When I was thirteen years old, my father died. He’d developed lung cancer in his fifties, which left him bedridden for a year before it finally killed him. He was a humble and decent man, who encouraged me to think more deeply about life.
I was totally unprepared for his death, and I coped with it badly. I became angry and depressed. I’d stay out all night, playing cat and mouse with the local cops, breaking into buildings and waiting for them to arrive so I could run into gardens and dive over hedges and fences to lose them. I was always in trouble, either for skipping lessons at school, arguing with my teachers, or getting in fights with my classmates. As soon as my sixteenth birthday came around, I was marched briskly down to the headmaster’s office and given two choices: either leave voluntarily or be expelled. So I left, and I was subsequently placed in a special program for troubled kids. I felt that my life was spiraling rapidly out of control. I’d been labeled a “write-off” by school and social services. I didn’t really see any point trying to prove them wrong.
Each evening my father would come home from his work as a digger driver on building sites and collapse exhausted in an armchair, hands covered in grease and dirt. The job didn’t pay well, and he hadn’t two pennies to rub together, but he never complained. When he was a young man, his best friend had passed away, leaving my father a farm in his will, to everyone’s surprise. He refused the bequest, returning the land to the other man’s family. He used to say, “Money won’t bring you happiness,” and he really believed that. He showed me that there are more important things in life and that true wealth comes from being contented with whatever you have rather than desiring to have more and more.
After my father’s funeral, my mother placed his old leather wallet on the dining room table and told me to take it. I opened it slowly; I think my hands were shaking but I’m not sure why. Inside there was nothing except a badly worn scrap of paper. It turned out to be a passage he’d torn from the Book of Exodus: “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” I was desperate to understand what on earth those words could possibly have meant to him. My own philosophical journey began precisely at that moment, as I stood there perplexed, with that piece of paper in my hand.
When I learned many years later that Marcus Aurelius had lost his father at an early age, I wondered if he’d been left searching in the same way I had for a sense of direction. After my father’s death, I was left with religious and philosophical questions that troubled me very deeply. I remember being terrified of dying. I would lie in bed at night unable to sleep, trying to solve the riddle of existence and find some consolation. It was as though I had an itch at the back of my brain that I needed to scratch but couldn’t quite reach. I didn’t know it at the time, but that sort of existential anxiety is a common experience that drives people to the study of philosophy. The philosopher Spinoza, for example, wrote:
I thus perceived that I was in a state of great peril, and I compelled myself to seek with all my strength for a remedy, however uncertain it might be; as a sick man struggling with a deadly disease, when he sees that death will surely be upon him unless a remedy be found, is compelled to seek such a remedy with all his strength, inasmuch as his whole hope lies therein.1
I took the phrase “I am that I am” to refer to the pure awareness of existence itself, which at first seemed like something deeply mystical or metaphysical to me: “I am the consciousness of my own existence.” It reminded me of the famous inscription from the Delphic Oracle’s shrine: Know Thyself. That became one of my maxims. I grew quite obsessed with the pursuit of self-knowledge, through meditation and all forms of contemplative exercises.
I found out later that the passage my father carried with him all those years plays an important role in the rites of a Masonic chapter called the “Royal Arch.” During initiation the candidate is asked, “Are you a Royal Arch Mason?” to which he replies, “I—AM—THAT—I—AM.” Freemasonry has a long history in Scotland, going back at least four centuries, and it has deep roots in my hometown of Ayr. My father and many of my friends’ fathers were members of the local lodge. Most Freemasons are Christians, but they employ nondenominational language, referring to God as “the Great Architect of the Universe.” According to the legend presented in some of their texts, a set of spiritual teachings originating with the builders of King Solomon’s temple was brought to the West by the philosopher Pythagoras and further disseminated by Plato and Euclid. This ancient wisdom was reputedly handed down through the centuries by medieval Masonic lodges. They used esoteric rituals, geometric symbols such as the square, and compasses to convey their spiritual doctrines. Freemasonry also celebrates the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy, which correspond symbolically with the four corners of the lodge: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. (Wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, if you prefer more modern terms.) My father took these ethical teachings seriously, and they shaped his character in a way that left a lasting impression on me. Freemasonry, at least for sincere practitioners like my father, didn’t represent the bookish sort of philosophy taught in the ivory towers of universities, but rather something derived from a much older conception of Western philosophy as a spiritual way of life.
As it happened, I wasn’t old enough to become a Freemason, and with my reputation around town I wouldn’t have been invited to join anyway. So, with negligible formal education behind me, I began reading everything I could about philosophy and religion. I’m not sure I would have even been able to articulate exactly what I was looking for at that time, except that it would have to somehow combine my interests in philosophy, meditation, and psychotherapy. I needed a more rational, philosophical guide to life, but nothing seemed to fit the bill. Then I had the good fortune to encounter Socrates.
I had been studying the collection of ancient Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, which are inflected with Greek philosophy. This led me to begin reading the Platonic dialogues, which portray Socrates, the quintessential Greek philosopher, questioning his friends and other interlocutors about their deepest values. He tended to focus on the cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy, later adopted by Freemasons. Socrates didn’t write any books on philosophy—we know about him only through the works of others, mainly dialogues written by two of his most famous students, Plato and Xenophon. According to legend, Socrates was the first person to apply the philosophical method to ethical questions. He particularly wanted to help others to live wisely, in accord with reason. For Socrates, philosophy was not only a moral guide but also a kind of psychological therapy. Doing philosophy, he said, can help us overcome our fear of death, improve our character, and even find a genuine sense of fulfillment.
The Socratic dialogues are often notoriously inconclusive. Indeed, Socrates’s insistence that he knew that he knew nothing about certain matters, referred to as “Socratic irony,” later inspired the tradition known as Greek Skepticism. Nevertheless, he appears to have communicated positive teachings to his students about the best way to live. The cornerstone of these is captured in a famous passage from Plato’s Apology. Socrates faces the trumped-up charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, which would lead to his execution. Rather than apologize, though, or plead for mercy and parade his weeping wife and children before the jury as others did, he just carries on doing philosophy by questioning his accusers and lecturing the jury on ethics. At one point, he explains in plain language what it means to him to be a philosopher:
For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul, as I say to you: “Wealth does not bring about virtue, but virtue makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.”2
That’s how he lived his life, and his students sought to emulate that example. We are to place more importance upon wisdom and virtue than anything else. A “philosopher,” in Socrates’s sense, is therefore a person who lives according to these values: someone who literally loves wisdom, the original meaning of the word.
Looking back, I realize that I turned to Socrates and other ancient philosophers to find a philosophy of life like the one my father had found in Freemasonry. However, as mentioned earlier, the surviving dialogues typically portray Socrates’s method of questioning rather than providing a detailed practical account of the Socratic art of living wisely.
While the ancient philosophers didn’t provide me with the practical answers I was looking for back then, they did inspire me to read further. My newfound sense of purpose also helped me to get my life back on track: I stopped getting in trouble and enrolled to study philosophy at university, in Aberdeen. I noticed, though, that something wasn’t right—the way we approached the subject was too academic and theoretical. The more time I spent in the basement of the library poring over books, the further away I seemed to be drifting from Socrates’s original conception of philosophy as a way of life, something that could improve our character and help us flourish. If ancient philosophers were veritable warriors of the mind, their modern counterparts had become more like librarians of the mind, more interested in collating and organizing ideas than putting philosophy to work on a daily basis as a psychological practice.
