What is a Roman Stoic

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    Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
    The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.


    II. Socrates, Plato, and the Roman Stoics

    By Professor Charles Pomeroy Parker

    WHEN Socrates grew up in the city of Athens, in the generation just after the Persian Wars, any Athenian citizen, however poor he might be, was at liberty to arrange his own life as he wished. Socrates made up his mind that money-making was not worth while, in comparison with the liberty to spend his time in thinking about truth. There was a great deal of lively thinking in the Greek world then, and Athens, under Pericles, 1 not only was winning her empire, but was finding that great thinkers, or at any rate their thoughts, loved to come to her. Pythagorean philosophers were wide awake in those days. They were discovering truth about the art of healing, they spent much successful work on astronomy, they were making progress in music, they studied mathematics, especially geometry. Many philosophers of other schools were studying fire, air, water, and earth, claiming that they changed into each other, as we say solids melt into liquids, and liquids dissolve into gases, and as some thinkers suppose that gas atoms are made up of electric units. Others were impressed by the great expanse of the sky, and said that the only way to find truth was to think of the universe as a great unchanging sphere. Others, again, held a doctrine of atoms, tiny invisible shapes of hard matter, which by combining or separating made the changing world. 1


    Socrates, eagerly studying all these theories, heard at last of a philosopher, Anaxagoras, who said that Thought makes the world; but Anaxagoras did not seem to him to show the rational way in which Thought would work. Rational Thought, as Socrates viewed it, always tries to obtain some practical good. Merely to show how one physical thing changes into another, or sets another in motion, does not account rationally for the world; and Anaxagoras, though he talked about Thought, did not seem to Socrates to get at the heart of rational activity. But Socrates, having once caught the suggestion of Thought as a cause, never could set it aside. To inquire into the nature of rational activity implies a careful study of men and of human minds. 2


    Now in that Age of Pericles there was a great interest in men and all that concerned human life. Socrates loved to talk with men. This put him in especial sympathy with the Pythagoreans, who valued human souls and said that men are immortal. Pythagoras, the founder of that school of thought in the previous century, had organized a brotherhood of students, bound to each other by ties of religion, austere life, and high thinking. This brotherhood had tried to influence and improve the political life of the cities where they lived. In the days of Socrates they had given up politics, but never had lost their religious and human interest. Not only did they work in healing, in astronomy, in music, and in geometry; they wanted to find the essence of justice, beauty, life, and health. Such essences seemed to give all the reality to human life. The Pythagoreans conceived of them, strangely enough, as somehow mixed up with geometry. Indeed, we ourselves are apt to speak of justice as the square thing; but this metaphor of ours was perhaps a reality to their minds. Different forms or shapes, cubes, spheres, pyramids, triangles, circles, and squares, may have seemed to them the essences of the world, and they took a Greek word, which meant form in those times, to express their notion of essence; in that sense they tried to find the ideas of beauty, or of temperance, or of health. Socrates, being interested in this line of thought, made up his mind to find the ideas. But he was not satisfied with such a geometrical notion of things as the Pythagoreans seem to have held. He wanted to talk with men, and study life as it was reflected in human thoughts, hoping thus to get clearer notions of reality which would be practical help to himself and others. A thing is made beautiful by the beauty in it. What is beauty? This was an important question for a Greek thinker; and to find the ideally beautiful life might be worth our effort also. An act is made just by the justice in it. What is the essence of justice? We and Socrates alike want to know that. Socrates found such inquiries puzzling, and was reduced to a kind of despair. 3


    Perhaps it was at this time that the Oracle of Delphi which was controlled by influences highly sensitive to all the life of the time, said one day to an inquirer that Socrates was the wisest of men. This declaration was very perplexing to Socrates himself, who felt keenly his own ignorance. Eagerly questioning all kinds of men, to see if they could not give him wisdom after all, he soon found that their notions about the real essences of things were confused and contradictory. He realized that his mission was to clear up the thoughts of men. This is the first step in rational thinking, to define clearly our thoughts and agree about the essential nature of the things which our words denote. 4


    The “Apology,” “Crito,” and “Phædo” 2 of Plato present to us dramatically, in Plato’s words, the thoughts of Socrates. They all deal with the last days of his life, in which his thoughts may well have been at their ripest. Very probably Plato developed some of the thoughts of Socrates to their logical results, going beyond what the master actually said, and giving the tendencies of his thinking. But we shall hardly get nearer to the essence of the real Socrates than by reading these dialogues. For instance, he would seem to have felt that souls are the permanent things; their very essence is to live and give life; justice, temperance, piety, beauty, and such ideas are eternal essences which give reality to the human world. Possibly the greater flights of imagination in the “Phædo” belong to Plato, and the perfecting of the whole theory; many have supposed that all the philosophy of the dialogue is Plato’s. To disentangle his thought from his master’s is hard; the two are really one great movement of human thought, which has affected the world profoundly. One line of its influence is seen in Aristotle, who, in spite of all his differences, was strongly influenced by the doctrine of real essences. Another line of Socrates’s influence is seen in Stoicism. 5


    Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, was a native of Cyprus, perhaps a merchant, who was shipwrecked on a certain voyage, and as a result of this apparent misfortune turned to philosophy. Men who wanted to be philosophers were likely to come to Athens in those days, two or three generations after Socrates, Zeno, being at Athens, one day sat down, so the story goes, by a bookseller’s stall, where the bookseller was reading aloud from a book of Xenophon, the “Memorabilia,” which described the conversations of Socrates. Greatly interested, Zeno inquired of the bookseller where such men as Socrates lived. Just at that moment Crates, a good man, a poor man, who formed his life on the life of Socrates, was passing by. The bookseller pointed to him, saying: “Follow this man.” Zeno rose up and followed Crates; and the result was that Socrates’s belief in the supremacy of reason and in the human soul and in the value of human life and freedom profoundly affected the teaching of Zeno. We may not search out now the other influences felt in Stoicism. The scientific, religious, and logical doctrines of this school are very important, and their development is interesting. But certainly the Socratic thought is strongly felt in this famous school. 6


    Four or five centuries later, Epictetus, 3 a slave (afterward a freedman), and Marcus Aurelius, 4 an emperor of Rome, in their meditations or conversations on human life show the living flame of thought which was kindled in Socrates, and handed down from him for many generations. We are apt to think of Stoics as men who crushed all their feelings, and went about the world with solemn faces and sad hearts, bearing trouble as they might. But the best Stoics of all times cared much for human nature and human freedom. They studied men, and found man’s nature to be essentially rational. The terrible thing to them was to see this rational soul losing its self-control and, bewildered in a vain struggle to find happiness by submission to the outside world, getting into a turmoil of fluttering excitement over things which were not in its own power. But what was in their own power they tried to handle divinely, with real energy. For they felt that man’s rational soul is akin to the good Power which makes and moves the universe. And herein they agreed with Socrates. The slave and the emperor were in harmony with the free Athenian. 7

    School of philosophy in Greco-Roman antiquity. Inspired by the teaching of Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope, Stoicism was founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium 300 and was influential throughout the Greco-Roman world until at least 200. It stressed duty and held that, through reason, mankind can come to regard the universe as governed by fate and, despite appearances, as fundamentally rational, and that, in regulating one's life, one can emulate the grandeur of the calm and order of the universe by learning to accept events with a stern and tranquil mind and to achieve a lofty moral worth. Its teachings have been transmitted to later generations largely through the surviving books of Cicero and the Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

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