Ancient & Medieval Philosophy: Roman Period

History of Western Philosophy: Ancient Philosophy, Roman Period  (based on Greg L. Bahnsen’s lecture series)

The Differences Between Plato and Aristotle
Plato and Aristotle’s goals were to maintain objectivity, rationality and morality in a systematic philosophical perspective, but they did it in different ways. Because they influenced so many future thinkers, it would be good to make a list of contrasting characteristics.


  1. emphasized transcendent form; form was beyond time and space
  2. stresses the the one/unity
  3. example of rationalism
  4. advocated a dualistic understanding of the world– a world of time and space and a world of unchanging forms
  5. favors the unchanging
  6. mathematical model for his thinking
  7. moved in the direction of normative and absolute ethics
  8. utopian state
  9. there is a better world beyond this one– the world of forms


  1. taught immanent dynamic form; form is part of time and space and has a formative power
  2. stresses the many/diversity
  3. example of empiricism
  4.  wanted to remove the dualism and concentrate on nature– the here and now
  5. favors explanation of change
  6. biological model for his thinking
  7. favored a teleological and mediating ethic
  8. a middle class state
  9. in matter of fact approach of the natural world

These two models will be repeatedly put forth throughout the rest of western philosophy. Neither Platonism or Aristotelianism are Christian view points. Both are inadequate to give an account for the natural world, rationality and ethics. Both are secular and inadequate, but nevertheless later Christians will attempt to tie Christian philosophy to either one of the philosophies. Plato and Aristotle were opposed to the philosophies of their day; Christians likewise opposed those views and saw Plato and Aristotle of models to follow. However, both Plato and Aristotle are secular, autonomous and don’t seek God-glorifying answers to the world.

The Opponents of Plato and Aristotle
1) Materialism 2) Hedonism 3) Relativism 4) Cynicism

Plato and Aristotle established alternative philosophies to these; they tried to oppose them. They did not eliminate the other philosophies; they just put two more options out there. Plato died in 347BC; Aristotle died in 322BC. Around 325BC and 300BC, we have the development of three new schools of philosophy, which turn out to be rehashes of prior philosophies. Epicureans (300BC) advocated an atomistic view of reality and a hedonistic lifestyle. Epircureanism shows that materialism and hedonism life on. Around 325BC, Pyrroh presents a skeptical point of view, which shows the relativism of the sophists life on. Around 300BC, Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school, teaches that men should live according to nature, and nature is indentical virtue. The ancient philosophies of life continue to arise and live on.

Five Major Schools of Philosophy in the Roman Period (which reccur)

Between the Advent of Christ and the Classical Period, there are no new views, but modification of previous philosophies.

1. Skepticism (Sophism): The affirmative of relativistic approach to life. They say that no one knows for sure; there are not absolute or universal norms. The skeptic can go another direction and go into an eclectic approach. Some of them say that some things can be known.
2. Epicureanism: It is materialistic hedonism. We should seek to refine higher pleasures and live in moderation as well.
3. Platonism: It is dualism, rationalism and idealism.
4. Aristotelianism: Offers a teleology of nature and empircism.
5. Stoicism (Cynicism): represent harmony with nature

Christian Response:
1. The Bible tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. The five major philosophies are recurring throughout the history of philosophy. There is only a finite number of worldviews people can come up with.
2. The underlying issues in these philosophies seems to be how to view nature and its relationship to morality. How do you look upon nature and then what is the relationship to morality to the view of nature? Skeptics don’t think that there is no nature and hence, there is no absolute morality. The Epicureans view the world as materialistic and hence, their morality is all about seeking pleasure. Plato had a dualistic approach to nature– the natural world is always changing, so it wasn’t as good as the world of the forms. His morality goes beyond nature as an ideal morality. Aristotle said the natural world is moving toward the direction of form. His morality is to seek to actualize his form and move in the direction of his purpose. The Stoics seeked to be in harmony in nature. Their morality is to live in accord with nature.
3. Why do people adopt the worldview that they choose to follow? It depends upon one’s ethics and lifestyle. Ethics is an application of one’s metaphysical foundations. People choose a worldview that is in accord to their personality and the lifestyle that they choose to live. As Christians, unless one is born-again, he is not going to be inclined to believe in Jesus Christ. One must be regenerated and have their lifestyle changed.
4. There is competition in the history of philosophy, especially in an expanding Roman Empire. People realize that they are not the master of their fate. Two are two competing tendencies:

1) Worldly tendency: they emphasize explaining this world and living in it. This view has one of two outcomes, we either have a passive acceptance view wher we attempt to get along and fit in and go with the flow. This view could also lead to a search for political search for man’s problems.
2) Otherworldly tendency: you focus on the world beyond our ordinary experience. This view moves in the direction of mysticism and/or concentration on the inner-life.