Upon graduating, I began studying and training in psychotherapy because learning to help others seemed to offer me a route to self-improvement that I could relate to my studies in philosophy. It was a time of transition for the therapy field: Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic approaches were slowly giving way to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which has since become the dominant form of evidence-based practice in psychotherapy. CBT was closer to the philosophical practice I was looking for because it encourages us to apply reason to our emotions. However, it’s something you typically do for a few months and then set aside. It certainly doesn’t aim to provide us with a whole way of life.
Modern therapy is necessarily more modest in scope than the ancient Socratic art of living—most of us these days are looking for a quick solution to our mental health problems. Nevertheless, once I started working as a psychotherapist, it became evident to me that most of my clients who suffered from anxiety or depression benefited from the realization that their distress was due to their underlying values. Everyone knows that when we believe very strongly that something very bad has happened, we typically become upset as a result. Likewise, if we believe that something is very good and desirable, we become anxious when it’s threatened or sad if it has already been lost. For example, in order to feel social anxiety, you have to believe that other people’s negative opinions of you are worth getting upset about, that it’s really bad if they dislike you and really important to win their approval. Even people who suffer from severe social anxiety disorder (social phobia) tend to feel “normal” when speaking to children or to their close friends about trivial matters, with a few exceptions. Nevertheless, they feel highly anxious when talking to people they think are very important about subjects they think are very important. If your fundamental worldview, by contrast, assumes that your status in the eyes of others is of negligible importance, then it follows that you should be beyond the reach of social anxiety.
Anyone, I reasoned, who could adopt a healthier and more rational set of core values, with greater indifference toward the things most of us worry about in life, should be able to become much more emotionally resilient. I just couldn’t figure out how to combine the philosophy and values of Socrates with something like the therapeutic tools of CBT. Around that time, though, as I was training in counseling and psychotherapy, everything changed for me because I suddenly discovered Stoicism.
The potential value of Stoicism struck me immediately when I stumbled across the French scholar Pierre Hadot’s What Is Ancient Philosophy? (1998) and Philosophy as a Way of Life (2004). As the latter title implies, Hadot explored in depth the idea that ancient Western philosophers did in fact approach philosophy as a way of life. My eyes were opened to a whole treasure trove of spiritual practices, tucked away in the literature of Greek and Roman philosophy, which were clearly designed to help people overcome emotional suffering and develop strength of character. Hadot discovered that contemplative practices became very common in the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic period, a few generations after the death of Socrates. The Stoic school in particular focused on the practical side of Socratic philosophy, not only through the development of virtues such as self-discipline and courage (what we might call emotional resilience) but also through extensive use of psychological exercises.
Something puzzled me, though. Hadot compared these philosophical practices to early Christian spiritual exercises. As a psychotherapist, I spotted immediately that most of the philosophical or spiritual exercises he identified could be compared to psychological exercises found in modern psychotherapy. It very soon became evident to me that Stoicism was, in fact, the school of ancient Western philosophy with the most explicitly therapeutic orientation and the largest armamentarium, or toolbox, of psychological techniques at its disposal. After scouring books on philosophy for over a decade, I realized that I’d been looking everywhere except in the right place. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (118th Psalm).
As I began to devour the literature on Stoicism, I noticed that the form of modern psychotherapy most akin to it was rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), the main precursor to CBT, first developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s. Ellis and Aaron T. Beck, the other main pioneer of CBT, had both cited Stoic philosophy as the inspiration for their respective approaches. For instance, Beck and his colleagues had written in The Cognitive Therapy of Depression, “The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.”3 Indeed, CBT and Stoicism have some fundamental psychological assumptions in common, particularly the “cognitive theory of emotion,” which holds that our emotions are mainly determined by our beliefs. Anxiety largely consists of the belief, for example, that “something bad is going to happen,” according to Beck. From shared premises, moreover, Stoicism and CBT were bound to arrive at similar conclusions about what sort of psychological techniques might be helpful to people suffering from anxiety, anger, depression, and other problems.
One Stoic technique particularly caught my attention. Although it’s well attested in the ancient sources, there’s very little mention of anything like the “view from above”—as Hadot called it—in modern psychotherapy or self-help literature. It involves picturing events as though seen from high overhead, as they might be seen by the gods atop Mount Olympus, perhaps. Broadening our perspective often induces a sense of emotional equanimity. As I practiced it myself, I noticed, as Hadot did, that it brings together a confluence of themes central to ancient philosophy in a single vision. I also found that it was easy to turn it into a guided meditation script. As I was now training psychotherapists myself and speaking at conferences, I was able to guide rooms full of experienced therapists and trainees, up to a hundred at a time, through my version of the exercise. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they took to it instantly, and it became one of their favorite exercises. They would describe how they were able to remain exceptionally calm while contemplating their situation in life from a detached perspective. I began sharing my resources online via my personal blog.
In America, the marketer and entrepreneur Ryan Holiday embraced Stoicism in The Obstacle Is the Way (2014) and The Daily Stoic (2016, coauthored with Stephen Hanselman). In the UK, the illusionist and television celebrity Derren Brown later published a book called Happy (2017), which drew inspiration from the Stoics. These authors were reaching a whole new audience far beyond academia and introducing it to Stoicism as a form of self-help and a philosophy of life. The scientific skeptic and professor of philosophy Massimo Pigliucci published How to Be a Stoic in 2017. In the same year, Republican politician Pat McGeehan released Stoicism and the Statehouse. Stoicism was also being used in the military, as part of Colonel Thomas Jarrett’s Warrior Resilience Training. The NFL executive and former New England Patriots coach Michael Lombardi embraced it, and the philosophy began to gain more and more adherents from the world of sports. Stoicism was clearly experiencing a resurgence in popularity, and this was just the tip of the iceberg. Online communities for Stoics were flourishing, attracting hundreds of thousands of members across the internet.
TELLING THE STORY OF STOICISM
A few years ago, when my daughter Poppy was four, she began asking me to tell her stories. I didn’t know any children’s stories, so I told her what came to mind: Greek myths, stories about heroes and philosophers. One of her favorites was about the Greek general Xenophon. Late one night, as a young man, he was walking through an alleyway between two buildings near the Athenian marketplace. Suddenly a mysterious stranger, hidden in the shadows, blocked his path with a wooden staff. A voice inquired from the darkness, “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?” Xenophon replied that they were right beside the agora, the finest marketplace in the world. There you could buy any goods your heart desired: jewelry, food, clothing, and so on. The stranger paused for a moment before asking another question: “Where, then, should one go in order to learn how to become a good person?” Xenophon was dumbstruck. He had no idea how to answer. The mysterious figure then lowered his staff, stepped out of the shadows, and introduced himself as Socrates. Socrates said that they should both try to discover how someone could become a good person, because that’s surely more important than knowing where to buy all sorts of goods. So Xenophon went with Socrates and became one of his closest friends and followers.
I told Poppy that most people believe there are lots of good things—nice food, clothes, houses, money, etc.—and lots of bad things in life, but Socrates said perhaps they’re all wrong. He wondered if there was only one good thing, and if it was inside of us rather than outside. Maybe it was something like wisdom or bravery. Poppy thought for a minute, then, to my surprise, she shook her head, saying, “That’s not true, Daddy!” which made me smile. Then she said something else: “Tell me that story again,” because she wanted to continue to think about it. She asked me how Socrates became so wise, and I told her the secret of his wisdom: he asked lots of questions about the most important things in life, and then he listened very carefully to the answers. So I kept telling stories, and she kept asking lots of questions. As I came to realize, these little anecdotes about Socrates did much more than just teach her things. They encouraged her to think for herself about what it means to live wisely.
