Did Stoicism Condemn Slavery?

Some notes on passages in the Stoic literature that appear to question, or possibly even condemn as vicious, the practice of slave-owning.

Massimo Pigliucci recently wrote an excellent article on Stoicism and slavery.  He was responding to a message, which said “I know that Epictetus was a slave and embraced Stoicism, but I find it difficult as an African-American to embrace this philosophy which is quite silent about slavery.”  Massimo mentioned in passing that “no Stoic questioned the very institution of slavery”.  This article looks at what the Stoics said about slave-owning.  There are some passages which suggest that Stoics may actually have questioned the institution of slavery or even stated that slave-owning was wrong but they’re not very well-known and there’s a bit of interpretation and reconstruction required.

In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell quotes a passage in which Marcus Aurelius set forth the Stoic egalitarian ideal of political freedom.  Russell argues that although the Stoics could not realistically achieve this political ideal in the ancient world, their ethical teachings ultimately inspired the emancipation of women and slaves via Stoicism’s lasting influence on Christian values:

This was an ideal which could not be consistently realized in the Roman Empire, but it influenced legislation, particularly in improving the status of women and slaves. Christianity took over this part of Stoic teaching along with much of the rest. And when at last, in the seventeenth century, the opportunity came to combat despotism effectually, the Stoic doctrines of natural law and natural equality, in their Christian dress, acquired a practical force which, in antiquity, not even an emperor could give to them. (History of Western Philosophy)

On the other hand, some people question whether the ancient Stoics really did oppose the institution of slavery.

First of all, it’s worth noting that many people feel that the ancient Stoics should have viewed slavery negatively.  Why?  Well, consideration for others as our equals or fellow-citizens in the cosmos, ethical cosmopolitanism, is central to Stoic Ethics.  The Stoics were also firm believers in the concept of natural law and they agreed that no man is a slave by nature.  Some ancients believed, by contrast, that slavery was the natural state of certain races.  The view that some men are “natural slaves” is usually attributed to Aristotle and the Stoics are taken to be opposing him by rejecting the whole concept of natural slavery.   For instance, Chrysippus defined a slave as a “hired-hand for life”, a man-made condition not a natural one.

However, there are only a few passages in the surviving literature where the question of slave-ownership is addressed explicitly.  There are also a handful of historical details and a few pieces of textual evidence, which can potentially be viewed as revealing Stoic attitudes toward slavery.   Nevertheless, I noticed recently that Diogenes Laertius, one of our main sources for early Stoic fragments, does appear to state that the founders of Stoicism condemned slave-owning as morally wrong.  Massimo extended his article above to acknowledge this passage in Diogenes “where he seems to suggest (second part) that the Stoics actually directly condemned slavery”.  In his summary of early Stoic Ethical doctrines, Diogenes writes of the Stoic wise man:

They declare that he alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same;  though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination [subjugation], and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being lordship [slave-ownership]; and this too is evil.  (7.121-122)

I also checked my interpretation of this passage with John Sellars and Christopher Gill, two of my colleagues on the Modern Stoicism team.  Chris is emeritus professor of Ancient Thought at Exeter university and an authority on Stoicism, having published several academic books on the subject, including an analysis and commentary on the first half of The Meditations.  He agreed that “the passage does appear to say that slave-ownership is bad (not just the extended [metaphorical] forms of slavery normally discussed by Stoics)”, although it’s surprising to see an ancient author expressing this view.  On the other hand, John Sellars, an academic  philosopher and author of Stoicism and The Art of Living, pointed out that we might potentially expect the Stoics to “attack slavery in general as something unjust, especially given their cosmopolitan ambitions”.

Diogenes is mainly quoting sayings from Zeno and Chrysippus in this section, although he also refers to Apollodorus of Seleucia, a student of Diogenes of Babylon who wrote an important handbook on Stoic Ethics, around 150 BC.  He’s almost certainly referring to Zeno and Chrysippus here as “they”, probably based on summaries of their core teachings in Apollodorus and later authors, such as Arius Didymus.

Here are a couple of interesting references to that passage…  In his Histoire des théories et des idées morales dans l’antiquité (1879), Jacques François Denis cites the passage above from Diogenes Laertius and interprets it as follows:

There is, says Zeno, such slavery that comes from conquest, and another that comes from a purchase: to one and to the other corresponds the right of the master, and this right is bad. (p. 346)

The American author Robert G. Ingersoll, famous for being an early proponent of agnosticism, cites Denis’ comment on the same passage, remarking:

I read Zeno, the man who said, centuries before our Christ was born, that man could not own his fellow-man.  “No matter whether you claim a slave by purchase or capture, the title is bad.  They who claim to own their fellow-men, look down into the pit and forget the justice that should rule the world.”  (Why I am an Agnostic)

The first sentence is a paraphrase of the passage in Diogenes Laertius, although the second appears to be derived from the Epictetus passage  quoted below (Discourses, 1.13).

As Denis and Ingersoll observed, the passage in Diogenes Laertius is most likely derived from a saying of Zeno, or possibly Chrysippus.  Crucially, as they both note, it identifies two ordinary meanings of “slavery”: capture and purchase.  (This is important for reasons we’ll return to later.)

In addition, though, it also distinguishes these from the special technical sense in which the word is used in the Stoic paradoxes, to refer to the lack of inner freedom.  So actually the passage in Diogenes distinguishes three senses of the word “slavery”:

  1. The sense in which the majority of people (bad men) are enslaved to their passions and externals, in contrast to the inner freedom of the ideal Stoic Sage
  2. The forced subjugation (ὑπόταξις) of one person to another, e.g., capture and enslavement by pirates or brigands or by enemies in war
  3. The legal possession of a slave as property, i.e., through purchase, which entails their capture and forced subjugation (or that of one of their ancestors)

The passage above goes on to say that the correlate of such enslavement (items 2 and 3) is despoteia (δεσποτεία) which most definitely means slave-ownership in the Greek original, although translated into English here more vaguely as “lordship”.  He then adds in “and this too is evil” (phaule, φαύλη), which means wretched, base, immoral, etc., a term used as a synonym for vice in Stoic Ethics.  Indeed, throughout the chapter, Diogenes employs this same term very frequently (about eighteen times!) as a synonym for vice.  I don’t think there can be any question that he means slave-ownership is morally wrong.

As we’ll see below, when comparing this passage with the discussion of slavery in another Stoic text, by Dio Chrysostom, Zeno (or possibly Chrysippus) appears to have argued that slaves are either purchased or captured; capturing slaves is theft, and unjust, because no man is born a natural slave; but purchased slaves must either have been captured in the past or are descendants of those who have been captured; therefore all enslavement is unjust, because it’s a form of robbery, or the theft of a man from his natural state.  Ingersoll and Denis both read this passage in the same way.

Some people boldly claim that it was totally unheard of to question the institution or practice of slavery in the ancient world.  They’re most definitely wrong about this, though.  The Sophist Alcidamas of Elaea, a student of Gorgias who flourished in the fourth century BC, was probably the first thinker in Athens to do so.  He wrote “God has left all men free; Nature has made nobody a slave”.  Around the same time, Socrates is also portrayed by Xenophon as stating that the capture and enslavement of free men (andrapodizo) is a form of injustice (adikia), a vice.   His student Euthydemus even says it would be “monstrous” to consider calling the captures of slaves justice (Memorabilia, 4.2.14).  However, Socrates goes on to qualify this by saying that if an elected general enslaves a city that could be considered just if the city itself were behaving in an unjust and hostile manner.  So he believed that enslavement of conquered aggressors was acceptable.  Plato portrays Socrates exhibiting a slightly different attitude toward slavery in Book Five of The Republic, where he says that the ideal state would never enslave other Greeks, but only barbarian races.

These accounts of Socrates’ attitude toward slavery conflict, and both show him endorsing enslavement under certain circumstances.  However, what they do have in common is the suggestion that the circumstances in which many slaves were captured are fundamentally unjust.  Albeit in their own limited way, these comments may have raised quite penetrating questions about the institution of slavery in general.  They certainly prove that Greek philosophers were capable of drawing the radical conclusion that some common forms of slave capture were unjust.

By contrast, others, such as Aristotle, argued that some people are slaves by nature.  He wrote that:

[…] those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast—and they are in this state if their work is the use of the body, and if this is the best that can come from them—are slaves by nature. For them it is better to be ruled in accordance with this sort of rule, if such is the case for the other things mentioned. (Politics, 1)

The Stoics, probably adopting arguments forwarded by much earlier authors, categorically rejected the notion that any human being is naturally born to be a slave.   (With the possible exception of the Middle Stoic, Posidonius, who embraced elements of Aristotelianism and appears to have reintroduced the notion of natural slavery.)  Zeno argued that all men should ideally live together as though in a common herd.  Chrysippus’ definition of a slave as a “hired-hand for life”, a social contract based solely on their purchase, is usually interpreted as an explicit rejection of the Aristotelian theory that some people are slaves by nature.

However, the injustice of capturing and enslaving someone who is naturally free-born is perceived as infecting and undermining the whole institution of slavery, as we’ll see.  (Some authors believe that Antisthenes’ earlier book Of Freedom and Slavery may have contained similar arguments, which potentially influenced the Cynic-Stoic tradition.)

Zeno of Citium

Zeno’s Republic, arguably the founding text of Stoicism, was a scathing critique of Plato’s book of the same name.  In it Zeno argued in favour of an ideal political state in which all men and women would be equal, living like brothers and sisters in a single community. According to Lactantius, an early Christian author, the Stoics said that both women and slaves should be taught philosophy, because he says they saw no difference between their capacity for wisdom and that of free men.  This is very clearly a rejection of Aristotle’s notion of natural slavery.

Moreover, the much-admired Republic of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, may be summed up in this one main principle: that all the inhabitants of this world of ours should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities, but that we should consider all men to be of one community and one polity, and that we should have a common life and an order common to us all, even as a herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field. (Plutarch, On the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander)

Now in the few fragments that survive there’s nothing explicitly referring to the role of slaves in relation to Zeno’s Republic.  However, it seems to stand to reason that if everyone is equal, like brothers and sisters (one flock or herd), and each has equal rights then there can be no slaves.  Also, as slaves are property, if all property is held in common then there could arguably be no slaves.  (And without law courts, it would also be impossible to administer laws governing slave-ownership.)  So it does seem impossible that slaves could have been envisaged as forming part of the ideal Stoic Republic.  Of course, that’s an ideal and not advice for real world politics.  Nevertheless, it is supposed to denote what Zeno considered to be a good society, and the social goal of Stoicism.  Slavery must have been abolished in the Stoic Republic described by Zeno.

Some people have taken the following anecdote from Diogenes Laertius to imply that Zeno owned a slave:

We are told that he was once chastising a slave for stealing, and when the latter pleaded that it was his fate to steal, “Yes, and to be beaten too,” said Zeno. (7.23)

However, this passage makes a point of saying “a slave” not “his slave” – there’s nothing in it to suggest that Zeno was the owner of the slave in question, it’s more likely that it refers to someone else’s slave.  At least according to one account, Zeno lost his fortune at sea and subsequently lived like a beggar, as follower of the Cynic Crates, and he continued in a similar austere lifestyle after founding the Stoic school.  If he had no property, he’s unlikely to have owned slaves.  The Cynic way of life is generally taken to involve renunciation of wealth, and by implication slaves.  According to tradition, the true Cynic only owns what he can fit in his satchel – which would presumably have insufficient room for a slave!

Moreover, Zeno was a metic or foreign resident of Athens, not an Athenian citizen.  As such he had few rights, and his status was somewhat between that of a slave and a citizen.  Technically, foreign residents could own slaves, by law, but they could not own property.  So unable to own his own home, Zeno appears later in life to have lived as the household guest of his student Persaeus.  Without property at Athens, though, it seems unlikely that Zeno would have owned slaves.  Indeed, Seneca says that it was well-known in his time that Zeno had no slaves:

It is well known that Homer had one slave, that Plato had three, and that Zeno, who first taught the stern and masculine doctrine of the Stoics, had none: yet could anyone say that they lived wretchedly without himself being thought a most pitiable wretch by all men? (Consolation to Helvia, 12)

There is another interesting anecdote in Diogenes Laertius, incidentally, in which Zeno appears to rebuke another man for beating his slave:

Once when he saw the slave of one of his acquaintance marked with weals, “I see,” said he, “the imprints of your anger.” (7.23)

As we’ve seen, Zeno introduced the convention that all those who are not virtuous are called “slaves”, in a technical sense.  The Stoics believed that only the ideal Sage is truly virtuous and neither Zeno nor the other founders of the school claimed to be perfect.  So this effectively means that all men are “slaves” to their passions, through attachment to externals.  In the Discourses of Epictetus, for this reason, we can see him repeatedly addressing his students, collectively, as slaves.