The Rise of the Roman Empire
To understand the significance of the claims of Christ, you must understand the Roman Empire and the schools of thought during that day. Christians will have a different message and way of life than their surroundings.
1. Alexander the Great accomplishments and outlook offer an imperial perspective of Rome. Once Rome rises to power and exercises influence, you can speak correctly of people now seeking things in an imperial perspective. His geographical expansion of his rule as a Greek emperor called for a stronger bond than the previous city-states. He promoted ethinic homogeneity; he encouraged soldiers to inter-marry, which in time produced a leveling of ethnic superiority that the Greeks felt. He felt he had to great a brotherhood across the empire. He needed a sense of order which he promoted through being worshipped as a god. He is worshiped as a god in order to promote unity in the empire.
2. In 452 BC, the unwritten oral Roman laws were set down on 12 tablets. Rome had been a small city-state originally and it experienced a gradual expansion to eliminate the rule of the patricians and give power to the plebians. You see desire in Rome to see laws ingrained and established in stone. By the time of 367BC, a plebian is elected as one of the two councils in Rome. You see a direction toward wanting to live under the law and equalize men under the law. Rome went through a century of conflict with Carthage from 264-146BC. Rome eventually won in 146BC and continued with their expansion. In 146BC, Greece had been made effectively a Roman provance.
3. They grow in wealth and receive many slaves. With slaves, we see the middle class driven out, because slaves take their jobs. With this economic stratification, the pro-councils became greedy and selfish. Rome fell into social chaos and unequality. There was a breakdown of morality and social consciousness. Because the Roman populace wanted peace and stability during this time of turmoil, they were willing to allow the Caesars to concetrate political power in one man. The conditions necessary for affluence or stability, security and peace. They were willing to let Julius and Octavius give one man power over everyone. Power is centralized in the empire and the government of bureacracy is established to pave the way for stability and unity. There is unity, but then there is a loss of individual freedom and independence. This loss of freedom complements the security of the force of Rome’s military might. This brings the peace of Rome which is the glory of the Roman Empire. The absolutistic authority of fathers was diminished and power was given to sons. Rome had established a universal law that bounded its citizens and people of other countries to govern all men.

Developments of Stoicism, Epicureanism and Skepticism

1. Stoicism
The school begins with Zeno who is a native of Cyprus. About the year 320BC, he went to Athens to study; having studied the philosophers, around 300BC, he founded his own school. He was impressed with Socrates’ lifestyle and ethics. Zeno agreed with the Cynic teaching that we should have a passive indifference to pain and suffering. Zeno believed that everything we know comes from perception; when we come into this world, our mind is a blank state. When we are born, sensations press themselves onto our minds and leave marks there. He did not agree with Aristotle that what is left on our mind are forms. The form does not exist in the realm of time and space or in the transcendental realm of forms. There are no forms; they are nothing but mental constructs. Only matter was real; he let the absurd consequence of this position be affirmed. Matter is fire; this fire was also called “god.” This idea that fire is god comes from Heraclitus. Stoicism is a development of a major aspect of Hericlitus’ view. Zeno follows the Aristotle on his view of what the world is like.

The unique contribution of Stoicism are ethical developments. Purpose defines the highest good of ethics. Every creatures ethical direction comes by pursuing its true nature. Knowledge is valuable to man only when it is useful to us. When knowledge helps us to discover our true nature so we can fit into the universe, then knowledge is good. Zeno looked upon the universe as a deterministic system, but he didn’t believe that it was a blind system. He believed that there was an intelligence or “logos” that permeated the universe, so that there was something akin to divine providence. The universe behaves in accords with a reason which can be understood by the human mind. The universe displays orderliness because of the logos and our minds can know it. Because there is a law permeating this universe, Zeno thought it was appropriate to criticize institutions that don’t live up to their nature. Since political codes and actions can be evaluated in terms of the universal law of reason, it seems to follow according to Zeno that all men are subject to this law. He promoted the universal fellowship of men which can be designated a “cosmopolis”– a world city. The Roman Empire is an external representation of this cosmopolis. The Stoics are also remember for their emphasis of duty. Duty is duty totally apart from the consequences that result. Happiness for a Stoic was peace of mind which comes from accepting the universe as it is and being indifferent towards the course of events. Stoics were indifferent to emotions; all that mattered was intention to obey one’s duties. They’re lifestyle was marked by extreme asceticism– the denial of bodily pleasures and needs. When Romans adopt Stoicism, they make some changes, instead of there being the single duty of accepting your place in life, Roman Stoicism maintains that there is a plurality of duties. There are many obligations and duties to obey that would make you a good citizens.

