Stoic philosophy had little impact on society in ancient Greece or Rome, but it helped inspire the birth of the Renaissance, sparking a profound cultural transformation.
Could the best classical and Renaissance ideas help to reinspire our world today?
It’s essential to remember that the Renaissance was not simply about art. Instead, it was an outgrowth of Renaissance humanism, which sought to transform the world by reviving the knowledge, arts, and moral philosophy of ancient Rome and Greece. This revival made the renaissance a literal “rebirth” of ancient knowledge and wisdom. This movement also profoundly inspired the great Renaissance artists whose works we deeply admire today.
“The Father of Humanism,” Francesco Petrarca, was the key figure behind this cultural movement. Living in the century before the Florentine Renaissance, the Italian scholar Petrarch (1304–74), as he is now called, believed he was living in a time of cultural collapse. Unfortunately, Petrarch also experienced the “Black Death,” a pandemic that killed 60 percent of the population in Florence, including his son and many friends. The plague affected him deeply, as evidenced by his reflections in his letters.
A classical scholar, Petrarch loved reading the Latin works of Cicero, Seneca, and Virgil. But his deep interest in the past led him to recognize the incredible cultural decline that had occurred over the thousand years separating ancient Rome from his own time. In response, Petrarch developed the concept of “the Dark Ages” to explain this decline. But he hoped that the light of ancient learning and culture would be rekindled in the future. As he wrote in his poem, Africa:
My fate is to live amid unsteady and confusing storms.
But perhaps you, I hope and pray, will come after me,
when a better age will follow.
This dreadful sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever!
When that darkness has been dispelled at last,
our descendants will walk again
in the pure radiance of the past.
Petrarch based his belief in the collapse of civilization on several factors. He believed it was initiated by the invasions of the Goths, beginning in the late fourth century AD, which ultimately brought down the Roman Empire.
In Petrarch’s time, Italy was no longer a unified land but a collection of warring city-states, often ruled by corrupt tyrants. Even the countryside was dangerous, with people carrying weapons. So when Petrarch traveled to Rome, he had to do so under armed guard.
Another sign of decline was the corruption of the Latin language, which had remained the language of the church, international diplomacy, and scholarship. But over hundreds of years since the time of Cicero, the quality of Latin had declined precipitously. In Petrarch’s time, it was far from being its former self
Similarly, the legal system had declined. Petrarch was a law-school dropout (like many humanists who would follow). But in his words, the law had become an overly arcane system that “sold justice.”
Finally, and even worse in Petrarch’s eyes—since he was a devout Christian—was the corruption of the Catholic church. The papacy had moved from Rome to southern France, where Petrarch’s father worked, and Petrarch—with a good amount of insider’s knowledge—referred to the papacy in France as “the Western Babylon” and “a nest of fornicators.”
In the end, Petrarch concluded that reviving the deepest values of classical civilization was the only way to create more virtuous leaders and improve society. And over time, this idea proved to be highly successful. Petrarch’s followers, the Italian humanists, created a new form of education based on his own studies. This educational program was called the studia humanitatis (or “the humanities”), consisting of grammar (Latin), rhetoric (persuasive speaking), poetry, history, and most importantly, moral philosophy.
In Petrarch’s time, moral philosophy meant the study of ancient Roman philosophers like Seneca and Cicero. But its goal focused on developing better character and becoming more virtuous as a human being. Even the fields of history and poetry supported this primary aim. Reading history, for instance, was essential for learning about role models from the past who exhibited excellent character. By combining these inspiring ideas with the wealth of Florence’s mercantile class, the humanists created the Italian Renaissance, one of the most profound periods of cultural transformation in the Western world.
Renaissance scholars sought and found lost manuscripts, created public libraries, and engaged in significant translation projects. In addition, they started their own schools and funded architecture and art to create “virtuous environments” that would remind people of human excellence from the past and enhance their own time with beauty. This movement transformed Florence into Europe’s greatest cultural and intellectual center—a “New Rome” or “New Athens”—from which the Renaissance spirit spread across the continent.
The transformation brought about by the Renaissance was nothing short of remarkable. While Petrarch believed he was living in “the Dark Ages,” just two generations after his death, writers in Florence commonly claimed they were living in a new Golden Age. This was an obvious change for the better, with one Renaissance writer stating, “May I say it without offending you, O men of ancient times: the Golden Age is inferior to the time in which we now live.”