Elsewhere, Diogenes Laertius says the early Stoics distinguished between evils insofar as they were means or ends.  Among evil ends, things that are inherently evil, he clearly lists “slavery” and “every vicious action”.  Thus slavery is an intrinsically bad activity which participates in a vicious attitude of mind.  However, in this instance, he may be referring to “slavery” in the sense of the Stoic paradoxes, i.e., the inner state of enslavement to our passions.

Lucian

The satirist Lucian, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, describes the Stoic Republic as a Utopian ideal toward which men should strive, even though it’s a distant goal.  He describes it as follows in his dialogue Hermotimus, or the Rival Philosophies.

[…] all the citizens are aliens and foreigners, not a native among them; they include numbers of barbarians, slaves, cripples, dwarfs, and poor; in fact any one is admitted; for their law does not associate the franchise with income, with shape, size, or beauty, with old or brilliant ancestry; these things are not considered at all; any one who would be a citizen needs only understanding, zeal for the right, energy, perseverance, fortitude and resolution in facing all the trials of the road; whoever proves his possession of these by persisting till he reaches the city is ipso facto a full citizen, regardless of his antecedents. Such distinctions as superior and inferior, noble and common, bond and free, simply do not exist there, even in name.

Education in philosophy was  often seen as the province of wealthy, aristocratic young men.  However, this makes it clear that the Stoic school is unusual in accepting absolutely anyone, foreigners like Zeno himself and the other scholarchs, cripples or slaves like Epictetus, the rich or poor such as Cleanthes, and, though he doesn’t mention it here, they were also known for admitting both men and women.  The famous daughter of Cato of Utica, for example, Porcia Catonis, was portrayed by Plutarch as a Stoic.

All distinctions between superior and inferior, slave or free, being abolished from this Republic, and slaves being admitted, it appears once again that the Stoic ideal musts involve the abolition of slavery.

Seneca

In Letter 31, Seneca makes it clear that the human soul is equally divine whether it exists in a Roman knight or a slave:

What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in a human body? A soul like this may descend into a Roman knight just as well as into a freedman’s son or a slave. For what is a Roman knight, or a freedmen’s son, or a slave? They are mere titles, born of ambition or of wrong.

So, once again, you’d think that, in principle, would lead him to conclude that slavery is immoral.  Seneca wrote a Letter to Lucilius entitled On Master and Slave (Letter 47).  In it he emphasised that for Stoics slaves are first and foremost our fellow-humans.

“They are slaves,” people declare.  Nay, rather they are men.  “Slaves!”  No, comrades.  “Slaves!”  No, they are unpretentious friends.  “Slaves!”  No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike.

Seneca owned slaves himself.  However, his writings were arguably aligned more with the Middle Stoa.  As we’ve seen, some Middle Stoics, influenced by Aristotelianism, may have reintroduced the notion of natural slavery.  Stoics who were more aligned with Cynicism, like Musonius, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius, though, are likely to have questioned the concept of natural slavery, or rejected it outright, and to have been more influenced by the early Stoicism of Zeno’s Republic.

Seneca does condemn cruelty toward slaves in this letter but doesn’t go so far as to condemn the institution of slavery.  He does, however, repeatedly emphasis that slaves should be treated with respect, as fellow-human beings, and not as inferiors.

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave.

At one point he even seems to acknowledge that he’s skirting around the more fundamental ethical and political questions about slavery.

I do not wish to involve myself in too large a question, and to discuss the treatment of slaves, towards whom we Romans are excessively haughty, cruel, and insulting. But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

It’s tempting to read this as expressing Seneca’s awareness of a tension between Stoic ethics and the prevailing norms of Roman society.  He realizes that Stoic ethics teaches us to treat all humans, even slaves, as our equals, as fellow-citizens of the cosmos.  However, he doesn’t want to rock the boat too much by questioning the whole institution of slavery.  At least, that’s one way of reading his comments on the subject.

Epictetus

Epictetus, of course, was originally a slave himself, but gained his freedom later in life.  In fact his name just means “acquired” and seems to have been a nickname of sorts, denoting the fact he was the property of another man.  In one of the shorter Discourses, Epictetus directly addresses slave-ownership.  In response to a question about acting acceptably to the gods, Epictetus refers to a slave-owner becoming furious because his slave brought him water that was tepid and not warm enough.

Slave yourself, will you not bear with your own brother, who has Zeus for his progenitor, and is like a son from the same seeds and of the same descent from above? But if you have been put in any such higher place, will you immediately make yourself a tyrant? Will you not remember who you are, and whom you rule? that they are kinsmen, that they are brethren by nature, that they are the offspring of Zeus?—But I have purchased them, and they have not purchased me. Do you see in what direction you are looking, that it is towards the earth, towards the pit, that it is towards these wretched laws of dead men? but towards the laws of the gods you are not looking.  (1.13)

Here Epictetus reminds his wealthy students that even their slaves should be viewed as brothers as they are all children of Zeus.  The role of Zeus as father of mankind is a common theme in Stoicism, and the wise man is directed to emulate Zeus by viewing the rest of mankind as his brothers and sisters, without discrimination.  If you have been put in the position of ownership over another man you must nevertheless remember that he is your kinsman, in the eyes of Zeus.  In response to a student objecting “but I have purchased them”, quite astoundingly, Epictetus refers to the Roman laws governing slave ownership as “these wretched laws of dead men”, i.e., mortals, and scolds his students for appealing to them rather than giving precedence to the eternal laws of Nature or Zeus.  Calling the laws governing slave-ownership “wretched”, clearly implies a criticism of the legal institution of slavery, although Epictetus doesn’t really elaborate further on this point.

Incidentally, Epictetus’ teacher, Musonius Rufus, had said that slaves are entitled to disobey masters who instruct them to engage in immoral actions (Lecture 16).  He also said that like Diogenes the Cynic, who was himself captured and sold into slavery by pirates, a slave may not only be the equal of but actually more virtuous than his master (Lecture 9).

Dio Chrysostom

Perhaps our clearest articulation of the Stoic position on slavery actually comes from Dio Chrysostom.  Dio wasn’t a fully-fledged Stoic but rather an eclectic philosopher and orator, influenced both by Stoicism and Cynicism.  He was student of the great Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus, friends with the Stoic Euphrates of Tyre, and probably also an acquaintance of Epictetus.  Marcus Aurelius appears to mention both Dio and Euphrates favourably in The Meditations.

Dio provides one of our most explicit Stoic-influenced condemnations of slavery in his fourteenth and fifteenth orations On Slavery and Freedom: Discourses I and II.  He starts off his initial Discourse by forwarding typical arguments in favour of the Stoic paradox that only the wise man is truly free and the majority of us are slaves because of our ignorance.  This is the special Stoic technical use of the word “slavery”, and refers to our inner state.  As Dio notes, this paradox means that even the great king of Persia, Xerxes, may have been a slave inwardly, to his ignorance and passions, despite his external power; and even someone who appears outwardly enslaved, such as Diogenes the Cynic, might nevertheless be inwardly regal and free, if he possesses virtue and wisdom.  (These arguments and the terminology used by Dio are clearly Stoic in nature and acknowledged as such by modern commentators.)

However, in the second Discourse, Dio proceeds to discuss the ordinary sense of the word “slavery”, i.e., the forced subjugation or legal possession of one person by another.  He argues that all slaves are either captured or are the descendants of those who have been captured.  In the same way that a person can possess land, property, or livestock for a long time but nevertheless unjustly,  says Dio, to capture men in war or by brigandage is “to have gained possession also of human beings unjustly”.  Slaves can also be purchased, inherited, or born into the household as the children of other slaves but all these depend on this earliest method of acquiring slaves by capture, which Dio says “has no validity at all” and constitutes “unjust servitude”.

Those individuals who were initially compelled by force into a life of servitude should not even be termed “slaves”.  Therefore all slavery is “unjust” insofar as it depends, ultimately, on the capture of individuals who were born free.

If, then, this original mode of acquiring slaves, from which all other modes derive their existence, be destitute of justice, none of them can consequently be deemed just; nor can a single individual either be a slave in reality, or be truly and substantially discriminated by such an appellation. (15.26)

Dio repeatedly denies that being captured can legitimately make someone who is free-born into a slave and asserts that this means their descendants cannot be slaves either.  Note that the distinction he employs in this oration between inner slavery, slavery by capture, and slavery by purchase, appears to reflect the distinction made by the Stoics, according to Diogenes Laertius, in the passage cited above, which Denis and Ingersoll plausibly attributed to Zeno.  It seems certain that Dio Chrysostom and Diogenes Laertius are both ultimately drawing upon the same Stoic source in making this distinction and the two texts shed some light on each other.

The presence of the passage in Diogenes also appears to confirm the conclusion of modern scholars that these orations of Dio are thoroughly Stoic in nature.  Likewise, Dio’s discourses confirm that the Stoics meant phaulos (bad or wretched) to mean unjust or morally wrong.  They also clarify that the Stoics are talking about the distinction between slaves who are captured and subjugated by force, usually during warfare but also by bandits or pirates, and slaves who are legally purchased.  Their point is that both practices are unjust, and immoral, because the purchase of a slave depends on the fact that they or their ancestors were at some point captured by force, or stolen from their natural state.

Marcus Aurelius

As we’ve seen, the Stoics believed in the ideal of ethical cosmopolitanism.  All humans, in fact all beings that possess reason, are equally citizens of the same cosmos.  This doctrine is arguably incompatible with slavery, as for cosmopolitans everyone is a citizen, and citizens are not slaves.  Moreover, no man is naturally born to be enslaved.  This theme is particularly prominent in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, where it’s closely associated with his pantheistic view of Nature.

Marcus’ therefore expressed his political vision as a state with a mixed constitution for which the freedom of its subjects is its highest priority:

[…] the idea of a balanced constitution, and of government founded on equity and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all things the freedom of the subject (1.14)

Sometimes people object that although Marcus was emperor he didn’t abolish slavery.  That seems very obviously to be an unrealistic expectation, though.  The position of Roman emperor was far too precarious for that sort of radical social upheaval.  The Roman economy completely depended on slave labour.  Moreover, when foreign enemies were defeated, tens of thousands were normally captured.  Often the only realistic option was to keep them as slaves.  If they were returned to their lands, they would simply regroup and attack again.  So the Romans could plausibly argue that enslavement was a more ethical option than mass executions, or genocide, of enemy tribes.

However, Marcus did try to resettle thousands of Germanic tribesman within Italy.  This wasn’t entirely successful as some were involved later in uprisings.  The Historia Augusta actually tells us that Marcus observed the principles of justice even in dealing with captive enemies, choosing to resettle them.  This could be read as implying that Marcus believed enslaving them would have been an injustice.

He scrupulously observed justice, moreover, even in his dealings with captive enemies. He settled innumerable foreigners on Roman soil. (Historia Augusta)

He also caused widespread unrest at Rome by granting thousands of slaves their freedom in exchange for joining the legions during the crisis of the initial Marcomannic invasion, when the armies were severely depleted by the Antonine Plague.

Moreover, as his biographers have observed, Marcus consistently appears to have taken legal steps to improve the rights of slaves in relation to manumission, or obtaining their freedom.  It’s true that these were very gradual changes but Marcus himself states that he has to be satisfied with small steps in the right direction politically.  In case there’s any doubt about the delicate balance of power during his reign, it’s worth noting that Marcus actually faced a full-scale civil war in 175 AD, reputedly triggered in part because of unrest over the leniency of his attitudes.  The uprising was put down very quickly but it proves that Marcus couldn’t just do what he liked politically, he faced an opposition faction in the senate and potential usurpers waiting in the wings.

Marcus wrote that he was inspired by learning about Stoic Republicans like Cato of Utica and Thrasea and that he aspired to the political ideal of “a balanced constitution, and of government founded on equity and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all things the freedom of the subject” (1.14).  This is a remarkable passage.  It sounds reminiscent in some ways of Zeno’s Republic, which was written almost 500 years earlier.  It also seems difficult, obviously, to reconcile the institution of slavery with the ideal of a state that makes its highest priority the freedom of its subjects.

