Torre de Babel



§ 24 – Later Stoics

Leading Later Stoics are Boëthus, Panætius, Posidonius, Varro, Cicero, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.


Boëthus deviated from the doctrine of the original Stoics in that he gave as criteria of knowledge, reason, desire, and science, as well as perception, denied truth to the doctrine of the world-conflagration, denied also that God was the soul of the world, and that prophecy and divination were possible.

Three of his reasons for the denial of the doctrine of the world-conflagration were the following: the world could not be destroyed by any cause acting within it, nor by any cause without, since there was only void without; God must become an idle being if the world were destroyed; «after the complete annihilation of the world [by fire] this fire must itself be extinguished for want of nourishment, and then the new formation of the world would be impossible».


Panætius (circa l80-110 B.C.), who was «the chief founder of Roman Stoicism,» a friend of Scipio Africanus, the Younger, and afterwards head of the Stoic school at Athens, departed more widely than any of the later Stoics from the dogmatic spirit and the tenets of the earlier. He denied divination and the conflagration-theory. He gave to the soul a dualistic character, recognizing a vegetable element, to which he claimed that the reproductive function in man belonged, and accommodated the Stoic theology to the popular religion, and the Stoic ethical system to popular sentiment. From him were largely borrowed by Cicero the first two books of the celebrated treatise on Duties (De Officiis).


Posidonius (first half of first century B.C.), another Rhodian who taught the Romans philosophy, substituted for the Stoic doctrine that the soul is rational, the Platonic doctrine that the soul is both rational and irrational in its parts. Posidonius held that reason cannot, as the earlier Stoics declared, be the cause of the passions, which, he thought, are by nature, irrational, but that reason and the passions exist side by side in the soul as distinct faculties. He seems to have been led to this position by the common facts of experience, going to show that except in highly cultivated natures mere thought or will is not sufficient to arouse and control passion. By this view Posidonius relaxed the evident strain in the system of the earlier Stoics upon the faith of ordinary consciousness in its own immediate presentments.


Varro rejected the scepticism of the Academy and Stoic one-sidedness. According to him happiness, or the end of life, is virtue plus the external goods conditioning it, and requires for its foundation a principle of positive knowledge. He is accordingly in sympathy with Antiochus and the Old Academy.


Cicero: Life

Cicero (106-44 B.C.) holds a place in the history of philosophy not so much as an original philosophic thinker as one who, by his enthusiasm for noble ideas and his power of expression, and by the fact that he preserved from oblivion and gave form, order, and spirit to many doctrines of older thinkers, contributed to the spread and extended influence of philosophic conceptions and spirit among men. His interest in and study of philosophy, which seems to have had its origin in rhetorical or oratorical studies and ambition, began early and continued, so far as his political occupation permitted, throughout life, the last two or three years of his life being entirely devoted to the composition, or compilation, of philosophical works. His first teacher in philosophy was the Epicurean Phædrus, who was lecturing in Rome about the year 88 B.C. Though Cicero «seems to have been converted at once to the tenets of his master»(1), he was soon after led to abandon them. At about the same time he studied dialectic (chiefly) with the Stoic Diodotus, without, however, accepting the Stoic doctrine as a whole. He was more attracted by Philo of Larissa, who came to Rome at this time. Philo, it seems, was a brilliant orator, roused in Cicero the highest enthusiasm for his subject, and converted him from Epicureanism to the standpoint of the Academy. The next seven years (after 88 B.C.) were given to the study of philosophy, law, and literature. Two years at a later time were «spent in the society of Greek philosophers and rhetoricians». At this time he heard at Athens the Epicurean Zeno of Sidon, and, also, Phædrus, whom ten years before he had heard at Rome. He was influenced chiefly by Antiochus of Ascalon, whom he admired for his dialectical skill and the pointedness of his style. At Rhodes he met Posidonius, who seems to have been his model among the Stoics as Antiochus was among the Academics. Until quite recently it has been customary to attach comparatively little importance to Cicero as a philosopher because his philosophical works are, avowedly, chiefly translations and paraphrases of the writings of Greek philosophers; but there seems to be at the present moment a growing disposition to give him high praise for his enthusiasm for philosophical culture in an age and country not especially favorable to philosophy, and for preserving from oblivion, and infusing order and spirit into, the dogmas of the later Greek schools of thought. Of the early Greek thinkers, it should be said here, he knew little or nothing; nor was he master of the ideas of either Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle. He is, rather, a child of the individualistic and subjective thinkers of the later periods of Greek thought. The motive of Cicero’s philosophical writing was, if not that of the original truth-seeker, that of the truth-lover and patriot who was desirous that his country should have the benefit, in its own tongue, of the thought of a more cultivated and thoughtful people.