One day, Poppy asked me to write down the stories I was telling her, so I did. I made them longer and more detailed, then I read them back to her. I shared some of them online, via my blog. Telling her these stories and discussing them with her made me realize that this was, in many ways, a better approach to teaching philosophy as a way of life. It allowed us to consider the example set by famous philosophers and whether or not they provide good role models. I began to think that a book that taught Stoic principles through real stories about its ancient practitioners might prove helpful not just to my little girl but to other people as well.
Next, I asked myself who was the best candidate to use as a Stoic role model, about whom I could tell stories that would bring the philosophy to life and put flesh on its bones. The obvious answer was Marcus Aurelius. We know very little about the lives of most ancient philosophers, but Marcus was a Roman emperor, so far more evidence survives about his life and character. One of the few surviving Stoic texts consists of his personal notes to himself about his contemplative practices, known today as The Meditations. Marcus begins The Meditations with a chapter written in a completely different style from the rest of the book: a catalogue of the virtues, the traits he most admired in his family and teachers. He lists about sixteen people in all. It seems he also believed the best way to begin studying Stoic philosophy was to look at living examples of the virtues. I think it makes sense to view Marcus’s life as an example of Stoicism in the same way that he viewed the lives of his own Stoic teachers.
The following chapters are all based upon a careful reading of history. Although I’ve drawn on a wide range of sources, we learn about Marcus’s life and character mainly from the Roman historical accounts in Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta, as well as from Marcus’s own words in The Meditations. Sometimes I’ve added minor details or pieces of dialogue to flesh out the story, but this is how, based on the available evidence, I imagine the events of Marcus’s life to have unfolded.
The final chapter of this book is written in a different style, resembling a guided meditation. It’s closely based on ideas presented in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, although I’ve paraphrased his words to turn them into a longer account that’s deliberately intended to evoke mental imagery and a more elaborate contemplative experience. I’ve also included a few sayings and ideas derived from other Stoic authors. I gave it the form of an internal monologue or fantasy because I felt that was a good way to present the Stoic contemplation of death and the “view from above.”
This entire book is designed to help you follow Marcus in acquiring Stoic strength of mind and eventually a more profound sense of fulfillment. You’ll find that I’ve combined Stoicism with elements of CBT in many places, which as we’ve seen is only natural because CBT was inspired by Stoicism and they have some fundamental things in common. So you’ll notice that I refer to modern therapeutic ideas like “cognitive distancing,” which is the ability to distinguish our thoughts from external reality, and “functional analysis,” which is evaluating the consequences of different courses of action. CBT is a short-term therapy, a remedial approach to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Everyone knows that prevention is better than cure. Techniques and concepts from CBT have been adapted for use in resilience building, to reduce the risk of developing serious emotional problems in the future. However, I believe that for many people a combination of Stoic philosophy and CBT may be even more suited for use as a long-term preventive approach. When we take it on as a philosophy of life, with daily practice, we have the opportunity to learn greater emotional resilience, strength of character, and moral integrity. That’s what this book is really about.
The Stoics can teach you how to find a sense of purpose in life, how to face adversity, how to conquer anger within yourself, moderate your desires, experience healthy sources of joy, endure pain and illness patiently and with dignity, exhibit courage in the face of your anxieties, cope with loss, and perhaps even confront your own mortality while remaining as unperturbed as Socrates. Marcus Aurelius faced colossal challenges during his reign as emperor of Rome. The Meditations provides a window into his soul, allowing us to see how he guided himself through it all. Indeed, I would invite you, as a reader, to put effort into reading this book in a special way, to try and place yourself in Marcus’s shoes and look at life through his eyes, through the lens of his philosophy. Let’s see if we can accompany him on the journey he made as he transformed himself, day by day, into a fully-fledged Stoic. Fate permitting, more people may be able to apply the wisdom of Stoicism to the real challenges and everyday problems of modern living. However, that change won’t leap off the page. It only comes by making a firm decision, here and now, to begin putting ideas like these into practice. As Marcus wrote to himself,
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be; just be one.4
THE DEAD EMPEROR
The year is 180 AD. As another long and difficult winter draws to a close on the northern frontier, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius lies dying in bed at his military camp in Vindobona (modern-day Vienna). Six days ago he was stricken with a fever, and the symptoms have been worsening rapidly. It’s clear to his physicians that he is finally about to succumb to the great Antonine Plague (probably a strain of smallpox), which has been ravaging the empire for the past fourteen years. Marcus is nearly sixty and physically frail, and all the signs show he’s unlikely to recover. However, to the physicians and courtiers present he seems strangely calm, almost indifferent. He has been preparing for this moment most of his life. The Stoic philosophy he follows has taught him to practice contemplating his own mortality calmly and rationally. To learn how to die, according to the Stoics, is to unlearn how to be a slave.
This philosophical attitude toward death didn’t come naturally to Marcus. His father passed away when Marcus was only a few years old, leaving him a solemn child. When he reached seventeen, he was adopted by the Emperor Antoninus Pius as part of a long-term succession plan devised by his predecessor, Hadrian, who had foreseen the potential for wisdom and greatness in Marcus even as a small boy. Nevertheless, he had been most reluctant to leave his mother’s home for the imperial palace. Antoninus summoned the finest teachers of rhetoric and philosophy to train Marcus in preparation for succeeding him as emperor. Among his tutors were experts on Platonism and Aristotelianism, but his main philosophical education was in Stoicism. These men became like family to him. When one of his most beloved tutors died, it’s said that Marcus wept so violently that the palace servants tried to restrain him. They were worried that people would find his behavior unbecoming of a future ruler. However, Antoninus told them to leave Marcus alone: “Let him be only a man for once; for neither philosophy nor empire takes away natural feeling.” Years later, after having lost several young children, Marcus was once again moved to tears in public while presiding over a legal case, when he heard an advocate say in the course of his argument: “Blessed are they who died in the plague.”1
Marcus was a naturally loving and affectionate man, deeply affected by loss. Over the course of his life, he increasingly turned to the ancient precepts of Stoicism as a way of coping when those closest to him were taken. Now, as he lies dying, he reflects once again on those he has lost. A few years earlier, the Empress Faustina, his wife of thirty-five years, passed away. He’d lived long enough to see eight of their thirteen children die. Four of his eight daughters survived, but only one of his five sons, Commodus. Death was everywhere, though. During Marcus’s reign, millions of Romans throughout the empire had been killed by war or disease. The two went hand in hand, as the legionary camps were particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of plague, especially during the long winter months. The air around him is still thick with the sweet smell of frankincense, which the Romans vainly hoped might help prevent the spread of the disease. For over a decade now, the scent of smoke and incense had been a reminder to Marcus that he was living under the shadow of death and that survival from one day to the next should never be taken for granted.
