It has been said that Stoic metaphysics was the state philosophy of ancient Rome. While perhaps an overstatement, the point is well taken. Rome did not achieve the prominence of the Greeks in original philosophy, but there were a number of outstanding expositors who adapted Stoic principles to Roman conditions. Seneca the Younger, a wealthy Roman statesman, dramatist, and tutor to the future emperor Nero; Epictetus, born as a slave, but freed by his wealthy master on reaching adulthood; and Marcus Aurelius, known as the last of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome, were particularly influential Roman Stoics.
The absorption of the Greek city-states into the Macedonian Kingdom of Philip and his successors in the 4th century B.C. shocked the Greeks’ self-regard. Hellenic culture for centuries had emphasized the special status of citizenship in the polis, and its necessity for achieving eudaimonia, human flourishing. The polis was not just “political” in the modern sense. It was a “community” in all manner, political, yes, but also social, religious, and economic. Aristotle associated such community with a true form of friendship, wherein one acts for the friend’s benefit. Plato and Aristotle both concerned themselves at length with what constitutes such a community that is suitable for a fulfilled life. For Plato, the city was the individual writ large, which formed a key component of his description of the ideal government in his Republic. For Aristotle, politics was an extension of ethics. The moral and the political, the personal and the public, were joined. The teaching and practice of individual virtue (arete—the root word for aristocracy) were necessary for a just society, and a polis operating on that basis created the conditions for individual virtue to flourish. Those outside the polis, be they hermits, bandits, or barbarians, and no matter their wealth or military prowess, could not attain that level of full human development.
The Macedonian occupiers were not much different than the Greeks and, such as Alexander, were hardly ignorant of Greek ideas or unsympathetic to Greek social and political arrangements. Moreover, the Greek poleis did not vanish, and ordinary daily life continued. Still, after unsuccessful attempts to rid themselves of their Macedonian overlords, it became clear that the Greeks were just one group competing with others for influence in a new empire. Politics being a branch of ethics, the ideal for the Greeks had been to do politics “right.” With the Macedonian success, it seemed that the foundation of the entire Greek project had collapsed.
The result was a refocus of the meaning of life from the ultimately outward-looking virtue ethics of Aristotle and the vigorous political atmosphere of the polis. In this psychological confusion and philosophic chaos arose several schools. One, the Skeptics, rejected the idea that either the senses or reason can give an accurate portrayal of reality. Everything is arbitrary and illusionary, truth cannot arise from such illusions, no assertion can claim more intrinsic value than any other, and everything devolves into a matter of relative power: law, right, morality, speech, and art. Such a valueless relativism can expose weaknesses in the assumptions and assertions of metaphysical structures, but its nihilism is self-defeating in that it provides no ethical basis for a stable social order or workable guide for personal excellence.
Another group was the Cynics, who responded to the psychological shock of the collapse of the city-state by rejecting it. The correct life was to understand the illusory and changing nature of civilizational order and withdraw from it. Life must be lived according to the dictates of nature, through reason, freedom, and self-sufficiency. The good life is not a project of study and speculation, but practice (askesis). Live modestly through your own toil so that you may speak freely, unperturbed by the turmoil and illusions around you. One of the most prominent Cynics, Diogenes, allegedly lived in a rain barrel in the Athenian market and survived through gifts and by foraging and begging. Social arrangements and conventions are not necessarily inimical to this quest, but they often hide the way. Thus, it becomes the Cynic’s duty to light the way, as Diogenes sought to do with his lamp, by exposing and ridiculing such conventions. The Cynics saw themselves no longer as citizens of the polis, but as citizens of the world.
