Between Skepticism and Eclecticism

J.E. Sandys, A Companion to Latin Studies (§ 1047)

Philosophy, on its first introduction into Rome in the wake of Greek literature, art, and science, encountered fierce opposition, but the personal influence of the younger Scipio and his friends procured the new learning a hearing; and the teachers, notably Panaetius, had the tact to keep abstruse speculation out of sight and present their subject to their Roman pupils on its practical and literary side.

Each of the three Schools most prominent at the time, the Stoic, the Epicurean, and the New Academy, gained some adherents, but the influence of the first was undoubtedly the greatest and the most permanent. It has been well said that the heroes of the early Republic were unconscious Stoics, and no sooner was this system of moral philosophy made intelligible to cultivated Romans than it exercised an irresistible attraction. In a time when religious belief was decaying, the best intellects welcomed in its place a doctrine which had so strong an affinity with the national character: there was a sort of informal alliance between the public policy and the philosophic convictions of such a man as Cato.

But, though philosophy had its triumphs at Rome, it never quite shook off the national prejudice. Having been committed to the Republican cause by Cato, the Stoics were generally in opposition during the early Empire, and more than once the government, as a precautionary measure, banished philosophers from Rome. The educational value of philosophic study was, indeed, recognised, and its wide influence is attested by much of the best literature. But zeal on the part of the pupils never supplied the lack of initiative; they had no ambition to found new schools of thought, originality was confined either to the choice of a system (thus Varro selected the Old Academy out of 288 possible systems), or to the arbitrary fitting together of various parts from different systems, according to the individual’s own caprice.

In confining their attention to popular philosophy and to practical questions, the Roman students conformed to, and by their adhesion strengthened, a tendency already powerful in the later Greek schools, where the controversies of centuries had led to scepticism on one hand and eclecticism on the other.

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