Interview with Professor A. Poliseno
Professor A. Poliseno, philosopher and classicist, graduated many years ago in Roma in Philosophy, Classical Literature and Theology; he has many publications about ancient philosophy and literature, and some other about modern philosophy; during his life he has been working for the University of Pisa, untill some years ago, when he decided to dedicate himself to philosophical and introspective studies, retiring. I have had the pleasure of meeting him several times, and I can say he is a really kind and wise person.
An "Interview the Expert" interview.
Did the Romans modify Stoicism? If so, how?
Question by Gn Equitius Marinus
The teaching of Stoical doctrine did not have a stiff organization, even because Stoics did not meet in a public place; since the beginning Stoicism opened to the influence of various thinker, even of the cynic school. It was not a thinking of a sole philosopher: many gave their contribute to this discipline, and the result was an evolutive dynamism with many changes and adaptations. Roman Stoicism is called "New Stoà". Seneca, Epictitus, Marcus Aurelius were among his followers; they studied ethical behaviour, moral meditations and gave it an important religious background. It is intuitive how this "open" doctrine could not be deaf to the influences of Roman Culture. Stoic philosophy had a similar structure to the aristotelic one, with only modest speculative characteristics, and was articulated in logic, phisic and ethic. The first two were propedeutical to the doctrine of morality. After the battles of Cheronaea (338 B.C.E.) and the following victories of Alexander on Grece, the Greek world was conquered by Macedons; it was the beginning of the Ellenistic age. With Alexandros' ideas of an universal monarchy, the social and political importance of the Poleis collapsed. The new greek world was without frontiers, with new races and populations. The new political and cultural dimension was impregnated with cosmopolitism, and the greek citizen felt solitary and alone, in a state that he did not feel as own, so he started to be more individualistic, more egoistic. And all his believes felt down. The citizen became a king's subject, and started feeling alone.
The Hellenistic man had the need of a daily guide, as for reaching his personal luck. So philosophy, that had lost his speculative interests and self-limiting theory, seemed to be the best way to get this purpose. Philosopher became a master for life, renouncing to speculative theories, and getting wiser for the daily life. Epicuro said wisdom better than knowledge. Seneca said that the real philosophy is the one that incarnate our way of being, nec philosophia sine virtute est, nec sine philosophia virtus. So both Epicureism and Stoicism could give happiness and thoughtlessness to the ellenistic man that felt lost and alone. In a different way from Epicureism, for Stoics, as man is a rational animal, he can wait for his body exigencies. Virtue is the only good for men, and vice is the real evil of life. Many actions are indifferent, but if are done in the right way, they are called "convenient actions" or "duties". The so called "Media Stoà" (II-I C. b.C.) attenuated the severity of the Ancient Stoà with eclectics ideas; Panetius and Posidonius were among his most famous philosopher. Panetius gave value to the concept of "duty", and Cicero reproduced his thoughts in his "De Officiis" and in other writings. This concept of officium becomes then from Panetius: he called guide of ethical behaviour the human nature and not only his rationality. The individual nature is not perfect, but aspires to perfection and does not exclude the pleasure, on condition that it is not in contradiction to the universal right. So, his idea of duty is more pragmatic, and becomes a fundamental cornerstone of meral conception in Roman world. Posidonius (d. 51 b.C.) said that passions are a natural element and give their contribution to the universal balance. He captured the polibian trust of the Roman domination as a need imposed by the political and social events. This idea of stoical cosmopolitism became the theorical basis of the universalistic conception of Roman Empire.
It is not simple answering to this question, as every communion among different cultures is complex, and each one becames richer and poorer at the same time.
Stoical doctrine found a good growing ground in Roman culture, that used to subordinate theory to practice. It was the welcome because in Rome the citizen had to participate to social and political life, and did not isolate himself; and because, in the name of the universal rationality, gave justification to a monarchic government, and with his cosmopolitism legitimated an unlimited Empire.
As it came to Rome, at the end of the Republican age, Stoicism suffered of many limitations, mostly from Panetius and Posidonius; this process continued with Seneca, but had an involution with Epittetus and Marcus Aurelius, when came back the civil servitude. Roman pragmatism acted for the transformation of the wise man from an abstract shape to a strong and noble personality.
Stoicism strictly thrived in the mind of most of the Romans of the ruling classes. Learned Romans understood that rational aspects of Stoà could give a theoretical justification to their perfect idea of life. It gave importance to the belief that "the only real virtue is the imperfect one". But there were even exempla of heroic suicides, as the one of Cato Uticensis and Trasea Peto.
Stoicism contributed to regulate juridical relations with strangers. With the many conquests, to ius civile was added ius universale, and Stoicism guaranteed the maturation of the exigence of a new ius naturale. The declaration that all men are able to reach Virtue raised difficulties to the mith of a blue blood and the superiority of the race; with the idea that servitude and freedom depend upon wisdom and ignorance, the practice of slavery itself had a crisis. The native land of Ius could not ignore the overcoming of the aristothelic conception that condemned to slavery who slave was born. It contributed to the growth of various aspects of science.
About religion, Stoicism offered to the traditional worship a justification for the many divinities, considering them an expression of the only universal divinity. Seneca's thoughts are soacked in a rich religious spirit, that some historians have attributed to an intuition of the christian religion.
Roman Stoicism could not solve another antinomy: the wise man, giving importance to his own logos, cannot admit any affection or passion that could disturb his apatia, but man cannot not love his sons and his relatives. It is not simple to conciliate apatia with the necessary sympathy in a cosmopolitan world.
