Philosophy and Stoicism in the Roman Era

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Marcus Aurelius

Roman philosophy was mostly borrowed from the Greeks. Cicero (106-43 B.C.) is credited with introducing Greek philosophy to Rome. Prominent philosophers included Lucreius (96?-55 B.C.), an Epicurian and the Stoics’ Epictetus (A.D. 60? -130?) and Marcus Aurelius (121-180).

The late 1st century B.C. and the first century A.D. was the Golden Age of Roman literature, rhetoric and philosophy. Great Roman famous poets included the naughty Catuluus, the romantics Tibullus and Propertius, the epic-maker Virgil and the love scribe Ovid. The great historians and rhetoricians include Horace, Livy, Cicero and Caesar from the later Republican period and Petronius and Seneca from the early Imperial period.

Educated Romans, some say, were more interested in the study of Greek philosophy than practicing Roman religion. They studied the nature of the gods and the moral duties of men. In this way the Greek ideas of philosophy found their way into Rome. Some of these ideas, like those of the Stoics, were elevating, and tended to preserve the simplicity and strength of the old Roman character. But other ideas, like those of the Epicureans, seemed to justify a life of pleasure and luxury. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Marcus Aurelius expressed in his life and writings the highest ideas of Roman philosophy. The Romans cannot, however, be said to have shown any originality in their philosophical systems. These they derived almost entirely from the Greeks. The two systems which were most popular with them were Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Epicureans believed that happiness was the great end of life. But the high idea of happiness advocated by the Greek philosophers became degraded into the selfish idea of pleasure, which could easily excuse almost any form of indulgence. In Rome we see this idea of life exercising its influence especially upon the wealthy and indolent classes. \~\

The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that the end of life was to live according to the highest law of our nature. This doctrine tended to make strong and upright characters. It could not well have a degrading influence; so we find some of the noblest men of Rome adhering to its tenets—such men as Cato, Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoic philosophy also exercised a great and beneficial influence upon the Roman jurists, who believed that the law of the state should be in harmony with the higher law of justice and equity. \~\

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Cicero and Philosophy


Marcus Tullius Cicero (105-43 B.C.) was a great Roman statesman, political and orator. Evelyn S. Shuckburgh wrote: “As a philosopher, Cicero's most important function was to make his countrymen familiar with the main schools of Greek thought. Much of this writing is thus of secondary interest to us in comparison with his originals, but in the fields of religious theory and of the application of philosophy to life he made important first-hand contributions. From these works has been selected the following treatise, On Friendship, which has proved of most permanent and widespread interest to posterity, and which gives a clear impression of the way in which a high-minded Roman thought about some of the main problems of human life.” [Source: “Letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero, with his treatises on friendship and old age; translated by E. S. Shuckburgh, New York, P. F. Collier, 1909, The Harvard classics v.9.]

Cicero wrote in Letter XVIII: To M. Porcius Cato (at Rome) Cilicia, January, 50 B.C.: “I have only one last resource - philosophy: and to make her plead for me, as though I doubted the efficacy of a mere request: philosophy, the best friend I have ever had in all my life, the greatest gift which has been bestowed by the gods upon mankind. Yes! this common sympathy in tastes and studies - our inseparable devotion and attachment to which from boyhood have caused us to become almost unique examples of men bringing that true and ancient philosophy (which some regard as only the employment of leisure and idleness) down to the forum, the council chamber, and the very camp itself pleads the cause of my glory with you: and I do not think a Cato can, with a good conscience, say her nay. Wherefore I would have you convince yourself that, if my despatch is made the ground of paying me this compliment with your concurrence, I shall consider that the dearest wish of my heart has been fulfilled owing at once to your influence and to your friendship.

In “On Old Age, Part I,” Cicero wrote: “For I know how well - ordered and equable your mind is, and am fully aware that it was not a surname alone which you brought home with you from Athens, but its culture and good sense. And yet I have an idea that you are at times stirred to the heart by the same circumstances as myself. To console you for these is a more serious matter, and must be put off to another time. For the present I have resolved to dedicate to you an essay on Old Age. For from the burden of impending or at least advancing age, common to us both, I would do something to relieve us both: though as to yourself I am fully aware that you support and will support it, as you do everything else, with calmness and philosophy. But directly I resolved to write on old age, you at once occurred to me as deserving a gift of which both of us might take advantage. To myself, indeed, the composition of this book has been so delightful that it has not only wiped away all the disagreeables of old age, but has even made it luxurious and delightful too. Never, therefore, can philosophy be praised as highly as it deserves, considering that its faithful disciple is able to spend every period of his life with unruffled feelings. However, on other subjects I have spoken at large, and shall often speak again: this book which I herewith send you is on Old Age. I have put the whole discourse not, as Alisto of Cos did, in the mouth of Tithonus - for a mere fable would have lacked conviction - but in that of Marcus Cato when he was an old man, to give my essay greater weight. I represent Laelius and Scipio at his house expressing surprise at his carrying his years so lightly, and Cato answering them. If he shall seem to shew somewhat more learning in this discourse than he generally did in his own books, put it down to the Greek literature of which it is known that he became an eager student in his old age. But what need of more? Cato's own words will at once explain all I feel about old age.

Seneca and His Suicide at Nero’s Command


Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C." 65 AD) served as Nero's tutor and was his friend and confidant of Nero. He dominated Nero's court until he was suspected by Nero of plotting against him and was forced to commit suicide at Nero's command. Seneca wrote about the pursuit of the well-being of the soul and made many observations about Roman history, every day life and politics that have made their way to us today.

George Long wrote: Seneca “was in a sense a Stoic and he has said many good things in a very fine way. There is a judgment of Gellius (XII. 2) on Seneca, or rather a statement of what some people thought of his philosophy, and it is not favourable. His writings and his life must be taken together.”

On “The Death of Seneca in A.D. 65, Tacitus wrote in Annals 15:64: “Then followed the destruction of Annaeus Seneca, a special joy to the emperor, not because he had convicted him of the conspiracy, but anxious to accomplish with the sword what poison had failed to do. It was, in fact, Natalis alone who divulged Seneca's name, to this extent, that he had been sent to Seneca when ailing, to see him and remonstrate with him for excluding Piso from his presence, when it would have been better to have kept up their friendship by familiar intercourse; that Seneca's reply was that mutual conversations and frequent interviews were to the advantage of neither, but still that his own life depended on Piso's safety. Gavius Silvanus, tribune of a praetorian cohort, was ordered to report this to Seneca and to ask him whether he acknowledged what Natalis said and his own answer. Either by chance or purposely Seneca had returned on that day from Campania, and had stopped at a country house four miles from Rome. Thither the tribune came next evening, surrounded the house with troops of soldiers, and then made known the emperor's message to Seneca as he was at dinner with his wife, Pompeia Paulina, and two friends. [Source: Tacitus: Annals, Book 15, Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Slightly adapted]

“Seneca replied that Natalis had been sent to him and had complained to him in Piso's name because of his refusal to see Piso, upon which he excused himself on the ground of failing health and the desire of rest. "He had no reason," he said, for "preferring the interest of any private citizen to his own safety, and he had no natural aptitude for flattery. No one knew this better than Nero, who had oftener experienced Seneca's free spokenness than his servility." When the tribune reported this answer in the presence of Poppaea and Tigellinus, the emperor's most confidential advisers in his moments of rage, he asked whether Seneca was meditating suicide. Upon this the tribune asserted that he saw no signs of fear, and perceived no sadness in his words or in his looks. He was accordingly ordered to go back and to announce sentence of death. Fabius Rusticus tells us that he did not return the way he came, but went out of his course to Faenius, the commander of the guard, and having explained to him the emperor's orders, and asked whether he was to obey them, was by him admonished to carry them out, for a fatal spell of cowardice was on them all. For this very Silvanus was one of the conspirators, and he was now abetting the crimes which he had united with them to avenge. But he spared himself the anguish of a word or of a look, and merely sent in to Seneca one of his centurions, who was to announce to him his last doom.

