Last Updated on January 1, 2021 by dgvause
I’ve written in the past that Zen was the religion of the samurai and Stoicism was the philosophy of the centurion. As with most generalizations, it is not strictly true. The first assertion is certainly more correct than the second. Japan’s was a much homogeneous society. Part of what made Rome great was that it tended to annex the cultures it conquered. Only in rare exceptions did adopt the more universal practice of destroying other nations. From its founding in the mists of 700-800 BC to its slide into political and military irrelevance some time around 400 AD, the Romans conquered villages, towns, tribes, and nations as they steadily grew. Along with this, they adopted the gods, mores, and cultures of their neighbors. Their standard practice was to carry the captured gods of the lands they conquered back to their own Pantheon and add them to their polytheistic deities. They offered the leadership of conquered lands Roman Citizenship, which became the most coveted title of the Mediterranean and Gothic worlds. Rome was a truly globalist nation.
The religion of the centurion was at various times Greco-Roman polytheism, stoicism, Mithraism, various middle-Eastern mystery cults, and, finally, Christianity. It is probably more correct to say that Stoicism was the prevalent philosophy of the Roman intelligentsia in the First and Second Centuries A.D. What captures my imagination, however was Marcus Aurelius penning The Meditations while on campaign against various tribes in the East. His small book of stoic self advice and admonitions became the most famous book of Stoic philosophy and a classic of Western literature. Writing the Second Century AD, a time of Rome’s zenith, the Marcus was a one of the Empire’s finest Emperors, later known as the Five Good Emperors of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty. Just a little before him, the first of the great Roman thinkers was Epictetus, whom Marcus often quotes. Ironically, he was born a slave, though his intellect eventually won him freedom. Epictetus taught and wrote extensively though none of his work survives history. What we know of his philosophy comes from a pupil Arrian.
The most famous of Arrian’s work is a small compendium of Epictetus’s thoughts called The Enchiridion. It, along with The Meditations, form the basis for what we know as Roman Stoic ethics and behavior. I first read The Enchiridion in my last semester before going on active duty in the U.S. Marines in a class in Classical Philosophy in 1976. The Enchiridion, the Marine experience, and, later, The Meditations would mold my adult view of life. Both books are unstructured aphorisms, which mostly read singly for comprehension. The first is more formal and didactic. It is a teacher offering advice to pupils. On the other hand, I would guess that Marcus never expected his notes to be made public. They are obviously private remarks made to himself to steady mind and soul during a life of brutal campaigning and bare knuckle Roman intrigue. While Marcus was a man of action who was writing a manual of mental behavior for himself, Epictetus’ covered the range of philosophic disciplines. From these, Arrian created a manual on personal world-view and ethics, a guide to behavior.