Infection with the plague wasn’t always fatal. However, Marcus’s celebrated court physician, Galen, had observed that victims inevitably die when their feces turn black, a sign of intestinal bleeding. Perhaps that’s how Marcus’s doctors know he is dying, or maybe they just realize how frail he’s become with age. Throughout his adult life he had been prone to chronic chest and stomach pains and bouts of illness. His appetite had always been poor. Now he voluntarily rejects food and drink to hasten his own demise. Socrates used to say that death is like some prankster in a scary mask, dressed as a bogeyman to frighten small children. The wise man carefully removes the mask and, looking behind it, he finds nothing worth fearing. Because of this lifelong preparation, now that his death finally draws near, Marcus is no more afraid of it than when it seemed far away. He therefore asks his physicians to describe patiently and in detail what’s happening inside his body, so that he may contemplate his own symptoms with the studied indifference of a natural philosopher. His voice is weak and the sores in his mouth and throat make it difficult for him to speak. Before long he grows tired and gestures for them to leave, wishing to continue his meditations in private.
Alone in his room, as he listens to the sound of his own wheezing, he doesn’t feel much like an emperor anymore—just a feeble old man, sick and dying. He turns his head to one side and catches a glimpse of his reflection on the polished surface of the goddess Fortuna’s golden statuette by his bedside. His Stoic tutors advised him to practice a mental exercise when he noticed his own image. It’s a way of building emotional resilience by training yourself to come to terms with your own mortality. Focusing his eyes weakly on his reflection, he tries to imagine one of the long-dead Roman emperors who preceded him gazing back. First he pictures Antoninus, his adoptive father, and then his adoptive grandfather, the emperor Hadrian. He even imagines his reflection slowly assuming the features depicted in paintings and sculptures of Augustus, who founded the empire two centuries earlier. As he does so, Marcus silently asks himself, “Where are they now?” and whispers the answer: “Nowhere … or at least nowhere of which we can speak.”2
He continues to meditate patiently, albeit drowsily, on the mortality of the emperors who preceded him. There’s nothing left of any of them now but bones and dust. Their once illustrious lives have gradually become insignificant to subsequent generations, who have already half-forgotten them. Even their names sound old, evoking memories of another era. As a boy, the Emperor Hadrian had befriended Marcus, and the two used to go boar hunting together. Now there are young officers under Marcus’s command for whom Hadrian is just a name in the history books, his real, living body long ago replaced by lifeless portraits and statues. Antoninus, Hadrian, Augustus—all equally dead and gone. Everyone from Alexander the Great right down to his lowly mule driver ends up lying under the same ground. King and pauper alike, the same fate ultimately awaits everyone …
This train of thought is rudely interrupted by a bout of coughing that brings up blood and tissue from the ulceration at the back of his throat. The pain and discomfort of his fever vie for his attention, but Marcus turns this into another part of the meditation: he tells himself that he’s just another one of these dead men. Soon he’ll be nothing more than a name alongside theirs in the history books, and one day even his name will be forgotten. This is how he contemplates his own mortality: using one of the many centuries-old Stoic exercises learned in his youth. Once we truly accept our own demise as an inescapable fact of life, it makes no more sense for us to wish for immortality than to long for bodies as hard as diamonds or to be able to soar on the wings of a bird. As long as we can grasp the truth firmly enough that certain misfortunes are inevitable, we no longer feel the need to worry about them. Nor do we yearn for things that we accept are impossible, as long as we can see with crystal clarity that it is futile to do so. As death is among the most certain things in life, to a man of wisdom it should be among the least feared.
Although Marcus first began training in philosophy when he was just a boy of about twelve, his practice intensified in his mid-twenties, when he dedicated himself wholeheartedly to becoming a Stoic. Since then he has rehearsed his Stoic exercises daily, trained his mind and body to obey reason, and progressively transformed himself, both as a man and a ruler, into something approaching the Stoic ideal. He has tried to develop his own wisdom and resilience systematically, modeling himself after the philosophers who shared their teachings with him and the other great men who won his admiration, foremost among them Antoninus. He studied the way they met different forms of adversity with calm dignity. He carefully observed how they lived in accord with reason and exhibited the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They felt the pain of loss but did not succumb to it. Marcus has been bereaved so many times, has practiced his response to it so often, that he no longer weeps uncontrollably. He no longer cries “Why?” and “How could this happen?” or even entertains such thoughts. He has firmly grasped the truth that death is both a natural and inevitable part of life. Now that his time has come he welcomes it with a philosophical attitude. You might even say that he has learned to befriend death. He still sheds tears and mourns losses, but as a wise man does. He no longer adds to his natural grief by complaining and shaking his fist at the universe.
Since completing his journal of reflections on philosophy several years earlier, Marcus has been passing through the final stage of a lifelong spiritual journey. Now lying in pain and discomfort, nearing the end, he gently reminds himself that he has already died many times along the way. First of all, Marcus the child died as he entered the imperial palace as heir to the throne, assuming the title Caesar after Hadrian passed away. After Antoninus passed away, Marcus the young Caesar had to die when he took his place as emperor of Rome. Leaving Rome behind to take command of the northern legions during the Marcomannic Wars signaled another death: a transition to a life of warfare and a sojourn in a foreign land. Now, as an old man, he faces his death not for the first time but for the last. From the moment we’re born we’re constantly dying, not only with each stage of life but also one day at a time. Our bodies are no longer the ones to which our mothers gave birth, as Marcus put it. Nobody is the same person he was yesterday. Realizing this makes it easier to let go: we can no more hold on to life than grasp the waters of a rushing stream.
Now Marcus is growing drowsy and on the verge of drifting off, but he rouses himself with some effort and sits up in his bed. He has unfinished business to attend to. He orders the guards to send in the members of his family and his inner circle of courtiers, the “friends of the emperor,” who have been summoned to his camp. Though he appears frail and has suffered from illness throughout his life, Marcus is famously resilient. He has seemed on the verge of dying before, but this time the physicians have confirmed to him that he is unlikely to survive. Everyone senses that the end is near. He bids farewell to his beloved friends, his sons-in-law, and his four remaining daughters. He would have kissed each one of them, but the plague forces them to keep their distance.
His son-in-law Pompeianus, his right-hand man and senior general during the Marcomannic Wars, is there as always. His lifelong friend Aufidius Victorinus, another one of his generals, is also present, as are Bruttius Praesens, the father-in-law of Commodus, and another of his sons-in-law, Gnaeus Claudius Severus, a close friend and fellow philosopher. They gather solemn-faced around his bed. Marcus stresses to them that they must take good care of Commodus, his only surviving son, who has ruled by his side as his junior co-emperor for the past three years. He has appointed the best teachers available for him, but their influence is waning. Commodus became emperor when he was only sixteen; Marcus had to wait until he was forty. Young rulers, such as the Emperor Nero, tend to be easily corrupted, and Marcus can see that his son is already falling in with bad company. He asks his friends, especially Pompeianus, to do him the honor of ensuring that Commodus’s moral education continues as if he were their own son.
Marcus appointed Commodus his official heir, granting him the title Caesar when he was just five years old. Commodus’s younger brother, Marcus Annius Verus, was also named Caesar, but he died shortly thereafter. Marcus had hoped that the two boys would rule jointly one day. Any succession plans Marcus agreed with the Senate were always going to be precarious. However, at the height of the plague, as the First Marcomannic War broke out, it was necessary for Rome’s stability to have a designated heir in case a usurper tried to seize the throne. During a previous bout of illness five years earlier, rumors spread that Marcus had already passed away. His most powerful general in the eastern provinces, Avidius Cassius, was acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion, triggering a short-lived civil war. Marcus immediately had Commodus rushed from Rome to the northern frontier to assume the toga virilis, marking his official passage to adulthood. After the rebellion was put down, Marcus continued to accelerate the process of appointing Commodus emperor. If Marcus had died without an heir, another civil war would probably have ensued.