As the Renaissance unfolded, the surviving writings of all the ancient Greek philosophers would be translated, including Plato. However, no one in Italy could read Greek during Petrarch’s time, so Plato’s influence only emerged after Petrarch’s death.
In Petrarch’s lifetime, the primary philosophical texts available were those of Cicero, Seneca, and Aristotle. Cicero and Seneca, whose writings were available in the original Latin, were the ones that resonated with Petrarch and the Renaissance humanists. On the other hand, Aristotle’s writings on ethics, which existed in poor and almost unreadable translations from medieval times, failed to capture Petrarch’s interest.
According to Petrarch, Aristotle’s Ethics offered explanations of virtue but consisted of dry, academic definitions. For Petrarch, Aristotle didn’t help people to become excellent or more virtuous, which was the whole point of ethics. By contrast, he found the Latin writings of Seneca and Cicero more eloquent and compelling, capable of inspiring real moral change. Petrarch clearly explained why Aristotle failed to captivate him, while the Latin Stoics served as better models for moral philosophy. As he wrote:
I have read all of Aristotle’s books on ethics, and I have heard lectures on some of them. . . . At times they have made me more learned, but never a better person. . . . I often complained to myself and sometimes to others that the goal announced by the philosopher in Book One of his Ethics is not realized in fact—namely, that we study this branch of philosophy not in order to know, but in order to become good. . . . I don’t deny that he teaches us the nature of virtue. But reading him offers us none of those exhortations, or only a very few, that goad and inflame our minds to love and virtue. Anyone looking for such exhortations will find them in our Latin authors, especially in Cicero and Seneca . . . [E]veryone who has read our Latin authors knows that they touch and pierce our vitals with the sharp, burning barbs of their eloquence.”
Seneca—a famous Roman Stoic philosopher and a compelling writer—was referred to by Petrarch as “an incomparable teacher of moral philosophy.” Although Cicero did not explicitly identify as a Stoic, his philosophical writings are among the most important surviving sources about Stoicism from the ancient world. Notably, Cicero based his personal philosophy of life mainly on Stoic ideas.
Cicero also developed Stoic ideas further and used them to create a political philosophy centered on “civic virtue,” highlighting the essential contributions philosophy could make to a healthy, flourishing society. And while Cicero rejected some Stoic ideas, he did agree with most. Due to these profound Stoic influences, Cicero was “a Stoic-inspired philosopher,” at the very least.
The earliest Greek Stoics believed that all human beings possess a spark of reason, which unites them as members of a common human family—called the cosmopolis or world-city. Similarly, the Stoics were the first philosophers to openly declare human equality, leading them to conclude that everyone, including women and enslaved people, should study philosophy. Although it took centuries to realize human equality in practice fully, Stoic ideas helped lay the foundation for modern concepts of equality and human rights.
The Stoics held extremely prosocial views that influenced thinkers for centuries, as reflected in the writings of Marcus Aurelius and the philosopher Seneca. For example, Marcus Aurelius noted, “What is not good for the hive is not good for the bee,” while Seneca wrote, “Remove fellowship and you will tear apart the unity of the human race upon which our life depends.” But despite their profound ideas, the Stoics never developed a comprehensive political philosophy, and their impact on society in the ancient world was minimal. It was left to Cicero to draw upon these Stoic ideas to develop a humane and inspiring political philosophy.
Cicero’s social thought drew upon ideas of rationality, universal law, civic virtue, public debate, and humanitas—the art of becoming deeply human through “humane studies,” which would benefit society as a whole. Cicero’s “humane studies” examined character-building literature and moral philosophy, which later inspired the studia humanitatis of the Renaissance humanists. In fact, they took the term studia humanitatis directly from Cicero.
Cicero left future generations a rich legacy of ideas—and even a plan—for creating a better, more humane, and just society. But Cicero was brutally assassinated in 43 BC for trying to defend the Roman Republic against single-man rule: the coming era of “Caesar” and the Roman Emperor.
However, Cicero’s ideas did not die with him. At the birth of the Renaissance, Petrarch and his followers took up Cicero’s ideas with enthusiasm and dedication. Not only did they fully develop the “humane studies” that Cicero advocated (which became our “humanities”), but they also put Cicero’s civic virtue to work in Florence as a way to transform their world.
