CHAPTER XX. STUDY AND SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE AMONG THE ROMANS

In describing the education of a Roman youth, and also in setting forth the various religious attitudes of the time, mention has been made of the pursuit of philosophy. Religion supplied no real guide to moral conduct, and education provided little exercise for the cultivation of the higher intellectual faculties. It was left for philosophy to fill these blanks as best it could. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans, great as they were in law-making and administration, had little natural gift or taste for abstract thought. All the philosophic sects had been founded and continued by Greeks, and it was still to the Greek half of the empire that the contemporary world looked for the best schools and teachers of philosophy. The genuine Roman spirit at all times felt some mistrust of such studies, especially if they tended to carry the student away from practical life into the "shade" and the "corner," or if they tended to subvert the traditional notions of "duty" as inculcated by Roman law, Roman custom, and the religion of the state. Nevertheless, not only did many Romans, even of mature years, resort to the philosophic "Universities" of the time, but wealthy houses often maintained a domestic philosopher, whose business it was to supply moral teaching and intellectual companionship to his employer. Some, indeed, preferred merely a savant, who might "post" them with information concerning Greek writers, explain difficulties, and act in general as a literary vade mecum. In many cases, if not in most, the Roman aristocrat or plutocrat treated such a retainer as a social inferior.

The Roman attitude towards thought and learning too often reminds one of a certain modern type which has been irreverently described as being "death on culture." While the Greek and graecized oriental loved research, discussion, dialectics, ethical and scientific conversation, and literary coteries for their own sake, the Roman more commonly regarded such things as means for sharpening his abilities and for imparting distinction in social intercourse. Doubtless there were, and had been, exceptions. No Greek philosopher could be more in earnest than Lucretius, the Roman poet of the later republic, and doubtless there were no few Romans unknown to fame who both grappled seriously with Greek philosophy and also endeavoured to carry it religiously into practice. Yet for the most part the Roman, even when he is a writer upon such subjects, carries with him the unmistakable air of the amateur or the dilettante. In reading Seneca, as in reading Cicero, we feel that we are dealing with an able man possessed of an excellent gift for popular exposition or essay-writing, but hardly with a man of original philosophic endeavour or of strong practical conviction. And when we read the letters of the younger Pliny, we perceive a genuine admiration for men of thought and a genuine liking for "things of the mind," but we also discern that his dealing with philosophers and philosophy is strictly such as he deems "fit for a gentleman."