What Was the Impact of the Stoic Philosophy on Roman Society?

Stoicism as a philosophy emphasized brotherhood, the application of reason and universal law.
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Stoicism as a philosophy didn't promise prosperity in this life or salvation in the next life, but did promise happiness in the present life. This system encouraged Roman citizens to look within, to find happiness and peace within the inner self. The founder of stoicism was a Cypriot named Zeno who arrived in Athens in 313 and taught from a colonnaded hall called the "stoia poikile" or painted porch, lending his philosophy its name. Zeno's doctrines centered on achieving peace of mind and serenity and viewing life in a global way, instead of as a member of a specific city-state.

1 Stoicism's Evolution

Early stoicism focused on the need to eliminate destructive emotions, such as fear, greed and envy. Early stoics were encouraged to practice "apatheia," or a complete lack of feeling, in order to achieve peace of mind. However, a bit later the Greek Stoic philosopher Panaetius rejected apatheia, while still stressing self-control and the importance of brotherhood. He taught equality by emphasizing that every soul has its source in the "divine rational fire," but also suggested that there can be some value in worldly goods and pursuits. While visiting Rome, he befriended Publius Scipio Aemilianus, and the result was that his more balanced version of stoicism gained popularity among Romans.

2 Stoicism in a Vast, Cosmopolitan Empire

Stoics embraced values that the Roman Empire and Roman society found useful. This included performing one's duty and not challenging the order of things. Because the Roman Empire was vast, occupying many societies and territories across what is now Europe, Asia and the Middle East, faithful duty served successful management of such sprawling resources. Stoicism holds that we control our attitudes toward what happens, although we don't determine events. Stoicism's acknowledgment that cosmopolitanism is important and that although we play different roles in life, we're essentially all human, made it a perfect philosophy for the Roman goal of a multicultural empire.

3 Stoicism and Universal Morality

Roman intellectuals were attracted to stoicism's universal approach to morality. Based on nature and reason, it transcended local moral codes. The orator Cicero, who had studied in Greece, argued that pursuit of justice is every individual's highest duty. Cicero was quite critical of any acquisition of power or wealth that was immoral or illegal, and his speeches and writings helped to establish stoicism as the prominent moral philosophy in Rome. The Roman senator Cato also played a role in bringing stoicism into the mainstream. Cato's early training in stoicism led to his use of pain as a teacher.

4 Stoicism and Military Valor

Cato walked around barefoot in the heat and rain, taught himself to endure sickness in silence and practiced existing on a poor man's food rations. His goal was to conquer pain and fear. Cato's stoicism emphasized that everything in the outer world and outside of one's mind is out of his control. He demanded the same of his family and soldiers, and was once joined by other senators in sympathy after being jailed by Julius Caesar. Many Romans accepted stoicism, at least partly for its respect for military-style discipline and its sense of universal law.

Susie Zappia teaches humanities and research and writing courses online for several colleges. Her research interests include counterculture literature of the 1960 and instructional design for online courses and she enjoys writing about literature, art and instructional design. She holds a Master of Arts in humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills and a Master of Science in instructional design from Capella University.