Prof A. Poliseno
Stoicism in Ancient Rome
How did Roman stoics reconcile this philosophy with their religious
trusts? Was it there a contraddiction, or it was possible to be
stoicus and pius at the same time?
by Cn. Salix Astur
The latin word pietas (eusebeia in greek) is a soul disposition
to feel devout to their gods, their relatives and Patria. Cicero
thinks it's a justice act to gods and a duty (officium) and a care
(cultus) (Cicero, De Inventione, II) of blood relatives.
Tommaso D'Aquino noticed that man is debtor to the other men in
many ways, relatively to their bonds and to the benefits received
by them. So we are debtor to our parents, our blood relatives and
our patria, to all citizens. Cicero thought that this pietas should
be greater for patria than for relatives.
It is not an exterior behaviour, but a feeling. Seneca said: "You
want to have the favour of gods? Be a good man" (Epistulae
95,50; Cicero said before "deos placatos pietas efficiet et
sanctitas", Nat Deorum, II,71).
In my opinion, the doubt about the possibility of a stoic to be
pius mostly concerns his relation with the gods, and we cannot think
to a gratitude relationship and a veneration to a god that did not
create us and is of the same nature than us. Cicero used to say
that there cannot be any pietas a real devotion to gods (nec est
ulla erga deos pietas).
So, how can we explain the presence of pietas in all Stoicism history?
Stoicism has got inside an inextricable misanderstanding: has the
need of veneration, without having the idea of creation , with an
unique personal and transcendent god. The theme of ancient Stoà
of the relationship of man with gods, during roman times gains more
spiritualistic meditations, closer than before to the christian
religion, but is not able to give to these thoughts an ontological
foundation. This is common with other ancient doctrines. For Aristoteles,
god moves the universe and attracts it not with an action, but like
"the loved does with the lover".
Seneca considers the god a corporeal pneuma, but manyy of his assertions
let us suppose that he had a personal conception of the god. He
adores landscape, forest, mysterious cave, source springing out
with natural violence (Epistulae 41,3), but for his religion he
gives much importance to his relationship with the god. Every decision
of the god is not a fatal predetermination, but a right choice that
he accepts with pleasure: "I do not obey to god, I assent to
him" (Non pareo deo sed assentio, Epistulae 96,2).
Epittetus professes a faith in an immanent god; he thinks that cosmos
is a system constituted by gods and men, but sometimes he replaces
"gods" with the term "god". His religion is
somewhat personal. His faith estabilishes a new relationship with
the god: "when you close the doors behind, you cannot say to
be alone: you have god with you" (Epittetus, Diatribae, I,14).
He considers that submission to god and his law would not limit
men's independence. In his meditations written by Arrianus he does
not use the word heimarmene, but uses expressions similar to those
used by Seneca (I 12, IV 1, II 16).
Marcus Aurelius believes in gods: "with their actions, of I'm
always witness, I know they exist, and I venerate them" (Meditationes,
Milano, Rizzoli, 1953, XII,28). As a philosopher he practises a
rigorous monotheism, but believes to the universal divinity of Stoà:
"A sole world composed by all things and a god in all things"
Stoicism drew advantage, in Roman world, from the human dimension.
M. Aurelius retained his own duty of Emperor, chief of all human
kind, to pass from "an action useful to all to another useful
to all" (Id., VI,7).
Stoicism tried to justify even Roman polytheism, estabilishing that
plurality of gods was bringing to a sole god. This concept was continued
by Christianity, continuing Jewish tradition in the concept of a
god maker of world without losing his transcendency, and that man
could depend upon god without losing his autonomy.
Stoicism had his triumph with a slave philosopher, and with "an
Emperor, king of all the world, that professed stoic and operated
as a stoic" (M. Pohlenz).
That Stoicism declined, but many of his principles still live in
the history of men's culture.