Philosophy Political Philosophy

The Roman Stoics: Cato and Seneca

Cato and Seneca (the Youngers) are two of the most important pre-Christian Roman philosophers.  While Cicero is the most famous of the Stoic philosophers, the issue of them being “stoic” philosophers is a matter of strong contention since they’re not fully “stoic” in the original Greek sense.  Stoicism is another classical rationalist school of thought.  Cato, Seneca, and Cicero are important because the brand of Roman Stoicism, which is better to be understood as Roman rationalism, later get incorporated into Christianity by St. Augustine.  Cato, in particular, was so beloved by Christians that Dante even placed him as the guardian of purgatory in his allegorical poem The Divine Comedy.


Cato is famous as a politician, the man who almost stopped Julius Caesar during the waning years of the Roman Republic.  However, he is read in philosophy for his contributions to “Roman Stoicism” or “Roman rationalism.”  Unlike Greek stoicism, which was more abstract, Roman stoicism had a very particular political goal in mind: the preservation of the Roman Republic.  Roman Stoicism, then, is hard to separate from political philosophy because it had, in its inception, political motives to it – something that Greek stoicism did not.  In fact, Greek stoicism often preached a more “withdraw” from the world mentality than the Roman brand, which saw stoic virtue as necessary if one was to be involved in public life.  Roman stoicism does not endorse the asceticism of Greek Stoicism; this is an important and notable difference between the Roman school and Greek school.

I. Virtue, Happiness, and Politics

The core of Cato’s philosophy is twofold.  First, he identifies God as wanting happiness for humanity.  (We must remember, like Cicero, the Roman philosophers were monotheists, but they accepted a public toleration of the Roman pantheon for political and civic purposes – they often hid their monotheism for self-obvious reasons.)  Second, which follows from the first, Cato concludes, as does the whole tradition of classical philosophy sans sophistry and nihilism, that the end to life is happiness.  However, happiness is associated with virtue more than anything else.

Cato considered virtue to be the control of the passions, or desire, which, by reason, could help direct innate desire to its end – which is happiness.  This demands self-mastery, or the mastery of the passions.  Contrary to the outright suppression of passion and emotion (something that Spinoza comes to conclude is necessary in order to avoid conflict), Cato argues that passion and desire is good, but only if one understands the nature of the passions and what passion seeks (principally, happiness).  To achieve this one must cultivate rationality to understand the passion, then condition himself to control the passions unruly sways, so as to direct the passions to what it seeks.  This coming to knowledge of passion and the ordering of it (self-mastery) constitutes the highest virtue in Cato’s philosophy.

Politically, Cato saw the unruly and passionate mobs as dangerous – and he saw the populism of the populares as a road to dictatorship.  They would give themselves over to desire and, per Cicero’s pronouncement in The Republic/Commonwealth, “destroy an admirable system.”  Thus, it is the task of the educated elite to also help educate the public to control their passions.  Nominally, this entails an ontological and metaphysical equality within humans.  This is the recognition that all humans are rational animals with the capacity of reflective self-thought, which can subsequently lead to the control of their passions, which then leads to the guiding of the passions to their end: happiness.  Cato saw politicians and generals who advanced their self-interest (for material gain and political power) as unvirtuous Romans, the very people who would hasten the demise of the republic.  For Cato, the Roman republic was a model of virtue and self-control, and that its citizens, in accepting the “common good” of the Roman way, showed a primeval virtue even if they hadn’t fully understood why.  This is the republic, real or imagined, that Cato sought to save through virtue stoicism (as did the other Roman stoics and the entire Roman stoic tradition can’t be separated from this political goal to be honest).

Thus, the cultivation of rationality is analogous to the cultivation of virtue because virtue is the embodiment of what follows from knowledge.  Prudence, then, is the highest virtue, and it is the pinnacle of knowledge.  (You should see the influence from Aristotle here.)  Only the knowledgeable person can be virtuous because knowledge is what is able to control the passion.  For instance, in the thick of battle, the passions might make you want to charge into the enemy to save friends, comrades, and achieve glory.  However, an educated soldier, or general, will know whether that’s actually a good thing.  To be ruled over by passion means to have no self-control, which is to say one has no mastery of themselves.  In other words, “you are a slave to passion.”  However, the “enlightened” person (the educated person) knows better, and is not a slave to passion but a “slave to intellect” (which is really freedom despite the language usage).

Cato ultimately saw corruption, decadence, and decline as evidence of the passions control over the intellect.  Good character, knowledge, strength, willingness to defend something [admirable], and moral fortitude all come from knowledge and the cultivated mind that can control the passions.  It falls to such a person, or persons, to help others, or defend the good, beautiful, and admirable.  Cato, in the end, did put his money where his mouth was and opposed Julius Caesar, whom he saw as a corrupt demagogue and tyrant.  He later committed suicide after the defeat at Thapsus.