“Seneca, quite unmoved, asked for tablets on which to inscribe his will, and, on the centurion's refusal, turned to his friends, protesting that as he was forbidden to requite them, he bequeathed to them the only, but still the noblest possession yet remaining to him, the pattern of his life, which, if they remembered, they would win a name for moral worth and steadfast friendship. At the same time he called them back from their tears to manly resolution, now with friendly talk, and now with the sterner language of rebuke. "Where," he asked again and again, "are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years' study against evils to come? Who knew not Nero's cruelty? After a mother's and a brother's murder, nothing remains but to add the destruction of a guardian and a tutor."

Nero and Seneca

“Having spoken these and like words, meant, so to say, for all, he embraced his wife; then softening awhile from the stern resolution of the hour, he begged and implored her to spare herself the burden of perpetual sorrow, and, in the contemplation of a life virtuously spent, to endure a husband's loss with honourable consolations. She declared, in answer, that she too had decided to die, and claimed for herself the blow of the executioner. There upon Seneca, not to thwart her noble ambition, from an affection too which would not leave behind him for insult one whom he dearly loved, replied: "I have shown you ways of smoothing life; you prefer the glory of dying. I will not grudge you such a noble example. Let the fortitude of so courageous an end be alike in both of us, but let there be more in your decease to win fame."

“Then by one and the same stroke they sundered with a dagger the arteries of their arms. Seneca, as his aged frame, attenuated by frugal diet, allowed the blood to escape but slowly, severed also the veins of his legs and knees. Worn out by cruel anguish, afraid too that his sufferings might break his wife's spirit, and that, as he looked on her tortures, he might himself sink into irresolution, he persuaded her to retire into another chamber. Even at the last moment his eloquence failed him not; he summoned his secretaries, and dictated much to them which, as it has been published for all readers in his own words, I forbear to paraphrase.

“Nero meanwhile, having no personal hatred against Paulina and not wishing to heighten the odium of his cruelty, forbade her death. At the soldiers' prompting, her slaves and freedmen bound up her arms, and stanched the bleeding, whether with her knowledge is doubtful. For as the vulgar are ever ready to think the worst, there were persons who believed that, as long as she dreaded Nero's relentlessness, she sought the glory of sharing her husband's death, but that after a time, when a more soothing prospect presented itself, she yielded to the charms of life. To this she added a few subsequent years, with a most praise worthy remembrance of her husband, and with a countenance and frame white to a degree of pallor which denoted a loss of much vital energy.

“Seneca meantime, as the tedious process of death still lingered on, begged Statius Annaeus, whom he had long esteemed for his faithful friendship and medical skill, to produce a poison with which he had some time before provided himself, same drug which extinguished the life of those who were condemned by a public sentence of the people of Athens. It was brought to him and he drank it in vain, chilled as he was throughout his limbs, and his frame closed against the efficacy of the poison. At last he entered a pool of heated water, from which he sprinkled the nearest of his slaves, adding the exclamation, "I offer this liquid as a libation to Jupiter the Deliverer." He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without any of the usual funeral rites. So he had directed in a codicil of his will, when even in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of his life's close.”

Roman Stoicism

George Long wrote: “It has been said that the Stoic philosophy first showed its real value when it passed from Greece to Rome. The doctrines of Zeno and his successors were well suited to the gravity and practical good sense of the Romans; and even in the Republican period we have an example of a man, M. Cato Uticensis, who lived the life of a Stoic and died consistently with the opinions which he professed. He was a man, says Cicero, who embraced the Stoic philosophy from conviction; not for the purpose of vain discussion, as most did, but in order to make his life conformable to the Stoic precepts. In the wretched times from the death of Augustus to the murder of Domitian, there was nothing but the Stoic philosophy which could console and support the followers of the old religion under imperial tyranny and amidst universal corruption. [Source: Marcus Aurelius: “Meditations,” translated by George Long, New York, Collier, c1909, The “Harvard classics v.2"]

“There were even then noble minds that could dare and endure, sustained by a good conscience and an elevated idea of the purposes of man's existence. Such were Paetus Thrasea, Helvidius Priscus, Cornutus, C. Musonius Rufus,1 and the poets Persius and Juvenal, whose energetic language and manly thoughts may be as instructive to us now as they might have been to their contemporaries. Persius died under Nero's bloody reign, but Juvenal had the good fortune to survive the tyrant Domitian and to see the better times of Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian.2 His best precepts are derived from the Stoic school, and they are enforced in his finest verses by the unrivalled vigour of the Latin language.

“The two best expounders of the later Stoical philosophy were a Greek slave and a Roman emperor. Epictetus, a Phrygian Greek, was brought to Rome, we know not how, but he was there the slave and afterwards the freedman of an unworthy master, Epaphroditus by name, himself a freeman and a favourite of Nero. Epictetus may have been a hearer of C. Musonius Rufus, while he was still a slave, but he could hardly have been a teacher before he was made free. He was one of the philosophers whom Domitian's order banished from Rome. He retired to Nicopolis in Epirus, and he may have died there. Like other great teachers he wrote nothing, and we are indebted to his grateful pupil Arrian for what we have of Epictetus' discourses. Arrian wrote eight books of the discourses of Epictetus, of which only four remain and some fragments. We have also from Arrian's hand the small Enchiridion or Manual of the chief precepts of Epictetus. There is a valuable commentary on the Enchiridion by Simplicius, who lived in the time of the emperor Justinian.

“Antoninus in his first book (I. 7), in which he gratefully commemorates his obligations to his teachers, says that he was made acquainted by Junius Rusticus with the discourses of Epictetus, whom he mentions also in other passages (IV. 41; XI. 34, 36). Indeed the doctrines of Epictetus and Antoninus are the same, and Epictetus is the best authority for the explanation of the philosophical language of Antoninus and the exposition of his opinions. But the method of the two philosophers is entirely different. Epictetus addressed himself to his hearers in a continuous discourse and in a familiar and simple manner. Antoninus wrote down his reflections for his own use only, in short unconnected paragraphs, which are often obscure.”

Stoic Philosophy

Zeno of Citium (335-263 B.C.) and the Stoics exalted reason, identified it with virtue, and counseled an ascetic disregard for misfortune. Zeno "preached that wise men should remain indifferent to the vanities of the transient world." The Stoics gave us the word stoic, meaning: enduring pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining.

George Long wrote: “The Stoics made three divisions of philosophy, Physic, Ethic, and Logic (VIII. 13). This division, we are told by Diogenes, was made by Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic sect, and by Chrysippus; but these philosophers placed the three divisions in the following order: Logic, Physic, Ethic. It appears, however, that this division was made before Zeno's time and acknowledged by Plato, as Cicero remarks (Acad. Post. I. 5). Logic is not synonymous with our term Logic in the narrower sense of that word. [Source: Marcus Aurelius: “Meditations,” translated by George Long, New York, Collier, c1909, The “Harvard classics v.2"]

“Cleanthes, a Stoic, subdivided the three divisions, and made six: Dialectic and Rhetoric, comprised in Logic; Ethic and Politic; Physic and Theology. This division was merely for practical use, for all Philosophy is one. Even among the earliest Stoics Logic or Dialectic does not occupy the same place as in Plato: it is considered only as an instrument which is to be used for the other divisions of Philosophy. An exposition of the earlier Stoic doctrines and of their modifications would require a volume. My object is to explain only the opinions of Antoninus, so far as they can be collected from his book.

“According to the subdivision of Cleanthes Physic and Theology go together, or the study of the nature of Things, and the study of the nature of the Deity, so far as man can understand the Deity, and of his government of the universe. This division or subdivision is not formally adopted by Antoninus, for, as already observed, there is no method in his book; but it is virtually contained in it.