Likewise, replacing Commodus with a substitute ruler at this stage would leave the whole empire vulnerable. The northern tribes might seize the opportunity to renew their attacks, and another invasion could mean the end of Rome. Marcus’s best hope now would be that Commodus might follow the guidance of his trusted teachers and advisors. He is being swayed, however, by various hangers-on who constantly plead with him to return to Rome. As long as he remains with the army, under the watchful eye of his brother-in-law Pompeianus, there’s still hope that Commodus may learn to rule with wisdom. Unlike his father, though, he shows no interest in philosophy.
In the middle of their conversation, Marcus suddenly slumps forward and loses consciousness. Some of his friends are alarmed and start to weep uncontrollably because they assume he is slipping away. The physicians manage to rouse him. When Marcus sees the faces of his grieving companions, rather than fearing his own death his attention turns to theirs. He watches them weeping for him just as he had wept for his wife and children and so many lost friends and teachers over the years. Now that he is the one dying, though, their tears seem unnecessary. It feels pointless to lament over something inevitable and beyond anyone’s control. It’s more important to him that they calmly and prudently arrange the transition to Commodus’s reign. Though Marcus is barely conscious, things somehow seem clearer than ever before. He wants those gathered to remember their own mortality, to accept its implications, grasp its significance, and live wisely, so he whispers, “Why do you weep for me instead of thinking about the plague … and about death as the common lot of us all?”
The room falls silent as his gentle admonition sinks in. The sobbing quiets down. Nobody knows what to say. Marcus smiles and gestures weakly, giving them permission to leave. His parting words are, “If you now grant me leave to go then I will bid you farewell and pass on ahead of you.”3 As the news of his condition spreads through the camp, the soldiers grieve loudly—because they love him much more than they care for his son Commodus.
The following day, Marcus awakens early, feeling extremely frail and weary. His fever is worse. Realizing that these are his last hours, he summons Commodus. The series of wars against hostile Germanic and Sarmatian tribes that Marcus has been fighting for over a decade now is already in its final stages. He urges his son to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion by assuming personal command of the army, pursuing the remaining enemy tribes until they surrender, and overseeing the complex peace negotiations currently underway. Marcus warns Commodus that if he doesn’t remain at the front, the Senate may view it as a betrayal after so much has been invested in the long wars and so many lives have been lost in battle.
However, unlike his father, Commodus is scared witless of dying. Gazing upon Marcus’s withered body, rather than being inspired to follow his father’s virtuous example, he feels repulsed and afraid. He complains that he risks contracting the plague by remaining among the legions in the north and that he yearns more than anything to return to the safety of Rome. Marcus assures him that soon enough, as sole emperor, he may do as he wishes, but he orders Commodus to wait just a few days longer before leaving. Then, sensing the hour of his death looming, Marcus commands the soldiers to take Commodus into their protection so that the youth cannot be accused of having murdered his father. Marcus can only hope now that his generals will talk Commodus out of his reckless desire to abandon the northern frontier.
Marcus wrote that nobody is so fortunate as not to have one or two individuals standing by his deathbed who will welcome his demise.4 He says that in his own case, as emperor, he can think of hundreds who hold values at odds with his own and would be only too glad to see him gone. They do not share his love of wisdom and virtue, and they sneer at his vision of an empire that makes the freedom of its citizens its highest goal. Nevertheless, philosophy has taught him to be grateful for life and yet unafraid of dying—like a ripened olive falling from its branch, thanking both the tree for giving it life and the earth below for receiving its seed as it falls. For the Stoics, death is just such a natural transformation, returning our body to the same source from which we came. At Marcus’s funeral, therefore, the people will not say that he has been lost but that he has been returned to the gods and to Nature. Perhaps his friends voiced this sentiment in their eulogies because it sounds like a reference to the Stoic teachings Marcus held dear. Never say that anything has been lost, they tell us. Only that it has returned to Nature.
Commodus, unfortunately, surrounds himself with sycophants who constantly plead with him to return home, where they can enjoy greater luxury. “Why do you continue to drink this frigid mud, Lord Caesar, when we could be back at Rome drinking pure waters running hot and cold?” Only Pompeianus, the oldest among his advisors, confronts him, warning him that to leave the war unfinished would be both disgraceful and dangerous. Like Marcus, Pompeianus believes the enemy will view it as a cowardly retreat and gain confidence for future uprisings; the Senate will view it as incompetence. Commodus is persuaded for a short while, but eventually the lure of Rome is too great. He gives Pompeianus the excuse that he must return there in case a usurper suddenly appears, plotting an uprising in his absence. After Marcus is gone, Commodus will hastily conclude the war by paying huge bribes to the leaders of hostile Germanic and Sarmatian tribes. Fleeing from the army camps will undermine, at one fell swoop, whatever credibility he had with the troops who were so steadfastly loyal to his father. Instead, he must turn to the populace of Rome for support, resorting to expensive crowd-pleasing gestures to win popularity and increasingly behaving like a celebrity rather than a wise and benevolent ruler. The Stoics observed that often those who are most desperate to flee death find themselves rushing into its arms, and that seems eminently true of Commodus. Marcus lived to fifty-eight despite his frailty and illness and the harsh conditions he endured in command of the northern legions. By contrast, Commodus is destined to spiral into paranoia and violence following repeated assassination attempts. His enemies in Rome will eventually succeed in murdering him when he is still only thirty-one years old. No number of bodyguards, as Marcus once said, is enough to shield a ruler who does not possess the goodwill of his subjects.
The successor chosen by an emperor is an important part of his legacy. However, the Stoics taught that we can’t control the actions of others and that even supremely wise teachers, such as Socrates, have wayward children and students. When Stilpo, a philosopher of the Megarian school, one of the predecessors of Stoicism, was criticized over the disreputable character of his daughter, he reputedly said that her actions no more brought dishonor to him than his own brought honor to her. As things turned out, Marcus’s real legacy would not be Commodus but the inspiration that his own character and philosophy provided for generations to come. Like all Stoics, Marcus firmly believed that virtue must be its own reward. He was also content to accept that events in life, let alone after death, are never entirely up to us.
Nevertheless, the Stoics taught that the wise man is naturally inclined to write books that help other people. Sometime during his first campaign on the northern frontier, Marcus, separated from his beloved Stoic friends and teachers back in Rome, started writing down his personal reflections on philosophy as a series of short notes and maxims. He probably began not long after the death of his main Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus. Perhaps he wrote as a way to cope with this blow, becoming his own teacher as a substitute for conversations with Rusticus. These collected reflections are known today as The Meditations. How the text survived is a mystery: it may have fallen into Commodus’s possession, unless Marcus bequeathed it to someone else. Perhaps it changed hands at the final meeting with his courtiers. Disappointed by the feckless character of his son, the dying emperor would at least know that one of his trusted friends was already safeguarding The Meditations—his true gift to subsequent generations.