Cicero’s General Conception of Philosophy

Entirely in accordance with the spirit of the age, and particularly with the spirit of the Roman people, Cicero looked upon philosophy chiefly as a thing having to do with practical life. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and. wisdom is the knowledge of things divine and human, «which comprehends the fellowship of gods and men, and their society within themselves». Ethics is thus given the first place in philosophy. Logic is recognized as having value because it supplies the method and the criteria of truth, and physics because it raises the mind above mean interests to the contemplation of the divine, and affords it high rational enjoyment. Cicero cannot in this respect be charged with anything like Cynic narrowness; he has a most genuine enthusiasm for science and learning, is indeed far superior to his age in this regard. But the wise and good man, if called upon by a danger threatening his country to make a choice between scientific studies and his country’s good would, according to Cicero, feel obliged to choose the latter.

Cicero: Theory of Knowledge

In regard to knowledge as such and the standard of truth, the most impressive fact to Cicero’s mind seems to have been that of the wide variety of opinion among men and of doubts that might be easily raised regarding our ability to know our own bodies, our souls, God, nature, etc.

Cicero deems the proper attitude of mind to be that of the Academy, viz., doubt, or suspension of judgment, leaving room, however, for the acceptance of what seems highly probable. But as Cicero’s interest was not, like that of Carneades, polemical, he looks upon doubt less as an end in itself than as a necessary preliminary to free undogmatic belief in what seems most probable.

He agrees with the Sceptics in holding nothing as absolutely certain, but with the dogmatists, also, in holding as firmly as possible to the truth as far as it is, or can be, known by us. In other words, there must be a rational basis for action, and such basis must consist in the probable which is made a ground of decided and decisive belief. The highest probability belongs, according to Cicero, to the presentments of the moral consciousness, which are innate truth. Nature, he says, bestowed upon man a «mind capable of grasping all virtue, and, apart from any teaching, implanted in him rudimentary ideas of the most important matters, and began, so to speak, and included among his constitutional endowments, the groundwork, as we may call it, of the virtues»(2). The senses, also, and the consensus gentium are to be trusted.

Cicero: Physics

In physics Cicero’s chief interest lies in questions relating to God, freedom, and immortality, questions having to him the highest ethical bearing. The ground for belief in God, the immortality of the soul, and the freedom of the will is, that such belief is innate and common to the race. God is the «creator, or, at least, the ruler of all things». «He is free and remote from all mortal mixture, perceiving and moving all things, and endued with eternal motion in himself». He is not declared by Cicero to be immaterial. The human soul has close affinity with God, and has on that account high worth, and high obligation resting upon it.

Cicero: Ethics

Cicero’s position in ethics is indeed Eclectic; even somewhat vacillating and inconsistent, but is on the whole, perhaps, Stoical, with a certain leaning towards the position of the Later Peripatetics. To him virtue is the highest, the only unconditional good; but there is a very evident desire on his part to unite to virtue as a necessary and universal concomitant the «expedient». The perfect austerity of the old Stoic ethics is not an element in Cicero’s ethical ideal, argue as eloquently as he may against the allowing of expediency to take the place of virtue. The whole of the Second Book of one of his chief ethical works, the De Officiis, is taken up with showing how «the expedient» is to be attained. Virtue, the honestum, is, according to Cicero, one; but it is of four varieties,—wisdom ( the highest virtue), justice, magnanimity (large-souledness), and moderation: «sagacity and the perception of truth,» «the preservation of society by giving to every man his due and by observing the faith of contracts»; «the greatness and firmness of an elevated and unsubdued mind»; the observing of «order and regularity in all our actions». Cicero’s divergence from the old Stoic conception of virtue is greatest in his idea of temperance, or moderation. To him this is grace and sweetness, polish of manner, as well as regularity and control of appetites; it is perfect fitness and adaptation of manner and conduct; it is culture, urbanity. He says that it is more easy to conceive than to express the difference between «what is virtuous» [in the broad sense], which he styles the honestum, and «what is graceful,» or the decorum. In this there seems to be the manifestation of a tendency to allow the latter to swallow up the former. He finds that the Stoics are sometimes guilty of «subverting delicacy,» as were the Cynics, and says, «Let us, for our parts, follow nature, and avoid whatever is offensive to the eyes or ears; let us aim at the graceful or becoming [decorum] whether we stand or walk, whether we sit or lie down, in every motion of our features, our eyes, our hands». The ethics of Cicero is, in short, the Stoic ethics refined, or humanized: pain and pleasure are to him not «indifferent,» as to the old Stoics. This refinement, or humanism, also appears markedly in Cicero’s conception of friendship, which he places next to wisdom among the things most valuable to man, and defines as nothing else than a complete union of feeling on all subjects, human and divine, accompanied by kindly feeling and attachment. Cicero did not attain, however, to the conception of a universal love towards men.


