The Impact of Stoicism on Roman Culture

The Death of Seneca Photo credit: Luca Giordano, Luca Giordano - The Death of Seneca, 1684-1685, Public Domain

The Death of Seneca
Photo credit: Luca Giordano, Luca Giordano - The Death of Seneca, 1684-1685, Public Domain

What would you do if you were captured as a prisoner of war? As your aircraft is severely damaged, you have no choice but to jump. You parachute down, looking down mid-air, only to see your enemies awaiting you on the ground. What would be going through your mind as you descend towards them? The late admiral James B. Stockdale went through it all.

It’s like he was in an action movie - his plane was shot down, his belongings seized and he was captured as a prisoner of war for seven years (pp 1). Brutally beaten, starved and chained to leg irons, navy pilot Stockdale endured horrific tortures in the Vietnam War. But the former navy pilot survived - all with the help of the philosophical ideas of Stoicism. Amidst the pain and suffering, he detached himself from emotions in resistance to the intense psychological and physical tortures unleashed onto him. Sounds like hippie stuff, we know.

The late admiral James B. Stockdale  U.S. Navy File Photo, James Stockdale Formal Portrait, 1976-2005, Public Domain

The late admiral James B. Stockdale 

U.S. Navy File Photo, James Stockdale Formal Portrait, 1976-2005, Public Domain

But in his book, Stockdale recounted the feeling of "leaving the world of technology" as he parachuted on to enemy land,  noting one's lack of control over one's position in life and that emotions were "acts of free will" (pp 508 ; "A Brave New Stoicism" pp 1; pp 508). And that’s not all - even at his lowest point, he tasked himself with the challenge of devising new ways of resisting his captors' demands for information, while assuring himself that "tomorrow was a new day" ("Stoic Warriors", pp 127).

Omg Animated. From Giphy. Accessed on 12 March 2017

Omg Animated. From Giphy. Accessed on 12 March 2017

Like, who has that kind of willpower? We barely have enough motivation to wake up early in the morning for UGC111 class! But anyway, Stockdale remained imprisoned until Operation Homecoming in 1973, when he was finally set free ("Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History", pp 1067).

So what exactly is Stoicism, and how is it important to history? To best answer these questions (and learn about this amazing philosophy), let’s travel back in time to ancient Rome and look at the extent of its impact! After all, Stoicism was popularised by several authoritative figures as a “way of life”, influencing many aspects of Roman culture - from military, politics, and even slavery.

The Lowdown on Stoic Beliefs

Amy Poehler. From Giphy. Accessed on 12 March 2017

Amy Poehler. From Giphy. Accessed on 12 March 2017

But before we dive into things, let’s examine what exactly Stoic beliefs are. I mean, by now you must be thinking “How cool are Stoics! How do I get about subscribing to be a Sage (a person which the stoics refer to as having attained moral and intellectual perfection)?”

Well, Stoics believe that all individuals are responsible for the state of his or her own soul. This responsibility is shown through "Logic" and "Ethics". But their ideas of those things are vastly different from ours! To them, Logic means an objective judgement of the present, while Ethics refer to unselfish action and accepting the present for what it is in spite of all external events. Plus, according to them, happiness can be achieved if one is constantly reflecting on oneself and knowing that one’s passions are chosen, not given.

So basically, they’re just chill about everything. 

Popularisation of Stoicism

So how did this super zen philosophy begin? Well, the seeds of Stoicism were planted in 300 BCE  by Zeno of Citium in Athens, who was inspired by Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope (pp 14). He focused on attaining "peace of mind and serenity", emphasising human equality and viewing the world on a global scale.

However, Stoicism was only popularised by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius - his sovereignty from 161 to 181 being heavily influenced by it (pp 89; pp 497). For example, he tried to free slaves (!!!), believing that the restraining of freedom of any human was undesirable (pp 91). He also practiced empathy towards the shortcomings of himself and his people, in accordance to the Stoic principle that human failings cannot be helped (pp 91). Fingers crossed that we get a boss like this when we go out to the working world.