As soon as Commodus has gone, Marcus beckons the young officer of the night watch to lean in close and whispers something hoarsely in his ear. Then he wearily covers his head with a sheet and lapses into sleep, passing away quietly during the seventh night of his illness. In the morning, his physicians pronounce the emperor dead, and the camp is thrown into a state of anguished confusion. As news quickly reaches them, the soldiers and the people fill the streets, weeping. According to Herodian, a Roman historian who witnessed firsthand the reign of Commodus, the whole empire cried out as if in a single chorus when word spread of Marcus’s death. They grieved for the loss of him as their “Kind Father,” “Noble Emperor,” “Brave General,” and “Wise, Moderate Ruler,” and, in Herodian’s opinion, “every man spoke the truth.”
As the hubbub outside grows louder, the nervous guards ask their tribune, “What did he say?” The officer looks like he’s about to speak but then pauses for a moment. He furrows his brow in puzzlement as he relays the dead emperor’s message: “Go to the rising sun,” he said, “for I am already setting.”5
THE STORY OF STOICISM
Marcus Aurelius was the last famous Stoic of the ancient world. However, the story of Stoicism began almost five hundred years prior to his death, with a shipwreck. A wealthy young Phoenician merchant from the island of Cyprus named Zeno of Citium was transporting his cargo of purple dye across the Mediterranean. Many thousands of fermented shellfish had to be painstakingly dissected by hand to extract just a few grams of this priceless commodity, known as imperial or royal purple because it was used to dye the robes of emperors and kings. The ship was caught in a violent storm. Zeno narrowly escaped with his life and washed ashore at the Greek port of Piraeus. He watched helplessly from the beach as his precious cargo sank beneath the waves and dissolved back into the ocean from which it came.
According to one story, Zeno lost everything in this shipwreck. Devastated, he found himself living as a beggar after making his way to nearby Athens: a penniless immigrant in a foreign city. Searching for guidance about the best way to live, he trudged for miles to the Oracle of Delphi, where the god Apollo, speaking through his priestess, announced that Zeno should take on the color not of dead shellfish but of dead men. He must have been fairly bemused by this cryptic advice. Feeling completely at a loss, Zeno made his way back to Athens and collapsed in a heap at a bookseller’s stall. There he started reading what, by chance, turned out to be a series of anecdotes about Socrates, written by Xenophon, one of his most distinguished students. The words Zeno read struck him like a thunderbolt and completely transformed his life.
Greek aristocrats traditionally believed that virtue was associated with noble birth. Socrates, however, argued that classical virtues like justice, courage, and temperance were all just forms of moral wisdom, which could potentially be learned by anyone. He taught Xenophon that people should train themselves to acquire wisdom and virtue through self-discipline. After Socrates was executed, Xenophon faithfully wrote down many recollections of Socrates’s conversations about philosophy. Perhaps it was at this moment that Zeno suddenly realized what the Oracle meant: he was to “take on the color of dead men” by thoroughly absorbing the teachings of wise men from previous generations, teachings such as the very philosophical doctrines he was now reading in Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates.
Zeno dropped the book, jumped to his feet, and excitedly asked the bookseller, “Where can I find a man like this today?” It so happened that a famous Cynic philosopher called Crates of Thebes was passing by at that very moment, and the bookseller pointed him out, saying, “Follow yonder man.” Sure enough, Zeno became Crates’s follower, training in the Cynic philosophy founded by Diogenes of Sinope. Stoicism therefore evolved out of Cynicism, and the two traditions remained very closely associated right down to the time of Marcus Aurelius.
When we speak of “cynicism” (lowercase c) today, we mean something like an attitude of negativity and distrust, but that’s only very tenuously related to the meaning of capital-C “Cynicism.” The ancient philosophy of Cynicism focused on cultivating virtue and strength of character through rigorous training that consisted of enduring various forms of “voluntary hardship.” It was an austere and self-disciplined way of life. Zeno’s followers would later call it a shortcut to virtue. Nevertheless, he wasn’t completely satisfied with the Cynic philosophy and apparently found its doctrines lacking in intellectual rigor. He therefore went on to study in the Academic and Megarian schools of philosophy, founded by Plato and Euclid of Megara, respectively, two of Socrates’s most famous students. All of these schools focused on different aspects of philosophy: the Cynics on virtue and self-discipline, the Megarians on logic, and the Academics on metaphysical theories about the underlying nature of reality.
Zeno appears to have been trying to synthesize the best aspects of different Athenian philosophical traditions. However, the Cynic and Academic schools were often seen as representing fundamentally different assumptions about what it means to be a philosopher. The Cynics sneered at the pretentious and bookish nature of Plato’s Academy. The Academics, in turn, thought the doctrines of the Cynics were crude and too extreme—Plato reputedly called Diogenes “Socrates gone mad.” Zeno must have seen his own position as a compromise. His followers believed that studying philosophical theory, or subjects like logic and cosmology, can be good insofar as it makes us more virtuous and improves our character. However, it can also be a bad thing if it becomes so pedantic or overly “academic” that it diverts us from the pursuit of virtue. Marcus learned the same attitude from his Stoic teachers. He repeatedly warned himself not to become distracted by reading too many books—thus wasting time on trifling issues in logic and metaphysics—but instead to remain focused on the practical goal of living wisely.
After studying philosophy in Athens for about two decades, Zeno founded his own school in a public building overlooking the agora known as the Stoa Poikile, or “Painted Porch,” where he used to vigorously pace up and down as he discoursed on philosophy. The students who gathered there were originally known as Zenonians but later called themselves Stoics, after the stoa, or porch. It’s possible the name “Stoic” also hints at the practical, down-to-earth nature of the philosophy. It arose on the streets of Athens, out in public, near the marketplace where Socrates once spent his time discussing wisdom and virtue. The name change from Zenonians to Stoics is significant because unlike other philosophical sects, the founders of Stoicism didn’t claim to be perfectly wise. Zeno’s attitude to his students perhaps resembled the one later described by Seneca, who did not claim to be an expert like a physician but saw his role more like that of a patient describing the progress of his treatment to fellow patients in the hospital beds beside him. This stood in marked contrast to the rival school of Epicureanism, for example, which was named after its founder. Epicurus did claim to be perfectly wise, and his students were required to memorize his sayings, celebrate his birthday, and revere his image.
Zeno told his students that he had come to value wisdom more than wealth or reputation. He used to say, “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune.”6 Even today it’s not unusual for a client in therapy to arrive at the paradoxical revelation that losing their job may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Zeno learned to embrace the Cynic teaching that wealth and other external things are completely indifferent and that virtue is the true goal of life. In plain English, what the Cynics meant was that our character is the only thing that ultimately matters and that wisdom consists in learning to view everything else in life as utterly worthless by comparison. They believed that mastering this attitude required lifelong moral and psychological training in the voluntary endurance of hardship and renunciation of certain desires.
However, in contrast to the Cynics, other philosophers argued that “external goods”—such as health, wealth, and reputation—were also required for a good life, in addition to virtue. The problem is that these external things are partly in the hands of Fate, which seems to make a good life unattainable for many individuals. Socrates, for instance, was notoriously ugly by Athenian standards, lived in relative poverty, and died persecuted by powerful enemies. Would his life have been better, though, if he’d been handsome, wealthy, and praised by everyone? Didn’t his greatness consist precisely in the wisdom and strength of character with which he handled these obstacles in life? As we’ll see, Zeno’s innovation was to argue that external advantages do have some value but of a completely different sort than virtue. They’re not always completely indifferent. For Stoics, virtue is still the only true good—the Cynics were right about that—but it’s also natural to prefer health to sickness, wealth to poverty, friends to enemies, and so on, within reasonable bounds. External advantages such as wealth may create more opportunities but in themselves they simply don’t have the kind of value that can ever define a good life.