“Cleanthes also connects Ethic and Politic, or the study of the principles of morals and the study of the constitution of civil society; and undoubtedly he did well in subdividing Ethic into two parts, Ethic in the narrower sense and Politic, for though the two are intimately connected, they are also very distinct, and many questions can only be properly discussed by carefully observing the distinction. Antoninus does not treat of Politic. His subject is Ethic, and Ethic in its practical application to his own conduct in life as a man and as a governor. His Ethic is founded on his doctrines about man's nature, the Universal Nature, and the relation of every man to everything else. It is therefore intimately and inseparably connected with Physic or the Nature of Things and with Theology or the Nature of the Deity. He advises us to examine well all the impressions on our minds and to form a right judgment of them, to make just conclusions, and to inquire into the meanings of words, and so far to apply Dialectic, but he has no attempt at any exposition of Dialectic, and his philosophy is in substance purely moral and practical. He says (VIII. 13), "Constantly and, if it be possible, on the occasion of every impression on the soul, apply to it the principles of Physic, of Ethic, and of Dialectic": which is only another way of telling us to examine the impression in every possible way. In another passage (III. 11) he says, "To the aids which have been mentioned let this one still be added: make for thyself a definition or description of the object which is presented to thee, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell thyself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved." Such an examination implies a use of Dialectic, which Antoninus accordingly employed as a means towards establishing his Physical, Theological, and Ethical principles.

See Separate Article on Stoic Philosophy

Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161)

Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius (born A.D. 86, reigned 138-161) was Hadrian's adopted son. His long reign was marked by stability and peace. There were only minor wars. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Antoninus Pius, who was from southern Gaul, restored the status of the Senate without compromising his imperial power. With succession assured, he quietly furthered the centralization of government. In addition to his own knowledge of law, he surrounded himself with a coterie of legal experts. One result of their revision of Roman law was the ruling that a man must be considered innocent until proven guilty. Antoninus Pius was the last emperor to reside permanently in Rome; his reign was relatively peaceful and benevolent. Military campaigns, such as the one that led to the construction of the Antonine wall in Scotland in the 140s A.D., were conducted by imperial legates, not by the emperor in person. Temples were erected in honor of Antoninus and his wife Faustina, in Rome and throughout the provinces, and many statues and portraits of the imperial couple were produced. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, \^/]

Antoninus Pius was regarded as virtuous and of noble character. The description given of him by his son, Marcus Aurelius, is a worthy testament of this:“In my father, I saw mildness of manners, firmness of resolution, contempt of vain glory. He knew when to rest as well as to labor. He taught me to forbear from all improper indulgences, to conduct myself as an equal among equals, to lay on my friends no burden of servility. From him I learned to be resigned to every fortune and to bear myself calmly and serenely; to rise superior to vulgar applause, and to despise vulgar criticism; to worship the gods without superstition and to serve mankind without ambition. He was ever prudent and moderate; he looked to his duty only, and not to the opinions that might be formed of him. Such was the character of his life and manners—nothing harsh, nothing excessive, nothing rude, nothing which showed roughness and violence.”

William Stearns Davis wrote: “Antoninus Pius had a singularly untroubled reign, although there is reason to believe that the forces which later ruined the Roman world were allowed by him to work unchecked. No one, however, has questioned the purity of his life and the simplicity and nobility of his character. His personality is described by his adopted son - the famous Marcus Aurelius. It is a high tribute to the ancient civilization and the Stoic philosophy that they could produce two such characters and bestow on them successively the government of the world.” [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

“The “Reign without Events.”—The reign of Antoninus, although a long one of twenty-three years, is known in history as the uneventful reign. Since much that is usually called “eventful” in history is made up of wars, tumults, calamities, and discords, it is to the greatest credit of Antoninus that his reign is called uneventful. We read of no conquests, no insurrections, no proscriptions, no extortions, no cruelty. His reign is an illustration of the maxim, “Happy is the people which has no history.” Although not so great a statesman as Hadrian, he yet maintained the empire in a state of peace and prosperity. He managed the finances with skill and economy. He was kind to his subjects; and interfered to prevent the persecution of the Christians at Athens and Thessalonica. \~\

Marcus Aurelius on the Character of Antoninus Pius

Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations I.16: “The Character of Antoninus Pius."In my father [Antoninus Pius] I observed his meekness; his constancy without wavering in those things which, after due examination, he had determined. How free from all vanity he carried himself in matters of honor and dignity (as they are esteemed); his laboriousness and assiduity, his readiness to hear any man that had aught to say tending to any common good! how generally and impartially he would give every man his due: his skill and knowledge when rigor or extremity, when indulgence or moderation were in season. His moderate condescending to other men's occasions as an ordinary man, neither absolutely requiring his friends that they should wait on him at his ordinary meals, nor that they should of necessity accompany him in his journeys. His sociability, his gracious and delightful conversation never reached satiety, his care of his body was within bounds and measures, not as one who did not wish to live long, or overstudious of neatness and elegancy; yet not as one that did not regard it, so that through his own care of his health he seldom needed any medicine. [Source: Marcus Aurelius (b.121- r.161-d.180), “On the Virtue of Antoninus Pius” (r. 138-161CE), William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

“He was not easily moved and tossed up and down, but loved to be constant, both in the same places and businesses; and after his great fits of headache he would return fresh and vigorous to his wonted affairs. He was very discreet and moderate in exhibiting public sights and shows for the pleasure and pastime of the people; in public buildings, congiaria [i.e. general distribution of money or corn doles], and the like. He did not use the baths at unseasonable hours. He was never curious or anxious about his food, or about the style or color of his clothes, or about any mere matter of external beauty. In all his conversation, he was far from all inhumanity, boldness, incivility, greediness, or impetuosity; never doing anything with such earnestness and intention that a man could say of him, that he flew into a heat about it, but contrariwise, all things distinctly, as at leisure, without trouble, orderly, soundly, and agreeably. A man, in short, might have applied to him what is recorded of Socrates.

“Remember Antoninus Pius' constancy in things that were done by him in accordance with reason, his equability in all things; how he would never give over a matter until he understood the whole state of it fully and plainly; and how patiently and without any resentment he would bear with them that did unjustly condemn him; how he would never be overhasty in anything, nor give ear to slanders or false accusations, but examine and observe with the best diligence the several actions and dispositions of men. He would easily be content with a few things — -mere lodgings, bedding, the ordinary food and attendance. He bore with those who opposed his opinions and even rejoiced if any man could better advise him, and finally he was exceedingly religious without superstition.

Antoninus and the Stoic Philosophy

on the base of Antoninus's Column

George Long wrote: “The emperor Antoninus was a practical moralist. From his youth he followed a laborious discipline, and though his high station placed him above all want or the fear of it, he lived as frugally and temperately as the poorest philosopher. Epictetus wanted little, and it seems that he always had the little that he wanted, and he was content with it, as he had been with his servile station. But Antoninus after his accession to the empire sat on an uneasy seat. He had the administration of an empire which extended from the Euphrates to the Atlantic, from the cold mountains of Scotland to the hot sands of Africa; and we may imagine, though we cannot know it by experience, what must be the trials, the troubles, the anxiety, and the sorrows of him who has the world's business on his hands with the wish to do the best that he can, and the certain knowledge that he can do very little of the good which he wishes. [Source: Marcus Aurelius: “Meditations,” translated by George Long, New York, Collier, c1909, The “Harvard classics v.2"]

“In the midst of war, pestilence, conspiracy, general corruption, and with the weight of so unwieldy an empire upon him, we may easily comprehend that Antoninus often had need of all his fortitude to support him. The best and the bravest men have moments of doubt and of weakness, but if they are the best and the bravest, they rise again from their depression by recurring to first principles, as Antoninus does. The emperor says that life is smoke, a vapour, and St. James in his Epistle is of the same mind; that the world is full of envious, jealous, malignant people, and a man might be well content to get out of it. He has doubts perhaps sometimes even about that to which he holds most firmly. There are only a few passages of this kind, but they are evidence of the struggles which even the noblest of the sons of men had to maintain against the hard realities of his daily life. A poor remark it is which I have seen somewhere, and made in a disparaging way, that the emperor's reflections show that he had need of consolation and comfort in life, and even to prepare him to meet his death. True that he did need comfort and support, and we see how he found it. He constantly recurs to his fundamental principle that the universe is wisely ordered, that every man is a part of it and must conform to that order which he cannot change, that whatever the Deity has done is good, that all mankind are a man's brethren, that he must love and cherish them and try to make them better, even those who would do him harm. This is his conclusion (II. 17): "What then is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing and only one, Philosophy. But this consists in keeping the divinity within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man's doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens and all that is allotted, as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements [himself]? for it is according to nature; and nothing is evil that is according to nature."

