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Marcus Aurelius in Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952)

East of EdenThe Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is mentioned in East of Eden (1952), the novel by John Steinbeck.  Brian Bannon discusses the literary and philosophical relationship between Marcus’ Stoicism and Steinbeck’s narrative in the article ‘A Tiny Volume Bound in Leather: The Influence of Marcus Aurelius on East Of Eden‘.  Steinbeck once said that The Book of Ecclesiastes and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius were the two books that had most profoundly influenced his own outlook on life.  Some literary critics have found Stoic themes throughout the novel.  We can also find the following direct reference:

[Lee] lifted the breadbox and took out a tiny volume bound in leather, and the gold tooling was almost completely worn away—The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in English translation.

Lee wiped his steel-rimmed spectacles on a dish towel. He opened the book and leafed through. And he smiled to himself, consciously searching for reassurance.

He read slowly, moving his lips over the words. “Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”

Lee glanced down the page. “Thou wilt die soon and thou are not yet simple nor free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.”

Lee looked up from the page, and he answered the book as he would answer one of his ancient relatives. “That is true,” he said. “It’s very hard. I’m sorry. But don’t forget that you also say, ‘Always run the short way and the short way is the natural’—don’t forget that.” He let the pages slip past his fingers to the fly leaf where was written with a broad carpenter’s pencil, “Sam’l Hamilton.”

Suddenly Lee felt good. He wondered whether Sam’l Hamilton had ever missed his book or known who stole it. It had seemed to Lee the only clean pure way was to steal it. And he still felt good about it. His fingers caressed the smooth leather of the binding as he took it back and slipped it under the breadbox. He said to himself, “But of course he knew who took it. Who else would have stolen Marcus Aurelius?”  He went into the sitting room and pulled a chair near to the sleeping Adam.

Marcus Aurelius and Junius Rusticus

Junius Rusticus
Junius Rusticus

The Roman statesman Quintus Junius Rusticus (100 – c. 170 AD) was one of the pre-eminent Stoic philosophers of his day, and the main philosophical teacher of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD).  He was a powerful member of the Roman political elite, and served twice as consul, the highest elected position in the Empire.  In fact Rusticus was first appointed consul in 162 AD, the year after his student Marcus Aurelius became Emperor.

The Historia Romana of Cassius Dio says of Marcus:

His education was of great assistance to him, for he had been trained both in rhetoric and in philosophical disputation. In the former he had Cornelius Fronto and Claudius Herodes for teachers, and, in the latter, Junius Rusticus and Apollonius of Nicomedeia, both of whom professed [the founder of Stoicism] Zeno’s doctrines.  As a result, great numbers pretended to pursue philosophy, hoping that they might be enriched by the emperor.  Most of all, however, he owed his advancement to his own natural gifts; for even before he associated with those teachers he had a strong impulse towards virtue.(Epitome of Book LXXII)

The biography of Marcus in the Historia Augusta says that as a youth his enthusiasm for philosophy was so great that he insisted on attending the lectures of several Stoic philosophers after being adopted by the emperor Antoninus Pius.

He received most instruction from Junius Rusticus, whom he ever revered and whose disciple he became, a man esteemed in both private and public life, and exceedingly well acquainted with the Stoic system, with whom Marcus shared all his counsels both public and private, whom he greeted with a kiss prior to the prefects of the guard, whom he even appointed consul for a second term, and whom after his death he asked the senate to honour with statues. (Historia Augusta)

It was customary for the Emperor to bestow a ceremonial kiss upon the highest-ranking members of the senate.  The author goes on to say that Marcus held his teachers in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.