Zeno was profoundly inspired by his early training in Cynicism. Nevertheless, he sought to moderate and broaden its teachings by combining them with elements from the other schools of Athenian philosophy. His wide-ranging studies had convinced him that intellectual disciplines such as logic and metaphysics could potentially contribute to the development of our moral character. Zeno therefore established a curriculum for Stoicism divided into three broad topics: Ethics, Logic, and Physics (which included metaphysics and theology). The Stoic school he founded had a series of leaders, or “scholarchs,” and a set of characteristic core doctrines, but students were also encouraged to think for themselves. After Zeno died, Cleanthes, one of his students, who had formerly been a boxer and watered gardens at night to earn a living, became head of the Stoic school; he was followed by Chrysippus, one of the most acclaimed intellectuals of the ancient world. Between them, these three developed the original doctrines of the Stoic school.
The teachings of Zeno and Cleanthes were simple, practical, and concise. True to his Cynic roots, Zeno focused on improving the character of his young students while avoiding long-winded academic debates. When someone complained that his philosophical arguments were very abrupt, Zeno agreed and replied that if he could he’d abbreviate the syllables as well. However, Chrysippus was a prolific writer and developed many arguments—we’re told he wrote over seven hundred books. By his time, it had become necessary to defend Stoicism against philosophical criticisms leveled by other schools, especially the emerging Academic Skeptics, and that required formulating increasingly sophisticated arguments. On the other hand, Cleanthes, the teacher of Chrysippus, was not a great intellectual. According to legend, Chrysippus often said that it would be better if Cleanthes just cut to the chase and taught him the conclusions of the Stoic school so he could figure out better supporting arguments himself. Today many students of Stoicism adopt a similar attitude: they’re attracted to the Stoic worldview but prefer to “update” it by drawing upon a wider range of arguments from modern science and philosophy. Stoicism was never intended to be doctrinaire. Chrysippus disagreed with Zeno and Cleanthes in many regards, which allowed Stoicism to keep evolving.
The original Stoic school survived for a couple of centuries before apparently fragmenting—into three different branches, according to one author. We’re not sure why. Fortunately, by that time the Romans of the Republic had started to embrace Greek philosophy and felt a particular affinity for Stoicism. The celebrated Roman general who destroyed Carthage, Scipio Africanus the Younger, became a student of the last scholarch of the Stoic school at Athens, Panaetius of Rhodes. In the second century BC, Scipio gathered around himself a group of intellectuals at Rome known as the Scipionic Circle, which included his close friend Laelius the Wise, another influential Roman Stoic.
The famous Roman statesman and orator Cicero, who lived a couple of generations later, is one of our most important sources for understanding Stoicism. Although he was a follower of the Platonic Academy, Cicero nevertheless knew a great deal about Stoic philosophy and wrote extensively on the subject. On the other hand, his friend and political rival Cato of Utica was a “complete Stoic,” as Cicero puts it, a living example of Stoicism, but didn’t leave any writings about philosophy. After his death, making a stand against the tyrant Julius Caesar during the great Roman civil war, Cato became a hero and an inspiration to later generations of Stoics.
Following Caesar’s assassination, his great-nephew Octavian became Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire. Augustus had a famous Stoic tutor called Arius Didymus, which perhaps set a precedent for the Roman emperors who followed, most notably Marcus, to associate themselves with the philosophy. A few generations after Augustus, the Stoic philosopher Seneca was appointed rhetoric tutor to the young Emperor Nero, later becoming his speechwriter and political advisor—a position that clearly placed a strain on Seneca’s Stoic moral values as Nero degenerated into a cruel despot. At the same time, a political faction called the Stoic Opposition, led by a senator called Thrasea, was attempting to take a principled stand against Nero and those subsequent emperors whom they considered tyrants. Marcus would later mention his admiration for Cato, Thrasea, and others associated with them, which is intriguing because these Stoics had been famous opponents, or at least critics, of imperial rule.
Emperor Nero, by contrast, was less tolerant of political dissent from philosophers, and he executed both Thrasea and Seneca. However, Nero’s secretary owned a slave called Epictetus, who became perhaps the most famous philosophy teacher in Roman history after gaining his freedom. Epictetus himself wrote nothing down, but his discussions with students were recorded by one of them, Arrian, in several books of Discourses and a short Handbook summarizing the practical aspect of his teachings. The Stoics that Marcus knew personally were probably influenced by Epictetus, and some had likely attended his lectures. Indeed, we’re told that Marcus was given copies of notes from these lectures by his main Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus, so it’s no surprise to find that Epictetus is the most quoted author in The Meditations. Marcus probably saw himself mainly as an adherent of Epictetus’s version of Stoicism, although the two never met in person.
Nearly five centuries after Zeno the dye merchant founded the Stoic school, Marcus Aurelius was still talking about dyeing things purple. He warns himself to avoid dyeing his character with the royal purple and turning into a Caesar, instead aspiring to remain true to his philosophical principles. He (twice) reminds himself that his purple imperial robes are mere sheep’s wool dyed in fermented shellfish mucus. He tells himself to dye his mind with the wisdom of philosophical precepts handed down from his Stoic teachers. Marcus Aurelius, indeed, viewed himself as a Stoic first and an emperor second.
WHAT DID THE STOICS BELIEVE?
The Stoics were prolific writers, but probably less than 1 percent of their writings survive today. The most influential texts we have today come from the three famous Roman Stoics of the Imperial era: Seneca’s various letters and essays, Epictetus’s Discourses and Handbook, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. We also have some earlier Roman writings on Stoicism by Cicero and about a book’s worth of fragments from the early Greek Stoics, as well as various other minor texts. That’s woefully incomplete, but it does provide a consistent picture of the philosophy’s core doctrines.
The schools of Hellenistic philosophy that followed the death of Socrates were often distinguished from one another in terms of their definition of the goal of life. For Stoics, that goal is defined as “living in agreement with Nature,” which we’re told was synonymous with living wisely and virtuously. Stoics argued that humans are first and foremost thinking creatures, capable of exercising reason. Although we share many instincts with other animals, our ability to think rationally is what makes us human. Reason governs our decisions, in a sense—the Stoics call it our “ruling faculty.” It allows us to evaluate our thoughts, feelings, and urges and to decide if they’re good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. We therefore have an innate duty to protect our ability to reason and to use it properly. When we reason well about life and live rationally, we exhibit the virtue of wisdom. Living in agreement with Nature, in part, means fulfilling our natural potential for wisdom; that’s what it means for us to flourish as human beings.
The Stoics therefore took the name of philosophy, meaning “love of wisdom,” quite literally. They loved wisdom, or loved virtue, above everything else. If “virtue” sounds a bit pompous, the Greek word for it, arete, is arguably better translated as “excellence of character.” Something excels, in this sense, if it performs its function well. Humans excel when they think clearly and reason well about their lives, which amounts to living wisely. The Stoics adopted the Socratic division of cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. The other three virtues can be understood as wisdom applied to our actions in different areas of life. Justice is largely wisdom applied to the social sphere, our relationships with other people. Displaying courage and moderation involves mastering our fears and desires, respectively, overcoming what the Stoics called the unhealthy “passions” that otherwise interfere with our ability to live in accord with wisdom and justice.