“The Physic of Antoninus is the knowledge of the Nature of the Universe, of its government, and of the relation of man's nature to both. He names the universe "the universal substance," and he adds that "reason" governs the universe. He also (VI. 9) uses the terms "universal nature" or "nature of the universe." He (VI. 25) calls the universe "the one and all, which we name Cosmus or Order." If he ever seems to use these general terms as significant of the All, of all that man can in any way conceive to exist, he still on other occasions plainly distinguishes between Matter, Material things, and Cause, Origin, Reason. This is conformable to Zeno's doctrine that there are two original principles of all things, that which acts and that which is acted upon. That which is acted on is the formless matter: that which acts is the reason, God, who is eternal and operates through all matter, and produces all things. So Antoninus (V. 32) speaks of the reason which pervades all substance, and through all time by fixed periods (revolutions) administers the universe. God is eternal, and Matter is eternal. It is God who gives form to matter, but he is not said to have created matter. According to this view, which is as old as Anaxagoras, God and matter exist independently, but God governs matter. This doctrine is simply the expression of the fact of the existence both of matter and of God. The Stoics did not perplex themselves with the insoluble question of the origin and nature of matter. Antoninus also assumes a beginning of things, as we now know them; but his language is sometimes very obscure. I have endeavoured to explain the meaning of one difficult passage. (VII. 75, and the note.)

“Matter consists of elemental parts of which all material objects are made. But nothing is permanent in form. The nature of the universe, according to Antoninus' expression (IV. 36), "loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be. But thou art thinking only of seeds which are cast into the earth or into a womb: but this is a very vulgar notion." All things then are in a constant flux and change: some things are dissolved into the elements, others come in their places; and so the "whole universe continues ever young and perfect." (XII. 23.)

“Antoninus has some obscure expressions about what he calls "seminal principles." He opposes them to the Epicurean atoms (VI. 24), and consequently his "seminal principles" are not material atoms which wander about at hazard, and combine nobody knows how. In one passage (IV. 21) he speaks of living principles, souls after the dissolution of their bodies being received into the "seminal principle of the universe."

Ethical Part of Antoninus' Philosophy

Antoninus Temple

George Long wrote: “The Ethical part of Antoninus' Philosophy follows from his general principles. The end of all his philosophy is to live conformably to Nature, both a man's own nature and the nature of the Universe. Bishop Butler has explained what the Greek philosophers meant when they spoke of living according to Nature, and he says that when it is explained, as he has explained it and as they understood it, it is "a manner of speaking not loose and undeterminate, but clear and distinct, strictly just and true." To live according to Nature is to live according to a man's whole nature, not according to a part of it, and to reverence the divinity within him as the governor of all his actions. "To the rational animal the same act is according to nature and according to reason."9 (VII. 11.) That which is done contrary to reason is also an act contrary to nature, to the whole nature, though it is certainly conformable to some part of man's nature, or it could not be done. Man is made for action, not for idleness or pleasure. As plants and animals do the uses of their nature, so man must do his. (V. 1.)[Source: Marcus Aurelius: “Meditations,” translated by George Long, New York, Collier, c1909, The “Harvard classics v.2"]

“Man must also live conformably to the universal nature, conformably to the nature of all things of which he is one; and as a citizen of a political community he must direct his life and actions with reference to those among whom, and for whom, among other purposes, he lives.10 A man must not retire into solitude and cut himself off from his fellow men. He must be ever active to do his part in the great whole. All men are his kin, not only in blood, but still more by participating in the same intelligence and by being a portion of the same divinity. A man cannot really be injured by his brethren, for no act of theirs can make him bad, and he must not be angry with them nor hate them: "For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away." (II. 1.)

“Further he says: "Take pleasure in one thing and rest in it, in passing from one social act to another social act, thinking of God." (VI. 7.) Again: "Love mankind. Follow God." (VII. 31.) It is the characteristic of the rational soul for a man to love his neighbour. (XI. 1.) Antoninus teaches in various passages the forgiveness of injuries, and we know that he also practised what he taught. Bishop Butler remarks that "this divine precept to forgive injuries and to love our enemies, though to be met with in Gentile moralists, yet is in a peculiar sense a precept of Christianity, as our Saviour has insisted more upon it than on any other single virtue." The practice of this precept is the most difficult of all virtues. Antoninus often enforces it and gives us aid towards following it. When we are injured, we feel anger and resentment, and the feeling is natural, just, and useful for the conservation of society. It is useful that wrong - doers should feel the natural consequences of their actions, among which is the disapprobation of society and the resentment of him who is wronged. But revenge, in the proper sense of that word, must not be practised. "The best way of avenging thyself," says the emperor, "is not to become like the wrong - doer." It is plain by this that he does not mean that we should in any case practise revenge; but he says to those who talk of revenging wrongs, Be not like him who has done the wrong. Socrates in the Crito (C. 10) says the same in other words, and St. Paul (Ep. to the Romans, XII. 17). "When a man has done thee any wrong, immediately consider with what opinion about good or evil he has done wrong. For when thou hast seen this, thou wilt pity him and wilt neither wonder nor be angry." (VII. 26.) Antoninus would not deny that wrong naturally produces the feeling of anger and resentment, for this is implied in the recommendation to reflect on the nature of the man's mind who has done the wrong, and then you will have pity instead of resentment: and so it comes to the same as St. Paul's advice to be angry and sin not; which, as Butler well explains it, is not a recommendation to be angry, which nobody needs, for anger is a natural passion, but it is a warning against allowing anger to lead us into sin. In short the emperor's doctrine about wrongful acts is this: wrong - doers do not know what good and bad are: they offend out of ignorance, and in the sense of the Stoics this is true. Though this kind of ignorance will never be admitted as a legal excuse, and ought not to be admitted as a full excuse in any way by society, there may be grievous injuries, such as it is in a man's power to forgive without harm to society; and if he forgives because he sees that his enemies know not what they do, he is acting in the spirit of the sublime prayer, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

“The emperor's moral philosophy was not a feeble, narrow system, which teaches a man to look directly to his own happiness, though a man's happiness or tranquillity is indirectly promoted by living as he ought to do. A man must live conformably to the universal nature, which means, as the emperor explains it in many passages, that a man's actions must be conformable to his true relations to all other human beings, both as a citizen of a political community and as a member of the whole human family. This implies, and he often expresses it in the most forcible language, that a man's words and actions, so far as they affect others, must be measured by a fixed rule, which is their consistency with the conservation and the interests of the particular society of which he is a member, and of the whole human race. To live conformably to such a rule, a man must use his rational faculties in order to discern clearly the consequences and full effect of all his actions and of the actions of others: he must not live a life of contemplation and reflection only, though he must often retire within himself to calm and purify his soul by thought, but he must mingle in the work of man and be a fellow labourer for the general good.

“A man should have an object or purpose in life, that he may direct all his energies to it; of course a good object. (II. 7.) He who has not one object or purpose of life, cannot be one and the same all through his life. (XI. 21.) Bacon has a remark to the same effect, on the best means of "reducing of the mind unto virtue and good estate; which is, the electing and propounding unto a man's self good and virtuous ends of his life, such as may be in a reasonable sort within his compass to attain." He is a happy man who has been wise enough to do this when he was young and has had the opportunities; but the emperor, seeing well that a man cannot always be so wise in his youth, encourages himself to do it when he can, and not to let life slip away before he has begun. He who can propose to himself good and virtuous ends of life, and be true to them, cannot fail to live conformably to his own interest and the universal interest, for in the nature of things they are one. If a thing is not good for the hive, it is not good for the bee. (VI. 54.)