This reverential attitude is likewise reflected in Marcus’ Meditations, where it’s implied that Rusticus was honoured in his household shrine, along with members of his own family.  In the opening chapter of the Meditations, Marcus recalls, in a contemplative manner, the virtues of his family, teachers, etc., and what he’s learned from their example.  The seventh passage summarizes the main virtues he observed in his main Stoic teacher:

From Rusticus [I learned] to become aware of the fact that my character needed improvement and training; and not to be led aside into an argumentative sophistry; nor compose treatises on speculative subjects, or deliver pretentious sermons, or show-off with ostentatious displays of self-discipline or generosity; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and refined language; and not to lounge about the house in my toga, or to let myself go in this sort of way; and to write letters simply, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to show oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as ever they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial bird’s-eye view; nor to be too quick to go along with smooth-talkers; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me without of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

The advice to refrain from over-indulgence in abstract philosophical debate, or sophistry, and to keep the focus on the practical application of philosophical principles, was characteristic of Stoicism.  So also the notion that a wise mentor can help us first of all by raising our awareness of our own flaws or, as we’d say today, our “blind-spots.”  Overall, Rusticus seems to have urged Marcus to adopt simplicity in his lifestyle and speech, something which, as Hadot notes, seems to have clashed with his training with the rhetorician Fronto.  The first chapter of the Meditations concludes with a long passage in which Marcus thanks the gods for having such good teachers and for the opportunity to know Rusticus and the others.  Marcus also thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17).  These and other comments throughout the Meditations suggest that Marcus struggled with occasional feelings of anger and frustration, perhaps in response to the plain-spoken criticisms of his Stoic tutor.

It’s not certain but seems very likely that in the passage above Marcus is referring to the Discourses of Epictetus (55 -135 AD), as we know them today.  Throughout the Meditations, he appears very acquainted with that text and arguably bases his own philosophical position mainly on his reading of it.  Marcus was about thirteen years old when Epictetus died, so it’s perhaps unlikely that they met in person.  However, Rusticus may well have studied under Epictetus, so it’s also possible that in the passage above Marcus is referring to personal notes made by Rusticus at these lectures.

Marcus was certainly greatly influenced by the teachings of Epictetus and the influence of Rusticus may help to explain the link between the two men.

Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta

Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta and BeyondThe Historia Augusta is a somewhat unreliable Latin history, supposedly compiled from the writings of different authors.  It appears to contain a mixture of authentic historical facts derived from other sources, and fictitious elaboration added by one or more later authors.  However, it is one of the few sources of information about the life of Marcus Aurelius, the author of the famous Stoic journal, originally entitled To Himself but better known today as The Meditations.

It contains a chapter dedicated to the life of Marcus, which appears reasonably plausible and may be one of the more reliable parts of the text.  Indeed, several of the details given about Marcus’ life in this text appear consistent with biographical fragments in The Meditations.  This potentially lends the rest of the biography some credibility as  historians consider it unlikely the author actually had access to a copy of The Meditations.  A detailed scholarly analysis of the text has recently been published by Dr. Geoff W. Adams, of the University of Tasmania, called Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta and Beyond (2013).

So what does the biography of Marcus in the Historia Augusta say that may be of interest to us in terms of his Stoicism?  The opening sentence states that Marcus  “throughout his whole life, was a man devoted to philosophy and was a man who surpassed all emperors in the integrity of his life.”  We’re told Marcus was an earnest child who, as soon as he was old enough to be handed over from the care of his nurses to “notable instructors”, embarked on his study of philosophy.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.  He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]

These were the typical attire and practices of philosophers in the ancient Socratic tradition, particularly the Stoics and Cynics.  The history continues:

Furthermore, his zeal for philosophy was so great that, even after he joined the imperial family, he still used to go to Apollonius’ house for instruction.  He also attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea (Plutarch’s nephew), Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus and Cinna Catulus – all Stoics.  He went to lectures by Claudius Severus too, as he was attracted to the Peripatetic School.  But it was chiefly Junius Rusticus, whom he admired and followed – a man acclaimed in both private and public life and extremely well practiced in the Stoic discipline.

Marcus praises his Stoic teachers’ virtues in the first chapter of The Meditations but here we’re also told that he held them in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.

We’re told of his character: “He was austere, but not hardened, modest but not timid and serious, but not grim.”  He’s praised as a benevolent and wise ruler:

Indeed, toward the people he behaved no differently than one behaves under a free state.  He was in all ways remarkably moderate, in deterring people from evil and encouraging them to good, generous in rewarding, lenient in pardoning and as such he made the bad good and good very good – even suffering with restraint the criticism of not a few.

