentium. In the Tusculan Disputations, for example, Cicero speaks of the principles of morality as innate; "sunt enim ingeniis nostris semina innata virtutum." [4] These elements of knowledge are antecedent to all experience. We have, therefore, in Cicero's theory of knowledge, the first explicit expression of the doctrine of innate ideas.
[4] Op. cit., III, 1.
Theological Notions. Cicero, in his proof of the existence God, falls back on the innate idea of God, the presence of which in the minds of all men is proved by the universality the belief in a Supreme Being. He brings forward also the teleological argument in its Stoic form, contending that the Epicurean doctrine of chance is as absurd as would be the expectation that the twenty-one letters of the Latin alphabet could, by being poured out at random, produce the Annals of Ennius. [5] He attaches great importance to the doctrine of Providence and of the divine government of the universe.
[5] De Nat. Deorum, II, 37.
Anthropology. With the belief in God is intimately associated the conviction of the dignity of man. The soul is of supernatural origin: "Animorum nulla in terris origo inveniri potest." [6] It is different from matter. Still, Cicero does not altogether exclude the Stoic idea of the soul as a firelike substance. He teaches that the soul is immortal, having recourse to the Platonic arguments as well as to inner conviction and universal consent. In his incomplete treatise De Fato he proves the freedom of the will by similar arguments.
[6] Tusc., I, 27.
Ethics. In this portion of his philosophy Cicero is a follower of the Eclectic Stoics. On the one hand he rejects the Epicurean doctrine that pleasure is the highest good; but when, on the other hand, he adopts the Stoic doctrine of virtue, he is too much of a man of the world not to recognize that the Stoic morality is too exalted or too severe to be applied to everyday life. Accordingly, he modifies the severity of Stoicism by introducing the Platonic and Aristotelian teaching, that honors, wealth, etc., are goods, although subordinate to virtue, which is the chief good. [7] He teaches that while virtue is sufficient for vita beata, external goods also are necessary for vita beatissima, -- a distinction borrowed from Antiochus of Ascalon. The morally good (honestum) is that which is intrinsically praiseworthy.
[7] Cf. De Fin., IV, 6ff.
Historical Position. Cicero, as has been said, laid no claim to originality as a philosopher. He merely collected and assimilated the philosophical doctrines of the Greeks. He is the truest representative of the Eclecticism of this period.

Chief among Cicero's followers was Varro (116-27 B.C.), whom Seneca calls doctissimus Romanorum. He was more famous as a scholar than as an independent philosopher. Like Cicero, he was a Stoic and an Eclectic. Unlike the other philosophers of Rome, Titus Lucretius Carus (95-51 B.C.) is not an Eclectic. In his poem, De Rerum Natura, he adheres closely to the doctrine of Epicurus. [8]
[8] Cf. p. 176. On the influence of Lucretius on mediaeval philosophy, cf. Philippe, Lucrèse dans la theologie chrétienne (Paris, 1896).
Under the first emperors, the school of the Sextians acquired considerable importance. The founder, Quintus Sextius, was born about 70 B.C. He was succeded by his son, under whose leadership the school came to include among its adherents Sotion, Celsus, and Fabianus . Soon, however, it dwindled into insignificance, so that in Seneca's time it had entirely ceased to exist. From the few scattered utterances of the Sextians which have come down to us and from the account given by Seneca, it is evident that the teaching of the school was Stoicism tinged one or two points of doctrine with Pythagoreanism.

In the first century of our era there flourished in Rome an important branch of the Stoic school. It included Lucius Annaeus Cornutus (died A.D. 68), Aulus Persius Flaccus (A.D. 34-62), Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and his nephew Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (A.D. 39-65). Seneca, the most important of these, was born about the beginning the Christian era at Corduba in Spain. He owed his philosophical training to the Sextians and other Stoics. In A.D. 65, he committed suicide by order of Nero, whose counselor he had been. His writings possess great value as sources for the history of the Stoic school. He agrees in all essentials with the early Stoics, although in many points of detail he follows the later representatives of the school, who modified the doctrines Zeno and Chrysippus in more than one respect.

Towards the end of the first century Musonius Rufus was distinguished in Rome as a teacher of Stoic philosophy. He confined his teaching, however, more strictly than Seneca had done, to the ethical application of Stoicism. The most important of his disciples was Epictetus, the philosopher-slave, a Phrygian, who lived in Rome from the time of Nero to that of Trajan (A.D. 117). The works, entitled Diatribai and Egcheiridion, contain the discourses of Epictetus as written down by his disciple, Arrian. Epictetus defines philosophy to consist in learning what to avoid and what to desire. In accordance with this definition, he develops a system of practical philosophy, teaching, with the Stoics, that happiness is to be found in independence of external things.

