Marcus Tullius Cicero – A Roman patriot Stoic rooted in a Universalist Greek philosophy
Marcus Tullius Cicero (3 January 106 BC – 7 December 43 BC), the ancient philosopher, lawyer and politician of the Roman Republic, has gone down in history as one of the most prolific writers on the rights and responsibilities of a citizen in the most famous country of antiquity. Serving as a Consul of the Roman Republic, responsible for the driving out of the city of the leader of an attempted coup, Lucius Sergius Catilina, purely through four powerful verbal addresses to the Roman Senate, Cicero was a champion of the traditional Roman Republic, choosing to flee Rome and eventually die at the hands of assassins instead of being complicit in the rise of the First Triumvirate and the eventual dictatorship of Julius Caesar. His unflinching dedication towards the preservation of the Republic and the protection of its tradition was rooted in his firm belief in the philosophy of Stoicism, the belief that the attainment of virtue, or the highest possible good, can only be attained through the accumulation of knowledge and through making peace with the inevitable hardships of life.
Ciceronian Stoicism can definitely be seen as a break from the Stoicism of Diogenes of Babylon, who introduced Stoicism to the Romans, or the later Greek Stoicism of Epictetus, both of which established the doctrines of being Stoic as a philosophical life choice. Cicero took Stoicism and raised it up as a political school of thought as well as a personal one, reasoning that a philosophy of transcending adversity was ideal for use in the Roman Republic, particularly during the stressful and turbulent times of Caesar, the First Triumvirate and the rivalry between Cicero and Marc Antony. Cicero’s combination of Hellenistic Stoic thought with an almost dogmatic Roman patriotism creates a philosophy that bears many similarities to Greek Stoicism, yet differs in many key areas, creating a kind of ‘Latin Stoicism’, which was reinforced by developments from later Roman Stoics such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.
A Latin Stoicism
However, these differences are not enough to define Cicero’s beliefs as a different philosophy; the nature of ancient Greek philosophy was that of a degree of compatibility between schools of thought. As such, a man as Cicero could adopt philosophical ideas from his Roman culture, traditions and background while still being a Stoic. However, it must be noted that Cicero, his Roman contemporary Cato the Younger, and his Roman philosophical successors, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, went some way to developing Latin Stoicism, which stood some distance from its Greek predecessor, tempered as it was with Roman values and martial culture, which in an imperial, militaristic power such as Rome, was quite different to that of the intellectual, comfortable lives of many Athenian Greek philosophers.
Cicero’s political theories were built on a bedrock of Roman patriotism. Indeed, in Book One of De Officiis (The Duties), he wrote:
“one native land embraces all our loves; and who that is true would hesitate to give his life for her, if by his death he could render her a service?”
This patriotism is not conventionally Stoic; usually, a Stoic would recognise that a fellow human being is a potential friend and ally, regardless of their national affiliation, something that Stoics would call ‘universal fellowship’.
Cicero’s break with this is particularly interesting, as it demonstrates his belief that there is more to learn from your immediate neighbours in a national sense, be they family and friends, or local citizens or countrymen from further afield. Cicero articulated that these people were the ones that a man would have his closest relations with, and that he should respect and look after them more than those not of his country. As such, any actions done on behalf of the country will have benefit for the national whole.
Roman Stoicism’s influence on modern European nationalism
This is a kind of nationalist preference that one does not expect to see in ancient Roman political thought; nationalism only entered mainstream European political thought in the 18th century, coming to the fore in the cultivation of empires of the 19th century and the world wars of the 20th century. I suppose that, like always, there is nothing new under the sun, and that European nationalism had some origin in a Ciceronian, Roman nationalism. This would make sense as the works of Cicero and their effect upon western culture reached their zenith during the Enlightenment, and the subsequent rise of nationalistic revolutions against the monarchical and imperial powers of the day.
Still, Cicero reiterates key Stoic philosophy in the very same book, even amidst such a groundbreaking diversion from mainstream Stoic thought, declaring that actions made for personal gain or actions only superficially on the country’s behalf are not virtuous and will not benefit the country’s population. This pulls Cicero very much back to the Stoic camp; the actions to achieve the goal (in this case actions to make the country and citizenry glorious and strong) must be made virtuously, or else the actions themselves will be unjust and not morally sound.
The reasons for Cicero’s break with conventional Stoicism was to keep the principles of the Roman Republic at heart, and to respect its long-lived ancestry; after all, Stoicism was a foreign philosophy from Greece, and Rome was the legislative heart of a xenophobic, assimilatory nation-state. Stoicism was treated with suspicion even at the time of Cicero because of its foreign roots, and even Cicero had cause to denounce ‘orthodox’ (Greek) Stoicism on occasion, even though he was a proponent of the belief itself, such as when he countered Cato the Younger, another Roman Stoic, accusing Stoicism of being indiscriminately egalitarian in its approach.
Cato the Younger
Despite their differences in outworkings of philosophy and political reform, Cicero and Cato the Younger (95 BC – April 46 BC) are both responsible for developing a kind of Latin Stoicism that fused with Roman cultural norms and traditions, and moved their interpretation, and the interpretations of their followers, away from the Hellenistic Stoic model. Cicero was certainly more active in breaking away from Stoic values than Cato the Younger, who stood up in the Senate on the day of celebration for the extermination of a Gallic tribe, and demanded that the general responsible for the extermination be tried for war crimes pointing towards the Hellenistic concept of ‘universal fellowship’.