We’re told he was not quick to punish anyone, and that although resolute he was always reasonable and restrained.  He was renowned for acts of kindness and compassion.  For example, apparently Marcus was the first to order that tight-rope walkers, often young boys, should be protected from injury by placing mattresses beneath their ropes, since which time nets have been used to reduce the risk.  Presumably he felt that the spectacle of children risking their lives was unnecessary and their skills could still be entertaining enough, though the performance was made safe.

The war in Germania is portrayed as necessary to defend Rome against incursions and difficult because the armies were seriously depleted by plague.  Marcus took the controversial, but perhaps prudent decision to order slaves and gladiators to be armed and trained for military service.  We’re told he auctioned off the treasures of the imperial palace selling robes, goblets, statues, and paintings, to raise funds for the war in Germania.  Perhaps his comment about his indifference to his purple imperial robes, described as just wool dyed in putrid shellfish gore, in The Meditations, can be linked to the sacrifice of such precious garments.

But because Marcus appeared severe in his military discipline and in fact in his general lifestyle, as a consequence of his philosophical practices, he was angrily criticized; but to all of those who spoke badly of him, he responded in either orations or in brochures.

In other words, despite his supreme power, he did not have his outspoken critics punished, or even killed, as emperors such as Nero did.  It seems his austere lifestyle led both to prudence in running the state but also to some anxiety among the population.  We’re told that when he recruited the gladiators to serve in the army, “there was gossip among the people that he sought to take away their amusements and so force them to study philosophy.”  Again, though, with regard to his concern with justice, we’re told:

It was normal for [Marcus] to penalize all crimes with lighter sentences than were generally imposed by the laws, but at times, toward those who were obviously guilty of serious offences he remained unbending.  […] He meticulously observed justice, furthermore, even in this contact with captured foes.  He settled countless foreigners on Roman land.

Curiously, we’re told Marcus was “exceptionally adored” by the eastern provinces of the Roman empire, and that he somehow “left the imprint of philosophy” upon them.

For Marcus’ own serenity was so great, that he never changed his expression (either in grief or in joy) being devoted to the Stoic philosophy, which he had learned from the very best teachers and had acquired himself from every source.

This is another typical characteristic attributed to Stoics: the wise man has a fundamental constancy, and is unchanged by external circumstances, whatever his fate.  Whether he meets with outward success or failure, he is always the same, because these things are ultimately “indifferent” to him, only his own virtue (or vice) really matters enough to influence his state of mind.  When Marcus became seriously ill he ended his life by refraining from eating and drinking, which we’re also told Zeno the founder of Stoicism did when he wished to end his life.

Stoicism has a military flavour, both in its language and in the lifestyle and attire adopted by its adherents.  Stoic leaders, perhaps for that reason, were sometimes popular with the Roman troops.  Marcus is portrayed as a man dedicated to the military and adored by them, not unlike the Stoic hero Cato before him.  Hence, “The army, when they heard of his illness, cried noisily, for they loved him alone.”

When near death, he called his friends around, showing, we’re told, a lofty indifference to his own impending demise.  He said: “Why do you cry for me, instead of considering the pestilence and the death that is the common destiny of us all.”  This is a standard Stoic formula, in fact.  Contemplating the universal and inevitable nature of death is supposed to help us accept it with indifference, as determined by Nature.

Introduction to Stoicism: The Three Disciplines

An Introduction to Stoic Practice:
The Three Disciplines of Stoicism

Epictetus-Enchiridion-Poster[Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved. Based on material from the forthcoming book Teach yourself Stoicism (Hodder, 2013).  See also A Simplified Approach to Modern Stoicism for a brief introduction to Stoic daily exercises.]