Moreover, in The Meditations, Marcus also wrote:

A spider is proud when it has caught a fly, and one man when he has caught a little hare, another a little fish in his net, another boars, another bears, and another some Sarmatians. Now if you look into their judgements, are these not simply brigands? (10.10)

This is a remarkable passage.  Marcus is referring to the capture of enemy Sarmatian soldiers during the Marcomannic Wars, mainly by his own Roman officers.  These captives would potentially have been ransomed or sold into slavery.  The eminent French scholar Pierre Hadot comments on this passage:

The war in which Marcus defended the borders of the empire was, for him, like a hunt for Sarmatian slaves, not unlike a spider’s hunt for flies. (Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 185)

Marcus compares the capture of barbarian slaves to catching fish in a net, hunting boar, and so on, but then astoundingly he concludes that the character of a person who takes pride in doing this is no better than that of a brigand or robber.  In other words, perhaps in an allusion to the Stoic doctrine mentioned in Diogenes Laertius and Dio Chrysostom, he appears to be saying that capturing enemy soldiers is a form of theft, robbing them from their natural state of freedom.  He doesn’t go on to say, as the early Stoics did, that this vitiates the institution of slavery insofar as all legally purchased slaves must have been at one time captured, or are the descendants of those who have been.

This passage is also strikingly similar to the Stoic argument against slavery forwarded by Dio Chrysostom.  Some philosophers believed certain individuals, even certain races, were naturally born to be slaves.  The Stoics categorically rejected this notion.  Marcus here clearly rejects the idea that the Sarmatians are natural slaves.  As they’re freeborn, capturing them is simply unjust, or akin to robbery.  In other words, this passage is clearly a rejection of the assumption that so-called barbarian races are “fair game” for enslavement.

Moreover, Marcus appears to have caused some unrest at Rome by offering many slaves, including gladiators, their freedom in exchange for joining the legions.

And since the pestilence [the Antonine Plague] was still raging at this time, he […] trained slaves for military service — just as had been done in the Punic war — whom he called Volunteers, after the example of the Volones.  He armed gladiators [likewise slaves] also, calling them the Compliant, and turned even the bandits of Dalmatia and Dardania into soldiers. (Historia Augusta)

Marcus’ Legislative Measures

Paul Barron Watson’s excellent biography of Marcus Aurelius contains a very detailed account of the specific legislative changes that Marcus enacted in order to improve the rights of slaves. It’s about twelve pages long. I’ll quote some key passages at length below but you’ll have to consult the original for the numerous examples he cites regarding specific pieces of legislation. He opens with the conclusion:

The broad and charitable attitude which men were beginning to take with reference to the rights and duties of the various portions of society can be due only to the principles of Stoicism, which were forcing themselves upon the minds of men […] In no way was this breadth of purpose more marked than in the laws which Marcus passed in aid of slaves. […]

In addition, therefore, to the feelings of benevolence which actuated Marcus Aurelius in relieving this down-trodden class of society, he was induced by political reasons to enact measures to avert the impending danger [of slave revolts]. How to augment the relatively small free population and how to alleviate the distress of the slaves and freedmen, were problems which Marcus kept continually before him. He strove to make real that idea which he speaks of in his Thoughts [i.e., The Meditations] — the idea of a “polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.”

It was a difficult task that lay before the Emperor. Revolutions sometimes take place in politics — in law, never. The boast of law is that it is founded on justice; and the principles of justice remain eternally the same. The principles of political parties may be overthrown by the weight of numbers or the power of wealth; in law, whatever alterations are accomplished are effected by force of argument alone. To convince the Roman people that a person taken in war is not the property of the captor was more than any one emperor could accomplish. Marcus Aurelius did a noble work-in promulgating this doctrine; but its final adoption could only be effected by the reasoning of ages. As a first step towards the abolition of slavery Marcus introduced a practice which was, in fact, almost a logical consequence of his immediate predecessors’ beneficent laws. [Hadrian had introduced basic rights for slaves by declaring that a master could not kill their slave without just cause.]

Marcus Aurelius was quick to perceive the advantage which had thus been gained; and he at once followed it up by an enactment, framed as a privilege to the master, but in reality a decided benefit to the slave. By this new law the master was empowered to bring an action in the courts for every injury suffered at the hands of his slave.1 Thus the masters were encouraged to lay all their grievances before the tribunals instead of taking the punishment of their slaves into their own hands, as they had done hitherto. It was one step more towards placing both upon the same footing. If the masters could be induced to rely on the courts to award them justice for all injuries from their slaves, it would follow almost as a corollary that the slaves might look to the courts for protection from the injustice of their masters. It is always the oppressed that gain when law is substituted in the place of despotism. A secondary purpose which Marcus had in encouraging masters to lay their grievances before the courts was to do away with a brutal custom known as the quaestio, or torture. This had long been the ordinary way of inducing a slave to confess any crime which he had committed, and also of compelling him to furnish evidence against his fellows. It was a method which failed chiefly in the uncertainty of its result. […]

Even Marcus Aurelius seems to have aimed rather at substituting a more just method of obtaining evidence than at abolishing entirely the older form of procedure. To his cred it, however, it should be said that he urged strongly the propriety of resorting to this method only as a last resource, and even then of using as little violence as possible. Indeed, the compilers of the Digest have preserved a letter in which Marcus recommends that a slave who, under torture, had confessed a crime of which he turned out afterwards to be innocent, should be set at liberty, in recompense for the indignity he had suffered.’

Another humane law, by which Marcus re-strained the cruelty of masters, provided that if a slave should be sold, otherwise than after judgment in the courts, for the purpose of being pitted against beasts in the arena, both the seller and the buyer should be punished.’ As long, however, as the masters were just and kind towards their slaves, the Emperor felt that the slaves were, in return, bound to obey their masters. He therefore published an open letter, in which he proclaimed it to be the duty of all governors, magistrates, and police soldiers to aid masters in their search for fugitive slaves. When found, the runaways were to be returned to their masters, and whoever aided in concealing them was to be punished.’ Indeed, Marcus went further ; and made it lawful for the search to be conducted upon the estates of the emperor as well as upon those of senator or peasant.’

It was not only, however, with a view towards relieving the condition of those in actual slavery that Marcus worked, he sought, also, to render enfranchisement more easy. [Watson recounts several specific legislative changes made by Marcus to increase the rights of slaves to manumission; for example:] In cases where a slave was sold or given away, to be manumitted at the death of the recipient, Marcus insisted, with the utmost imperativeness, that the manumission must be performed. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way.’

The condition, too, of slaves who had already received their liberty, Marcus attempted to alleviate. [Again, several legal examples are provided.] In all doubtful cases with regard to slaves and freedmen Marcus preferred to fail on the side of charity rather than to encourage cruelty; and we hear of some in stances where he even went so far as to allow a freedman to be chosen as tutor to his infant patron. One law more we must notice before leaving the subject of slavery. It is set forth in a rescript of Marcus Aurelius, and reflects clearly the benevolent principles which actuated the Emperor in all his public life. The aim of the law was to prevent masters who had stipulated with their slaves that they should be freed if they performed such and such services before a certain time, from evading their contract.

Marcus adds to this final rescript: “for principles of humanity demand that a money consideration shall never stand in the way of a person’s freedom”. (86-97)

NEW: Crash Course in Stoicism

Are you looking for a Crash Course in Stoicism?

Stoic Week 2017 has just finished.  With 7,000 people from around the world taking part this, the fifth event, has been the largest Stoic Week to date.

If you missed Stoic Week or even if you were one of the lucky ones who took part and are now looking for something else to do why not try my free Crash Course in Stoicism?  It only takes about ten minutes to complete.  I’ve tried to compress as much useful information as possible into a lightning course so that complete newcomers to the subject will feel they’ve been brought up to speed on some key ideas and resources for studying Stoicism.

Last Chance to Enrol on my New Stoicism Course!

Last chance to enrol on my new How to Think Like a Roman Emperor online course.

Hi everyone,

Utere non reditura.
Use the hour, it will not come again.

Today is your last chance to enrol on How to Think Like a Roman Emperor!

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Remember, if you enrol on this pilot version of the course, you’ll be receiving $50 discount off the standard price, including e-learning and live webinars. You’ll also have access to any future updates or improvements, via lifetime access. I’m also providing a bonus live webinar to people taking part in the first course.

If you’re interested but have questions, please feel free to get in touch. (I get loads of emails from people about courses and answer all of them personally.)

Thanks once again for your support and feedback, and I look forward to seeing you in person on the course!

Warm regards,

Donald Robertson signature

Donald Robertson

New Elearning Site for Stoicism

Quick announcement explaining some changes to the site, and some news about elearning on Stoicism.

Hi everyone,

You may notice some slight changes over the next few weeks.  I’ve migrated all users from this site to a Teachable elearning site, which is on the subdomain:

learn.donaldrobertson.name

That performs much better, is more secure, and looks much nicer than our old WordPress elearning.  If you go there now, you should be able to log in.  Otherwise, just create a new account.  Please feel free to email me if you need any help.

You’ll find some new courses appearing there.  It’s already hosting our Crash Course in Stoicism, which over 1,200 people have already done.  It’s a free mini-course that is designed to take under ten minutes.  Also the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) course for 2017, in which a whopping 1,850 people are taking part this year. Soon the new How to Think Like a Roman Emperor course will be open for enrolment.

Those of you who were following philosophy-of-cbt.com have now been migrated over to followers of this site, which is replacing the old WordPress.com one.  That domain is in the process of being diverted here.  Just in case you wonder what’s going on.

If you’re not already following this blog, you can do so by submitting your email below, and WordPress will notify you each time a new article is added:

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Also, if you want to subscribe to my email newsletter, which contains information new courses and free resources, etc., then submit your email here:

Anyway, as always, thanks for your support!

Regards,

Donald Robertson

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Forthcoming course about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius.

I’m pleased to announce that my brand new e-learning course, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, will finally begin enrolling in a few weeks time.

I’ve been developing this course for the past six months and now it’s nearly ready for publication.  It’s been a labour of love.  For many years I’ve wanted to run a course about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and I think the time is right now.

You can visit the main course page below although you won’t be able to enrol until the course is published in a few weeks’ time:

I’ve been delivering online courses for over a decade, including the huge Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training courses, in which about ten thousand people from around the world have participated so far.  This will be the first time that I’ve actually created a paid course, though.  I made the decision to charge for Roman Emperor for the simple reason that it allows me to be able to put enough time into research and course design to make sure I’m completely satisfied with the end result.


If you want to receive updates on the course and be notified when it’s available just enter your details below:


I believe that the best way to teach Stoicism is by focusing on a specific example of a real Stoic. Marcus Aurelius is, today, by far the most famous of the Stoics, and we know more about him than any of the others. So this course will explore Stoicism and its relevance today by taking Marcus as our role model, and looking at examples from his life. It lasts four weeks and is divided into four broad phases of Marcus’ life, and four broad areas of Stoic philosophy. We’re particularly going to look at the psychological practices found in Stoicism and what we can learn from Marcus about applying these in daily life, to improve our character, find meaning in life, and become more emotionally resilient.

I’m not going to go into too much detail right now because I’ll be announcing more later.  If you’re interested, though, stay tuned, as I’ll soon have a lot more to say about How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.  

Please make sure you add your email address to the list above, though, so that you don’t miss out on the announcements.  Thanks once again for your support!

The Threefold Nature of Stoic Ethics

Some notes on Stoic Ethics understood in terms harmony and consistency across our threefold relationship with ourselves, other people, and the world.

Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

Discussions of Stoic Ethics usually focus on the fourfold division of the cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude.  These are frequently mentioned by the Stoics, although they go back to Plato.  They may have originated with Socrates, or possibly even with an earlier source.  However, the Stoics actually refer more often to a threefold structure that permeates their philosophy.  (See Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel for more on this.)  For example, Zeno was reputedly the first to divide Stoicism into the three topics called Logic, Physics, and Ethics in his book Exposition of Doctrine.  Most other Stoics shared the same division, although some treated them in a different order.  All seem to have agreed that these three subjects overlapped, though.  Moreover, according to Diogenes Laertius, some Stoics actually referred to virtues as Logical, Physical, and Ethical.  My hypothesis in this article is basically that Stoic Ethics, particularly the Stoic concept of virtue, can best be understood in terms of this threefold structure, as a way of living harmoniously across three domains or relationships we have in life: with our own self, with other people, and with external events in the world.