While principled, the Cynics’ grim lifestyle in order to “speak truth to power” was not for most. An alternative school was founded by Epicurus in the late 4th century B.C. The Epicureans urged people to focus foremost on themselves to achieve the good life. The gods have turned away from the city, political decisions are made in royal capitals far away, and the only control is what you have over your actions. Thus, obeying rules, laws, and customs is practically useful but should not be a matter of concern. To live the good life was to obtain pleasure, the highest end. “Pleasure” is not to be understood as we often do as some form of sensory stimulation. Rather, it was to achieve a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and absence of pain. This ultimate form of happiness would come through a life of domestic comfort, learning about the world around us, and limiting one’s desires. Crucially, Epicureans avoided the turbulence of politics, because such pursuits would conflict with the goal of achieving peace of mind. The best one could hope for in this life was good health, good food, and good friends.
Stoic philosophy was an eclectic approach, which borrowed from Plato, Aristotle, and competing contemporary investigations of ethics and epistemology. Its name came from a school established by Zeno, a native of Citium on Cyprus, who began teaching in Athens around 300 B.C. The “school” met on a covered colonnaded walkway, the stoa poikile, near the marketplace of Athens. Its 500 years of influence are usually divided into three eras (Early, Middle, and Late), which eras broadly correspond to changes from the austere fundamentalist teachings of its ascetic founder into a practical system of ethics accessible to more than wise and self-abnegating sages.
There were two key aspects to Stoicism. First, at an individual level, there was apatheia. It would be massively misleading to equate this with our term “apathy.” Apathy is negative, conveying passivity or indifference. Apatheia means a conscious effort to achieve a state of mind freed from the disturbance of the passions and instincts. It is equanimity in the face of life’s challenges. The Stoic sage would “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” over which he has no control and focus instead on his own actions. Reason being man’s distinctive and most highly evolved innate feature, the Stoic must train himself to live life in accordance with nature and reason. He must control his passions and avoid luxuries and material distractions that would lead to disappointments and frustrations. His happiness is within himself. The virtuous life is a simple life, achieved through constant discipline “in accordance with rational insight into man’s essential nature.”
Second was universalism. Hellenic culture became Hellenistic culture, as Greek ideas and practices were adapted to the new world order, as the polis became the cosmopolis. A Stoic saw himself in two ways. In the political realm, he was a citizen of his city or state; in his self, he was a human. As Marcus Aurelius expressed it, “My city and country, so far as I am Antoninus [a title for emperor—ed.], is Rome, but so far as I am a man, it is the world.” Stoicism, unlike its Platonic and Aristotelian sources insisted that the universe was governed by law which applied equally to all and raised all to equal status, a “universal brotherhood of man.” This revolutionary claim would profoundly influence Roman and Christian ideas thereafter.
Stoicism differed from Skepticism in that it rejected the latter’s nihilistic pessimism that life was simply a competition for power. It projected a vision of personal improvement and sought to construct a positive path towards happiness within a universal order of moral truth. It differed from the Cynics in that Stoicism did not reject the basic legitimacy of the state and its laws and conventions or urge withdrawal from the public sphere. Rather, the Stoics separated the universal moral order, by which each person’s individual conduct must be measured, from the reality of the political world and the obligation to obey the laws of the community. Stoics did not reject the secular authority or make a point to ridicule it. From a Christian perspective, it was not exactly “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” But it was close enough, coming from a pagan philosophy.
Finally, the Stoics differed from the Epicureans. The latter’s goal of a tranquil private life through the pursuit of health, learning, good food, and good company was at odds with the former’s demands of a more disciplined private life of constant self-reflection and self-improvement, plus the continuing duty to shoulder one’s obligations under the civic law. Those differences made Stoicism much more attractive than Epicureanism to the average Roman. The Roman upper classes might well be drawn to the Epicurean vision, but Stoicism could appeal to more than the leisure class. Most significant, with its emphasis on self-reliance, simplicity, and service, Stoicism more closely reflected the Roman sense of self during a half-millennium of the Republic and the early Empire. The historian Will Durant observed, “A civilization is born stoic and dies epicurean.” By that he meant that civilizations degenerate. As he explained, “[C]ivilizations begin with religion and stoicism; they end with skepticism and unbelief, and the undisciplined pursuit of individual pleasure.” Though at times turbulent and seeming to veer into dissolution as the political edifice of the Roman Republic became Octavian’s principate, the Roman culture did not yet fundamentally change, due in part to the stability provided by Stoic philosophy.