“One passage may end this matter. "If the gods have determined about me and about the things which must happen to me, they have determined well, for it is not easy even to imagine a deity without forethought; and as to doing me harm, why should they have any desire towards that? For what advantage would result to them from this or to the whole, which is the special object of their providence? But if they have not determined about me individually, they have certainly determined about the whole at least; and the things which happen by way of sequence in this general arrangement I ought to accept with pleasure and to be content with them. But if they determine about nothing - which it is wicked to believe, or if we do believe it, let us neither sacrifice nor pray nor swear by them nor do anything else which we do as if the gods were present and lived with us - but if however the gods determine about none of the things which concern us, I am able to determine about myself, and I can inquire about that which is useful; and that is useful to every man which is conformable to his own constitution and nature. But my nature is rational and social; and my city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome; but so far as I am a man, it is the world. The things then which are useful to these cities are alone useful to me." (VI. 44.)

“The prime principle in man's constitution is social. The next in orders is not to yield to the persuasions of the body, when they are not conformable to the rational principle, which must govern. The third is freedom from error and from deception. "Let then the ruling principle holding fast to these things go straight on, and it has what is its own." (VII. 55.) The emperor selects justice as the virtue which is the basis of all the rest (X. 11), and this had been said long before his time.

“It is true that all people have some notion of what is meant by justice as a disposition of the mind, and some notion about acting in conformity to this disposition; but experience shows that men's notions about justice are as confused as their actions are inconsistent with the true notion of justice. The emperor's notion of justice is clear enough, but not practical enough for all mankind. "Let there be freedom from perturbations with respect to the things which come from the external cause; and let there be justice in the things done by virtue of the internal cause, that is, let there be movement and action terminating in this, in social acts, for this is according to thy nature." (IX. 31.) In another place (IX. 1) he says that "he who acts unjustly acts impiously," which follows of course from all that he says in various places. He insists on the practice of truth as a virtue and as a means to virtue, which no doubt it is: for lying even in indifferent things weakens the understanding; and lying maliciously is as great a moral offence as a man can be guilty of, viewed both as showing an habitual disposition, and viewed with respect to consequences. He couples the notion of justice with action. A man must not pride himself on having some fine notion of justice in his head, but he must exhibit his justice in act, like St. James' notion of faith. But this is enough.

Marcus Aurelius (ruled A.D. 161-180)

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Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius (born A.D. 121, ruled 161-180) was the adopted son of Antonius Pius. He is regarded as a reflective philosopher-emperor and the last of the good emperors. He took the throne at a time when Rome's shortcomings and vulnerability were becoming apparent. The rich were hopelessly decadent, the middle class was disappearing, labor was performed mostly by slaves, and threats were present in the north and the east. His image endures on a famous equestrian statue in Rome.

Marcus Aelius Aurelius Antoninus was born in A.D. 121. He succeeded the emperor Antoninus Pius in 161, (as joint emperor with adoptive brother Lucius Verus). He ruled alone from 169. He spent much of his reign in putting down various rebellions, and was a persecutor of Christians. His fame rest, above all, on his Meditations, a series of reflections, strongly influenced by Epictetus, which represent a Stoic outlook on life. He died in 180 and was succeed by his natural son, thus ending the period of the adoptive emperors.

Marcus Aurelius spent two decades fighting four wars and an outbreak of the plague. Germans invaded Italy in 167 and Parthians challenged Roman forces in the Middle East. After the death Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius adopted brother and co-ruler of Rome, Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time on the Danubian frontier fending off attacks from German and Gothic tribes. While he was fending off invaders, he passed many reforms, suppressed gladiator spectacles, passed laws protecting slaves. Although his philosophy dovetailed with many Christian doctrines he persecuted Christian because they were regarded as a threat to the empire.

The historian William Stearns Davis wrote: “No ruler ever came to power with higher ideals and purposes, but the reign was not a very prosperous one. The philosopher in the purple was afflicted by the widespread pestilences in the Empire, and by the dangerous wars on the frontiers. He struggled against the difficulties manfully, and overcame most of them; but his reign marks the beginning of the long slow decline of the Empire.” [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West]

Marcus Aurelius was first of all a philosopher. He had studied in the school of the Stoics, and was himself the highest embodiment of their principles. He was wise brave, just, and temperate. In whatever he did he acted from a pure sense of duty. But his character as a man was no doubt greater than his ability as a statesman. So far as we know, Marcus Aurelius never shrank from a known duty, private or public; but it is not so clear that his sense of personal duty was always in harmony with the best interests of the empire. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Marcus Aurelius and the Stoic Philosophy

Marcus Aurelius followed the stoic philosophy. He dressed plainly and lived frugally and wrote a book on philosophy called Meditations that is still quoted today. In regard to his position, Marcus Aurelius wrote: "As the Emperor, Rome is my homeland; but as a man, I am a citizen of the world...Asia and Europe are mere dots on the map, the ocean is a drop of water, Mount Athos is a grain of sand in the universe."

Marcus Aurelius believed that the good of society had precedence over individual comforts. He studied in the school of the Stoics, and was himself the highest embodiment of their principles. He was wise brave, just, and temperate. In whatever he did he acted from a pure sense of duty. But his character as a man was no doubt greater than his ability as a statesman. So far as we know, Marcus Aurelius never shrank from a known duty, private or public; but it is not so clear that his sense of personal duty was always in harmony with the best interests of the empire. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Marcus Aurelius expressed in his life and writings the highest ideas of Roman philosophy. The Romans cannot, however, be said to have shown any originality in their philosophical systems. These they derived almost entirely from the Greeks. The two systems which were most popular with them were Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Epicureans believed that happiness was the great end of life. But the high idea of happiness advocated by the Greek philosophers became degraded into the selfish idea of pleasure, which could easily excuse almost any form of indulgence. In Rome we see this idea of life exercising its influence especially upon the wealthy and indolent classes. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed that the end of life was to live according to the highest law of our nature. This doctrine tended to make strong and upright characters. It could not well have a degrading influence; so we find some of the noblest men of Rome adhering to its tenets—such men as Cato, Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. The Stoic philosophy also exercised a great and beneficial influence upon the Roman jurists, who believed that the law of the state should be in harmony with the higher law of justice and equity. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

See Separate Article on the Stoics

Marcus Aurelius’s Persecution of Christians

Although his philosophy dovetailed with many Christian doctrines Marcus Aurelius persecuted Christian because it is said they were regarded as a threat to the empire. This is perhaps the most striking example of the fact that the emperor’s sense of duty was not always in harmony with the highest welfare of people. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

By Marcus Aurelius’s time, Christianity had found its way throughout the eastern and western provinces. It was at first received by the common people in the cities. As it was despised by many, it was the occasion of bitter opposition and often of popular tumults. The secret meetings of the Christians had given rise to scandalous stories about their practices. They were also regarded as responsible in some way for the calamities that inflicted the Roman Empire during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. \~\

Since the time of Nero, the policy of the rulers toward the new sect had varied. But the best of the emperors had hitherto been cautious like Trajan, or tolerant like Hadrian, or openly friendly like Antoninus. But Marcus Aurelius sincerely believed that the Christians were the cause of the popular tumults, and that the new sect was dangerous to the public peace. He therefore issued an order that those who denied their faith should be let alone, but those who confessed should be put to death. The most charitable judgment which can be passed upon this act is that it was the result of a great mistake made by the emperor regarding the character of the Christians and their part in disturbing the peace of society. \~\

Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations

Meditations is a treatise on the Stoic philosophy extolling the importance of virtue. In modern China, after Premier Wen Jiabao claimed he had read Marcus Aurelius's Meditations nearly 100 times the work became a top seller in China, reaching No. 5 on the bestseller list.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: ““The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius provide a fascinating picture of a would-be Stoic sage at work on himself. The book, also called To Himself, is the emperor’s diary. In it, he not only reminds himself of the content of important Stoic teaching but also reproaches himself when he realises that he has failed to incorporate this teaching into his life in some particular instance. Today many people still turn to Stoicism as a form of psychological discipline. Stoicism has never been ‘purely academic’ and modern adaptations of Stoic thought seek to carry on this tradition of self-transformation. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1996, updated 2018]]