  1. Living at one with our own true nature, as rational beings, with natural self-love, and without inner conflict, division, or tension.
  2. Living at one, or harmoniously, with other people, even our “enemies”, by viewing ourselves as part of a single community or system.
  3. Living at one with external events, by welcoming the Fate that befalls us, without complaint, fear, or craving for more.

For example:

But to reverence and honour thy own mind will make thee content with thyself, and in harmony with society, and in agreement with the gods, that is, praising all that they give and have ordered. (Meditations, 6.16)

The Stoics were pantheists, who believed that the totality of the universe, the whole of space and time, is divine.  By contemplating the unity of the whole, and our place within it, as our guide in life, we help ourselves to fulfill our nature and approach virtue and wisdom.  Alienation, conflict, frustration, and complaint, toward ourselves, other people, or our Fate, is symptomatic of vice for the Stoics.  I take it that living wisely and harmoniously across these three levels is part of what Zeno and other Stoics meant by “living in agreement with Nature”.  Even though the Stoic Sage may experience pain, and flashes of emotional suffering (propatheiai), he still retains a fundamental composure in his voluntary responses to self, others, and world.  His life goes smoothly, in a sense, because he responds wisely, and harmoniously, to everything he experiences.

Living in Agreement with Nature

The famous slogan of Stoicism, that encapsulated the supreme goal, was “the life in agreement with nature” (to homologoumenos te phusei zen).  Diogenes Laertius says that Zeno coined this expression in his book On the Nature of Man.  It also resembles the title of another, presumably later, book by Zeno: On Life According to Nature (Peri tou kata physin biou).  The composite Greek word translated “agreement” literally means same-saying, or same-thinking.  To agree with Nature, in other words, means echoing its laws in our thoughts.  For the Stoics, in more theological terms, Nature is synonymous with Zeus, so it’s easier perhaps to think of agreeing with the laws of Nature as agreeing with the teachings of Zeus, by studying them and mirroring them in our thoughts and actions.  We’re told, by Diogenes Laertius, for example, that the Stoics described virtue or fulfillment as a way of being where every action helps to bring our inner spirit into harmony with the Will of Zeus.

The phrase “living in agreement with nature” probably implies both living in harmony with the universe and in acceptance of its nature, or laws.  It means the opposite of being alienated from nature through either ignorance or complaining.  Diogenes says that for the Stoics this life in agreement with nature is identical with virtue because when we follow nature we are guided by it toward the goal of virtue.  We’re told that Chrysippus said living excellently (virtuously) is synonymous with living in accord with our experience of the actual course of nature, because our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe.  In other words, by genuinely understanding the cosmos as a whole, of which we’re part, and living accordingly, we simultaneously flourish as individuals and fulfill our own human nature.

They say virtue, in this sense, also consists in a “smoothly flowing” life, which has the connotation of a state of inner serenity.  Diogenes writes: “By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord, Chrysippus understands both universal nature and more particularly the nature of man, whereas Cleanthes takes the nature of the universe alone as that which should be followed, without adding the nature of the individual.”  This twofold distinction between human nature and cosmic nature appears to become the basis for a threefold distinction between our own inner nature, the nature of other people, and the Nature of the whole.

Consistency and Elenchus

According to Diogenes, Cleanthes said that virtue consists in a “harmonious disposition”, i.e., a habit of living in agreement with nature, or a “state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.”  And he emphasised that virtue is its own reward, and not to be chosen as a means to some other end, i.e., out of hope for something desirable or fear of some unwanted consequences.  Moreover, they say it is in virtue that happiness consists because virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.  The good is defined as “the natural perfection of a rational being qua rational”, which encompasses virtue as well as its supervening healthy passions.  They hold that the virtues involve one another, and that the possessor of one is the possessor of all, inasmuch as they have common principles, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his work On Virtues.  However, virtue or wisdom is also understood as a kind of consistency.  Contradictory opinions must be false, therefore, the Sage’s world view must be totally internally-coherent.

The Stoics admired the Socratic method of elenchus, which attempts to expose contradictions in the opinions of the another person by penetrating questioning.  The Sage would be like someone who has endured this interrogation about his life, and resolved any conflicts between his thoughts or actions.  The connotation of the phrase “living in agreement”, therefore, also appears to be living “in agreement with ourselves” or consistently.  It seems novice Stoics probably had teachers who acted as personal mentors, cross-examining their life and actions in terms of consistency with their moral principles.  Galen, the personal physician of Marcus Aurelius, described this in detail in his writings, apparently drawing on lost works by Chrysippus.  In Marcus’ own case, it’s possible that his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus, served this role.   Marcus mentions that he often felt angry with Rusticus, perhaps because he questioned him very bluntly.  However, it’s easy to see how enduring this cross-examination could lead to a more consistent world-view and way of life.  When Seneca describes cross-examining himself after reviewing his actions throughout the day, at the end of each evening, he may be describing a similar exercise, intended to be used in the absence of a teacher.

The constancy of the Sage is a major theme running through Stoic literature.  The Sage is the same in every eventuality.  His world view is free from contradictions and totally coherent.  His thoughts don’t “flutter” between contradictory opinions, which is one Stoic definition of emotional disturbance or unhealthy passion.  The Athenian decree in honour of Zeno, after his death, highlights the fact that he was known as a teacher whose life was completely in accord with his philosophical doctrines.  He was supremely consistent, his thoughts were in harmony with one another, and his actions were in harmony with his thoughts.  We could say that the Sage is a fully-integrated individual, free from inner conflict, who doesn’t struggle against himself, although he still exerts one kind of inner “tension” in paying attention to and remaining detached from incipient proto-passions and misleading impressions.

Oikeiôsis and Natural Affection

This wisdom and harmony that operates across all of his relationships in life can also be understood in terms of the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, which is central to Stoic Ethics.  It’s a tricky word to translate but is derived from the Greek for “household” and related to the English word “economy”.  It denotes the action of making something or someone part of your household.  Sometimes it’s therefore translated as “appropriation”, although we could also describe it as a process of taking “ownership”.  However, it seems to me that it’s best understood as a process of moral and metaphysical identification.  Sometimes it’s also translated as “affinity” and I believe it’s much easier to understand oikeiôsis by considering its opposite: alienation.  According to the Neoplatonist Porphyry, those who followed Zeno, the Stoics, “stated that oikeiôsis is the beginning of justice” but it’s much more than that, as we’ll see.  As Porphyry’s words imply, though, oikeiôsis was a concept particularly associated with the Stoic school of philosophy, and their use of it distinguished their position from other Hellenistic philosophies such as Epicureanism.

The most familiar sense of the word is the one in which it refers to the Stoic progressively extending moral consideration to other people and as such it’s closely related to their concept of “natural affection” or “familial affection” (philostorgia).  The Stoics believed that we humans, like many other species, have a natural (instinctive) tendency to care for their own offspring, and also their mates.  Plutarch says that in The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, the ideal society was described through the analogy of a herd (presumably of cattle) feeding in a common pasture.  The theme of the Stoic hero or wise man as a mighty bull who protects weaker members of his herd recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  The Stoics frequently repeat their fundamental claim, in opposition to the Epicureans, that man is by nature both rational and social.  (So, in one sense, the two most fundamental cardinal virtues for Stoics were wisdom and justice.)  The bull identifies with, and has “familial affection”, for the rest of his herd.  He will face a lion and endure pain and injury from his claws, to defend the weaker members, because their lives instinctively matter to him, as members of his herd or, if you like, his “household”.  (Incidentally, a number of important Stoics came from the great city of Tarsus in Cilicia, which was traditionally associated with the symbol of the bull.)  Stoicism involves progressively applying oikeiosis to other people, cultivating natural affection toward them, and bringing them into our “household” or “family”, as if we were all members of the same herd.

For Stoics, because humans possess reason, we have an obligation to extend our “household” to encompass all rational beings, as our kin.  The ultimate goal is to attain the supremely “philanthropic” (loving mankind) and cosmopolitan (citizen of the universe) attitude of the Stoic Sage, who views his “household” as the cosmic city and the rest of humanity as his brothers and sisters.  The Stoic Hierocles actually recommends that we imagine our relationships as consisting of a series of concentric circles.  We are at the centre, our family and friends in the next rings, then our countrymen, and the rest of humanity.  He advises us to imagine drawing those in the outer circles closer to the centre, i.e., treating others progressively more and more as if we identified with them, bringing them further into our metaphorical household.  He even suggests we call friends “brother” or “sister” and so on, using our language to encourage a stronger sense of kinship.  Indeed, we can see Stoics like Marcus Aurelius actually do remind themselves to refer to others in this way, he even calls strangers “brother”.  When asked to define what a friend is, Zeno said “a second self” (alter ego), which perhaps assumes the level of identification found in the perfect Sage.  Aristotle also uses this phrase several times in the Nicomachean Ethics, saying both that the friend of a virtuous man is a second self to him and that parents naturally treat their offspring as a second self.  On the other hand, the Stoics are keen to avoid alienation from the rest of mankind, which they see as a symptom of vice.  Even toward one’s enemies, there should be a sense of connection.  As Marcus puts it, we should view other people as though we’re the top and bottom rows of teeth, designed by nature to work together, even in opposition to one another.  Zeno reputedly said in The Republic that the good alone are “true citizens or friends or kindred or free men” and that those lacking wisdom, the vicious, are the opposite, i.e., foreigners to the cosmic city, enemies to one another, alienated from the rest of mankind, and inner slaves to their own passions.  Indeed, in the case of humans, he said that even parents and their offspring become enemies, as opposed to having natural oikeiôsis for one another like animals, insofar as they are foolish and vicious.

However, it’s long been understood that for Stoics oikeiôsis functions at two levels: self and social.  The Stoics believed that it was important to give a developmental account of moral psychology.  The explain that human infants resemble other animals but gradually develop psychologically and acquire the capacity for language use and abstract reasoning.  At birth, we’re driven by our self-preservation instincts.  Gradually, we come to identify more with our mind than our body.  If you were to ask someone whether they’d rather lose their mind and keep their body, or vice versa, most people would obviously rather be a brain in a vat than a mindless zombie.  The Stoics think of this increasing identification with the mind, and our capacity for thinking, as a form of oikeiôsis that operates within the individual.  On the other hand, we’re to avoid alienation from our true selves, from reason and our capacity for virtue.  As Epictetus puts it, someone who succumbs to unhealthy passions and abandons the law of reason has, in a sense, turned themselves into an animal, and lost touch with their true nature, which is rational and even divine.  We become divided within ourselves, and at conflict with our own rational nature, when we allow ourselves to be degraded by vice.

When combined with our social instincts, it drives the social oikeiôsis that causes us to feel an affinity with other thinking beings.  For example, if a stone could think and speak, we might come to assign more rights to it than to a human being who’s trapped in a permanent vegetative state, incapable of thought or consciousness.  For the Stoics, this means also that we’re akin to the gods, with whom we share reason.  It should also have meant that Stoics viewed themselves as akin to the people Greeks and Romans called “barbarians”, foreigners who didn’t speak their language.  Race and culture are less important than whether someone is rational and therefore capable of attaining wisdom – that’s what makes them our brother or sister in the Stoic sense.

Those two forms of oikeiôsis are familiar to many students of Stoicism but In The Elements of Ethics, the Stoic Hierocles explicitly states that oikeiôsis was understood by Stoics as operating across the three levels we mentioned earlier: self, others, and world.  That maps the central ethical concept of oikeiôsis directly onto the same threefold model that recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  I would presume that when Hierocles speaks of oikeiôsis applied to the level of the world that actually denotes a theme that’s already familiar and occurs frequently throughout the Stoic literature.  In part, it’s what we call amor fati, borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase: the Stoic acceptance or love of fate.  Alienation from our fate is a common theme in the Stoic literature and is marked by frustration and complaining.  Ownership of our fate requires, first and foremost, that we grasp the indifferent nature of externals.  If we believe that externals are intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense, then we’ll be disturbed either by the loss of things we desire or by the occurrence of things to which we’re averse.  To avoid being alienated from life, to live at one and in harmony with events beyond our control, we have to view them with Stoic indifference.