Wisdom, in all these forms, mainly requires understanding the difference between good, bad, and indifferent things. Virtue is good and vice is bad, but everything else is indifferent. Indeed, as we’ve seen, the Stoics followed the Cynics in maintaining the hard line that virtue is the only true good. However, Zeno went on to distinguish between indifferent things that are “preferred,” “dispreferred,” or completely indifferent. Put crudely, external things do have some value, but they’re not worth getting upset over—it’s a different kind of value. One way Stoics explained this was by saying that if we could put virtue on one side of a set of scales, it wouldn’t matter how many gold coins or other indifferent things piled up on the opposing side—it should never tip the balance. Nevertheless, some external things are preferable to others, and wisdom consists precisely in our ability to make these sorts of value judgments. Life is preferable to death, wealth is preferable to poverty, health is preferable to sickness, friends are preferable to enemies, and so on.
As Socrates had put it earlier, such external advantages in life are good only if we use them wisely. However, if something can be used for either good or evil, it cannot truly be good in itself, so it should be classed as “indifferent” or neutral. The Stoics would say that things like health, wealth, and reputation are, at most, advantages or opportunities rather than being good in themselves. Social, material, and physical advantages actually give foolish individuals more opportunity to do harm to themselves and others. Look at lottery winners. Those who squander their sudden wealth often end up more miserable than they could have imagined. When handled badly, external advantages like wealth do more harm than good. The Stoics would go further: the wise and good man may flourish even when faced with sickness, poverty, and enemies. The true goal of life for Stoics isn’t to acquire as many external advantages as possible but to use whatever befalls us wisely, whether it be sickness or health, wealth or poverty, friends or enemies. The Stoic Sage, or wise man, needs nothing but uses everything well; the fool believes himself to “need” countless things, but he uses them all badly.
Most important of all, the pursuit of these preferred indifferent things must never be done at the expense of virtue. For instance, wisdom may tell us that wealth is generally preferable to debt, but valuing money more highly than justice is a vice. In order to explain the supreme value placed on wisdom and virtue, the Stoics compared reason, our “ruling faculty,” to a king in relation to his court. Everyone in court is situated somewhere or other on the hierarchy of importance. However, the king is uniquely important because he’s the one who assigns everyone else at court a role in the hierarchy. As mentioned earlier, the Stoics call reason, the king in this metaphor, our “ruling faculty” (hegemonikon). It’s human nature to desire certain things in life, such as sex and food. Reason allows us to step back and question whether what we desire is actually going to be good for us or not. Wisdom itself is uniquely valuable because it allows us to judge the value of external things—it’s the source of everything else’s value. How therefore does it profit a man, the Stoics might say, if he gains the whole world but loses his wisdom and virtue?
In addition to believing that humans are essentially thinking creatures capable of reason, the Stoics also believed that human nature is inherently social. They started from the premise that under normal conditions we typically have a bond of “natural affection” toward our children. (If we didn’t, as we now know, our offspring would be less likely to survive and pass on our genes.) This bond of natural affection also tends to extend to other loved ones, such as spouses, parents, siblings, and close friends. The Stoics believed that as we mature in wisdom we increasingly identify with our own capacity for reason, but we also begin to identify with others insofar as they’re capable of reason. In other words, the wise man extends moral consideration to all rational creatures and views them, in a sense, as his brothers and sisters. That’s why the Stoics described their ideal as cosmopolitanism, or being “citizens of the universe”—a phrase attributed both to Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic. Stoic ethics involves cultivating this natural affection toward other people in accord with virtues like justice, fairness, and kindness. Although this social dimension of Stoicism is often overlooked today, it’s one of the main themes of The Meditations. Marcus touches on topics such as the virtues of justice and kindness, natural affection, the brotherhood of man, and ethical cosmopolitanism on virtually every page.
Another popular misconception today is that Stoics are unemotional. The ancient Stoics themselves consistently denied this, saying that their ideal was not to be like a man of iron or to have a heart of stone. In fact, they distinguished between three types of emotion: good, bad, and indifferent. They had names for many different types of good passion (eupatheiai), a term encompassing both desires and emotions, which they grouped under three broad headings:
1. A profound sense of joy or gladness and peace of mind, which comes from living with wisdom and virtue
2. A healthy feeling of aversion to vice, like a sense of conscience, honor, dignity, or integrity
3. The desire to help both ourselves and others, through friendship, kindness, and goodwill
They also believed that we have many irrational desires and emotions, like fear, anger, craving, and certain forms of pleasure that are bad for us. Stoics did not believe that unhealthy emotions should be suppressed; rather, they should be replaced by healthy ones. However, these healthy emotions aren’t entirely under our control, and we’re not always guaranteed to experience them, so we shouldn’t confuse them with virtue, the goal of life. For Stoics, they’re like an added bonus.
They also taught that our initial automatic feelings are to be viewed as natural and indifferent. These include things like being startled or irritated, blushing, turning pale, tensing up, shaking, sweating, or stammering. They are natural reflex reactions, our first reactions before we escalate them into full-blown passions. We share these primitive precursors to emotion with some non-human animals, and so the Stoics view them with indifference, as neither good nor bad. Indeed, Seneca, as we’ll see, noted the paradox that before we can exhibit the virtues of courage and moderation, we need to have at least some trace of fear and desire to overcome.
Even the Stoic wise man, therefore, may tremble in the face of danger. What matters is what he does next. He exhibits courage and self-control precisely by accepting these feelings, rising above them, and asserting his capacity for reason. He’s not entranced by the siren song of pleasure or afraid of the sting of pain. Some pains have the potential to make us stronger, and some pleasures to harm us. What matters is the use we make of these experiences, and for that we need wisdom. The wise man will endure pain and discomfort, such as undergoing surgery or engaging in strenuous physical exercise, if it’s healthy for his body and, more important, if it’s healthy for his character. He’ll likewise forgo pleasures like eating junk food, indulging in drugs or alcohol, or oversleeping if they are unhealthy for his body or bad for his character. Everything comes back to the exercise of reason and the goal of living wisely.
By now you’ll appreciate how much confusion is caused by people mixing up “Stoicism” (capital S) with “stoicism” (lowercase s). Lowercase stoicism is just a personality trait: it’s mental toughness or the ability to endure pain and adversity without complaining. Uppercase Stoicism is a whole school of Greek philosophy. Being emotionally tough or resilient is just one small part of that philosophy, and lowercase stoicism neglects the entire social dimension of Stoic virtue, which has to do with justice, fairness, and kindness to others. Also, when people talk about being stoic or having a stiff upper lip, they often mean just suppressing their feelings, which is actually known to be quite unhealthy. So it’s important to be very clear that’s not what Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics recommended. Stoic philosophy teaches us instead to transform unhealthy emotions into healthy ones. We do so by using reason to challenge the value judgments and other beliefs on which they’re based, much as we do in modern rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
In the following chapters you’ll learn about the different ways in which Stoicism can be applied to life in order to overcome specific types of psychological problems, including pain, worry, anger, and loss. Stories about the life of Marcus Aurelius provide a human face for the philosophy and will furnish us with practical examples of Stoic strategies and techniques. We’ll start by looking at Marcus’s early life and education because that gets right to the heart of the matter by introducing the Stoic use of language.
Copyright © 2019 by Donald Robertson.