See Separate Article on “Meditations”

Neoplatonism and Plotinus


Plotinus (A.D. 204—270) is considered to be the founder of Neoplatonism. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Taking his lead from his reading of Plato, Plotinus developed a complex spiritual cosmology involving three foundational elements: the One, the Intelligence, and the Soul. It is from the productive unity of these three Beings that all existence emanates, according to Plotinus. The principal of emanation is not simply causal, but also contemplative. In his system, Plotinus raises intellectual contemplation to the status of a productive principle; and it is by virtue of contemplation that all existents are said to be united as a single, all-pervasive reality. In this sense, Plotinus is not a strict pantheist, yet his system does not permit the notion of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothingness). [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) ]

“In addition to his cosmology, Plotinus also developed a unique theory of sense-perception and knowledge, based on the idea that the mind plays an active role in shaping or ordering the objects of its perception, rather than passively receiving the data of sense experience (in this sense, Plotinus may be said to have anticipated the phenomenological theories of Husserl). Plotinus' doctrine that the soul is composed of a higher and a lower part — the higher part being unchangeable and divine (and aloof from the lower part, yet providing the lower part with life), while the lower part is the seat of the personality (and hence the passions and vices) — led him to neglect an ethics of the individual human being in favor of a mystical or soteric doctrine of the soul's ascent to union with its higher part. The philosophy of Plotinus is represented in the complete collection of his treatises, collected and edited by his student Porphyry into six books of nine treatises each. For this reason they have come down to us under the title of the Enneads.

Life and Work of Plotinus

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Plotinus was born in 204 A.D. in Egypt, the exact location of which is unknown. In his mid-twenties Plotinus gravitated to Alexandria, where he attended the lectures of various philosophers, not finding satisfaction with any until he discovered the teacher Ammonius Saccas. He remained with Ammonius until 242, at which time he joined up with the Emperor Gordian on an expedition to Persia, for the purpose, it seems, of engaging the famed philosophers of that country in the pursuit of wisdom. The expedition never met its destination, for the Emperor was assassinated in Mesopotamia, and Plotinus returned to Rome to set up a school of philosophy. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) ]

“By this time, Plotinus had reached his fortieth year. He taught in Rome for twenty years before the arrival of Porphyry, who was destined to become his most famous pupil, as well as his biographer and editor. It was at this time that Plotinus, urged by Porphyry, began to collect his treatises into systematic form, and to compose new ones. These treatises were most likely composed from the material gathered from Plotinus' lectures and debates with his students. The students and attendants of Plotinus' lectures must have varied greatly in philosophical outlook and doctrine, for the Enneads are filled with refutations and corrections of the positions of Peripatetics, Stoics, Epicureans, Gnostics, and Astrologers. Although Plotinus appealed to Plato as the ultimate authority on all things philosophical, he was known to have criticized the master himself (cf. Ennead IV.8.1). We should not make the mistake of interpreting Plotinus as nothing more than a commentator on Plato, albeit a brilliant one. He was an original and profound thinker in his own right, who borrowed and re-worked all that he found useful from earlier thinkers, and even from his opponents, in order to construct the grand dialectical system presented (although in not quite systematic form) in his treatises. The great thinker died in solitude at Campania in 270 A.D.

“The Enneads are the complete treatises of Plotinus, edited by his student, Porphyry. Plotinus wrote these treatises in a crabbed and difficult Greek, and his failing eyesight rendered his penmanship oftentimes barely intelligible. We owe a great debt to Porphyry, for persisting in the patient and careful preservation of these writings. Porphyry divided the treatises of his master into six books of nine treatises each, sometimes arbitrarily dividing a longer work into several separate works in order to fulfill his numerical plan. The standard citation of the Enneads follows Porphyry's division into book, treatise, and chapter. Hence 'IV.8.1' refers to book (or Ennead) four, treatise eight, chapter one.

Metaphysics and Cosmology of Plotinus

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Plotinus is not a metaphysical thinker in the strict sense of the term. He is often referred to as a 'mystical' thinker, but even this designation fails to express the philosophical rigor of his thought. Jacques Derrida has remarked that the system of Plotinus represents the "closure of metaphysics" as well as the "transgression" of metaphysical thought itself (1973: p. 128 note). The cause for such a remark is that, in order to maintain the strict unity of his cosmology (which must be understood in the 'spiritual' or noetic sense, in addition to the traditional physical sense of 'cosmos') Plotinus emphasizes the displacement or deferral of presence, refusing to locate either the beginning (arkhe) or the end (telos) of existents at any determinate point in the 'chain of emanations' — the One, the Intelligence, and the Soul — that is the expression of his cosmological theory; for to predicate presence of his highest principle would imply, for Plotinus, that this principle is but another being among beings, even if it is superior to all beings by virtue of its status as their 'begetter'. Plotinus demands that the highest principle or existent be supremely self-sufficient, disinterested, impassive, etc. However, this highest principle must still, somehow, have a part in the generation of the Cosmos. It is this tension between Plotinus' somewhat religious demand that pure unity and self-presence be the highest form of existence in his cosmology, and the philosophical necessity of accounting for the multiplicity among existents, that animates and lends an excessive complexity and determined rigor to his thought. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) ]

“Since Being and Life itself, for Plotinus, is characterized by a dialectical return to origins, a process of overcoming the 'strictures' of multiplicity, a theory of the primacy of contemplation (theoria) over against any traditional theories of physically causal beginnings, like what is found in the Pre-Socratic thinkers, and especially in Aristotle's notion of the 'prime mover,' becomes necessary. Plotinus proceeds by setting himself in opposition to these earlier thinkers, and comes to align himself, more or less, with the thought of Plato. However, Plotinus employs allegory in his interpretation of Plato's Dialogues; and this leads him to a highly personal reading of the creation myth in the Timaeus (27c ff.), which serves to bolster his often excessively introspective philosophizing. Plotinus maintains that the power of the Demiurge ('craftsman' of the cosmos), in Plato's myth, is derived not from any inherent creative capacity, but rather from the power of contemplation, and the creative insight it provides (see Enneads IV.8.1-2; III.8.7-8). According to Plotinus, the Demiurge does not actually create anything; what he does is govern the purely passive nature of matter, which is pure passivity itself, by imposing a sensible form (an image of the intelligible forms contained as thoughts within the mind of the Demiurge) upon it. The form (eidos) which is the arkhe or generative or productive principle of all beings, establishes its presence in the physical or sensible realm not through any act, but by virtue of the expressive contemplation of the Demiurge, who is to be identified with the Intelligence or Mind (Nous) in Plotinus' system. Yet this Intelligence cannot be referred to as the primordial source of all existents (although it does hold the place, in Plotinus' cosmology, of first principle), for it, itself, subsists only insofar as it contemplates a prior — this supreme prior is, according to Plotinus, the One, which is neither being nor essence, but the source, or rather, the possibility of all existence (see Ennead V.2.1). In this capacity, the One is not even a beginning, nor even an end, for it is simply the disinterested orientational 'stanchion' that permits all beings to recognize themselves as somehow other than a supreme 'I'. Indeed, for Plotinus, the Soul is the 'We' (Ennead I.1.7), that is, the separated yet communicable likeness (homoiotai) of existents to the Mind or Intelligence that contemplates the One. This highest level of contemplation — the Intelligence contemplating the One — gives birth to the forms (eide), which serve as the referential, contemplative basis of all further existents. The simultaneous inexhaustibility of the One as a generative power, coupled with its elusive and disinterested transcendence, makes the positing of any determinate source or point of origin of existence, in the context of Plotinus' thought, impossible. So the transgression of metaphysical thought, in Plotinus' system, owes its achievement to his grand concept of the One.

