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Roman Stoic appropriation of the Middle Platonic “imitation of god”

Collin Miles Hilton

Bryn Mawr College

            While Zeno seems to have defined the ideal aim (telos) of life as living in accordance to nature (apud Cic. Fin. III.22, DL VII.87), Plato formulates it at several points as ὁμοίωσις θεῷ κατὰ τὸ δυνατόν, becoming like to god, to the extent that it is possible for a human (e.g. Rep. X.613a-b, Tht. 176b, Ti. 90c-d). Likeness to god became a defining feature of Platonism in the Roman empire, as many scholars have noted (e.g. Dillon [1977:9-10], Annas [1999:6], Tarrant [2007]). Alcinous’ Didaskalikos identifies it as Plato’s authoritative telos (II.2, XXVIII.1), Plutarch prominently appeals to it when characterizing the Academy (De sera 549e-550e, cf. Ad principem ineruditum 780d-781a), and the anonymous commentary on Plato’s Theaetetus contrasts it with the Stoic idea of oikeiôsis (cols. VI-VIII, cf. LVIII-LIX). A doxography preserved by Stobaeus attributes the exhortation to “follow god” to Pythagoras and presents the Platonic imitation of god as an intellectual elaboration (II.3.6f, cf. Bonazzi [2007]).

            Roman Stoics also drew prominently from Plato, adopting not just Socrates as a philosophical hero but more specifically Platonic ideas. Seneca even lists Plato in a list of “Stoic” authorities such as Zeno (108.38; see also e.g. George-Stones [2013] on Seneca, Long [2002] on Epictetus). Musonius Rufus (XVII.90.6-12 Hense) appeals to certain divine attributes of god to characterize this likeness, such as invulnerability to pleasure, greed, and envy, as well as generousness, beneficence, and philanthropy (μεγαλόφρων δὲ καὶ εὐεργετικὸς καὶ φιλάνθρωπος), while his student Epictetus (II.14.13) appeals to trust (πιστόν), liberality (ἐλεύθερον), beneficence (εὐεργετικόν), and generousness (μεγαλόφρονα). Seneca adapts this idea in Ep. 92 so as to undermine the qualifier “insofar as possible for a human:” the person who argues that one can only obtain the “shadow and likeness” of the gods is mistaken (umbra… et similitudo; §27), because the divine mind is fundamentally the same as the human mind (cf. Laurand 2014:144-192), man can become equal to god if he becomes virtue (hic deos aequat; §30), not just like god. While some studies of Stoic ethics omit this appropriation of a prominent Platonic category (e.g. Arnold [1911:282-283], Stevens [2007:124-132]), others only partially recognize its prevalence in the extant remains of Roman Stoics. Russell (2004), for instance, focuses exclusively on Seneca’s Epistle, while Long (2002) argues that “Epictetus appears to be the only Stoic who includes the exact Platonic expression in his theological repertory” (171). Reydam-Schils (2017) argues that perhaps even earlier Stoics incoporated the idea into their ethical ideal of living in accordance to nature, influencing Platonists such as Plutarch (esp. 154-158). Erler (2009) conversely argues that Stoics generally aspired to be likened to the sage, rather than god (49).

            Seneca especially, I argue, grappled with this Platonic concept  in De providentia, also addressed to Lucillius, more than has been recognized by prior scholars (cf. Natali [1994]). He argues the good person bears an affinity and likeness to god (necessitudo et similitudo), because he is god’s pupil and emulator and true progeny (discipulus eius aemulatorque et uera progines, I.5). In contrast to the transcendant, inhuman divinity of Platonism, he particularly pictures Jupiter as a stern father (sicut seueri patres, I.5), who would love to watch men like Cato valiantly suffer because he delights in the exercise of virtue (II.9-12). Seneca gives the idea of likeness to god a distinctively Stoic twist in this work, as a part of his exhortation to Lucilius to abide what is fated: even the very god (ispe), who once (semel) wrote and issued fate, now always follows and obeys it (sed sequitur, semper paret; V.8). So too must we suffer what is fated well. Seneca’s exposition is more strongly gendered than Musonius’, fittingly for whom Nussbaum (2002) deems an “incomplete feminist,” but it also indicates Seneca’s inclination to develop multiple formulations to integrate the Platonistic concept with the Stoic living according to nature.

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Plato and his Reception

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