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Ancient Romans and philosophy

     The idea of philosophy as an activity or pursuit can be traced back to Greece. Early philosophers like Thales and Anaxagoras concerned themselves with the world around them, seeking explanations for the physical world. In the fifth century philosophers added ethics, with questions on how we should live our lives in relation to each other, to create a just and fair society. They also became intrigued by questions of how we know things. Do we really know them, or just think we do? What you know as x, do I know it in an identical way? What about opinion? What about impressions? Questions which remain today.

     Like so much of Greek culture, philosophy was pursued by the educated in Rome, in particular two schools of philosophy which had started life in the third century BC: Stoicism and Epicureanism. Stoics respected the goddess Fortuna, and prepared themselves for whatever she might put their way. People with the education and leisure to follow philosophy were usually wealthy. But of course money doesn’t solve all life’s problems: illness, bereavement, a multitude of other traumas await a man who hasn’t prepared himself to cope (while women, despite all they had to cope with, seemed to manage without philosophy or, as with much else, pursued it less publicly). This coping meant careful study, of managing self-control, and squaring up to problems with a stiff upper lip. Through disciplined study a man might attain a virtuous life. Through his study he would have the knowledge to do the right thing.

     Epicureans were less concerned by Fortuna or by any other of the gods, whom they saw as fanciful creations of human minds. They sought to be happy with what they had. To want more was to lack more, says Horace (multa petentibus/ desunt multa, Odes 3.16.42-3). Make the most of now, for who knows what will happen tomorrow. The Epirurean goal was ataraxia (freedom from stress), which ideally meant no marriage, family, career, business or anything else which might upset the peace.

     A conspicuous omission from the Romans’ interest in philosophy was a broad sense of social ethics. They seemed little troubled by the cruel treatment of slaves, by terrible deaths in the amphitheatre or by the butchery of discontented tribes in the wider empire. Philosophy was about what we as individuals, the ones pursuing philosophy, should do to live more fruitful and contented lives. It was more a question of personal lifestyle. Two of the best known exponents of philosophy in the Roman era, Cicero and Seneca, both commented on the distastefulness of the amphitheatre, not out of sympathy for the victims, but concern that attending such events was tedious, tasteless, a poor use of time. This is in line with a tradition of artistic criticism which had been around since Aristotle: the value of drama or art lay in its moral effect on the audience and spectators.


George Sharpley 2015

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