The One

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The 'concept' of the One is not, properly speaking, a concept at all, since it is never explicitly defined by Plotinus, yet it is nevertheless the foundation and grandest expression of his philosophy. Plotinus does make it clear that no words can do justice to the power of the One; even the name, 'the One,' is inadequate, for naming already implies discursive knowledge, and since discursive knowledge divides or separates its objects in order to make them intelligible, the One cannot be known through the process of discursive reasoning (Ennead VI.9.4). Knowledge of the One is achieved through the experience of its 'power' (dunamis) and its nature, which is to provide a 'foundation' (arkhe) and location (topos) for all existents (VI.9.6). [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) ]

“The 'power' of the One is not a power in the sense of physical or even mental action; the power of the One, as Plotinus speaks of it, is to be understood as the only adequate description of the 'manifestation' of a supreme principle that, by its very nature, transcends all predication and discursive understanding. This 'power,' then, is capable of being experienced, or known, only through contemplation (theoria), or the purely intellectual 'vision' of the source of all things. The One transcends all beings, and is not itself a being, precisely because all beings owe their existence and subsistence to their eternal contemplation of the dynamic manifestation(s) of the One. The One can be said to be the 'source' of all existents only insofar as every existent naturally and (therefore) imperfectly contemplates the various aspects of the One, as they are extended throughout the cosmos, in the form of either sensible or intelligible objects or existents. The perfect contemplation of the One, however, must not be understood as a return to a primal source; for the One is not, strictly speaking, a source or a cause, but rather the eternally present possibility — or active making-possible — of all existence, of Being (V.2.1). According to Plotinus, the unmediated vision of the 'generative power' of the One, to which existents are led by the Intelligence (V.9.2), results in an ecstatic dance of inspiration, not in a satiated torpor (VI.9.8); for it is the nature of the One to impart fecundity to existents — that is to say: the One, in its regal, indifferent capacity as undiminishable potentiality of Being, permits both rapt contemplation and ecstatic, creative extension. These twin poles, this 'stanchion,' is the manifested framework of existence which the One produces, effortlessly (V.1.6). The One, itself, is best understood as the center about which the 'stanchion,' the framework of the cosmos, is erected (VI.9.8). This 'stanchion' or framework is the result of the contemplative activity of the Intelligence.

Emanation and Multiplicity


According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The One cannot, strictly speaking, be referred to as a source or a cause, since these terms imply movement or activity, and the One, being totally self-sufficient, has no need of acting in a creative capacity (VI.9.8). Yet Plotinus still maintains that the One somehow 'emanates' or 'radiates' existents. This is accomplished because the One effortlessly "'overflows' and its excess begets an other than itself" (V.2.1, tr. O'Brien 1964) — this 'other' is the Intelligence (Nous), the source of the realm of multiplicity, of Being. However, the question immediately arises as to why the One, being so perfect and self-sufficient, should have any need or even any 'ability' to emanate or generate anything other than itself. In attempting to answer this question, Plotinus finds it necessary to appeal, not to reason, but to the non-discursive, intuitive faculty of the soul; this he does by calling for a sort of prayer, an invocation of the deity, that will permit the soul to lift itself up to the unmediated, direct, and intimate contemplation of that which exceeds it (V.1.6). When the soul is thus prepared for the acceptance of the revelation of the One, a very simple truth manifests itself: that what, from our vantage-point, may appear as an act of emanation on the part of the One, is really the effect, the necessary life-giving supplement, of the disinterested self-sufficiency that both belongs to and is the One. "In turning toward itself The One sees. It is this seeing that constitutes The Intelligence" (V.1.7, tr. O'Brien). Therefore, since the One accomplishes the generation or emanation of multiplicity, or Being, by simply persisting in its state of eternal self-presence and impassivity, it cannot be properly called a 'first principle,' since it is at once beyond number, and that which makes possible all number or order (cf. V.1.5). ii. Presence

“Since the One is self-sufficient, isolated by virtue of its pure self-presence, and completely impassive, it cannot properly be referred to as an 'object' of contemplation — not even for the Intelligence. What the Intelligence contemplates is not, properly speaking, the One Itself, but rather the generative power that emanates, effortlessly, from the One, which is beyond all Being and Essence (epikeina tes ousias) (cf. V.2.1). It has been stated above that the One cannot properly be referred to as a first principle, since it has no need to divide itself or produce a multiplicity in any manner whatsoever, since the One is purely self-contained. This leads Plotinus to posit a secondary existent or emanation of the One, the Intelligence or Mind (Nous) which is the result of the One's direct 'vision' of itself (V.1.7). This allows Plotinus to maintain, within his cosmological schema, a power of pure unity or presence — the One — that is nevertheless never purely present, except as a trace in the form of the power it manifests, which is known through contemplation. Pure power and self-presence, for Plotinus, cannot reside in a being capable of generative action, for it is a main tenet of Plotinus' system that the truly perfect existent cannot create or generate anything, since this would imply a lack on the part of that existent.

“Therefore, in order to account for the generation of the cosmos, Plotinus had to locate his first principle at some indeterminate point outside of the One and yet firmly united with it; this first principle, of course, is the Intelligence, which contains both unity and multiplicity, identity and difference — in other words, a self-presence that is capable of being divided into manifestable and productive forms or 'intelligences' (logoi spermatikoi) without, thereby, losing its unity. The reason that the Intelligence, which is the truly productive 'first principle' (proton arkhon) in Plotinus' system, can generate existents and yet remain fully present to itself and at rest, is because the self-presence and nature of the Intelligence is derived from the One, which gives of itself infinitely, and without diminishing itself in any way. Furthermore, since every being or existent within Plotinus' Cosmos owes its nature as existent to a power that is prior to it, and which it contemplates, every existent owes its being to that which stands over it, in the capacity of life-giving power. Keeping this in mind, it is difficult, if not impossible, to speak of presence in the context of Plotinus' philosophy; rather, we must speak of varying degrees or grades of contemplation, all of which refer back to the pure trace of infinite power that is the One.

The Intelligence, The Ideas and the 'Seminal Reasons'

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The Intelligence (Nous) is the true first principle — the determinate, referential 'foundation' (arkhe) — of all existents; for it is not a self-sufficient entity like the One, but rather possesses the ability or capacity to contemplate both the One, as its prior, as well as its own thoughts, which Plotinus identifies with the Platonic Ideas or Forms (eide). The purpose or act of the Intelligence is twofold: to contemplate the 'power' (dunamis) of the One, which the Intelligence recognizes as its source, and to meditate upon the thoughts that are eternally present to it, and which constitute its very being. The Intelligence is distinct from the One insofar as its act is not strictly its own (or an expression of self-sufficiency as the 'act' of self-reflection is for the One) but rather results in the principle of order and relation that is Being — for the Intelligence and Being are identical (V.9.8). The Intelligence may be understood as the storehouse of potential being(s), but only if every potential being is also recognized as an eternal and unchangeable thought in the Divine Mind (Nous). As Plotinus maintains, the Intelligence is an independent existent, requiring nothing outside of itself for subsistence; invoking Parmenides, Plotinus states that "to think and to be are one and the same" (V.9.5; Parmenides, fragment 3). The being of the Intelligence is its thought, and the thought of the Intelligence is Being. It is no accident that Plotinus also refers to the Intelligence as God (theos) or the Demiurge (I.1.8), for the Intelligence, by virtue of its primal duality — contemplating both the One and its own thought — is capable of acting as a determinate source and point of contemplative reference for all beings. In this sense, the Intelligence may be said to produce creative or constitutive action, which is the provenance of the Soul. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) ]

“Since the purpose or act of the Intelligence is twofold (as described above), that which comprises the being or essence of the Intelligence must be of a similar nature. That which the Intelligence contemplates, and by virtue of which it maintains its existence, is the One in the capacity of overflowing power or impassive source. This power or effortless expression of the One, which is, in the strictest sense, the Intelligence itself, is manifested as a coherency of thoughts or perfect intellectual objects that the Intelligence contemplates eternally and fully, and by virtue of which it persists in Being — these are the Ideas (eide). The Ideas reside in the Intelligence as objects of contemplation. Plotinus states that: "No Idea is different from The Intelligence but is itself an intelligence" (V.9.8, tr. O'Brien). Without in any way impairing the unity of his concept of the Intelligence, Plotinus is able to locate both permanence and eternality, and the necessary fecundity of Being, at the level of Divinity. He accomplishes this by introducing the notion that the self-identity of each Idea, its indistinguishability from Intelligence itself, makes of each Idea at once a pure and complete existent, as well as a potentiality or 'seed' capable of further extending itself into actualization as an entity distinct from the Intelligence (cf. V.9.14). Borrowing the Stoic term logos spermatikos or 'seminal reason,' Plotinus elaborates his theory that every determinate existent is produced or generated through the contemplation by its prior of a higher source, as we have seen that the One, in viewing itself, produces the Intelligence; and so, through the contemplation of the One via the Ideas, the Intelligence produces the logoi spermatikoi ('seminal reasons') that will serve as the productive power or essence of the Soul, which is the active or generative principle within Being (cf. V.9.6-7).