The Four Virtues and Threefold Structure

As Pierre Hadot and others have observed, in the Stoic literature, particularly in Marcus Aurelius, it’s possible to discern a rough correlation between the three topics of Physics, Ethics, and Logic, and the four cardinal virtues.  It may also be that Epictetus’ three “disciplines” map onto this triad as suggested below:

Virtues Relationships Topics Disciplines
Wisdom Self Logic Assent
Justice Others Ethics Action
Courage and
Temperance
World Physics Fear and
Desire

Note that there are some passages in the Stoic literature, though, that appear to conflict with this schema.  However, arguably it appears consistent enough to treat those as exceptions.  Even if this model was employed by some Stoics, it’s likely not universal, and would be contradicted by other Stoics.

Stoicon 2017: Modern Stoicism Conference

Program for Stoicon 2017 Modern Stoicism conference in Toronto.

Stoicon is an annual international conference on applying Stoic philosophy to modern life, organized by Modern Stoicism.  It’s now in its fourth year.  Stoicon 2017 is scheduled for Saturday 14th October, and will take place in Toronto, Canada.  The annual Stoic Week online course will begin the following Monday, running from 16th – 22nd October.  If you’re interested in Stoic philosophy, whatever your background or occupation, this conference is meant for you.  Modern Stoicism’s aim is to make Stoic philosophy accessible to everyone by highlighting its practical relevance to the everyday challenges people face in different aspects of modern life.

Stoicon 2017

It opens this year with a brief introduction to Stoic philosophy followed by a series of talks by leading authors in the field of modern Stoicism.  In the afternoon, you will be able to choose between attending different parallel sessions, including an introductory workshop for newcomers to applied Stoicism.  The day concludes with the keynote presentation on Stoicism and Emotion by one of the leading experts in this area, Margaret Graver, Professor of Classical Studies at Dartmouth College.

Theme: Stoicism at Work

Date/Time: Saturday 14th October 2017

Location: Toronto.  Holiday Inn, Yorkdale.

Contact: Email Modern Stoicism

Booking: Tickets can be booked online via EventBrite.

Stoic Sunday in Toronto events to be scheduled…

Full Schedule

8 – 9am Registration and coffee

Plenary Sessions

  • 9am Introduction: What is Stoicism?
    Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism
  • 9.30am How to be a Stoic: Conversations with Epictetus
    Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to be a Stoic
  • 10am The Stoic Minimalist: Practicing Stoicism, Avoiding Controversies
    Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life

10.30am Morning break (30 min.)

  • 11am Stoicism, Buddhism, and Judaism
    Dr. Ronald Pies, author of Everything has Two Handles
  • 11.30am TBC
  • 12pm Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT)
    Dr. Walter Matweychuk, author of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide
  • 12.30pm Stoicism and Sport
    Jules Evans, author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

1 – 2.30pm Lunch break

2.30 – 4pm Parallel Talks & Workshops

  • Stoicism and Values Clarification (Workshop)
    Prof. Christopher Gill, author of The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought
    Tim LeBon, author of Wise Therapy
  • Stoicism and Creativity (Talk)
    Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way
  • Stoic Perspectives on Leisure, Work, Duty, Discipline, and Vocation (Talk)
    Stephen Hanselman, author of The Daily Stoic
  • Stoicism and Military Resilience (Workshop)
    Col. Thomas Jarrett, developer of Warrior Resilience Training
  • Dealing with Difficult People At Work – Stoic Strategies (Workshop)
    Dr. Greg Sadler & Andi Sciacca, of ReasonIO
  • Introduction to Stoic Psychological Skills (Workshop)
    Donald Robertson, author of The Philosophy of CBT: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

4 – 4.30pm Afternoon break

4.30 – 5.15pm Keynote: Stoicism & Emotion
Prof. Margaret Graver, author of Stoicism and Emotion

5.15 – 5.30pm Closing

5.30 – 7pm Reception

For more information subscribe to this blog, follow Modern Stoicism on Twitter, or Facebook.

Check for discounts and book your ticket online now via EventBrite.

Please note that details of this event may be subject to change.

Marcus Aurelius and the Civil War in the East

Biographical fiction recounting the rebellion of Avidius Cassius in the Eastern Provinces, against the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the way Marcus may have responded by using Stoic psychological exercises, philosophical doctrines, and the therapy of the passions.

Note: This piece is intended as biographical fiction, although it is very closely based on the available information concerning Marcus Aurelius’ life.  Nevertheless, in some cases, I’ve taken rumours literally or added minor details. The letters, speeches, and aphorisms (from The Meditations) of Marcus Aurelius are also close to the original sources but I’ve paraphrased them slightly for the sake of readability.

Prologue

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius sits alone in his quarters at the break of dawn, watching the sunrise outside. He closes his eyes in quiet contemplation and repeats the following Stoic maxims to himself in preparation for the day ahead:

Today you shall meet with meddling, ingratitude, insolence, treachery, slander, and selfishness – all due to their ignorance concerning the difference between what is good and bad. On the other hand, count yourself lucky enough to have long perceived the genuine nature of good as being honourable and beautiful and the nature of evil as shameful. You have also perceived the true nature of your enemy: that he is your brother, not in the physical sense but as a fellow citizen of the cosmos, sharing reason and the potential for wisdom and virtue. And because you perceive this, nothing can injure you, because nobody can drag you into their wrongdoing. Neither can you be angry with your brother or frustrated with him, because you were born to work together, like a pair of hands or feet, or the upper and lower rows of a man’s teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and frustration and dislike are forms of obstruction also, are they not?

Marcus AureliusSlowly and patiently, he pictures the day ahead in his mind’s eye. He thinks of the tasks he has to accomplish today. He imagines the faces of the people he will meet, roughly in the sequence he expects he will be meeting them. He anticipates setbacks, and the worst possible scenarios he may face with certain individuals. He thinks of those present, and the actions of others relayed to him by messengers. He keeps one simple question at the fore of his mind: “What would it mean to respond to this with wisdom and virtue?” What special virtues are called for by each situation: patience, self-discipline, tactfulness, perseverance?

He reminds himself that a true philosopher will not be angry with those who seek to oppose him. Why not? Because he knows that none of us are born wise, and so we inevitably encounter those who are far from wisdom, as surely as the changing seasons. No sane man is angry with nature. To the Stoic, nothing should come as a surprise, and nothing shocks him – everything is determined by the Nature of the universe. Even fools are not surprised when trees do not bear fruit in winter. There are good men and bad men in the world. A true philosopher knows that we must therefore expect to meet foolish or bad men, and for their actions to accord with their character. The wise man is not an enemy but an educator of the unwise. He goes forth each day thinking to himself: “I will meet many men today who are greedy, ungrateful, ambitious, etc.” And he will aspire to view would-be enemies as benevolently as a physician does his patients. The emperor repeats these or similar words to himself every morning. This daily premeditation of adversity forms part of what the Stoics call the Discipline of Fear and Desire, the Therapy of the Passions.  This is how he prepares for life.

Cassius in Egypt

May, 175 AD. A very nervous courier hands over a letter to Gaius Avidius Cassius, commander of the Egyptian legion. It contains only one word: emanes, “You’re mad” – you’ve lost your mind. We don’t know how Cassius responded. He was renowned for his severity and temper. A mercurial character, he was sometimes stern sometimes merciful, although overall he developed a reputation for strictness and cruelty. Soldiers say that one of his favourite punishments was to chain men together in groups of ten and have them cast into the sea or into rivers to drown. He had crucified many criminals. Darker rumours circulated that he once had dozens of the enemy bound to a single 180-foot wooden pole, which was set on fire so that he could watch them burn alive. Even by the standards of the Roman army that was considered brutality. He was renowned among his own troops as a strict disciplinarian, sometimes to the point of savagery. He cut off the hands of deserters, or broke their legs and hips, leaving them crippled, because he believed that letting them live in misery was more effective as a warning to other men than killing them outright. He was also a hero to the people and, next to the emperor, the second most powerful man in the Roman Empire.

In his youth, Cassius was made a legatus or general in the legions along the Danube, watching over the empire’s Sarmatian foes. He earned his reputation for severity when the following incident happened among the troops under his command there. A small band of Roman auxiliaries led by some centurions stumbled across a group of three thousand Sarmatians, who had camped by the Danube, carelessly exposing their position. The centurions seized the opportunity, caught the enemy off guard, and massacred them. They returned to camp laden with the spoils of their fortuitous victory, expecting to be praised and perhaps even rewarded, but they were in for a shock. Cassius was furious because they acted without the knowledge or approval of their tribunes, the senior officers in a legion. “For all you knew, that could have been an ambush,” Cassius roared, “and if you fools had all been captured, the rest of these barbarians’ may have ceased to live in terror of us!” The Roman legions were outnumbered and depended on the psychological advantage that came from their intimidating reputation. So to make an example of these soldiers, he had them crucified as if they were common slaves, which must have horrified the rest of his camp.

Perhaps as a result of this incident, and despite his already fearsome reputation, Cassius’ men mutinied against him. His response was legendary. He stripped off his armour and, like some kind of madman, strode out of his tent dressed only in a wrestler’s loincloth challenging his men to attack and kill him if any of them were brave enough to add murder to the charge of insubordination. The soldiers who had been complaining were cowed into silence when they saw how fearless and intent their general had become. News of this incident greatly strengthened discipline among the Roman legions and struck fear into the hearts of the enemy, who sought a peace deal with the emperor not long afterwards.

The authority he commanded over his troops was second to none. It made him indispensable to Rome and influential with the emperor, who placed great trust in him.  They had long been good friends, although some rumours say that behind his back, Cassius called Marcus a philosophical old-woman and resented aspects of his rule.  However, Marcus was known for saying “It is impossible to make men exactly as one would wish them to be; we must use them such as they are.”  His forgiving nature stood in stark contrast to Cassius’ severity.  Nevertheless, he placed his trust in Cassius, as a great general, despite their opposing characters.

Cassius was put in command of the legions in the Roman province of Syria because it was feared they had become too soft, something symbolised by accusations they had started bathing in hot water like civilians. It was believed that Cassius would restore discipline, which he did, gaining prominence during the Parthian War between 161 and 166 AD, under the command of the then co-emperor, Lucius Verus, adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius. While Lucius remained in camp safely co-ordinating supplies, Cassius, leading the troops in the field, rose to become his second in command. Toward the end of the wars, Cassius burned down and sacked the ancient city of Seleucia, but his soldiers then contracted the Antonine Plague, which some perhaps saw as a kind of divine punishment. However, on returning home, with the spoils of the campaign, he was rewarded by being elevated to the Senate. The legions also brought the plague – possibly smallpox – back home from Parthia. The empire never fully recovered; five million deaths were due to this hideous disease and for a time the army was significantly hampered by the epidemic. Cassius, however, was later made imperial legate, a governor appointed by the emperor himself rather than the Senate, with supreme command over the province of Syria. When, in 169 AD, Lucius Verus died from symptoms of food poisoning, or possibly the plague, the loss of one of the two co-emperors probably left something of a power vacuum, especially in the east.

In 172 AD, while Marcus, the lone surviving emperor, was occupied with the Marcomanni war on the northern frontier, a sudden crisis meant Cassius had to be granted imperium, the military authority of an emperor himself, throughout the whole of the eastern empire. A people called the Bucoli or “Herdsmen”, led by the priest Isidorus, triggered a general revolt against the Roman authorities, perhaps enraged by increases in Roman taxes required to fund Marcus’ war in the north. The story goes that a handful of these men disguised themselves in women’s clothing and approached a Roman centurion, pretending that they were going to give him gold as ransom for their husbands. They attacked the centurion, however, and captured and sacrificed another officer, swearing an oath over his entrails before ritually devouring them. The revolt spread across Egypt. These mysterious Egyptian tribesmen rapidly gained strength from a groundswell of popular support and even defeated the Romans in a pitched battle. They almost captured the Egyptian capital itself, Alexandria, but Cassius was sent with his troops from Syria to reinforce the Egyptian legion garrisoned there. The tribal warriors he faced were so numerous, nevertheless, that instead of attacking them he chose to bide his time, instigating quarrels among them until he was finally able to divide and conquer. His victory in Egypt made him a hero throughout the empire, especially in the eastern provinces and at Rome. He was also left with exceptional powers throughout the eastern empire.

