Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


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With such an unsatisfactory equipment of science, and with such a vague and morally inoperative religion, it was no wonder that the higher minds of the contemporary world turned to the study of philosophy. Of such studies there had been many schools or sects, but at this date we have chiefly to reckon with two--the Stoics and Epicureans. There were, it is true, the Academics, who disputed everything, and held no doctrine to be more true than its contrary. There were Eclectics, who picked and chose. But the majority of those who affected a positive philosophy attached themselves either to the Stoic or else to the Epicurean system, not necessarily with orthodox rigidity on every point, but as a general guide--at least in theory--to the conduct of life. Where we belong to a certain religious denomination or church, and "sit under" a certain class of preachers, they belonged to a certain school of philosophy, and attended the lectures of certain of its expounders. Instead of a chaplain or parish clergyman they engaged or associated with an expert in their special system. But just as the Frenchman remarked, "_Je suis catholique, mais je ne pratique pas_," so might one be in principle a good Stoic without much exercise of the accepted doctrines. The distinction between the tenets of the two great schools was wide, but within each school itself individuals might differ as widely as "Broad Church" from whatever its opposite may be called. The choice between the two schools was mainly a matter of temperament. Persons of the sterner type of mind, caring comparatively little for the physical comforts and gracious amenities of life, and possessed of a strong sense of duty and decorum--inclined, perhaps, not only to piety and self-abnegation, but also to be somewhat dour and uncompromising--were naturally attracted to Stoicism. Those of the complementary character preferred the doctrines of Epicurus. The Stoics were the Pharisees, the Epicureans the Sadducees, of pagan philosophy. As the Pharisees were the most Hebraic of the Hebrews, so it was Stoicism that came to be the characteristic Roman creed. The ordinary Roman had been brought up in the tradition of obeying the law of the state and the claims of duty; he had high notions of personal dignity and a leaning to the heroic virtues. Give him a strong, consistent, and elevating religion and he would be normally a pious man. Stoicism supplied him with a standard which was in keeping with such tendencies. About Epicureanism there was nothing heroic or elevating.

Put briefly, and therefore crudely, the Epicurean doctrine was that happiness is the end of life. What men seek, and have a right to seek, is the most pleasant existence. Our conduct should secure for us as much real pleasure as possible. Now at first sight this looks like what it was opprobriously called by its enemies, "the philosophy of the pig-sty." It by no means meant this to its founder. For what is "pleasure"? Not by any means necessarily the gratification of the moment, physical or otherwise. A present pleasure may mean future pain, either of body or of mind. Wrong actions and bestial enjoyments bring their own penalty. You must choose wisely, and so direct your life that you suffer least and enjoy most consistently. Temperance and wisdom are therefore virtues necessary to a true Epicurean. You desire health; therefore you will live, as Epicurus lived, on simple and wholesome food. You desire tranquillity or peace of mind; therefore you will abstain from all perverse acts and gratifications, desires and emotions, which disturb that peace. In short the thing to be sought is nothing else but this grateful composure of mind--a thing which you cannot have if you are always wanting this or that and either abusing or misusing your bodily or mental functions, or needlessly mortifying yourself. To the plain man this apparently meant "Take life easily and keep free of worry." Naturally the plain man's ideas of taking life easily became those of taking pleasures as they come, indolently accepting the agreeables of life and feeling no call to make much of its duties. It is all very well for a high-minded philosopher to avoid a pleasure in order to avoid its pain, and to realize that a pleasure of the mind is worth more than a pleasure of the body, but one cannot expect the ordinary pupil--the homme moyen sensuel--to comprehend this attitude with heartiness sufficient to put it into practice. It followed therefore that the Epicurean tended, not only to become lazy, but to become vicious, or to make light of vices. This was not indeed true Epicureanism, and Epicurus is not to blame for it; it simply shows that Epicureanism, whatever its logical or other merits, provided no sufficient stimulus to a right life. As regards theology the position of the school was that there might very well be such things as higher beings--there was nothing in physical philosophy to make them any more impossible than a man or a fish--but that, if they existed, they were not concerned with man's affairs; his moral conduct, like his sacrifices and prayers, was not matter for their consideration. No need, therefore, to let superstition worry you, or to trouble about future punishment. Conduct your life according to the same principles laid down, and let the gods--if there be any--look to themselves. Naturally the result of such a position is that ceasing to regard the gods means ceasing to believe in them, and, as a Roman writer says: "In theory it leaves us the gods, in practice it abolishes them."

The other school--that of the Stoics--is perhaps less easily comprehended, nor can it be said that its doctrines were always quite so coherent. Again we may put the position briefly, and therefore, perhaps, only approximately. The rule of life is to live as "nature" directs. Nature has its laws, which you cannot disobey with impunity. The law of nature is the mind of God. The material universe is the body, God is its soul, and He directs the workings of nature with foreknowledge and perfect wisdom. If man can only be brought to act in strict accordance with the mind of God--or law of nature--he is sure of perfect well-being, because he can do nothing as it should not be done. If he can only arrive at such perfect operation of his mental processes, he will necessarily be the perfect speaker, the perfect ruler, the perfect craftsman, the perfect performer of every task, including the securing of his own happiness. Doubtless this is logical enough, but how is one to attain to such right mental operations, and to become what was called a "sage"? Only by acting always according to reason and not according to passion. That and that alone is "virtue." The divine mind is not swayed by passion--by hope, fear, exultation, or grief--but only and always by reason. Learn therefore to obey reason and reason only. Do not permit yourself to be drawn from the true path by fear of threats, even of death, nor by grief, even for your dearest friends. Such feelings warp your reason, distract your judgment, and deflect you from the right course. When passion--feeling--comes in conflict with reason, you must drive feeling away. Your reason may not always be right; nevertheless it is the best guide you have, and you must cultivate it to act as rightly as possible. Remember that the power to act in accordance with the divine mind--the law of nature--lies in your own will; things external have nothing to do with that straight-forward proceeding--they cannot help you, and you must not let them hinder you. The condition of your mind is everything; as long as its operation is right, you are living in the right way. Your mind may act as rightly in poverty as in riches; you may be equally wise and virtuous whether you have the external advantages or not. You must therefore learn to ignore these things--pain, grief, fear, joy, and all the other perturbing influences. Cultivate, therefore, right reason and the absence of emotions.