Stoicism fit well the Roman character imagined by the Romans themselves and reflected in their laws and history. As the historian J.S. McClelland wrote, “The Greeks might be very good at talking about the connection between good character and good government, but the Romans did not have to bother much about talking about it because they were its living proof.” Not unlike Sparta, Rome had always had a strong martial component to its policies, which Romans took to be an essential part of their character. It was a masculine, male-dominated culture, and unabashedly so. At the root of virtus, that is, virtue or excellence, is vir, the word for adult male or hero. Stoicism “spoke” to Romans in a way that Epicureanism could not. That said, the Middle and Late Stoic writers from the second century B.C. on were willing to refine some of the school’s rough homespun aspects and accepted that a materially good life was not inconsistent with Stoicism. Self-discipline and self-reflection were key. Moderation, not excess, all in accord with nature and reason, sufficed. Self-deprivation and the ascetic life were not necessary.
American polemicists of the post-Revolutionary War period often associated the Stoic virtues with the Roman Republic and saw those virtues reflected in themselves. This required turning a blind eye to certain fundamental assumptions. For example, as noted, Stoicism separated the universal moral order’s control over private conduct from the need for unquestioning adherence to the state’s laws made for the welfare of the community. For the Americans, a distinction between private morality and virtue on the one hand, and public morality and law on the other was not readily conceivable, at least as an idea. Though at times John Adams was quite doubtful about the capacity of Americans for self-government, in his message to the Massachusetts militia in 1798 he wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” James Madison writing in The Federalist, No. 55, noted that republican self-government more so than any other form requires sufficient virtue among the people.
There was another, profound, appeal Stoicism had for the Romans, which connected to their views of good government. Rome prided itself on its balanced republican government, a government meant for a cohesive community, that is, a city-state. “The Eternal City,” the poet Tibullus called it in the 1st century B.C., and so it became commonly known through the works of Virgil and Ovid during the reign of Octavian, long after it had ceased to be a mere city on the Tiber and become an empire in all but name. Indeed, Octavian styled himself princeps senatus, the highest ranked senator, avoided monarchical titles and insignia, and purported to “restore” the Roman Republic in 27 B.C. The trappings of the republican system were maintained, some for centuries.
As in the earlier Greek city-states, Roman citizens had the right and the duty to participate in their governance. Stoicism called on its adherents to involve themselves in res publica, public affairs, working for the benefit of the whole, not themselves, a commitment of personal sacrifice and service. This mirrored basic obligations of Roman citizenship, from military service to political engagement to contribution for public works. These burdens with their physical and economic sacrifices were to be borne with equanimity. Marcus Aurelius, the last great Stoic sage, spent a large portion of his reign on the frontier leading armies against invading German tribes. It is said that he wrote his famous inward-directed Meditations on Stoic ideas and practice during those campaigns.
An important component of the Roman political system was law, both as a collection of concrete commands and as an idea. As noted, Romans were not, by and large, known for original contributions to Western philosophy. For them, that was the role of the Greeks. They were, however, exceptional jurists. As they gained territory, the need to administer that territory required a system of law capable of adapting to foreign conditions. As they gained dominion over cultures beyond the Italian peninsula, and as Roman trade ventured to even farther corners of the world, the Roman law might differ in particulars from that of the local population. At the same time, there appeared to be certain commonalities to the Roman law and those of disparate communities. For the politicians, such commonalities could help unify the realm through a “common law” and support the legitimacy of Rome and its administrators. For the merchants, it could help make commercial dealings more predictable and lower their transaction costs. For the jurists, it raised the possibility of universal influences or elements in the concept of law itself.
