With their philosophical roots grounded in ancient Greece, Stoicism and Epicureanism had contrary yet significant impacts on Roman society. These two philosophies differed in many of their basic theories. Stoics attempted to reach a moral level where they had freedom from passion, while Epicureans strove for pleasure and avoided all types of pain. Stoics like the Epicureans, emphasized ethics as the main field of knowledge, but they also developed theories of logic and natural science to support their ethical doctrines.
Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, saw death as a total extinction with no afterlife to ensue, he regarded the universe as infinite and eternal and as consisting only of space and atoms; where the soul or mind is constructed of indestructible parts that can never be destroyed. He sought to free humanity from the fear of death and of the gods, which he considered the main cause of unhappiness.
Lucretius, a famous Epicurean poet, took a stand against the superstitions and fears that the Romans had toward the state religion. He claimed that religion and the fear of gods was what caused unhappiness. Lucretius wrote a story where the Greek princess Iphigeneia was killed by her father Agamemnon, with the hope that he could win the favor of the gods by sacrificing his own daughter. In this case ‘religion stood with all that power for wickedness . . .too many times /religion mothers crime and wickedness’; (Lucretius 452). The Romans at that time saw themselves as ‘laying foully groveling on earth, weighed down /by grim religion looming from the skies, threatening mortal men’;(Lucretius 451). Epicureanism offered some Roman people something that they could seek in order to escape the fears of the gods and religion in general.
Epicurean’s physics was atomistic; meaning that the entire universe merely consisted of atoms and the space or void in which the atoms floated, collided, and whirled about. Lucretius wrote that ‘not all bodily matter is tightly packed /by nature’s law, for there’s a void in things. By void I mean vacant and empty space, /something you cannot touch’; (Lucretius 456). For if the universe were comprised of only matter, then nothing would ever move, because it is the nature of matter to remain immobile until acted upon by an outside force. Without the open space, or void, nothing could have been made or brought to life. Epicureans held then that there were only two forms in the entire universe, matter, and void; and both had to exist only in their own entirety in complete absence of the other. This led Lucretius to write ‘where space exists, or what we call the void, /matter cannot be found; what substance holds /void cannot occupy . . . therefore atoms are solid and voidless . . . and if there is a void, it has to be surrounded by solid material’; (Lucretius 458). This was one of the essential theories of Epicurean belief.
With this fundamental background of the universe, Lucretius could then convince the Roman people that gods did not create the universe, or even run their lives, but that the matter and void controlled the universe.Lucretius held firm with the belief that fear and superstitions of the gods were the main causes of unhappiness. His characterization of the universe as an accidental collection of atoms moving in the void, and his insistence that the soul is not a distinct, immaterial entity but a chance combination of atoms that does not survive the body, and also his postulation of purely natural causes for earthly phenomena are all calculated to prove that the world is not directed by the divine agency and that fear of the supernatural is consequently without reasonable foundation. He wrote that ‘our starting-point shall be this principle: /nothing at all is ever born from nothing /by the god’s will’; (Lucretius 453). He opposed the public idea that the gods had created the universe, and that they were the reason for the things that happened to the people on earth. Lucretius did not deny the existence of gods, but he conceived of them as having no concern with the affairs or destiny of mortals.
Many Epicureans began to believe much of Epicurus’ principles; that atoms themselves, since they are absent of all void, must be everlasting. ‘Were this not true of matter, long ago /everything would have crumbled into nothing /and things we see today have been restored /from nothing; I have proved /nothing can be created out of nothing. /Also, that nothing can be brought to nothing’; (Lucretius 459). Since nothing can ever be brought to nothing ‘no visible object dies; /nature from one thing brings another forth, and out of death new life is born’; (Lucretius 456). This idea of regeneration means that whenever something dies, it helps to create life in another organism. Although an object is dead, the atoms that the object was composed of are still alive, but not in the form or appearance of the original object. Objects might be ‘resolved to their basic atoms /but never are they utterly destroyed’; (Lucretius 454). With the concept that atoms composed the universe and therefore gods had no say in their daily lives, Epicureans lived their lives without the fear of an afterlife.
