Who Was Panaetius? Spreading Stoicism from Greece to Rome

Introduction

Panaetius of Rhodes was a student of famous Stoic scholars Diogenes of Babylon and Antipater of Tarsus, both of whom were leaders of the Stoic school. Beginning in 129 B.C.E., Panaetius took over as the leader of the Stoic tradition. His most notable achievement was using his time as the head of the school to connect Stoic philosophy with Roman culture. He was able to do this thanks to a set of close relationships with political and intellectuals throughout the empire.

While the work of Panaetius was lost to history, writings from the period indicate that he was quick to voice disagreement with fellow Stoics. In fact, he was willing to reject major tenets of the philosophically tradition. For instance, he rejected divination and the belief that the world is periodically destroyed by fire. He also refused to accept that virtue was all that was needed for happiness, as strength and basic resources are necessary. 

Considering this, Panaetius is often credited with transitioning the Stoics into a period known as Middle Stoicism. Following this transition, the Stoics began to view the world as eternal and consider the human soul as consisting of rational and irrational parts. In addition, they began to make their teachings more applicable to everyday people.

These changes can perhaps be accredited to his fondness for the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Primary sources from the time indicate that Panaetius wished to incorporate their teachings into Stoicism, avoiding the intellectually rigidity of his peers. We can see that he passed this trait on to his pupil Posidonius, who expressed a similar desire to blur the lines between the schools of philosophical thought.

Panaetius was born around 185 B.C.E. in the isle of Rhodes. He came from a rich, noble background rife with political and religious connections that would allow him to successfully popularize Stoicism. In fact, it could even be argued that his family consisted of ancient celebrities, existing at the center of social life in their community.

His first teacher was Crates of Malus in the Pergamon. Upon completing his studies, he moved to Athens and studied under the Porch. However, he eventually began to visit Rome regularly, becoming close friends with politicians in the city

Following his education, Panaetius became the head of the Stoic school and developed a following in both Greece and Rome. Most notable was Posidonius of Apamaea, but Hecato, Stratocles, Paramonos, and Caius. His appeal across both regions is arguably one of the reasons Stoicism increased in prominence and had a lasting cultural impact. 

Unlike his fellow Stoics, Panaetius was not a prolific writer. A total of five treatises are attributed to him, but all five have been lost over time. The most important of these treatises is titled On the Appropriate, which Cicero’s De Offciis was modeled after. As a result, historians have been able to reconstruct what the work of Panaetius may have looked like.

Little is known about Panaetius’s death, but it is interesting to note that he was the last verified head of the Stoic school in Athens. His successor, Posidonius, began teaching in Rhodes following his death. The Stoics who followed Posidonius taught in locations throughout the Mediterranean. Some scholars believe that Panaetius’s strong ties with Rome effectively decentralized Stoicism, removing the need for a central Stoic school in Athens. However, it remains unclear if the dissolution of the school was intentional or happenstance. 

Notable Works & Suggested Readings

Sadly, all of Panaetius’s writing has been lost. The only records of his work exist in the writings of future philosophers, many of whom based their own books on his teachings. Through these quotes, historians have been able to piece together just what Panaetius was writing about.

His most notable work was undoubtedly On Duties, which consisted of three separate books. In this work, he planned to investigate morality, utility, and the conflict between the two. However, he left the final task of resolving the conflict between morality and usefulness to his disciple, Posidonius.

Cicero also made an attempt to complete the work of Panaetius. He wrote his own book titled De Officiis and departed from the work of Posidonius in the third chapter. Cicero makes it clear where he deviates from Panaetius, meaning his work is great to read in an effort to understanding Panaetius’s teachings.

In addition, Attic Nights by Aulus Gellius makes use of quotes and teachings from Panaetius. While less comprehensive than the works of Cicero, this reading also sheds light on the Stoic’s philosophical views. Particularly, it offers a glimpse of Panaetius’s rhetorical approach.

Lastly, we know that Panaetius wrote treatises titled On Cheerfulness, On the Magistrates, On Providence, and On Divination. He also wrote a treatise on politics which inspired Cicero’s political writings. Much of the information we have regarding Socrates and the work of Plato is also attributed to Panaetius. 

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