Cato’s stoicism is straightforward: happiness emerges when the passions finally attain what they seek.  And that which they seek is happiness.  This is an ontological state of being (he opposes “hedonism” as did all Stoics, Platonists, and Aristotelians because hedonism isn’t real happiness since it is rooted in the fleeting nature of materialism, and that hedonism was not virtuous in its nature because hedonism represents the fully giving over to carnal desire).  Happiness, through the self-mastery of passion, comes by way of knowledge.  Achieving this is the highest reflection of virtue.  Hence, Roman Stoicism is a way of public life and living, whereas Greek Stoicism is a purely private way of living (embracing asceticism).

As it relates to Christianity, (Roman) Christianity found Roman Stoicism preferable to Greek Stoicism, there were also problems in Christian readings of whether Greek Stoicism called for the ablation of the passions (eradication) or the ordering/control of passions to their ultimate end.  Since Cato and the Roman School is much clearer on this, Christianity, sans its own ascetic (monastic) movements, always favored the Roman way.  This legacy is still with us in the contrast between Roman Catholicism and Eastern (Greek) Orthodoxy to this very day.  The Greek side of Christianity, naturally, found Greek Stoicism preferable, and therefore Greek Christianity tend to have a far stronger ascetic tradition than developed in Roman Christianity.  This is the primary reason why Cato was held in such high esteem by Roman Christianity.


Seneca was the third famous Roman stoic philosopher behind Cicero and Cato.  He lived both contemporaneously with Cato, but then after Cato (Seneca was younger than Cato).  Seneca lived through the civil wars and transition into empire.  Like Cato, Seneca’s stoicism is inseparable from political philosophy.  Also, Seneca was equally influential for the development of Christian philosophy; Seneca was deeply influential upon St. Augustine.  Seneca, like Virgil, Cicero, and Cato, is among the “righteous pagans” and pre-Christian saints.

Cosmopolitanism: Knowing how to help Others (and Self)

Following Cato, Seneca sees the Greek stoic and cynic assertions that the only way to find happiness is divorce from the world as wrong-headed.  Instead, Seneca argues that the way of philosophy (the pursuit of knowledge, the good life, and happiness) exists simultaneously with the way of politics.  (You should immediately see the influence on Augustine here.)  Therefore, the way of philosophy should ideally be one to help improve the way of politics.  His two most important works are Of the Peace of the Mind and On the Happy Life.  Seneca inherits the Aristotelian division of the three ways of life: (1) the life of philosophy (the pursuit of knowledge), (2) the life of theory (politics), or (3) the life of mere pleasure (hedonism).  Seneca, like Cato, finds the life of pleasure to be worthless since it does not advance knowledge.  Thus, one is tasked with choosing between the life of philosophy or the life of politics.

For Seneca, those who choose the life of politics do not chose the life of philosophy.  However, the person who chooses the life of philosophy can also choose the life of politics, but only if they choose the life of philosophy first.  Philosophy helps the political, but the political does not help the philosophical.  (Again, we should see the intent of Seneca’s view here.)  Seneca sees the world of politics as rooted in the concerns of the self and the local.  The world of philosophy is the universal world because it is the world that calls all persons, regardless of stature and location, to pursuit knowledge and truth.  Politics is about wanting to help others but philosophy is about knowing.  Thus, the philosopher who is also a politician is one who knows how to help others.  The contrast is the politician may want to help others but does not know how to help others.  (“Bad” politicians are those who seek a political life only to advance themselves at the expense, or use, of others – and in this they reflect the political ideal closer to Greek sophistry.)

Since humans are simultaneously social and rational animals, that seek community and knowledge, the philosopher (the way of philosophy) is the highest way of life.  The most rational person chooses the life of philosophy because he wants to help himself through knowledge.  However, human nature dictates that this would be true for all.  Thus, the philosopher has the responsibility (virtuous philosopher) to help others.  Since most people will never proceed beyond the world of politics, those who have chosen the life of philosophy have the responsibility to help the political, because this entails helping those whom you know, love, and live with.

Cosmopolitanism, “citizen of the world,” does not mean “globalism” or “universalism” (e.g. abandonment or transcendence of one’s own community).  In Seneca’s mind, cosmopolitanism’s “citizen of the world” means you know how to help people, and if you know how to help people, because all people are, by definition, people (human nature is universal), that means you will be able to help all persons through knowledge of self, and general knowledge more generally.  Therefore, knowledge not only benefits you, it benefits others.  The realm of philosophy becomes the highest realm of intellectual pursuit and virtue not simply because of coming to truth, but also because of the practical nature of knowledge as it relates to helping one another.  This notion of cosmopolitanism is deeply influential upon Christianity.