From its origin Stoicism placed considerable emphasis on the division of philosophical discourse into three topics called “Ethics”, “Physics” and “Logic”.  Philosophy itself was unified but theoretical discussions could be broadly distinguished in this way and the Stoics were particularly known for their threefold curriculum.  Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose work survives in significant amounts, we have four volumes of his Discourses, recorded from his public lectures by his student Arrian, although another four volumes have apparently been lost.  We also have a condensed version of his teachings compiled in the famous Stoic “Handbook” or Enchiridion.  Although Epictetus lived about four centuries after Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and by his time the formal institution of the Stoic school had apparently ceased to exist, he appears to have been particularly faithful to the early teachings of the school’s main founders: Zeno and Chrysippus.

However, Epictetus also describes a threefold division between aspects of lived philosophical practice, which scholars can find no trace of in previous Stoic literature.  (Hence, another famous Roman Stoic, Seneca, won’t come into this discussion because he basically lived before Epictetus and never mentioned these three disciplines.)

  1. “The Discipline of Desire”, which has to do with acceptance of our fate
  2. “The Discipline of Action”, which has to do with philanthropy or love of mankind
  3. “The Discipline of Assent”, which has to do with mindfulness of our judgements

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic best-known to modern readers, was taught by philosophers who possibly studied with Epictetus, although he never met him himself.  One of Marcus’ teachers gave him a copy of notes from Epictetus’ lectures, almost certainly the Discourses recorded by Arrian.  Indeed, Marcus refers to the teachings of Epictetus repeatedly throughout The Meditations and it’s clear that he’s primarily influenced by this particular form of Stoicism.  He also makes extensive use of the Three Disciplines described in the Discourses, which provide one of the main “keys” to interpreting his own writings.

So how are we to interpret these Stoic practical disciplines?  The French scholar Pierre Hadot wrote a very thorough analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations called The Inner Citadel (1998), in which he explores the Three Disciplines in detail, employing them as a framework for his exposition.  If we follow Hadot’s interpretation, it actually provides a fairly clear and simple model for understanding the teachings of Stoicism.  The way of Stoic philosophy was traditionally described as “living according to nature” or “living harmoniously” and Hadot suggests that all three disciplines are intended to help us live in harmony in different regards, and that they combine together to provide the secret to a serene and harmonious way of life, practical philosophy as the art of living wisely.

1. The Discipline of Desire (Stoic Acceptance)

According to Hadot, the discipline of “desire” (orexis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “physics”, which includes the Stoic study of natural philosophy, cosmology, and theology.  The discipline of desire, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with the Nature of the universe as a whole, or in the language of Stoic theology, with Zeus or God.  This entails having a “philosophical attitude” toward a life and acceptance of our Fate as necessary and inevitable.  It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly entailing the cardinal virtues associated with self-control over the irrational passions, which are “courage”, or endurance in the face of fear and suffering, and “self-discipline” (temperance), or the ability to renounce desire and abstain from false or unhealthy pleasures.  (Hence, Epictetus’ famous slogan: “endure and renounce”.)  Hadot calls the goal of this discipline “amor fati” or the loving acceptance of one’s fate.  This discipline is summed up in one of the most striking passages from the Enchiridion: “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but wish events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly and serenely.”  But Stoics are not “doormats”.  The Stoic hero Cato of Utica famously marched the shattered remnants of the Republican army through the deserts of Africa to make a desperate last stand against the tyrant Julius Caesar, who sought to overthrow the Republic and declare himself dictator of Rome.  Although he lost the civil war, he became a Roman legend and the Stoics dubbed him “the invincible Cato” because his will was completely unconquered – he tore his own guts out with his bare hands rather than submit to Caesar and be exploited by the dictator for his propaganda.  Centuries later, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, despite a devastating plague and countless misfortunes beyond his control, led his weakened army repeatedly into battle to defend Rome against invading barbarian hordes.  He prevailed despite the many obstacles to victory.  If he’d failed, Rome would have been destroyed.  As we’ll see, the discipline of action explains this strange paradox: how can the Stoics combine acceptance with such famous endurance and courageous action in the name of justice?  I’ve described this discipline simply as “Stoic Acceptance”, meaning amor fati.