This, you will say, is a very high, unattainable, if not inhuman, standard. Quite so, and therefore, while Epicureanism often produced vicious men, this often produced pretenders and even hypocrites. Nevertheless it is better to set oneself a high standard than a low one, and a Roman who endeavoured to control himself by reason, and to place himself above fear and pain, was thereby on the way to be brave, patient, truthful, and just. Those who would see what high character could be associated with Stoicism--whether as the result or as the motive of the choice of the school--should read Epictetus, whose text, written early in the next century, was "sustain and abstain," and also the great-minded gentle Emperor Marcus Aurelius. A logical outcome of Stoicism was that you should say only the thing which reason approved, and say it unafraid. A good republican virtue, this, but under the emperors a dangerous one, as an honest Stoic like Thrasea found out. In practice there was naturally much qualifying or mellowing of the rigid Stoic attitude: the exigencies of actual life had to be met part of the way, and both Greek and Roman Stoics were often only Stoics in part--the complete "sage" was of course impossible.

As for the gods, it is obvious that the Stoics were pantheists; there was one God, and He was the soul of the universe. They also, of course, recognised His providence. What then of the gods of the state? Some did not attempt to discuss them. Others treated the various so-called separate deities in the list as being only so many manifestations or avatars of the same divine power, and whether they were content or not with that attempt at harmonisation, who shall say?

Meanwhile, at least in the eastern part of the empire, you might meet with another type of philosopher, the Cynic, belonging to the same school as the famous Diogenes, who had lived in that large earthenware jar commonly known as his "tub." Like the Stoic, the Cynic held that externals were of no value, and therefore he contented himself with a piece of bread, a wallet full of beans, and a jug of water. Like the Stoic, he believed in perfect freedom of speech, and therefore he spoke loudly and often abusively of all and sundry who appeared to him to deserve it. Some such men doubtless were sincere enough, like the earlier hermits or preaching friars, but many of them were simply idle and virulent impostors who thoroughly deserved that name of the "dog" which was commonly given to them, and which came to designate their school.

The mention of impostors and hypocrites brings us naturally to a point which may have been foreseen. To the ancient world the professional philosophers were the nearest approach to our professional clergy. They affected an appearance accordingly; and the philosopher was regularly known by his long beard, his coarse cloak, and his staff. But, alas! there were many who disgraced their cloth. There were Stoic teachers who practised all manner of secret vices, and whose behaviour was in outrageous contradiction to their creed of the "absence of emotions." There were not only many Honeymans, there were many Stigginses. There were idlers and vagabonds on a level with the mendicant friars and pardon-sellers of the time of Chaucer. There were pompous hypocrites. Also side by side with the serious and earnest philosopher, as deeply learned in the books of his sect as a modern divine, there were charlatans and dabblers. It is unfortunately in this last light that the Apostle Paul appeared to the professional Stoic and Epicurean teachers of Athens. They were the finished products of the philosophic schools of the most famous universities, while he was supposed by them to be teaching some new kind of philosophy. Philosophers were apt to be itinerant, and St. Paul was looked upon as but another of these new arrivals. In his language they detected what seemed to be borrowed notions not consistently bound together, and they therefore called him by a name which it is not easy to translate. Literally it is "a picker up of seeds"--that is to say, a sciolist who gathers scraps from profounder people and gives them out with an air. Perhaps the nearest, although an undignified, word is "quack." That Paul possessed a knowledge of Greek philosophy, and particularly of Stoicism, is practically certain. He came from Tarsus in Cilicia, and Cilicia was the native home of many leading Stoics, including its greatest representative in all antiquity. He had been taught by Gamaliel, who was versed in "the learning of the Greeks." His address at Athens was deliberately meant to bear a relation to the philosophy of the experts who were present, but necessarily it could only introduce a few salient allusions, such as even a dabbler could have picked up, and we can hardly blame the specialists for their erroneous judgment. As he says himself: "The Greeks demand philosophy; but we proclaim a Messiah crucified, to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks a folly."

To discuss further the moral ideas of the Roman world would consume more space and time than can be afforded here. It may, however, be worth while to mention that suicide was commonly--and especially by the Stoics--looked upon as a natural and blameless thing, when calm reason appeared to justify the proceeding, and when due consideration was given to social claims. To seek a euthanasia in such cases was an act of wisdom. Belief in an underworld or an after life was not rare among the common people, but it certainly did not exist in any force among the cultivated classes. It was taught neither by philosophy nor by the religion of the state. Yet the sense that rewards or punishments are unfairly meted out in this world was strong in many a mind, and this is one of the facts which account for the hold taken upon such minds, first by the religion of Isis, and then in a still greater and more abiding measure by Christianity.

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