Seneca: Life

The leading Eclectic Stoic of the next century is Seneca (3-65 A.D.). Seneca was educated in the school of the Sextians (a noted though short-lived sect in Rome that united a kind of Cynicism with Pythagorean rules of life, preaching a moral life and putting forth no speculative doctrines), and thence had in him a strong touch of asceticism, which appears particularly in his doctrine of the soul and its relation to the body. He was teacher and political counsellor of the wicked emperor Nero, and had weaknesses of character that were inconsistent with true philosophy and certainly quite discordant with the principles of Stoicism.

Seneca’s Philosophy

In Seneca, philosophy is practically reduced to ethics. He attached no importance to logic, and held to physics (in which he followed closely the Stoics of the Old School) chiefly for its ethical bearing. In his doctrine of the nature of the soul, Seneca gives up the simple monism of the Stoics for the dualism of Plato, keenly realizing what the older Stoics had not allowed themselves to recognize, the natural conflict between «passion and reason». «The body, or, as he contemptuously calls it, the flesh, is something so worthless that we cannot think meanly enough of it: it is a mere husk of the soul, a tenement into which it has entered for a short time, and can never feel itself at home, a burden by which it is impressed, a fetter or prison for the loosing and opening of which it must necessarily long; with its flesh it must necessarily do battle; through its body it is exposed to attack and suffering; but in itself it is pure and invulnerable, exalted above the body, even as God is exalted above matter. The true life of the soul begins, therefore, with its departure from the body»(3). We have here an echo of Plato’s Phædrus. Seneca was forbidden, by his materialistic conception of the nature of the soul, to posit unconditionally the immortality of the soul. Although giving theoretical assent to the Stoic ideal of the Wise Man, he seems to have felt obliged to doubt (as did most of the later thinkers who were in sympathy with the Stoics, but could not so completely abstract from environment) that the ideal was one that could be realized. He saw, rather, in the conditions of human life the necessity for self-criticism and internal conflict. Instead of the strong tendency manifest in the earlier Stoic doctrine to self-complacent individualism, there appears in Seneca a consciousness of human imperfection, which bears fruit in a disinterested regard for men in general. «The real crown of his moral doctrine lies in the universal love of man, the purely human interest which bestows itself on all without distinction, even the meanest and most despised, which even in the slave does not forget the man; in that gentleness of disposition which is so especially antagonistic to anger and hatred, tyranny, and cruelty, and which considers nothing worthier of a man and more according to nature than forgiving mercy, and benevolence that is unselfish and disseminates happiness in secret, imitating the divine goodness towards the evil and the good; which, mindful of human weakness, would rather spare than punish, does not exclude even enemies from its goodwill, and will not return even injury with injury»(4). It was by virtue of the influence of this mildness and sympathy that the rather heartless theology of the older Stoics became in Seneca a true religion. In Seneca, Stoicism verges upon its opposite.

Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius

Deserving of mention, though they seem to have contributed nothing to philosophy as a science, are Musonius Rufus (latter part of the first century A.D.), Epictetus (about the same time), a Phrygian slave who taught philosophy in Rome, and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the Roman Emperor (121-I8O A.D.). Epictetus was a pupil of Musonius, and Marcus Aurelius a profound admirer of Epictetus; so that there is a close historical connection between the three. They are also in essential agreement in their spirit and teachings. Completely possessed by the ethical idea, the whole force of their philosophizing goes toward rendering the individual a, so to say, moral sphere, perfect in itself and without relation of dependence, positive or negative, to others. They teach the doctrine of an all-pervading, over-ruling Providence and of a kind but dispassionate regard for man. They belong to the noble class of conservators and disseminators of the ethical spirit. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius taught a reverence for «the God (δαίμων) within». Their philosophy is, of course, of the Stoic type, with a tendency to simple Cynicism.


Later came philosophers of the pure Cynical type, who may be looked upon as Stoics reverted to the original prototype of Stoicism, i.e., the Cynicism of Antisthenes and Diogenes, the most fundamental and permanent element of Stoicism being its disguised Cynicism.


(1) See Introduction to J.S. Reid’s The Academica of Cicero.

(2) De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (trans. by J.S. Reid), V. 21, 59.

(3) Zeller’s Eclectics, p. 222.

(4) Zeller’s Eclectics, p. 240.