These events led him to this point. Now Cassius is aged forty five. Although he is Syrian by birth he grew up in Alexandria, the capital of Roman Egypt, where his father, Gaius Avidius Heliodorus, a Roman politician, orator, and Epicurean philosopher, served as prefect. He taught his son that the goal of life is to attain a state of untroubled peace of mind and contentment. However, Cassius had come to think that peace of mind is all good and well, for philosophers, but without power your fortune ultimately depends on the whims of other men. Cassius is finally back home, in supreme military command not only of Alexandria, but the rest of the eastern provinces. His mother was a princess of Judea, descended on her mother’s side from Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and on her father’s side from Herod the Great. She was also descended from a Roman client-king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Commagene, making Cassius a member of the Seleucid imperial dynasty. He was born to rule and extremely popular because of his royal descent, his victories in the Parthian Wars, and celebrated defeat of the Bucoli. Since the co-emperor Lucius Verus died Cassius has been steadily climbing the ladder. Now has the virtual authority of an emperor in the eastern empire – there’s nowhere left to climb.

The one-word missive he now holds in his hands came from one of Rome’s most distinguished men of letters, a scholar of Greek philosophy and literature called Herodes Atticus, a friend and childhood tutor of the sole surviving emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus happens to be all that now stands between Cassius and the imperial throne itself.

Marcus in Pannonia

At the other side of the Roman Empire, in his base camp, the Roman legionary fort of Carnuntum by the river Danube in the province of Pannonia, Marcus greets an army despatch rider. The messenger is exhausted, having journeyed through the night to the gates of the fortress, where he was met by the guards of the Legio XIV Gemina garrison. When the soldiers heard what he was carrying, they rushed him straight to the Emperor’s praetorium, his residence and office in the camp. It took nearly three weeks to get the news here, from the east of the Empire via Rome. Nevertheless, Marcus tells the messenger to take a moment, and get his breath back before speaking. Marcus’ generals and members of his personal entourage gather around him, restlessly waiting for the message. They don’t know the details yet but it’s obviously bad news from Rome. Eventually, he speaks. What he says is so remarkable that he seems scarcely to believe it himself: “My lord Caesar… Avidius Cassius has betrayed you… the Egyptian legion have acclaimed him Emperor!”

The courier has with him a letter from the Senate, confirming the news: On May 3rd 175 AD, Avidius Cassius was acclaimed Emperor of Rome by the Egyptian legion under his command in Alexandria, Legio II Traiana Fortis. “My lord, they’re telling everyone that you’re dead”, he explains. The news of Cassius’ sedition came from Publius Martius Verus, a distinguished Roman general who served as governor of the eastern province of Cappadocia. Support for the rebellion came from Cassius’ own legions in Syria and Egypt, and has started to spread throughout the Eastern Empire. The support of the current Prefect of Egypt, Calvisius Statianus, has given his claim an important seal of approval. The Roman province of Judea now acclaims him as emperor as well. Cassius is an accomplished military strategist with seven legions under his command. He also controls Egypt, the breadbasket of the empire – Rome depends on Egypt for its supply of grain. Crucially, however, Verus’ alarming news comes with the reassurance that he and his own three legions in Cappadocia have declared their loyalty in favour of Marcus. Nevertheless, the threat is extremely serious.

Marcus has been very sick, close to death indeed. Aged 54, perceived as frail and in poor health, his condition has long been the subject of gossip back in Rome. He has severe pains in his stomach and chest. It is said he can only eat during the daytime with the aid of theriac, the traditional cure-all favoured by emperors, prescribed to Marcus by his personal physician Galen. Faustina, his wife and the daughter of his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, had travelled south, back to Rome, several months earlier. Rumours say that frightened by the possibility of his imminent demise, she urged Cassius to stake his claim to the throne. The emperor’s son, Commodus, is only thirteen years old. He is doubtless aware that if his father dies or the throne is usurped while he is still too young to succeed him, his life will be placed in grave peril. Faustina’s plan was said to be that by pre-empting Marcus’ death, Cassius may outmanoeuvre other pretenders to the throne, such as Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, and perhaps even safeguard the succession of her son by marrying her. Others said that Cassius acted on his own initiative, deliberately circulating bogus rumours of Marcus’ death to seize power and declaring Marcus deified to quell accusations of opportunism. Perhaps the most likely explanation was that he’d simply acted in error, not treasonously but genuinely deceived by false intelligence that declared the emperor dead or nearly so.  That seems to be what Marcus assumes has happened. Once the Senate declared him hostis publicus, a public enemy, and seized his assets, however, he apparently felt the situation had spiralled out of control.  Cassius couldn’t back down, and found himself on the brink of fighting a civil war.

Whatever Cassius’ motives were, this has to be treated as an emergency. Marcus’ illness has remitted, at least for now, and he wastes no time in responding to the sedition. He looks over the faces of his generals. They already know that he must prepare to abandon the northern frontier and lead an army south with great haste. Cassius’ legions will soon march against the capital of the empire, if he wishes to secure his claim to the imperial throne. This realisation has thrown the city of Rome into a state of total panic. To make matters worse, it has given Marcus’ opponents on the Senate an opportunity to sabotage his costly Marcomanni campaign. The emperor faced civil unrest when he announced that to push back the barbarian hordes he would have to take emergency measures, conscripting slaves and gladiators into the army and raising taxes throughout the provinces. That made him temporarily unpopular in the east, where the public resent funding a war on the other side of the empire – in Egypt and Syria the Marcomanni and their allies seem like someone else’s problem. The family of his deceased co-emperor, Lucius Verus, and their allies, have formed a kind of anti-war faction, stoking the fires of discontent over his lengthy absence in the north.

Not long after the Parthian wars of Lucius Verus had ended in the east, the Marcomannic wars began in the north. From 168 AD onward, Marcus became personally involved in the northern campaign. He commands twelve legions, about 100,000 men in total, the largest army ever massed on the frontier of the Roman empire. Despite his complete lack of any military training or experience, the men under Marcus’ command have come to love and admire him. Soldiers tell stories about him: how in June of 174 AD his prayers once sent a mighty thunderbolt from the heavens to destroy a siege engine being used by the Sarmatians, as if he’d summoned the fury of Jupiter himself. A month later he drew down a sudden torrential rain to quench the thirst of his soldiers, a detachment of the Thundering Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) led by his general Publius Helvius Pertinax. Their drinking water was gone and they were hemmed in and outnumbered by the Quadi. The story goes that his men were so thirsty that as they fought off the barbarians they gulped down rainwater mixed with the blood streaming from their own wounds. The Quadi charge was allegedly broken by hailstorms and lightning strikes, throwing them into disarray. In honour of these and other victories, the army acclaimed Marcus imperator for the seventh time.  The troops also love and admire his wife, Faustina. During the Quadi campaign, the men nicknamed her Matrem Castrorum, “Mother of the Camp”. She came to war with them, accompanying Marcus, travelling with them and raising their morale. Conditions on the northern frontier could be harsh, though. The winters in Carnuntum were particularly brutal. One day the centurions were interrogating a barbarian youth they’d captured. They couldn’t break him with threats. Marcus noticed how badly the boy was shivering as they stood outside in the snow together. He said, “Lord, if you will only give me a coat, I’ll answer you.” The centurions laughed out loud but Marcus knew that if the tribes wanted to migrate south into Roman provinces badly enough he could bargain with the offer of resettling them in more hospitable regions.

After hours of heated discussion, the emperor finally retires to his private quarters. His generals want to keep discussing what action to take, through the night. However, that can wait. They will have weeks to talk. He gives orders that he is to be left alone with his meditations for the rest of the evening. Sitting in silence, he gradually withdraws into his own mind, focusing on the incipient disturbance he feels: anger, frustration. These are emotional reflex-reactions, the Stoics call propatheiai, or proto-passions. Thoughts rush into his mind unbidden: memories of conversations, unanswered questions, fear, worry… Some say he had long dreamt of founding the Roman provinces of Marcomanni and Sarmatia, and was close to doing so until Cassius’ revolt. In any case, that will now have to be put on hold until order has been restored. He imagines his enemies in Rome, who oppose the northern campaign, rubbing their hands with glee at this predicament, and hastening their plots against him. Another anxious thought suddenly occurs: Commodus will have to be summoned from Rome, for his own protection – it’s not safe for him there now. Faustina has only recently returned to Rome – but she would never betray him like this. So many thoughts, so many questions…

For a while, Marcus merely observes his harried mind from a distance, trying to refrain from being swept along by the impressions passing though his awareness… trying not to agree with them, or perpetuate them any further… He observes the subtle changes in his own body with the detachment of a natural philosopher: his hands want to clench, his shoulders tense, his brow furrowed, he notices his heart beating faster than normal, as his temperature literally rises. It feels like half the empire want him dead. Maybe his death is drawing closer, his body is failing him. Finally, he arrives at a conclusion about what to do with his feelings. The Stoic teacher Epictetus said everything has two handles. For now, this is the handle he will have to use to pick up the crisis, in order to regain his composure. He quickly writes down a summary of his guidance to himself:

If you require a crude kind of comfort to reach your heart, perhaps you can best be reconciled to death by remembering from what you are going to be removed, and the morals of those with whom your soul will no longer be associated. For it is never right to feel offended by people but it is your duty to care for them and to bear with them gently. And yet remember that your departure will be from people who do not have the same moral principles as you do. For this, if anything, is the one and only thing that could draw us back and attach us to life: to be permitted to live with friends who share our values. But now that you see how much trouble arises from conflict between those who live in this world, you can say: “Come quick, O death, lest perchance I, too, should forget myself.” [Meditations, 9.3]

This is indeed crude medicine. When feelings are overwhelming, Stoics bide their time, waiting for them to abate naturally before trying to reason with themselves. The Stoic Athenodorus, advisor to the first emperor, Augustus, once taught him to respond to rising feelings of anger by slowly reciting the Greek alphabet, to gain time for his feelings to abate before doing anything else.  Marcus is buying himself time to deal with the underlying cause of his anger. He sets the worry aside in this way, and tries to sleep, although the pain in his stomach, as always, is threatening to keep him awake.

At daybreak, Marcus immediately sends the despatch rider on his way with letters for the Senate, his ally Verus in Cappadocia, and most importantly for Cassius in Egypt. His message is clear: the emperor confirms that he is alive, in good health, and is returning to Rome. Now he must make rapid arrangements for peace in the north so that he will be free to march south, restore order, and quell rumours with his presence. However, it would be premature to address his troops about the incident until he knows for certain that civil war is unavoidable. He also doesn’t want the barbarians getting wind of the crisis back home.

In private, he continues to meditate on his reaction to the news. The hardest thing to deal with is the uncertainty of the situation. If only he knew more about what was happening. It’s hard not to worry and think the worst when there are so many unanswered questions. However, he needs to regain his focus because much work will have to be done here before he is free to abandon the northern frontier. So narrowing his attention, he focuses upon the very core of his being: the seat of reason, his ruling faculty. He seeks to identify the value judgements responsible for the feelings of anger and frustration persisting within him. Sometimes he catches himself dwelling on the impression that he has been harmed by the rebellion, and he wants to harm Cassius and the other conspirators. He pauses for a moment then writes the following reminder to himself:

If they did the wrong thing then that’s bad for them. But for all you know they did nothing wrong. (Meditations, 9.38)

Nothing can truly harm me, by damaging my character, except my own value judgements. Cassius has harmed himself, not me. Marcus repeats the phrase Epictetus taught his students to use in situations like this: “It seemed right to him.” He has to assume at some level that Cassius believed he was doing the right thing. He acts out of ignorance of what is genuinely right and wrong for no man does wrong knowingly.  Of course, it’s precisely this philosophical attitude that Cassius resents in Marcus because to him forgiveness is merely a sign of weakness.

Marcus Announces the Civil War

Several weeks pass. By now, news must have reached Cassius that Marcus is still alive but there has been no word of him standing down. Rumour and unrest are starting to spread around the camp. The time has come for the emperor to address his men, and announce that they will be marching south to defend Rome and engage Cassius’ legions. At least he can assure them, based on the letter he received, that Martius Verus, the highly-regarded commander of the legions in Cappadocia, is on their side.  Cassius’ rebellion clearly lacks unanimous support among the eastern provinces.