Cicero: marked by Eclecticism– taking bits of all sorts of philosophy. He was born in 106BC and lived the live of a lawyer and accepted into the council of Rome. He came into power in the last days of the republic. He took a stand for the traditional values of the Roman Republic. He was not favorable of the one man rule of Rome; he was killed on the order of Marc Anthony. Toward the end of his life, he turned towards philosophy to find comfort during the time of political turmoil. He believed that the good life was the life that was lived in accordance to nature. He didn’t life the stringency of Stoicism, when it said everything that falls short of virtue was bad and all things bad were equally bad. He wanted to take the Stoic conception of duty and make it more practical and tie it in with the reality of day to day life. He made a distinction between that which is natural and that which is conventional. There are some things that are in tune with nature and other things that come about by the customs of men. The customs of men were conventions and thus subject to evaluation according to a higher law. Cicero believed that men should live in accord with the higher law against the social conventions of the day. Not because a god would require it of you, but because it was the most reasonable thing to do. Reason was the sanction to obey the higher law. He promoted the idea that all men were citizens of one state and we are all subject as equal citizens, the universal law of reason.

Epictetus: He was born in the middle of the 1st century in Asia Minor in Phrygia. There was thriving Christian community; it appears he had contact with Christians who influenced his thinking. At one point, he was a slave in Rome during the reign of Nero, but somehow gained freedom. He taught in Rome before he was expelled by Domician. Apparently he didn’t write anything; it was his students who wrote down what they had heard from him. The heart of his philosophy of life was that men would live better if they grasped the fact that there as a divine providence that ruled the world. If he would live a happy life, then you should realize that thinks takes place in accordance to divine providence. The gods had made man akin to themselves, because men was this higher divinity in them, they have duty to live up to their divine character within. We should live our lives with passive acceptance of what gods give us. If men would live happy lives, they must live in a community of people and be willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the happiness of the whole. Epictetus summarized his philosophy in two words, bare and forebear. If everyone would live according to these two words, they would live a peaceful and tranquil life. We would bare with the outward circumstances of life and forebear with our fellow men.

Political Usefulness: Marcus Aurelius (121AD-180AD) was a Roman Empire but not by biological right but by favor. He came to the throne in 161BC. What we know of his philosophy comes from his Meditations. He has a Stoic approach to life. Nature is in a constant state of orderly flux, and it exemplifies intelligibility. Man shares in the divinity of the universe and in the reason/logos of the universe. Aurelius tends to emphasize a pantheistic understanding of Stoicism. He says that man has a rationalistic nature because he is part of God. Man also has a civic nature– every man has a duty to submit to the State. Aurelius allowed for suicide only if you completed all of your civic duties.

Cynics: were disciples of Socrates and what impressed them about Socrates was his stoic like character. They followed him in the belief that no harm could come to a truly good man. They drew the conclusion that pain and poverty should be accepted with passive indifference.

2. Epicureanism
-Epicurus (born 341BC) became a beloved teacher and taught in several cities but eventually settled in Athens. He taught that we should live for pleasure, but we must be rational and moderate about our pleasures. He said that there are needs and desires; and within the category of desires, there are desires that are natural and un-natural. Within the category of unatural desires there are vain and improper desires. The best thing for man is repose– freedom from worry. The quiet pleasures are the best pleasures. The thing most disquieting to man is death which is the cessation of consciousness. However, Epicurus taught that there is nothing to fear about death, because in death you don’t feel any pain.

Christian Response:
His distinctions between all different kinds of desires are simply his own views. What people consider desireable vary from person to person.

Leucretius (94BC-55BC): He wanted to get rid of those things that haunt men. He was convinced that fear of death is the worst thing that keeps people from peace of mind. He repeatedly attacks Greek religion specifically and all other religions in general. Leucretius said that immorality comes from all religion, because immorality comes from the Greek religions that he has studied.

3. Skepticism
No one knows anything for sure. There might not be an objective reality out there; even in there is, no one can know anything about it. There is no value in communication and teaching, because there is no absolute truth.

Sextus Empiricus (200AD): He is a historian who records what the skeptics have said. The first of the skeptics he speaks of is Pyrrho (275BC). Pyrrho said that man must always be searching for the truth, but no one has a full grasp on the truth. Whatever we sense in the world will not lead us to their true nature; we only know about the appearances of things.

We are to suspend our judgments because: 1) For every affirmation you make, you will find someone who denies it. 2) If we are to distinguish between truth and error, we need a standard to distinguish things. The problem is that people have different standards and people have different standards for choosing standards! 3) Everything that we perceive, we perceive through the use of sense organs which function differently and differ from person to person and species to species. The only thing we know, we know on the basis of sensation.

Carneades: born is Cyrene and sometime before 156BC, he became the head of Plato’s academy and died in 129BC. It’s interesting how he was head of Plato’s Academy, since Plato stood for rationality. Plato believed that the forms can be known to human reason with certainty. On the other hand, Carneades denied that anything can be known.

Christian Response:
Why do skeptics write books if they don’t believe that there is absolute truth? Because they are against Christianity.
They are absolutely certain that we can’t know anything.


2 thoughts on “Ancient & Medieval Philosophy: Roman Period

  1. Pingback: Presuppositional Apologetics Links: Third Week of November 2015 | The Domain for Truth

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