Being, Life, The Soul and Virtue

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Being, for Plotinus, is not some abstract, amorphous pseudo-concept that is somehow pre-supposed by all thinking. In the context of Plotinus' cosmological schema, Being is given a determined and prominent place, even if it is not given, explicitly, a definition; though he does relate it to the One, by saying that the One is not Being, but "being's begetter" (V.2.1). Although Being does not, for Plotinus, pre-suppose thought, it does pre-suppose and make possible all 're-active' or causal generation. Being is necessarily fecund — that is to say, it generates or actualizes all beings, insofar as all beings are contained, as potentialities, in the 'rational seeds' which are the results of the thought or contemplation of the Intelligence. Being differentiates the unified thought of the Intelligence — that is, makes it repeatable and meaningful for those existents which must proceed from the Intelligence as the Intelligence proceeds from the One. Being is the principle of relation and distinguishability amongst the Ideas, or rather, it is that rational principle which makes them logoi spermatikoi. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) ]

“However, Being is not simply the productive capacity of Difference; it is also the source of independence and self-sameness of all existents proceeding from the Intelligence; the productive unity accomplished through the rational or dialectical synthesis of the Dyad — of the Same (tauton) and the Different (heteron) (cf. V.1.4-5). We may best understand Being, in the context of Plotinus' thought, by saying that it differentiates and makes indeterminate the Ideas belonging to the Intelligence, only in order to return these divided or differentiated ideas, now logoi spermatikoi, to Sameness or Unity. It is the process of returning the divided and differentiated ideas to their original place in the chain of emanation that constitutes Life or temporal existence. The existence thus produced by or through Being, and called Life, is a mode of intellectual existence characterized by discursive thought, or that manner of thinking which divides the objects of thought in order to categorize them and make them knowable through the relational process of categorization or 'orderly differentiation'. The existents that owe their life to the process of Being are capable of knowing individual existents only as they relate to one another, and not as they relate to themselves (in the capacity of 'self-sameness'). This is discursive knowledge, and is an imperfect image of the pure knowledge of the Intelligence, which knows all beings in their essence or 'self-sameness' — that is, as they are purely present to the Mind, without the articulative mediation of Difference.

“The power of the One, as explained above, is to provide a foundation (arkhe) and location (topos) for all existents (VI.9.6). The foundation provided by the One is the Intelligence. The location in which the cosmos takes objective shape and determinate, physical form, is the Soul (cf. IV.3.9). Since the Intelligence, through its contemplation of the One and reflection on its own contents, the Ideas (eide), is both one and many, the Soul is both contemplative and active: it contemplates the Intelligence, its prior in the 'chain of existents,' and also extends itself, through acting upon or actualizing its own thoughts (the logoi spermatikoi), into the darkness or indeterminacy of multiplicity or Difference (which is to be identified in this sense with Matter); and by so doing, the Soul comes to generate a separate, material cosmos that is the living image of the spiritual or noetic Cosmos contained as a unified thought within the Intelligence (cp. Plato, Timaeus 37d). The Soul, like the Intelligence, is a unified existent, in spite of its dual capacity as contemplator and actor. The purely contemplative part of the Soul, which remains in constant contact with the Intelligence, is referred to by Plotinus as the 'higher part' of the Soul, while that part which actively descends into the changeable (or sensible) realm in order to govern and directly craft the Cosmos, is the 'lower part,' which assumes a state of division as it enters, out of necessity, material bodies. It is at the level of the Soul that the drama of existence unfolds; the Soul, through coming into contact with its inferior, that is, matter or pure passivity, is temporarily corrupted, and forgets the fact that it is one of the Intelligibles, owing its existence to the Intelligence, as its prior, and ultimately, to the power of the One. It may be said that the Soul is the 'shepherd' or 'cultivator' of the logoi spermatikoi, insofar as the Soul's task is to conduct the differentiated ideas from the state of fecund multiplicity that is Being, through the drama of Life, and at last, to return these ideas to their primal state or divine status as thoughts within the Intelligence. Plotinus, holding to his principle that one cannot act without being affected by that which one acts upon, declares that the Soul, in its lower part, undergoes the drama of existence, suffers, forgets, falls into vice, etc., while the higher part remains unaffected, and persists in governing, without flaw, the Cosmos, while ensuring that all individual, embodied souls return, eventually, to their divine and true state within the Intelligible Realm. Moreover, since every embodied soul forgets, to some extent, its origin in the Divine Realm, the drama of return consists of three distinct steps: the cultivation of Virtue, which reminds the soul of the divine Beauty; the practice of Dialectic, which instructs or informs the soul concerning its priors and the true nature of existence; and finally, Contemplation, which is the proper act and mode of existence of the soul.

“The Soul, in its highest part, remains essentially and eternally a being in the Divine, Intelligible Realm. Yet the lower (or active), governing part of the Soul, while remaining, in its essence, a divine being and identical to the Highest Soul, nevertheless, through its act, falls into forgetfulness of its prior, and comes to attach itself to the phenomena of the realm of change, that is, of Matter. This level at which the Soul becomes fragmented into individual, embodied souls, is Nature (phusis). Since the purpose of the soul is to maintain order in the material realm, and since the essence of the soul is one with the Highest Soul, there will necessarily persist in the material realm a type of order (doxa) that is a pale reflection of the Order (logos) persisting in the Intelligible Realm. It is this secondary or derived order (doxa) that gives rise to what Plotinus calls the "civic virtues" (aretas politikas) (I.2.1). The "civic virtues" may also be called the 'natural virtues' (aretas phusikas) (I.3.6), since they are attainable and recognizable by reflection upon human nature, without any explicit reference to the Divine. These 'lesser' virtues are possible, and attainable, even by the soul that has forgotten its origin within the Divine, for they are merely the result of the imitation of virtuous men — that is, the imitation of the Nature of the Divine Soul, as it is actualized in living existents, yet not realizing that it is such. There is nothing wrong, Plotinus tells us, with imitating noble men, but only if this imitation is understood for what it is: a preparation for the attainment of the true Virtue that is "likeness to God as far as possible" (cf. I.1.2; and Plato, Theaetetus 176b). Plotinus makes it clear that the one who possesses the civic virtues does not necessarily possess the Divine Virtue, but the one who possesses the latter will necessarily possess the former (I.2.7). Those who imitate virtuous men, for example, the heroes of old, like Achilles, and take pride in this virtue, run the risk of mistaking the merely human for the Divine, and therefore committing the sin of hubris. Furthermore, the one who mistakes the human for the Divine virtue remains firmly fixed in the realm of opinion (doxa), and is unable to rise to true knowledge of the Intelligible Realm, which is also knowledge of one's true self. The exercise of the civic virtues makes one just, courageous, well-tempered, etc. — that is, the civic virtues result in sophrosune, or a well-ordered and cultivated mind. It is easy to see, however, that this virtue is simply the ability to remain, to an extent, unaffected by the negative intrusions upon the soul of the affections of material existence. The highest Virtue consists, on the other hand, not in a rearguard defense, as it were, against the attack of violent emotions and disruptive desires, but rather in a positively active and engaged effort to regain one's forgotten divinity (I.2.6). The highest virtue, then, is the preparation for the exercise of Dialectic, which is the tool of divine ordering wielded by the individual soul.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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