Fellow soldiers, it is not to give way to bitter resentment or to complain that I have now come before you. What would be the point of being angry with God, to whom all things are possible. Still, perhaps it is necessary for those who unjustly experience misfortune to lament over the actions of others, and that is now my case. For it is surely a dreadful thing for us to be engaged in war after war. Surely it is remarkable that we are now involved in a civil war. And surely it seems beyond terrible and beyond remarkable that there is no loyalty to be found among these men, and that I have been conspired against by one whom I held most dear. Although I had done no wrong and nothing amiss, I have been forced into a conflict against my will. For what virtue can be considered safe, what friendship can any longer be deemed secure, seeing that this has befallen me? Has not trust utterly perished, and optimism perished with it? Indeed, I would have considered it a small thing had the danger been to me alone — for assuredly I was not born to be immortal. However, now there has been a secession, or rather a rebellion, in the state and civil war touches us all alike. And had it been possible I would gladly have invited Cassius here to argue the matter at issue out before you or before the Senate. I would willingly have yielded the supreme power to him without a struggle if that seemed expedient for the common good. For it is only in the public interest that I continue to incur toil and danger, and have spent so much time here beyond the bounds of Italy, old man as I now am and ailing, unable to take food without pain, or sleep without care.

However, since Cassius would never agree to meet me for this purpose — for how could he trust me after having shown himself so untrustworthy toward me? — you, my fellow soldiers, ought to be of good cheer. For Cilicians and Syrians and Jews and Egyptians have never been a match for you, and never will, no, not though they numbered many thousands more than you whereas now it is many thousands less. Nor need even Cassius himself be held of any great account regarding the present crisis, however much he may seem to be a great commander and credited with many successful campaigns. For an eagle at the head of daws makes no formidable foe, nor a lion at the head of fawns, and as for the Arabian war and the great Parthian war, it was you not Cassius who brought them to a successful conclusion. Moreover, even if he has won distinction by his Parthian campaigns, you have Martius Verus on your side, who has won no fewer but far more victories, and acquired greater territory than he. However, perhaps even now, learning that I am alive, Cassius has repented of his actions. For surely it was only because he believed me dead that he acted thus. Nevertheless, if he still persists in this course, even when he learns that we are indeed marching against him, he will doubtless think better of it both from dread of you and out of respect for me.

Let me tell you the whole truth. There is only one thing I fear, fellow-soldiers: that either he should take his own life, being too ashamed to come into our presence, or that another should slay him on learning that I coming and have already set out against him. For then I should be deprived of a great prize both of war and of victory, a prize such as no human being has ever yet obtained. And what is this prize? To forgive a man who has done wrong, to be still a friend to one who has trodden friendship underfoot, to continue being faithful to one who has broken faith. What I say may perhaps seem incredible to you, but you must not doubt it. For surely all goodness has not yet entirely perished from among men, but there is still in us a remnant of the ancient virtue. However, if anyone should disbelieve it, that merely strengthens my desire, in order that men may see accomplished with their own eyes what no one would believe could come to pass. For this would be the one profit I could gain from my present troubles, if I were able to bring the matter to an honourable conclusion, and show all the world that there is a right way to deal even with civil war.

After reciting these words to the soldiers, he sends a written copy of the speech to the Senate. He tries to avoid criticising Cassius too much. Although they are now at war, and despite rumours that he criticised him behind his back, Cassius has never in the past said or written anything in open criticism of Marcus.

Marcus’ Meditations

Marcus and his legions must march for almost a month to reach Rome. En route he has plenty of opportunity to contemplate what is happening. Now that his initial feelings of anger and frustration have finally abated he rehearses his Stoic doctrines more carefully and systematically. He still faces uncertainty over Cassius’ motives, so he anticipates every possibility he can imagine.

When you’re offended with someone’s immoral behaviour, ask yourself immediately whether it’s possible that no immoral men exist in the world? No, it’s not possible. So don’t demand what’s impossible. The man who troubles you is another one of those shameless people who necessarily exist in the world. Let the same considerations be present to your mind in the case of crooked and untrustworthy men, and of everyone who does wrong in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible in general these sort of men should not exist, you will grow disposed to be more kindly toward every one of them as an individual. [Meditations, 9.42]

Marcus pauses and contemplates the cold logic of his reasoning. There are both good and bad people in the world, it would be naive to say otherwise. So isn’t it dishonest, in a sense, to act surprised when you happen to run across a bad man, who does bad things? Shouldn’t you expect that to happen frequently in life? The wise man anticipates all things, at least in broad strokes. He might not know who or when, but he knows as surely as he knows winter is coming, that sooner or later someone will probably betray him.

It’s also useful, when the occasion arises, to recall immediately the virtues nature has given men to counteract to every wrongful act. She has given us mildness as an antidote against the stupid man, and other powers against other kinds of men. And in all cases it is possible for you to set the man who is gone astray right by teaching him because every man who errs misses his object and has gone astray. [Meditations, 9.42]

As a student of Stoicism, Marcus was taught to confront himself with this question: What virtue, what possible quality or ability, has nature given you that’s best designed to deal with this problem? That’s why it was useful to learn by heart the many names of virtues. To go through that mental list and consider how a prudent man would respond, or how justice would have us respond. The cardinal virtue of Stoicism in relation to the social sphere is called dikaiosune. “Justice” makes it sound formal, “righteousness” maybe too pompous, “morality” perhaps a bit too vague – but it’s something between those ideas. The Stoics divided “justice” into two main subordinate virtues: benevolence and fairness. The virtue Marcus settled on as most relevant here was benevolence, kindness, which in the hands of an emperor we call clemency. Now he’s given a name to the virtue the situation demands, it seems a little easier to imagine something other than anger and vengeance, to picture another way of responding, a more rational way forward. We help others most by educating them, according to Socrates. Wisdom is the greatest good, therefore we should help others to move closer toward wisdom. Marcus believes his duty is to set Cassius and the others back on the right path, if possible, and to set an example of virtue through his own clemency toward them.

Anyway, how have you been injured? You’ll find that none of the people with whom you’re irritated have done anything by which your character could be made worse. That which is bad for you and harmful has its foundation within you only. And what harm is done or what is there to be surprised at if a man who has not been instructed acts like an uninstructed man? Consider whether you shouldn’t rather blame yourself, because you didn’t expect a man like this to err in this way. For you had the means, through reason, to suppose that he would likely commit this error, and yet you have somehow forgotten this and are amazed that he has. [Meditations, 9.42]

He recalls the closing words of Epictetus’ Handbook: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” Did Socrates really say that? Those were two of the men who brought him to trial. What he meant was that even though they have him cast in prison, and executed, nobody can harm his character, and that’s all that matters, ultimately. If anything, Marcus reasons, he should blame himself for not having seen this coming. Cassius and the others should be educated, somehow, if possible that would be a more philosophical solution than having them exiled or executed.

All of these doctrines were of some benefit. However, the one he finally settles upon as most in keeping with the situation is this: nobody can frustrate us unless we allow them to.  If we naively assume that they are going to keep treating us with gratitude, and foolishly place great importance on them doing so, although it is beyond our direct control, we’re obviously making ourselves vulnerable to emotional distress, such as anger.

But most of all when you blame someone for being faithless or ungrateful, take a look at yourself. For the fault is obviously your own, whether you trusted someone of that character would keep his promise or whether you neither conferred your kindness unconditionally nor so as to have received all reward from the very act itself. For what more do you want when you have done a man a service? Are you not content that you’ve done something true to your nature; do you seek to be paid back for it as well? That would be just like the eye demanding a reward for seeing, or the feet for walking. For these limbs and organs are formed for a particular purpose, and by working according to their nature obtain what is their own reward. Likewise, man is formed by nature for acts of kindness and so when he has done anything benevolent or in any other way beneficial to the common interest of mankind he has acted in accord with his nature and he thereby gets what’s his own reward. [Meditations, 9.42]

Marcus talks himself through this.  When you handed such power to Cassius, making him virtually a dictator over the eastern empire, did you expect his gratitude? You should have known better. You set yourself up by assuming that he would be so grateful he would never do anything to displease you. It’s your duty according to Stoicism to act virtuously without expecting anything in return.

The March South & Cassius’ Death

Over time, with daily meditations of this kind, Marcus has regained his famous composure. And his perspective has shifted, his habitual thoughts returning back to the wisdom he rehearses each morning. Reason tells him that setbacks like this are to be expected – it would be foolish and naive for a sovereign to act surprised at the appearance of a would-be usurper.  Now he has to reconcile acceptance with action.

However, the Senate’s message made it clear that Rome has been thrown into complete panic by the news of Cassius’ sedition and the threat of civil war is real. The people were now terrified that Cassius would invade Rome in Marcus’ absence and sack the whole city in revenge.  The Quadi had sued for peace and Marcus was left pursuing the Iazynges when Cassius rebelled. To leave the north, he has been forced to agree a hurried truce with the Iazyges, on terms that he is reluctant to accept. The barbarian leaders rushed to offer their services in putting down Cassius’ rebellion but Marcus refused their help because he felt enemy nations should not be allowed to know about the troubles arising between Romans. To do so would risk undermining their fear and respect for the Roman army, which he knew was crucial in maintaining order.

One of Marcus’ finest generals on the northern frontier, Marcus Valerius Maximianus, has already been sent ahead with twenty-thousand men, to engage with Cassius’ legions in Syria preemptively and stall any movement toward Rome. Marcus has also sent the distinguished military commander Vettius Sabinianus with a detachment from Pannonia to secure the city of Rome against any possible advance by Cassius and also to quell unrest caused by Marcus’ political enemies. The news was that Cassius was preparing to instigate a civil war, now that he realised the Senate would not recognise his acclamation as Emperor.

Cassius was in a strong position at the beginning. However, support for his rebellion has failed to spread. With the exception of a few dissenters, Marcus has the support of the Roman Senate. In the east, the provinces of Cappadocia and Bithynia both remain loyal to Marcus. The Egyptian Prefect, Calvisius Statianus joined the revolt and Cassius retains command over seven legions: three in Syria, two in Roman Judaea, one in Arabia and one in Egypt. However, this is a fraction, maybe less than a third, of the legions who remain under Marcus’ supreme command, throughout the rest of the empire. Moreover, Marcus’ own northern legions are battle-hardened and highly-disciplined veterans, whereas the legions of the east are perceived as relatively soft.

Now, precisely three months and six days, after Cassius was acclaimed emperor, another despatch rider arrives at Marcus’ camp, while his army is on the move southward. “My lord Caesar,” the messenger announces, “general Cassius lies dead, slain by his own legion.” While he was walking, Cassius encountered a centurion called Antonius who charged toward him on horseback and stabbed him in the neck. Cassius was badly wounded but still alive, and nearly escaped with his life, but a cavalry officer (decurion) finished him off. Together the men cut off Cassius’ head and have set off with it to meet with Marcus.

The revolt ended suddenly when the Egyptian and Syrian legions under Cassius’ command learned that Marcus himself was leading the legions of the Danube against them to suppress the revolt. Realising that they were hopelessly outnumbered and lacking the will to fight, the Egyptian legion convinced one of their centurions to assassinate Cassius. Now, several days have passed, and Antonius and his companion have arrived with grisly evidence of the usurper’s demise. Marcus orders them turned away, refusing to look at the severed head of his former friend. His instructions are that it should be buried instead. Although his troops are euphoric, Marcus does not celebrate. Maccianus, an ally of Cassius, who was placed in charge of Alexandria, was also killed by the army, as was his prefect of the guard. By forgiving the legion, Marcus had inadvertently signed Cassius’ death warrant. The Egyptian and Syrian legions had no more reason to fight the larger and far superior army approaching them from the north. The only thing between them and their pardon was Cassius, who refused to stand down. So his officers said, “If you’re so eager to die here, be our guest”, and removed his head from his body at the first opportunity.

Epilogue

Marcus was recognised as sole emperor again, throughout the Empire, by July 175 AD. He did not take severe measures against Cassius’ loved ones, who survived him. He only executed a few of those involved in the plot, men who had committed other crimes. As agreed, he did not punish the legionaries under Cassius’ command either but sent them back to their usual role, keeping watch over the Parthian Empire. He prohibited the Senate from severely punishing those involved in plotting the rebellion. He asked that no Senators be executed during his reign, that those Senators who had been exiled should return. He pardoned the cities who had sided with Cassius, even Antioch which had been one of Cassius’ greatest supporters and critical of Marcus’ rule. However, he did end their games, public meetings and assemblies, and released a stern proclamation against them. At first, Marcus refused to visit Antioch or Cyrrhus, the home of Cassius, when he visited Syria, although later he did agree to visit the former city. However, he treated Alexandria with greater clemency, perhaps because the garrison there were the ones who actually brought an end to the rebellion.