Want, Will, and the Self

While Seneca is not a systematic philosopher of the will and of the self as St. Augustine was, Seneca nevertheless devoted much time to these concepts.  He famously wrote about the “inward turn to the self to understand oneself.”  (Again, we should see influences upon Augustine here.)  Seneca contrasts will and wanting (voluntas and velle).  Will is the extension of want, which is purely phenomenological in Seneca’s philosophy.  Want leads to will, will leads to action.  Seneca, therefore, begins to carve out a philosophy of phenomenology that will reach full gale in the works of Augustine.

The inward turn to the self is the most important aspect of rational cultivation.  To know thyself, rather than the external world, is the highest form of knowledge according to Seneca.  This is not to say Seneca endorsed not knowing the external.  Knowing the external is good.  But Seneca follows Aristotle and doesn’t stop at knowledge of external goods.  Knowledge of the material world is the lower form of comparison t knowledge of the self.  Knowing thyself, then, is of greater importance than knowledge of the external.  Seneca establishes the foundations of what we call anthropological philosophy (study of the human, and all things related to the human). Anyone who has read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy should immediately be able to identify the Senecan and Aristotelian influence over him—the gifts of the external world (fortune) can never provide true knowing and happiness.

For Seneca, humans want happiness and will their actions to achieve happiness.  The problem is happiness is not contingent upon willing or willingness.  One cannot will happiness into being or existence.  The care for oneself requires knowledge of oneself, which is the knowledge of the soul, which is the seat of want (or desire).  Thus, Seneca’s anthropology is one of want, where “will,” not in the sense of willing as Seneca employs but the sense that we’re familiar with today – a product of Augustine’s legacy – propels action to resolve want.  However, if pure want controls our actions, we do not know ourselves.  We are, therefore, not only in a state of ignorance, but also an unvirtuous state of being because we are ignorant. Once more, virtue is analogous to knowledge, and the truly virtuous person is the one who knows himself.

Thus, in order to actually satisfy want, we must know ourselves.  This requires a turn to reason, or rational cultivation, which leads us to discover ourselves and the source of our being.  Only after this has been achieved can we satisfy our want.  The end result of knowing ourselves and the source of ourselves does happiness come to flourish in us.  Only the truly rational person, however, manages to achieve this.  Therefore, knowledge is what “liberates” us from pure want.  In other words, knowledge is what allows us to satisfy want, and therefore, no longer be enslaved to want.  Knowledge leads to happiness.  This is why some refer to Roman Stoicism as Roman Rationalism (emphasis on the primacy of reason).


Cato and Seneca are two of the most important and famous of the Roman philosophers (behind Cicero) and deeply influential over the development of Christian philosophy.  Cato sees philosophy as giving politics its high character and quality.  Seneca understands politics as finding its fullest expression and fulfillment in philosophy, since philosophy is the attainment of knowledge which helps the self, philosophy as knowledge allows one to know how to help others (which is what Seneca believes politics to be).  Furthermore, Seneca is a philosopher of proto-will and self.  This gets picked up in Christianity in full force.  Some have even dubbed Seneca the “spiritual father of Christianity” (especially Roman Christianity).

The take-aways from Cato and Seneca can be summarized as this:

  • The way of philosophy, that is the way of knowledge, is the road to the good life.
  • Philosophy helps improve the self, others, and the way of politics.
  • Philosophy does not entail flight from society, or the world, per Plato, Epicureanism, and Greek Stoicism (asceticism).
  • Hedonism is the lowest way of life because it is a life unconcerned with intellectual cultivation and knowledge.
  • Philosophy can help maintain the good community, society, and political body. (E.g. keep political life and political order civil and virtuous instead of decadent and corrupt.)

As it relates specifically, and only, to Seneca:

  • Seneca establishes an early foundation for want, will, and the idea of “the self.”
  • Concern for the self entails a concern for knowledge, therefore, he who knows himself is the philosopher since he has chosen the way of life.
  • Seneca establishes the earliest foundations for introspective anthropological philosophy.

This concludes Cato and Seneca.  While they are important figures to the development of Roman philosophy and Roman Stoicism, they pale in comparison to the more famous and important Cicero, who’s On the Commonwealth (or Republic), Laws, and other dialogues deeply shaped Roman philosophy and also early Christian philosophy.

This post is adapted from a post on Hesiod’s Corner, 20 August, 2017.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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