In the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talks about how "the wise man" understands the limits that the world places on him, and lives within them. Is the concept of "the wise man" one that Roman Stoicism received from the Greek Stoa? Or is it something the Romans developed?
Question by Gn Equitius Marinus
The wisdom (phronesis) is a rational behaviour, a virtue that determines what is good and what is wrong for a man. It is not the sapientia, considered a philosophical knowledge of high thoughts, but a knowledge of the best way of living life. During the centuries, it has assumed different meanings connected with ethic and virtue.
Homeric ethic was identified with the concept of aretè, synonim of strenght and bravery (from aristos, W Jager, Paideia, Firenze 1959, I,31; A Poliseno, L'etica nel mondo antico: dall'approvazione alla responsabilità, Civ Classica, 1986, VII,3). The hero had to be valiant and had to overcome the others; Homer was read by young people with the aim of soliciting to find out the aretè of those heroes (Isocrates, Panegirico, 159). The competition fo glory did not have any brake, and did not have any form of respect for the rivals. The Attic culture substituted sophrosyne to areté, and determined the end of the Iliac values, introducing moderation for the finding of glory. It discovered that the theoretic basis of living was sapientia (sophia), an heritage of the few; the most had to be satisfied with his study and philosophia; phronesis was a practical wisdom, the science of the good and wrong things for every man. These are the four cardinal virtues of Plato, Aristotheles and Theofrastos.
Crisippos gave phronesis other virtues: discernment, carefulness, ability on choosing the way of doing things, et c.; to sophrosyne gave the meaning of opportunity, dignity, moderation, firmness and justice. During ellenistic age the concept of wisdom took great importance, and Epicuros estimated it more important than philosophy itself (Epistula ad Meneceum, 132). Zenon said that ethos was the "source of life from wich come the good actions and reflect the external appearance too". Every action was intended as a katorthoma, a perfect action derived from the orthos logos. Between katorthoma, expression of logos, and the mistakes, amartemata, there are many intermediate actions, the most of all we do. Those done as for nature are suitable, katheconta, and indicate the musts and the obligations that a man has got in some circumstances. The wise man is at the beginning a so perfect being, that stoics said that in the history on manhood used to live just a few of them. Wisdom is the condition for continuing living. The kathekon, as a convenient action for the nature, is man's duty. This concept assumed a more limited meaning, and Roman culture took it from Greek Stoicism, enriching it and being enriched by it. This process was completed when Romans identified this concept with their word officium.
Romans used to have their values, handed down as mos maiorum: pietas, the religious duty that obliged men to gods, patria, relatives; Virgilius calls Enea pius for the obligation versus his father. Fides: the loyalty that inspires trust. All these qualities had their root in the natural mood of a vir, the virtus that contained all the qualities toghether, and that transformed a vir in a bonus vir.
Stoicism had inside the alternative between adhesion to logos and requirements of the body, physis; Romans did look for their conciliation with bigger diligence.
Kathekon - officium for Romans - was everything done for one reason (Cicero: quod autem ratione est, id officium appellamus; est igitur officium eius generis, quod nec in bonis ponatur nec in contrariis, De finibus bon. et mal., III,58). Virtue consisted in judging the real value of events, in knowing what is right and what is wrong, what useful and what good or evil. Stoics took some of these ideals. E.g., the concept of aequitas was already known in the Roman world, but used to represent the ideal entreaty, was the rigorous and scrupulous interpretation of the rule. With Stoicism matured the concept of humanitas. Cicero mostly gave his contribute to this ideal, but Panetius stated it firstly. Caesar calls Procillus and sends him as ambassador to Ariovistus, summa vitute et humanitate adulescentem (De Bell. Gall., I,47,4). Humanitas, civil and social ideal of Cicero's age, cosisted in "recognizing and respecting the man in every man", overcoming nationalism (A. Traina, Comoedia. Antologia della palliata, Bari, Laterza, 1955,p. 107). During imperial age, in Stoicism there are three moments of practical moral, and stronger ties among philosophy and religion born. The lesser participation to the political life brought to a better concentration on oneself, and determined a greater involvement in the amelioration of one's morality. So happened a folding with himself. In Roman times it is still believed that logos regulates all the world. Epittetus believed that men could not follow the statement "know yourself and your destiny" without that premise. It is simple to answer to the question if the concept of wisdom came directly to Rome or was adapted in some way. And it is not. It is simple because moral concepts in the centuries continue to have their core identity. And it is not because it is not simple to show when and how they changed something, as the time of penetration and the geografical area were really vast.
During all his periods, Stoicism remained faithful to the belief that freedom from every affection could be reached only by a man that would represent the full explanation of logos, but that then have to reckon with the nature of man that is composed by spirit and matter. During Principate, when the freedom of public law was little, the stoic had to resign to the fact that the true freedom was the one of the natural law: the interior independence. The adaptation to the real world is a need and a must for the man that wants to keep living, and renunciate to sacrifice his life to rational statements. Even the wise stoic had to resign to this life, and understood that the only way to profess his beliefs was to have and to live with good sense: aspiring to the best, and being satisfied with the possible. The ideal had to be transcendent and immanent at the same time: if too high for his possibilities, it would have remained useless; if too simple, his utility would have been exhausted in a few. Marcus Aurelius, before being stoic was Roman, and had to balance accounts with the reality of life.
Stoicism had great importance in rendering human kind wiser. His coherence and brotherhood ideals did not remain inert in the history of personal and social ethic.
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?
Question 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.