Please. From Giphy. Accessed on 12 March 2017

Please. From Giphy. Accessed on 12 March 2017

But when he died, so did Stoic teachings. According to philosopher Simplicius in the first half of the 6th century CE, Stoicism was no longer being taught and most of its works were lost (pp 497).

Marcus Aurelius Ad Meskens, Metropolitan Marcus Aurelius Roman 2C AD 2, 2009, CC BY-SA 3.0

Marcus Aurelius

Ad Meskens, Metropolitan Marcus Aurelius Roman 2C AD 2, 2009, CC BY-SA 3.0

However, Stoicism remained highly influential in Roman culture. As the Empire grew, the Romans realised the importance of values that stressed on the performance of one's duty rather than the challenging of the order of things. Acknowledging that Rome was a vast cosmopolitan city where people engaged in different roles, Stoics established an ideal philosophy to achieve a multicultural Roman Empire.

Stoic Influence on Roman Military

One aspect of Roman culture that Stoicism impacted was the military. A Roman senator, named Cato the Younger, brought Stoicism into Roman military as a way to conquer pain and fear. For example, rain or shine, he moved about without wearing any footwear! He also suffered illnesses in silence and survived on little food - and he expected his soldiers to ascribe to the same level of self-control. So this eventually led to the Roman military accepting Stoicism as a form of military-style discipline.

The incorporation of Stoic values into military training spread to other regions outside of Rome too, all of which adopted the same Stoic-style discipline that Cato the Younger portrayed in the establishment of the Roman military.

Stoic Influence on Roman Politics

Another part of Roman culture that Stoicism influenced was governance. Early Stoic beliefs involved the idea that God was the ultimate king of the universe and cities required no law to function (pp 325). However, from the Late Stoa (which started from the 1st through 2nd century CE), Stoics grew to believe that monarchy was the correct form of government, and while humans are capable of acting within reason, it is not always how they act (pp 332). So in order to maintain sound functioning of Rome, it was important to establish certain laws.

This led to Stoics believing that monarchs should ensure this idea. As such, examples of cattles, bees and even Zeus the God of Kings were given to persuade the people that it was only natural that one fit ruler should rule the less fit ones (pp 334).

Angry. ORFrom Giphy. Accessed on 12 March 2017

Angry. ORFrom Giphy. Accessed on 12 March 2017

Stoic Influence on Roman Slavery

Slavery in Roman culture was also impacted by Stoicism. In the Imperial age, Rome brought in thousands of slaves into the country through warfare and business exchanges (pp 482), and Stoic philosopher named Seneca was heavily influential in this department! His Stoic views grew popular, especially in the letters he wrote on slavery in which he made persuasive points on how slaves should be treated. He believed that humankind’s duty was to live in accord with nature (which is the basis of Stoic belief) and treating slaves with disrespect creates a discord between the actual nature of the relationship of a master and slave (pp 101-107).

Marcus Aurelius (our previously mentioned Stoic) also established rules that ensured certain rights of Roman slaves. For example, if slaves were ill-treated by their masters, they had the right to be resold to a different owner (pp 141). Stoics also emphasised on the rightful treatment of slaves, and as Seneca in one of his letters puts it, “treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters” (”On Masters and Slave”, pp 104). Thus, we can see that Stoicism contributed to the rights of slaves within Roman culture.

Happy. From Giphy. Accessed on 12 March 2017.

Happy. From Giphy. Accessed on 12 March 2017.

Okay, so this might seem like a lot to process. To sum it up, Stoicism is important to history because it heavily influenced Roman culture in so many ways! Also, Stoics believe that in spite of what is happening around you - be it being late for class, getting a ‘F’ for UGC111, or having to endure horrific tortures in war, there is ABSOLUTELY no reason to be upset or angry. What is more important than all these external misfortunes is that you are good, brave and happy. And this is exactly how the Stoics lived during the late Hellenistic period.

So, if you want to be a Stoic, maybe it’s time to hone the skill of not letting a single thing affect your happiness (and hopefully if you end up in a situation like Stockdale’s, you won’t just curl up into a ball and cry).



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