Closely allied to Epictetus is the emperor-philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (A.D. 121-180). His work, entitled ta eis heauton, consists of aphorisms written down in the form of memoranda, or notes for personal guidance. His teaching agrees with that of the Stoics. He insists more than did the other Stoics on the kinship of man to God. In order to secure happiness, man must loose his soul from the bonds of interest in things external and, retiring within himself, learn to become like to God by becoming resigned to the will of God, and by loving all his fellow-men, excluding neither the weak and erring nor the ungrateful and hostile.

Retrospect. The philosophy of the Romans reflects the essential traits of the Roman character. It is practical in its aims; it subordinates theoretical inquiry to problems of conduct, thus depriving itself of the power of systematic development, and condemning itself to the circumscribed task of assimilating and applying what the Greek masters had taught.

Character of Greek Philosophy. We have now reached a point whence we may look back over the whole course of the development of Greek speculation before we turn to the study of a new era, in which Greek civilization and Greek philosophy came into contact with the religions of the East and were influenced by them.

The civilization of Greece had a character peculiar to itself. The "national spirit" (to use a Hegelian phrase) which dominated the life of the nation determined the character of the literature, the art, the political institutions as well as the philosophy of the country. What, then, is the character which the national spirit of Greece imparted to Greek philosophy? The answer to this question is best reached by a comparison of Greek with Oriental philosophy on the one hand, and with mediaeval and modern philosophy on the other.

Compared with Oriental philosophy, the philosophy of Greece is remarkable, in the first place, for its manifold completeness. It contained in germ all the systems that were to appear in subsequent times; scarcely a problem of speculative or practical philosophy failed to receive attention at the hands of the philosophers of Greece. Oriental speculation, on the contrary, being centered round a few problems of physics, theology, and ethics, fell far short of Hellenic speculation in breadth and completeness. In the next place, while Oriental thought was stagnant, producing throughout long ages of inquiry not more than a few schools, and exhibiting in its development a certain languid sameness, the course of thought in Greece was free and active, producing a variety of systems of speculation and manifesting all the freedom, force, and supple pliancy of the Greek mind. Finally, the comparison of Greek with Oriental philosophy furnishes an instance of the essential racial difference between Greece and the Orient. The East was ruled by metaphor, the Oriental mind being strangely averse to the direct and natural mode of expression. The Greek mind, on the contrary, abhorred all intricacy and metaphorical tortuousness; it went towards the truth with a directness, and formulated conclusions with a boldness, which may appear childish in the case of a Thales or an Anaximander, but which, nevertheless, must command our admiration when we come to reflect how far Thales and Anaximander have advanced beyond the mythological concept of the universe. Completeness, productive activity, and directness are, therefore, the qualities which Greek philosophy exhibits when compared with the philosophy of the East.

The comparison of Greek with modern philosophy suggests at the very outset the trait which is most distinctive of Greek civilization. Greek life, Greek art, Greek literature, and Greek religion were objective. Modern civilization, on the contrary, is more subjective than objective. To this general contrast of Greek life and modern life the philosophy of Greece and modern philosophy offer no exception. At first, in the period of beginnings, Greek philosophy was entirely objective; in the second period, the period of greatest perfection, the subjective element in philosophical speculation received due attention; it was only in the third period, when philosophy began to degenerate, that the subjective element became unduly prominent. In Greek philosophy, at the period of its greatest perfection, in its Golden Age, we find the union of the subjective and objective elements, the belief in the continuity of the spiritual with the material, -- a continuity which is not incompatible with the distinction between matter and spirit. We find, too, the conviction that the inquiry into the conditions of knowledge does not destroy, but rather confirms the trustworthiness of our impressions of the external world. Modern philosophy, on the contrary, starts out with the supposition that there is an original antithesis between object and subject, between matter and mind, between the impression of sense and the verdict of pure reason. The Greek, even in his most abstract idealism, was never so abstract as the modern transcendentalist, and in his philosophical realism he always knew how to stop short of the crudeness of materialism. Modern speculation has tended towards centralizing philosophy on self the Greek always considered that other-self, nature, is the chief subject of inquiry. In a word, Greek philosophy, at least in the Golden Age of its development, was more true to nature than modern speculation is.

This fidelity to nature is, however, a source of weakness as well as of strength. The spirit of naturalness prevented the Greek from looking beyond nature for his ideal in art; it prevented him in his philosophy from carrying his theological peculations far enough to determine, for example, the notion of personality. It was left for Christian speculation to complete the work of Plato and Aristotle and, by laboring in the Greek spirit of completeness and manifoldness, to determine, as it did in the Golden Age of mediaeval philosophy, that faith and reason are at once distinct and continuous. In this way, Christian philosophy carried the Greek fidelity to nature into (the region of the supernatural, refusing to admit an antagonism between these two phases of reality -- the world of reason and the world of faith -- just as the Greeks had refused to admit the antithesis between mind and matter, which is the postulate of modern philosophy.

Before we come to the philosophy of the Christian era, it is necessary to outline the rise and course of thought in the Alexandrian school; for it was in Alexandria that the ancient world first came into contact with the civilization of the new era.


Terms Defined

Referenced Works