Yet, like Cicero, Cato the Younger did his utmost to protect Republican principles in the face of Caesar’s plays for autocracy. In his position as a Quaestor, he was well known for his immunity to bribery and corruption and waged a campaign against said corruption in the Roman Republic with a grim determination. Cato the Younger rose to fame after prosecuting previous Quaestors of the Republic for the improper use of treasury funds, a ‘draining of the swamp’ in the age of Antiquity. Furthermore, to force Caesar to choose between dedicating a Triumph in the aftermath of a military campaign and declaring in the Senate a run for the Consulship, Cato the Younger utilised the ancient device of filibustering and spoke long into the night in the Senate without a break, forcing the Senate to reconvene and for Caesar to yield his triumph for his Consular run, which he did albeit win handsomely.
Cato the Younger had a modern counterpart in Western Politics, then perhaps those who fit his mold would be the British Conservative Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg, or the Junior Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, both men not afraid to use the mechanisms of the legislature to combat unnecessary spending and both doggedly dedicated to preserving the traditions of the institutions of their respective states. His dedication to the cause of Roman Republicanism was so much that he committed suicide in 46BC rather than submit to Caesar’s will after he crossed the Rubicon and declared himself emperor. Evidently, both men had the ideals of the Roman Republic ahead of any philosophy, no matter how much they had strived to make Stoicism a native worldview.
Seneca and Marcus Aurelius
Later Roman Stoics, such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, both develop the Latin Stoical tradition throughout their careers. Interestingly, like Cicero, both Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were heavily involved in the political sphere, as an advisor to Emperor Nero and as an Emperor himself respectively. Both of the Roman Stoics merged their egalitarian Stoic beliefs with a ‘Rome First’ agenda, as befitted their stations. Seneca fostered a more humane attitude towards slaves while simultaneously possibly being behind the assassination of Nero’s mother, Agrippina, who was set on maintaining influence over her son. Marcus Aurelius attempted to reduce the workload of slaves and provide charities for orphans, while campaigning ruthlessly against Christians within the Roman Empire. These juxtapositions of policy show that obviously the Stoic philosophy of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were tempered by their Roman patriotism and conventions, which would promote the protection of power and the existing religious pantheon over any concept of universal fellowship. Cicero evidently was one of the first Roman Stoics to really break with Hellenistic thought on the philosophy, and the likes of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius walked with the new branch of Stoicism, creating a Latin strain of Stoicism that was divergent, yet still true to many of the original Greek tenets.
Is Roman Stoicism still… Stoic?
The question could be posed, then, that if the Latin Stoicism begun by Cicero and Cato the Younger, and expanded by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius is increasingly different from the original Greek Stoicism made popular by the likes of Epictetus, is it still Stoic? It could be argued that Stoicism under Cicero, Cato the Younger and other Roman Stoics became a different beast entirely, and that despite owing its philosophical heritage to Stoicism, the philosophy that they now espoused could not really be argued as particularly Stoic, seeing as Roman Stoics put patriotism before the concept of a universal fellowship, or that some Roman Stoics were engaged in underhand tactics (Seneca’s implication in Agrippina’s assassination, for example) or morally questionable actions to achieve their goals to maintain the reins of power. This directly contradicts Stoic philosophy, as immoral actions are not virtuous, and virtue can only be attained by achieving goals in a virtuous fashion.
However, it must be said that in reality, many of the morally questionable actions made under Stoic Roman leaders or advisors were made with virtuous intention; to use the aforementioned example, Agrippina was keen to dominate Roman politics by maintaining influence over her son, Nero, which would give Seneca a moral responsibility to restore the balance to Roman politics by whatever means necessary, if indeed he was even involved in the assassination, which plausibly he was not. Therefore, the questionable actions made by Roman Stoic politicians could be argued to have actually been virtuous, therefore keeping up with Stoic philosophy. Also, it must be remarked that many Roman Stoics were models of the philosophy they espoused; Cato the Younger lived humbly despite coming from a wealthy family; Cicero himself submitted before Caesar and his triumvirate and retired from public life instead of rebelling openly against him, Marcus Aurelius did what he could to improve the quality of life of his people, even though he was surrounded by enemies. Finally, the nature of philosophy at the birth of the Anno Domini in Greece and the wider Euro-Mediterranean Roman Empire was that philosophical schools complemented each other, instead of being polar opposites of one another. Cicero was able to demonstrate his Stoical beliefs while learning from and adapting ideas from other philosophical schools, as well as his Roman customs.
Latin Stoicism, which was introduced largely by Cicero’s break with Greek Stoicism, ended up becoming part of the dominant political discourse of the era, and also was given new life by being re-popularised during the Renaissance, and again during the Enlightenment, alongside its Hellenistic relative and other philosophical schools of thought. Cicero now stands today as one of the most well-known Stoics, cementing his reputation as one despite his break with some of the tenets of the Greek philosophy.
Stoicism was adopted by the Christian church during its early expansion, and many Stoic ideals became Christian doctrines, which spread stoicism across Europe and beyond, albeit in a bastardised and greatly changed form. However, the roots of Stoicism can still be seen; in the Apostle Paul’s second epistle to the Christians in Corinth (chapter 4, verses 8-9), he writes:
“We are troubled on every side, but not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”
If those ideas were not introduced to the Apostle Paul by his interactions with the Stoics in Athens as recorded in the Book of Acts, then its expression was certainly influenced by the works of Stoics. Stoicism of both the Latin and Hellenistic kinds were spread in this manner, but ultimately, because of the centralisation of authority in the early church within Rome before the Great Schism of 1054, it was more so that Ciceronian and other Latin stoic ideas were read and accepted into Christian belief. It is for that reason that Cicero is considered one of the great Stoics of antiquity; a man who tempered his love of country with the philosophy of a land to which he did not belong.
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