NOVA  ROMA Interview



of the month


Interview of March

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" (Id., VII,9).
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.

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