2. The Discipline of Action (Stoic Philanthropy)

According to Hadot, the discipline of “action” (hormê, which really means the inception or initial “impulse” to action) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “ethics”.  Stoic “ethics” which includes the definition of what is good, bad, and indifferent.  It also deals with the goal of life as “happiness” or fulfilment (eudaimonia).  It includes the definition of the cardinal Stoic virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline).  According to the central doctrine of Stoicism, virtue is the only true good and sufficient by itself for the good life and fulfilment (eudaimonia).  Likewise, Stoic ethics covers the vices, opposing virtue, and the irrational and unhealthy “passions”, classified as: fear, craving, emotional pain, and false or unhealthy pleasures.  The discipline of action, according to Hadot’s view, is the essentially virtue of living in harmony with the community of all mankind, which means benevolently wishing all of mankind to flourish and achieve “happiness” (eudaimonia) the goal of life.  However, as other people’s wellbeing is outside of our direct control, we must always wish them well in accord with the Stoic “reserve clause” (hupexairesis), which basically means adding the caveat: “Fate permitting” or “God willing.”  (This is one way in which the philosophical attitude toward life reconciles vigorous action with emotional acceptance.)  In other words, Stoics do their best to act with virtue while accepting the outcome of their actions in a somewhat detached manner, whether success or failure.  Moreover, Stoics must act according to their rational appraisal of which external outcomes are naturally to be preferred.  Hence, Marcus Aurelius appears to refer to three clauses that Stoics should be continually mindful to attach to all of their actions:

  1. That they are undertaken “with a reserve clause” (hupexairesis)
  2. That they are “for the common welfare” of mankind (koinônikai)
  3. That they “accord with value” (kat’ axian)

It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal virtue of “justice”, which the Stoics defined as including both fairness to others and benevolence.  Hadot calls this discipline “action in the service of mankind”, because it involves extending the same natural affection or care that we are born feeling for our own body and physical wellbeing to include the physical and mental wellbeing of all mankind, through a process known as “appropriation” (oikeiosis) or widening the circle of our natural “self-love” to include all mankind.  I’ve described this as “Stoic Philanthropy”, or love of mankind, a term they employed themselves.

3. The Discipline of Assent (Stoic Mindfulness)

According to Hadot, the discipline of “assent” (sunkatathesis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “logic”.  Stoic “logic” actually includes elements of what we would now call “psychology” or “epistemology”.  The discipline of assent, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with our own essential nature as rational beings, which means living in accord with reason and truthfulness in both our thoughts and speech.  It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal Stoic virtue of “wisdom” or truthfulness.  Hadot calls the goal of this discipline the “inner citadel” because it involves continual awareness of the true self, the faculty of the mind responsible for judgement and action, where our freedom and virtue reside, the chief good in life.  According to Hadot’s analysis, although the Stoics refer to “judgement” in general (hypolêpsis), they’re primarily interested in monitoring and evaluating their own implicit value-judgements.  These form the basis of our actions, desires, and emotions, especially the irrational passions and vices which the Stoics sought to overcome.  By continually monitoring their judgements, Stoics are to notice the early-warning signs of upsetting or unhealthy impressions and take a step back from them, withholding their “assent” or agreement, rather than being “carried away” into irrational and unhealthy passions and the vices.  The Stoics call this prosochê or “attention” to the ruling faculty of the mind, to our judgements and actions.   I’ve described this as “Stoic Mindfulness”, a term that can be taken to translate prosochê.

The Goal of Life (Follow Nature)

As you can probably see, these three disciplines overlap considerably and are intertwined, just like the three traditional topics of Stoic philosophy, which Hadot claims they’re based upon: Logic, Ethics, and Physics.  However, in unison, they allow the Stoic to work toward a harmonious and consistent way of life, in accord with nature.  By this, the Stoics meant a life in the service of the natural goal of human nature, the attainment of fulfilment “eudaimonia”, the good life, achieved by perfecting moral reasoning and excelling in terms of the cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline.