The extent to which one should treat Stoicism in Rome as the first wave of its reception history depends largely on how one sees the relation between the two main phases in the history of the school, that is, between the founding generations and the Roman tradition. In one common narrative, in its transition from Greece to Rome, Stoicism lost much of its original critical edge and, in adapting itself to Roman sociocultural realities, became greatly diluted. This narrative is in itself a variation of a larger theme going back at least to the nineteenth century that views Latin culture as a weaker derivative of its Greek counterpart. Such a stance has also contributed to the creation of a category typically referred to as middle Stoicism, which consists mostly of Panaetius and Posidonius, prominent Stoics who came in contact with leading Romans of their day. In 155 bce, the Stoic Diogenes of Babylon was one of three philosophers sent by Athens on a diplomatic mission to Rome (the other two were the Academic Carneades and the Peripatetic Critolaus). Panaetius (c.185–110 bce) spent part of his life in Rome and belonged to the entourage of Scipio Africanus the Younger, while Posidonius (135–50 bce) was part of a later delegation to Rome. Thus, these Stoics came to be seen as having paved the way in this process of cultural co-optation, allegedly helping to produce a variation of Stoicism that would be more palatable to Roman audiences, such as that which would emerge in Cicero’s use of Panaetius as his main source in his On Duties. But the narrative of a Stoicism that gradually lost its innovative character can no longer be maintained, on many levels, and for many reasons.
The one Roman who wrote on Stoicism who can also reasonably be said to have endorsed a predominantly Roman sociocultural framework is Cicero. But Cicero was not a Stoic and claimed an Academic-skeptical allegiance for himself (although of which kind is a matter of ongoing debate), even if he turned out to be a very useful source for many central Stoic notions. Indeed, Cicero had an ambivalent attitude toward Stoicism. On the one hand, he was more favorably disposed toward certain aspects of their ethics (such as their handling of the passions in the Tusculan Disputations or Panaetius’s theory of duties/officia) and their theology (their notion of Providence, as in his On the Nature of the Gods). On the other, he was very critical of their style of discourse (which he considered crabby, dry, and full of abstruse technical terminology); their ethical notion of preferred indifferents (things such as health and sustenance that are according to nature and do not fall under the good, strictly speaking); their epistemological notion of cognitive (katalêptic) impressions (impressions ultimately, if not always, directly derived from sense perception that are supposed to yield truth); and their notions of fate and human responsibility.
Moreover, even if one can say that Cicero was writing from a distinctly Roman perspective and with his own political agenda, it is a fallacy to assume a priori that these two features would preclude him from being an original thinker and making significant contributions. On the contrary, one can make the case (as, for instance, in the essays collected in Nicgorski 2012
) that Cicero had one of the most developed and distinctive views of practical philosophy and the so-called active life available to us from Antiquity.
Just as we cannot treat Cicero as a transparent window onto Stoicism, we also need to be cautious in assuming that Panaetius and Posidonius radically changed the course of Stoicism. Although these Stoics appear to have shown a greater interest also in Plato and Aristotle than their predecessors, we now know, for instance, that the traditional claim that Posidonius made major concessions to Plato, especially in his psychology, has to be taken with a considerable grain of salt, not the least because reports that make him appear to make such concessions, such as Galen’s, tend to be polemical attempts to pit the views of different Stoics against one another (Gill 2006
; Tieleman 1998
). In reality, the fragmentary state of the extant evidence for the early Stoics (Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus) makes it difficult to discern to what extent the later Stoics deviated from their line of thought. Moreover, one has to take into account how inner-school authority was construed (see below). One can, however, make the case that many of the distinctive features of later Stoicism are a matter of a different emphasis rather than a radical departure from the original Stoic views.
The Stoics of the Roman imperial era, for their part, do not constitute a homogeneous group. There is evidence of teaching activity on the part of Cornutus (c.60 ce) and Musonius Rufus (c.30–100 ce), but not much information about its structure. Cornutus, for instance, appears to have taught topics pertaining to grammar as well as philosophy. We know that Epictetus directed a school in Epirus, and other Stoics were engaged in a wide range of practices. Whereas Seneca devoted more time to philosophy as he grew older, addressed others who had similar interests and concerns, and also wrote tragedies, Marcus Aurelius’s writings were addressed to himself, and it is not clear whether he intended his reflections for a wider audience. Manilius’s work (first century ce) belongs within the tradition of didactic poetry, and Cleomedes’s astronomical treatise on the heavens is a rare example of a Stoic technical treatise from this period (c.200 ce), as is a work called the Elements of Ethics by a certain Hierocles (fl. 100 ce). Moreover, a significant strand of Stoic thought shows up in the works of poets such as Persius and Lucan, and Dio Chrysostom, who is an early representative of the Second Sophistic, and was a pupil of Musonius Rufus.
As with the views attested for Panaetius, most writings by the later Stoics tend to focus on ethics in action – on how to lead the good life and face challenges – and put great emphasis on the social dimension of ethics. Rather than endorsing an unreflective conformism, however, these accounts are hermeneutically complex, represent a conscious choice and very specific mode of doing philosophy, and engage critically with prevailing norms, a point to which I will return below. This mode of philosophy by no means indicates that knowledge of the more technical and theoretical aspects of Stoicism was no longer available in this era or that the later Stoics no longer cared about it. The technical aspects of Stoicism were still present in doxographies, compilations of the views of different schools of thought and philosophers, such as the work by Diogenes Laertius (probably early third century ce), which offer insights into the circulation of Stoic works and ideas in all three areas of physics, logic, and ethics. In addition, such critics of the Stoics as Plutarch (c.46–120 ce), Galen (129–199/217 ce), and Alexander of Aphrodisias (fl. late second to early third century ce) reveal that the debate about core Stoic tenets, and Chrysippus’s teachings in particular, was very much alive in this period.
So, as mentioned already, the apparent differences between earlier and later Stoic discourse appear to be mostly a matter of focus. Cleomedes’s exposition on astronomy, Manilius’s didactic poem, and Seneca’s own Natural Questions
attest to a continued interest in advanced Stoic physics. In Seneca’s other writings (see also Wildberger 2006
), he occasionally also likes to demonstrate his knowledge of the Stoic tradition and key technical distinctions in it and other currents of thought (as in Ep
. 58, 65, 94, and 95; see below). But these expositions may have been little more than finger exercises, just as a skilled orator may occasionally reveal the tools of his trade.
The writings of the Stoic Hierocles (fl. 100 ce) demonstrate how misleading the common scholarly view can be that represents the Stoics of the Roman imperial era as engaging in merely popular moralizing. His treatise on ethics (Elements of Ethics) now constitutes our best evidence of the highly sophisticated Stoic notion of appropriation (oikeiôsis), which stipulates that by nature and from birth, animals and human beings are equipped with a self-awareness and self-love that guides them toward self-preservation (see below). This notion combines insights from both physics (how nature works) and ethics (how human beings should lead their lives), and clearly demonstrates that later Stoics such as Hierocles still had a good grasp of the technical aspects of Stoicism.
These Stoics also apparently still had access to extensive writings by their predecessors, notably Chrysippus. According to the Life of Persius (32.35–33.40 Clausen), Cornutus inherited about 700 scrolls of Chrysippus’s works from Persius’s library. And although sessions of reading Stoic texts are not recorded in the extant evidence of Epictetus’s teachings, the expositions do mention that Epictetus’s approach partly relied on the writings of his Stoic predecessors, especially those of the prolific and systematic Chrysippus. Epictetus thus practiced commentary as a pedagogical method by reading philosophical works together with his pupils (sunanagnôsis, as this was called).
Yet it is very striking that whenever Epictetus mentions this pedagogical method, he more often than not sounds a cautionary note, claiming that it does one no good to be able to interpret and understand Chrysippus’s works (or those of other thinkers, for that matter) unless one can also put those insights into practice and show how one has changed for the better as a result of one’s reading. According to Epictetus, merely interpreting philosophical expositions and showing off one’s erudition is no different from the preoccupation of a scholar of literature with trivial details that are meant to dazzle (Diss. 2.19.5–15; Ench. 49). Presumably Epictetus would measure his own success as a teacher by the actual moral progress of his pupils, not by their ability to parrot his teachings. There is similarly a right and wrong way of engaging in logic and physics, these authors make clear; the wrong way entails studying them for their own sake and indulging in technical details and prowess (see, for instance, Epictetus, Diss. 1.7.32–3; see also Ench. 52; Marcus Aurelius 10.9).
In the final analysis, according to the later Stoics, it is not just logic or physics in the philosophical curriculum that are subservient to the correct way of life. So, too, is talking about rather than practicing ethics. As Musonius Rufus (fr. 5 Hense) and Epictetus claim, one can hold discussions and write extensively about the good life, but anyone with philosophical interests is ultimately judged by the same standard as a physician, a sailor, or a musician: it is what one accomplishes that matters.
To understand this point more fully, we need to see how theory and practice relate to each other in Stoicism, and especially in the later accounts. “Philosophy,” Musonius Rufus claims, “is nothing else than to search out by reason what is right and proper, and by deeds to put it into practice” (fr. 14 Hense; see also fr. 4, on philosophy as the art of becoming a good human being). What especially sets later Stoicism apart from other schools of thought is the view that all theory, including what we would call theory or philosophizing about ethics, must serve an ethics in action. Theory and practice are inextricably intertwined in this point of view, but with an emphasis on practice. To the Stoics, positing pure thought (or even a higher state) as the goal of life and as practice (cf. Aristotle, Pol. 1325b) would make little sense, not in the least because they do not recognize a transcendent intelligible and noetic dimension to reality. For them, with their unified view of virtue in which all virtues entail one another, wisdom as the excellence of reason always constitutes moral virtue and being engaged in the world and a web of social relations.
Small wonder, then, that the later Stoics put so much emphasis on training (meletê-askêsis, as in Musonius Rufus fr. 6 Hense) as the indispensable bridge between theoretical insights and practice. This notion, which has connections with the Socratic and Cynic traditions, encompasses much more than Aristotle’s habituation, which is meant to shape the lower, irrational aspects of the soul (as in Eth. Nic. 2). The Stoics, with the potential and debated exception of Posidonius (see above), do not accept irrational aspects of the soul as existing independently from reason. Hence, they argue, training and habituation involve a human being’s entire disposition, including the process of learning to use one’s reason correctly. Like that of its Platonic and Peripatetic counterparts, the Stoic notion of the good is a radical departure from ordinary conceptions of happiness, and thus it is not easy to implement against prevailing practices, weaknesses in one’s own disposition, and bad habits. Therefore, according to this view, pupils need all the help they can get to make these insights sufficiently their own or to acquire the right disposition (ethos, as in Musonius Rufus fr. 5 Hense) for putting them into practice under all circumstances.
For the later Stoics, ethics in action means showing one’s mettle in ordinary, everyday life circumstances and in one’s given socio-political obligations. For this reason, students are not meant to form settled attachments to a school, as increasingly happened, for instance, with the inner circles of the schools of Platonism. Instead, the knowledge and training acquired through education has to be portable and to become fully interiorized, or digested as it were (Epictetus, Diss. 3.21.1–3; Ench. 46; Seneca, Ep. 2.2–4, 84; Ben. 7.2.1). Thus Seneca and Epictetus show their own independence toward their Stoic predecessors and do not extol a Zeno, Cleanthes, or Chrysippus above all others. “We Stoics,” Seneca famously claimed, “are not subjects of a despot: each of us lays claim to his own freedom” (Ep. 33.4). If Chrysippus took the liberty to disagree with his teacher Cleanthes, “why, then, following the example of Chrysippus himself, should not every man claim his own freedom?” (Ep. 113.23).
Epictetus and Mu...