Lucretius defied the Roman government and state religion with his principle that fear of death caused people to commit acts that they would not normally commit. He maintained that there was no life after death, and that people should not worry about death. He professed that:
The fear of Acheron (Hades) /must, first and foremost, be dismissed; this fear /troubles the life of man from its lowest depths, /stains everything with death’s black darkness, leaves /no pleasure pure and clear; it drives a man /to violate honor, or to break the bonds /of friendship, and, in general, overthrow /all of the decencies. Men have betrayed /their country or their parents, desperate /to avoid the realms of Acheron. (Lucretius 460-1)
If the fear of dying and the fear of being punished in hell were eliminated, then ‘death /is nothing to us, has to relevance /to our condition, seeing that the mind /is mortal’; (Lucretius 466). Although Epicureans were taught not to worry about or fear death, it is still the nature of humans to stay alive for as long as possible. Lucretius wrote ‘how sweet it is, /to watch, from land, the danger of another, /not that to see some other person suffer /brings great enjoyment, but the sweetness lies /in watching evils you yourself are free from’; (Lucretius 464). Even though they would rather watch someone else in peril rather than themselves, they still realized that ‘if you keep living on /for centuries, if you never die at all, /what’s in it for you but the same old story /always, and always’; (Lucretius 469)? They knew that death was inevitable, but they still wanted to have pleasure for as long as they could. This theory was completely opposite that of the Stoics.
Stoics, like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, based their lives on the fact that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. They believed in a universal brotherhood through reason without revelation, and an ethic duty based on their own self-discipline and without hope of reward or fear of punishment in another world. Stoics were known for their extreme sense of duty and their indifference to all pleasures. The Stoic ethical teaching, originated by the Greek philosopher Zeno, is based upon two principles; first, that the universe is governed by absolute law, which admits of no exceptions, and second, that the essential nature of humans is reason. Both are summed up in the famous Stoic proverb, “Live according to nature.” This means, in the first place, that men should conform themselves to nature in the wider sense, that is, to the laws of the universe, and secondly, that they should conform their actions to nature in the narrower sense, to their own essential nature, reason. These two expressions mean, for the Stoics, the same thing. Stoics held that living according to nature or reason is living in conformity with the divine order of the universe. This Stoic view was fundamental to the theory of natural law that powerfully affected Roman jurisprudence. Marcus Aurelius believed that nature was the center of all things. He wrote, ‘o nature from you are all things, in you are all things, to you all things return’; (Aurelius 512). They lived according to nature, not concerning themselves with many of the worries that other Romans were experiencing.
Stoics were typically very tough and determined people, they stood up to emperors and accepted death rather than take part in anything they regarded as wrong. Aurelius wrote that, ‘no man can hinder you from living according to the reason of your own nature: nothing will happen to you contrary to the reason of the universal nature’; (Aurelius 512). Therefore, if they stood up for what they believed, then the person could either kill them or allow them to do what they believed was right. Either way would comply with the ‘reason of the universal nature.’;
Stoics, like Epicureans aimed for happiness, not in pleasure, but in wisdom. A wisdom by which to control what lies within human power to accept with dignified resignation what had to be. They could not, and did not want to control the events of their lives, but they could control the attitudes that they had toward them. Socrates was a model of Stoic thought when as he was sentenced to death, he said, ‘the difficulty my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death’; (Plato 311). Aurelius held that ‘since it is possible that you may depart from life this very moment, direct every act and thought accordingly’; (Aurelius 520). They lived their lives in a ‘carpe diem’; type lifestyle; where they lived for the present, neither for the past nor for the future, making the best of every day that they lived.
The Stoics had a great sense of duty, which was the result of their desire to always do what was virtuous. They believed that ‘a man should always have two rules in readiness; one, to do only what the reason of the ruling faculty may suggest, the other, to change his opinion, if there is any one at hand who sets him right and moves him from any opinion’; (Aurelius 513). Stoics followed the orders that they were given unless those orders went against their beliefs. They did not always think that their way was the best way, in some situations someone else might know better what to do, and in those situations Stoics often changed their opinion. Aurelius wrote in his ‘Thoughts,’; ‘If you work at that which is before you . . . expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy’; (Aurelius 514). This perfectly describes the Stoic lifestyle; do what you have to do without any expectations or fears of what is to come, and do it with integrity, then life is happiness.
The Stoic and Epicurean philosophies both made major impacts on all of Greek and Roman thought, although they were very different. Epicureans solely endeavored to obtain pleasure. They also believed that the world was filled solely of atoms and the void in which they are surrounded. They thought that life ended after death, with no afterlife or god to fear. Stoics on the contrary were indifferent to all types of pleasure, often putting themselves in danger for their beliefs. Stoics lived according to nature claiming that it was in conformity with the divine order of the universe. Epicurean philosophy defined the time in which it was created, where life was thought only to be full of pleasure without any fear punishment in any life after death, while Stoic philosophy went against the normal desires of humans to seek pleasure.