published 6.17.2016


Among the highlights from the "Gods and Mortals at Olympus" exhibition are statues of four philosophers, each seated on a throne. The sculptures were uncovered in the Villa of Dionysus, a luxurious Roman residence in Dion. Inspired by models from the fourth century BCE, the figures were likely carved in the second century CE, and retouched in the early third century.

Philosophy--"love of wisdom," from the greek philos (loving) and sophos (wise)--formed a pillar of Greek and Roman education. In this Off-Center newsletter, we look back at some of the major figures in Greek and Roman thought--the kinds of philosophers whose works might have been read in the Villa of Dionysus.

Epicurus (341-270 BCE), "Letter to Menoeceus," translated by Robert Drew Hicks

In one of his few surviving texts, Epicurus lays out his hugely influential philosophy: 

"When we say that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul."

Seneca, "On the Shortness of Life," (48-50 CE), translated by Gareth D. Williams.

In this letter, the Roman Stoic addresses himself to Paulinus, supervisor of Rome's grain supply. Among much else, Seneca expresses admiration for "the classics"-- for the writings of Greek philosophers like Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Epicurus, and Plato. It is only when we read them, Seneca writes, that we "really live." 

"None of these philosophers will force you to die, but all will teach you how. None of them will diminish your years, but each will share his own years with you. With none of them will conversation be dangerous, friendship life threatening, or cultivation of them expensive. From them you'll take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you fail to take in the very fullest amount you have room for."


Elizabeth Kolbert, "How Seneca Became Ancient Rome's Philosopher-Fixer" (2015)

In this article for the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert explores the dissonance between Seneca's philosophy and his life. While preaching virtue and humility, he served as tutor and close friend to Nero, Rome's brutal and corrupt emperor. This has led some, like the art critic Robert Hughes, to label him "a hypocrite almost without equal in the ancient world." 

"Seneca’s fortune made possible a life style that was lavish by Roman or, for that matter, Hollywood standards. According to Dio, at one point the Stoic ordered 'five hundred tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them.'"

Plato, The Apology of Socrates (399 BCE), translated by H. N. Fowler
In this famous text, Plato reconstructs the court testimony of his teacher Socrates--the most famous philosopher of them all. Despite Socrates' eloquent defense, the court sentences him to death for "refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state," "introducing other new divinities," and "corrupting the youth." 

"And so, men of Athens, I am now making my defense not for my own sake, as one might imagine, but far more for yours, that you may not by condemning me err in your treatment of the gift the god gave you. For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his age and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I go about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Plato; or, the Philosopher," from Representative Men (1850)

In this lecture, Emerson praises Plato as one history's great geniuses. "Plato is philosophy," Emerson writes, "and philosophy, Plato."

Robert Pasnau, "The Islamic Scholar Who Gave Us Modern Philosophy" (2011)

Among the most influential ancient philosophers was Aristotle (384–322 BCE)--a student of Plato's, and a teacher of Alexander the Great. Like most Greek philosophers, he was forgotten in the West during the Middle Ages. But his works survived by way of the Islamic world, and thanks to philosophers like Averroës.

"By the middle of the thirteenth century, that philosophical curriculum had become thoroughly Aristotelian, and the great guide to Aristotle was none other than Averroës, who became known in the Latin West as simply “the Commentator.” His various paraphrases and commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus were studied wherever Aristotle was studied, and this remained the case all the way into the modern era. Even though, by the end of the Middle Ages, there were countless Christian commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus, it was still the writings of Averroës that were most likely to be found alongside early printed editions of Aristotle’s work."

P Hilosopher

"Heraclitus," by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Thomas Frick

In this poem, Borges meditates on Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), the pre-Socratic philosopher who famously said: "You could not step twice into the same river."

Raphael, "The School of Athens" (1509-11)
Test your knowledge! Can you identify the philosophers in Raphael's famous Vatican fresco?

Jorge Luis


Roberto Rossellini, "Socrates," (1971)

In this film, the Italian neorealist explores the life and death of Socrates. (Subtitles are available through "closed captioning."

Zeno, (490-430 BCE), "Achilles and the Tortoise" Paradox

Among the most influential pre-Socratic philosophers was Zeno of Elea, whose paradoxes Bertrand Russell described as "immeasurably subtle and profound." In this animated video, the comedian David Mitchell describes one of them, "Achilles and the Tortoise."



Catherine Wilson on Epicureanism (2016)

In this "Philosophy Bites" podcast, Catherine Wilson, Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, takes a stab at explaining how Epicurius lived, and what he believed.

In Our Time Podcast, on Heraclitus (2011)

In this BBC podcast, Professors Angie Hobbs, Peter Adamson, and James Warren discuss Heraclitus, the enigmatic and fascinating pre-Socratic philosopher.