From the early 1400s, “civic humanism” galvanized Florence, a republic founded on democratic principles, much like Cicero’s Rome. As a “philosopher-statesman” and the ultimate model of eloquence, Cicero became the ideal to emulate for civic humanists. Indeed, Cicero had convinced them that learning, eloquence, and philosophy could profoundly impact society, as these studies had real-world applications.
To transform their world, Renaissance humanists wanted to cultivate individuals, both intellectually and morally. They wanted to create a new kind of individual who was well-educated, virtuous, and capable of making a meaningful contribution to society.
For the humanists, personal development and social transformation were linked. Ethical, high-quality individuals were needed as leaders to create a better world, while a vibrant and flourishing society encouraged the growth of more virtuous people. This feedback loop fueled the cultural flourishing of Renaissance Florence, transforming Florence into the most vibrant cultural center in Europe during the 1400s.
Drawing on classical sources, the Renaissance humanists sought to leave the so-called Dark Ages behind and create a new golden age of virtue, learning, and beauty. As scholar Ada Palmer amusingly notes, the “humanist interest in Stoicism was dominated by the promise that its moral philosophy would produce a crop of Christian Ciceros,” who could then transform the world.
During the early Renaissance, civic humanism was heavily inspired by ancient virtue ethics, particularly the works of Cicero and Seneca, with some influence from Aristotle. Later, in the late 1460s, Plato began to take center stage, and Neoplatonism inspired famous artworks like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus—a true classical revival. However, initially, Cicero and Seneca inspired and shaped Renaissance humanism.
Petrarch, for instance, was deeply influenced by the letters of Seneca and Cicero, as demonstrated in his own collection of 563 published letters. In some of these letters, Petrarch even copied and improvised on themes found in Seneca’s Letters. He was so profoundly affected by Seneca and Cicero’s works that he wrote letters addressing them as if they were still alive.
Several Renaissance writers, following in the footsteps of their predecessors, created their own works of Stoic philosophy. Petrarch, for example, wrote a massive book entitled Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul, based mainly on Seneca’s ideas. In his time, this work was among his most circulated pieces.
Another figure profoundly shaped by Stoicism, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72), was one of the most significant thinkers of the entire Renaissance. Alberti wrote a masterful work of Stoic philosophy, On the Tranquility of the Soul (ca. 1440–45). This profound and delightful piece, which draws heavily from Seneca’s ideas, is an inspiring dialogue set under Brunelleschi’s dome in the cathedral of Florence. Besides being a leading expert on architecture and aesthetics, Alberti’s writings establish him as a full-fledged Stoic philosopher.
Alberti’s emphasis on the moral value of work was a new contribution to the Stoic tradition. He believed that virtue triumphs over Fortune or chance only through hard work and persistence. Work also bestows dignity on human beings as they shape their own lives. According to Alberti, virtue is not just about having the right mindset—it emerges through work and action. For Alberti, success depends on human character, not fortune. Fortune can only conquer those who submit to it.
In the late Renaissance in France, Michel de Montaigne (1533–92), the inventor of the essay, was another notable Stoic figure. Montaigne’s Essays, deeply influenced by Seneca’s Letters, expounded on Stoic philosophical ideas. Montaigne’s frequent references to Seneca in his Essays—over 300 citations in all—demonstrate the depth of his inspiration and the significance of Seneca to Renaissance thinkers. Around the same time, Justus Lipsius (1547–1606) in the Netherlands worked to create a form of Stoicism that would be compatible with Christianity.
In the same way that classical ideas helped to create and bring the Renaissance to life, Renaissance ideas could inspire and reinvigorate our world today by elevating human thought and helping us to nurture more noble citizens and leaders.
Many Renaissance humanist ideas reflect enduring wisdom and have already contributed to our modern world and values. These include the values of freedom, representative government, striving for excellence, civic duty, and creating a more just, humane, and beautiful world. If these ideas could be more deeply remembered, emphasized, and taught, they would enhance our world today.
Another significant idea worth revisiting is the initial objective of the humanities: to create a better society by fostering better, more ethical citizens and leaders. Today, however, “the humanities” have turned into something fragmented and disconnected, like a Tower of Babel, with no common thread to guide them. As a result, at least in universities, they are confronted with a significant crisis and decline. Yet, by reminding ourselves that the humanities have the potential to cultivate virtuous individuals and contribute to a better world, perhaps we could, once again, revitalize their purpose and value.
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