The Stoics provided the framework for systematic exploration of that possibility. Stoicism, it may be recalled, had a cosmopolitan, indeed universal, outlook. The Stoic universe was an orderly place, governed by immutable, eternal, constant principles. In other words, an eternal law. At the center was the universal moral law. Law in general had its basis in nature, not in the arbitrary creative will of a human ruler or the cacophony of mutually cancelling irrationalities of the multitude. Humans have an inborn notion of right and wrong. Unlike Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, which he based on our social nature, the Stoics ascribed this to our essential human nature, with each individual participating in this universal moral order. There was an essential equality to Stoicism that eliminated the lines between ruler and subject, man and woman, freeman and slave. Gone was Aristotle’s attempt to explain slavery with the claim that the nature of some conduced them to slavery.
Of course, this only applied to one’s ability to achieve individual virtue through Stoic self-discipline in the personal realm. The outside world still maintained those distinctions in positive law. Many were slaves in Rome. While the Stoics could consider slaves their brethren as members of the human community within the moral law, they accepted the separate obligation imposed on them to obey the political world in its flawed, but real, condition. Epictetus, himself a former slave, blurred that duality when he declared slavery laws the laws of the dead, a crime. But for most, the reality of despotic and corrupt government, the suppression of freedom, and prevalence of slavery were the actions of others over which the Stoic had no control and the consequences of which he had to deal with as best he could through apatheia.
Still, the concept of eternal law, possessed of inherent rightness, and connected to human nature, had some profound implications for human governance and freedom. The universal order is right reason itself and exists within our nature, accessible to us through our own reason. The Apostle Paul addressed this from a Christian perspective in Romans 2:14 and 15: “For when the Gentiles who do not have the law, by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written on their hearts ….” Proper human law, in its essential principles, is a practical reflection of this higher moral law and necessary for good government. Despite the shortcomings of actual Roman politics, this set a standard.
Because the moral law is universal, eternal and beyond the control of human rulers, it implies a lawgiver of similar qualities. The character of the Stoic “god” was often unclear and differed among various Stoic philosophers. It was certainly not the gods of the Greek and Roman civic religions, with their all-too-human character failings and pathological urges to interfere, usually disastrously, in human lives. Nor was it the personal and loving Christian God of the Gospels, cognizant of each creature within His creation and particularly interested in the flourishing of those created in His image. Rather, the Stoic god is best viewed as a force which created and through its presence maintained the universal order. This force has been described variously as a creative fire, world soul, pneuma (breath), or logos (word). The last two are particularly interesting in relation to Christian writings. Logos not only meant “word” but also the reason, cause, or ultimate purpose or principle of something. The Stoic moral order was an expression of divine reason and accessible to us through the reason that is part of our nature.
One of the foremost Roman commentators and synthesizers of Stoic doctrine in law was Cicero, the great lawyer, philosopher, and statesman. Cicero claimed he was not a Stoic. He seemed to have seen himself as a follower of contemporary versions of Plato’s ideas. Indeed, his two major works on good government, The Republic and Laws, paralleled the titles of Plato’s major works on politics. However, his introduction of the ius naturale (natural law) to Roman jurisprudence, a fundamental step in human freedom, owes much to the Stoics. Note his justification for the right of self-defense: “This, therefore, is a law, O judges, not written, but born with us, which we have not learnt, or received by tradition, or read, but which we have taken and sucked in and imbibed from nature herself; a law which we were not taught, but to which we were made, which we were not trained in, but which is ingrained in us ….”
Or consider the following that vice and virtue are natural, not mere artifices: “[In] fact we can perceive the difference between good laws and bad by referring them to no other standard than Nature: indeed, it is not merely Justice and Injustice which are distinguished by Nature, but also and without exception things which are honorable and dishonorable. For since an intelligence common to us all makes things known to us and formulates them in our minds, honorable actions are ascribed by us to virtue, and dishonorable actions to vice; and only a madman would conclude that these judgments are matters of opinion, and not fixed by Nature.”
Perhaps most famous is this passage from The Republic: “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; … It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, [note the use of the singular, not the plural associated with the Roman pantheon—ed.] over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment.”
From these recognitions, it is but a short step “self-evident [truths], that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” A short step conceptually, but centuries in time to realize fully.
Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.