We’re told Marcus wrote a letter to the “Conscript Fathers” of the Senate, pleading with them to act with clemency toward those involved in Cassius’ rebellion. He asks that no Senator be punished, no man of noble birth executed, that the exiled should return, and goods returned to those from whom they had been seized. Accomplices of Cassius among the senatorial and equestrian orders were to be protected from any type of punishment or harm. “Would that I could recall the condemned also from the Shades”, he says. The children of Cassius were to be pardoned, along with his son-in-law and wife, because they had done no wrong. Marcus ordered that they were to live on under his protection, free to travel as they please, and Cassius’ wealth divided fairly between them. He wanted to be able to say that only those slain during the rebellion had died as a result. There were to be no witch-hunts or acts of revenge afterwards.

Mercy toward those Senators who had supported Cassius was probably wise in any case, as Marcus doubtless wanted to restore peace quickly in Rome, so that he could return to the northern frontier. First, though, he found it necessary to tour the eastern provinces to help restore order there, in the wake of the crisis. Indeed, his popularity in the eastern empire grew as a result. Marcus also passed a law that no senator could become governor in the province where he had been born, to try to prevent provincial rulers becoming overly-powerful. He reputedly ordered all of Cassius’ correspondence to be burned, however, which gave rise to rumours that there was something to hide, such as a plot between Cassius and Faustina.

Indeed, Faustina died in winter 175 AD or spring 176 AD, within half a year of the revolt being suppressed. There were rumours she committed suicide because of her association with Avidius Cassius. She was held in high regard by Marcus, however, and deified after her death. She remained an immensely popular figure after her death, despite the rumours surrounding her life.  Shortly after Faustina’s death, in January 177 AD, Commodus was appointed a consul and co-emperor with Marcus, aged fifteen. By law, consuls normally needed to be 33 years old. Perhaps Marcus rushed things to try to secure Commodus’ position as his heir. However, after Marcus’ death in 180 AD, and against his orders for clemency, Commodus had the descendants of Cassius sought out and burned alive as traitors.

We can assume that even after the death of Cassius, each morning, Marcus continued his daily Stoic practice.  Mentally-rehearsing hypothetical encounters with meddling, ungrateful, insolent, treacherous, slandering, and selfish people, just as he had done for many years before Cassius’ betrayed him.  Perhaps, looking back on events, he also repeated to himself the Stoic maxim: “It seemed right to him.”

What the Stoics Really Said

This article provides an overview of some of the specific verbal formulas to be found in Stoic writings, particularly those derived from Epictetus.

Epictetus-Enchiridion-Poster.jpgEpictetus often told his students to repeat specific phrases to themselves in response to certain challenging situations in life. As Pierre Hadot notes, often (but not always) he uses the word epilegein, which might be translated “saying in addition” to something, or “saying in response” to something, i.e., to verbally add something. (The ancient Greeks occasionally used the same word, incidentally, to mean reciting a magical incantation.)

As the examples Epictetus gives often appear to be concise verbal formulae, it’s not a great leap to compare them to modern concepts such as “coping statements” in cognitive therapy or just “verbal affirmations” in self-help literature. Translating Greek philosophical texts often leads to slightly more long-winded English. For example, Epictetus tells his students to say “You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.” Those fifteen English words translate only seven Greek words φαντασία εἶ καὶ οὐ πάντως τὸ φαινόμενον.  So the original phrase taught by Epictetus is often much briefer and more laconic.

There are many more verbal formulae in Epictetus and other Stoic writings but for now I’ve just collected together some of the key passages where he specifically uses the verb epilegein.

“This is the price I am willing to pay for retaining my composure.”

Is a little oil spilt or a little wine stolen? Say in addition [epilege] “This is the price paid for being dispassionate [apatheia] and tranquil [ataraxia]; and nothing is to be had for nothing.” (Enchiridion, 12)

Epictetus, and other Stoics, very often use this financial metaphor.  We should view life as a series of transactions, where we’re being asked to exchange our inner state for externals.  We might obtain great wealth, but pay the price of sacrificing our integrity or peace of mind.  The New Testament says “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul”.  That could easily have been said by a Stoic philosopher and it beautifully captures what they mean.  On the other hand, if you choose to value virtue above any externals, you might remind yourself of this by saying that sometimes sacrificing wealth or reputation, or accepting their loss without complaint, is the price you’re willing to pay for retaining your equanimity.

“This is an obstacle for the body but not for the mind.”

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will [prohairesis]. Say this in addition [epilege] on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)

There’s some wordplay here lost in translation because the Greek word for an impediment or obstacle literally means that something is “at your feet”, and here Epictetus uses it to refer to something actually impeding our leg from moving.  It’s tricky to capture the scope of prohairesis in English, and it’s usually translated as something like “will”, “volition” or “moral choice” – it means something between what we would call volition and choice.

“I want to do these things but I also want more to keep my mind in harmony with nature.”

When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. […] And thus you will more safely go about this action, if you say in addition [epileges] “I will now go to bathe, and keep my own will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action. Fur this, if any impediment arises in bathing you will be able to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will [prohairesis] in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus, if I am out of humour at things that happen.” (Enchiridion, 4)

This is also tricky to translate but mainly because it condenses a great deal of Stoic philosophy in a slightly opaque way.  Stoic action with a “reserve clause” involves both an external outcome that’s sought “lightly”, in a dispassionate manner, and an inner goal (wisdom/virtue) that’s prized more highly.  In any activity, the Stoic should remind himself that his primary goal is to come out of it with wisdom and virtue intact, or increased, and that’s infinitely more important than whether he succeeds or fails in terms of outward events.

“It’s just a cheap mug.”

In every thing which pleases the soul or supplies a want, or is loved, remember to say in addition [epilegein] what the nature of each thing is, beginning from the smallest. If you love an earthenware cup, say it is an earthenware cup that you love; for when it has been broken, you will not be disturbed. If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a mortal whom you are kissing, afor when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed. (Enchiridion, 3)

What Epictetus starts off with is an example comparable to a “plastic cup”.  Something very common, cheap, trivial, and dispensable.  There are many examples in Marcus Aurelius of this method of “objective representation”, which involves describing things dispassionately, as a natural philosopher or scientist might.  Napoleon reputedly said that a throne is just a bench covered in velvet.  The last remark about the mortality of one’s wife and child seems shocking to many modern readers.  However, it is probably based on a well-known ancient saying: “I knew that my son was mortal.”

“You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent.”

Straightway then practise saying in addition [epilegein] regarding every harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and in no manner what you appear to be.” Then examine it by the rules which you possess, and by this first and chiefly, whether it relates to the things which are in our power or to things which are not in our power: and if it relates to any thing which is not in our power, be ready to say, that it does not concern you. (Enchiridion, 1)

This appears to mean that impressions are just mental events and not to be confused with the external things they claim to portray.  The map is not the terrain.  The menu is not the meal.

“It is nothing to me.”

How shall I use the impressions presented to me? According to nature or contrary to nature? How do I answer them? As I ought or as I ought not? Do I say in addition [epilego] to things external to my will [aprohairetois] that “they are nothing to me”? (Discourses, 3.16)

This abrupt phrase, ouden pros emi, occurs very many times throughout the Discourses.  The Greek is strikingly concise.

“That’s his opinion.” / “It seems right to him.”

When any person treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he does this or says this because he thinks that it is his duty. It is not possible then for him to follow that which seems right to you, but that which seems right to himself. Accordingly if he is wrong in his opinion, he is the person who is hurt, for he is the person who has been deceived […] If you proceed then from these opinions, you will be mild in temper to him who reviles you: for say in addition [epiphtheggomai] on each occasion: “It seemed so to him”. (Enchiridion, 42)

Passages like these, dealing with Stoic doctrines regarding empathy and social virtue are often ignored by modern self-help writers on Stoicism for some reason.  This doctrine goes back to Socrates’ notion that no man does evil willingly, or knowingly, that vice is a form of moral ignorance and virtue a form of moral wisdom.  The phrase ἔδοξεν αὐτῷ could also be translated “That’s his opinion” or perhaps “It seems right to him.”

“This is not misfortune because bearing it with a noble spirit becomes our good fortune.”

Remember for the future, whenever anything begins to trouble you, to make use of the following judgement [dogmata]: ‘This thing is not a misfortune but to bear it nobly is good fortune. (Fragment 28b)

Quoted by Marcus in Meditations 4.49.  This is a common theme in the Stoic literature.  Adversity gives us the opportunity to exercise virtue, and handled well therefore every misfortune turns into good fortune, for the wise.

“This is a familiar sight.” / “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

What is vice?  A familiar sight enough.  So with everything that befalls have ready-to-hand: ‘This is a familiar sight.’  Look up, look down, everywhere you will find the same things, of which histories ancient, medieval, and modern are full, and full of them at this day are cities and houses.  There is nothing new under the sun.  Everything is familiar, everything fleeting.  (Meditations, 7.1)

Marcus makes it clear this is a phrase to have ready in mind, memorized, to be repeated in response to all manner of situations.

“How does this affect me?  Shall I regret it?”

In every action, ask yourself “How does this affect me?  Shall I regret it?”  In a little while, I will be dead and all will be past and gone.  (Meditations, 8.2)

He goes on to say that all I can ask for is that my present actions are rational, social, and at one with the Law of God.

“Give what you will, take back what you will.”

The well-schooled and humble heart says to Nature, who gives and takes back all we have: “Give what you will, take back what you will.”  But he says it without any bravado of fortitude, in simple obedience and good will to her. (Meditations, 10.10)

This sounds like “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”.  However, it also recalls many other comments by Marcus.

“Where are they now?”

There’s a famous Latin poetry trope called ubi sunt and this Stoic phrase seems to say exactly the same thing in Greek: Pou oun ekeinoi?

Let a glance at yourself [in a mirror?] bring to mind one of the Caesars, and so by analogy in every case.  Then let the thought strike you: “Where are they now?” Nowhere, or none can say where.  For thus shall you habitually look on human things as mere smoke and as naught.  (Meditations, 10.31)

This is a recurring theme in his writings but it’s verbal formula is perhaps stated most explicitly in this passage.

“What purpose does this person have in mind?”

In every act of another habituate yourself as far as may be to put to yourself the question: “What end has the man in view?”  But begin with yourself, cross-examine yourself first (Meditations, 10.37).

This is also a common theme in Marcus’ Meditations, to examine the motives of others and what they assume to be good or bad in life, as a means to forgiveness and empathy, through understanding.

“The cosmos = change; life = opinion.”

But among the principles ready to your hand, upon which you shall pore, let there be these two.  One, that objective things do not lay hold of the soul, but stand quiescent without; while disturbances are but the outcome of that opinion which is within us.  A second, that all this visible world changes in a moment, and will be no more; and continually think how many things you have already witnessed changing.  “The cosmos is change; life is opinion.” (Meditations, 4.3)

The Greek says very simply: ho kosmos, alloiosis. ho bios, hupolepsis.  Literally: “The cosmos, change; life, opinion.”  This was obviously meant to be memorized, like slogan or mnemonic.  Marcus means that the external world is constantly changing and nothing lasts forever; and that the quality of our lives is determined by our judgments, mainly those about what is good or bad in life.

Book Review: The Daily Stoic

Review of The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.

The Daily Stoic Cover

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living is a new book, co-authored by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.  The authors generously provided free copies to everyone attending the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York City, where Ryan was keynote speaker.

The book consists of new translations, by Stephen Hanselman, of passages from ancient Stoic authors, with accompanying commentary.  Each month is assigned a different theme, with daily readings on its different aspects.  Although book designed to provide material for daily contemplative practice, I read it straight through, mostly on a long flight back from London to Canada.  I found the new versions of the ancient texts very valuable, and especially the technical glossary of Stoic technical terms at the back of the book.  The commentaries were also very readable and worthwhile, and a wide range of literary and philosophical references, especially to famous figures in American history.  These will undoubtedly help to make the Stoic texts appear more relevant and accessible to modern readers.  The passages included are mainly from the philosophical writings of the three most famous Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus (via his student Arrian), and Marcus Aurelius.  However, there are also several gems from the Stoic sayings of Zeno included in Diogenes Laertius, and from the often-overlooked plays of Seneca.

I’ve no doubt many people will find this very-readable collection of Stoic sayings, a great introduction to the philosophy.  It stands in a long tradition: anthologies of philosophical sayings were common in the ancient world.  Indeed, it’s mainly thanks to compilations of philosophical sayings such as those found in the Anthology of Stobaeus and the Lives and Opinions of Diogenes Laertius that passages from the early Greek Stoics survive today.