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Marcus Aurelius and Diogenes: Stoicism and Cynicism

by September 17, 2021

By Andrew Rattray
At first glance, the philosophies of Stoicism and Cynicism appear to be two sides of the same coin. Both philosophies are eminently practical, designed as day-to-day practices more than grand ideals, focusing on achieving a state of ‘eudaimonia’ (literally, ‘good spirit’), a state of flourishing and freedom from worry, through self-discipline, sacrifice, and internal reflection. These similarities were also noted by contemporary figures, for example in Juvenal’s Satires (number 13) he jests that the only difference between the Stoics and the Cynics is that the former wear shirts!
I suppose this isn’t surprising given that they share a common history, both stemming ultimately from the teachings of Socrates. In fact, one of the earliest and most prominent Cynic philosophers, Diogenes of Sinope, went on to mentor Crates of Thebes, who in turn mentored Zeno of Citium, widely considered the founder of Stoicism. 
Ultimately, the two philosophies follow the same basic principle; that the key to happiness is to live in accordance with nature. Both posit that humanity has been gifted with the power of rational thought and that through this rationalism we can strive toward the state of ‘eudaimonia’ by not allowing oneself to be controlled by external factors. However, while both philosophies might start their adherents down a similar path, it soon forks, and you will find that in practice the two differ considerably. 
Where the differences start to emerge is in what each philosophy considers to be ‘in accordance with nature’. You see, the Stoics believe that human beings naturally tend toward both ensuring their own success, but also living in harmony with others, and so Stoicism promotes temperance within these natural desires. Stoics believe it is acceptable to wish for wealth, for example, provided one does not damage their virtue in its pursuit, and that it is acceptable to live within the confines of societal expectation, provided that those expectations are just and, once again, do not diminish one’s virtues as an individual. 
The Cynics on the other hand placed a far greater value upon one’s personal nature, individual freedom, and self-sufficiency. Interestingly, the name ‘Cynic’ comes from the ancient Greek ‘kunikos’ meaning ‘dog like’. The moniker has many motivations, but it was initially seen to be an insult to Cynic adherents who would often live on the streets like stray dogs, with some even surviving on begging alone. This may seem extreme, but through this process they could not only free themselves of the burdens of materialism, but moreover, by standing apart from societal systems, they were better placed to realise how these systems can lead us away from living in accordance with our true nature and experiencing real freedom and happiness. 
Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gérôme
This, I feel, is the key difference between the Cynics and the Stoics. Where the Stoics believe that a good life can be achieved within certain confines of human desires and societal expectations, the Cynics argue that true happiness cannot be achieved without freeing oneself from all limitations, including those imposed by our internal wants, as well as other people. 
For example, the Cynics reject any ideas of wealth or grandeur outright; arguing that we do not need such luxuries to live naturally; claiming that not even a home, or a bed, are truly necessary. The Stoics on the other hand agree that these things are not necessities but argue that things such as a warm bed or a nice home bring with them certain benefits and that it’s okay to utilise these benefits. In a nutshell, the Stoics recognise that these sorts of luxuries don’t inherently make you happy, but they can make life easier, and so they accept their place in our lives, whereas the Cynics reject these things regardless of their uses precisely because they don’t make us happy directly. 
The differences in the outlook of the Stoics and Cynics are made even more stark when we contrast two of the most famous adherents of each philosophy; the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, and the Cynic Diogenes of Sinope
As many of you know, Marcus Aurelius was a much-lauded Roman Emperor who earned a reputation as a ‘philosopher king’ among historians. In fact, he was described by Herodian of Antioch as “Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.”. Marcus Aurelius’ personal journals have formed the collection now commonly known as the Meditations.
On his approach to social life, he wrote “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”
Statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback
Statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback
As with other Stoics, Marcus Aurelius accepts that although the people he interacts with may have a negative influence he realises that through his own self-control he can negate this, and that this is in fact a natural way of living, since we are ‘born to work together’.
Diogenes of Sinope, on the other hand, stands in abject contrast with the legacy of Marcus Aurelius, despite their equal adherence to their respective philosophical practice. He was one of the most infamous philosophers of his time and is still widely known today for his extreme behaviour. While Marcus Aurelius was known as ‘the Philosopher’, Diogenes’ moniker was ‘the Dog’. This was, of course, originally intended as an insult but Diogenes seemed to take great pleasure in the jest. In fact, he is quoted by the historian Diogenes Laertius in his work ‘The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers’ as responding, when asked why he was called ‘the Dog’, “Because I fawn upon those who give me anything, and bark at those who give me nothing, and bite the rogues”.
Where Marcus Aurelius was an emperor, Diogenes lived a life of poverty, despite being the son of a well-off banker, he chose to abandon his possessions and lived in a large ceramic pot in the marketplace of Athens. While Marcus Aurelius did much to improve the lives of Roman citizens through legislative action and saw benefits in working together with others, Diogenes would debase the morals and rules of society to point out hypocrisies. Many different historians, such as Dio Chrysostom and Diogenes Laertius, attest that Diogenes would urinate on people he didn’t like, defecate in the theatre, and masturbate in public, all in an effort to demonstrate how social expectations were limiting our freedom.
Indeed, Diogenes lived a life of voluntary adversity by choosing to comport himself in such a confrontational manner. However, despite this adversity some later Stoics, such as Epictetus, considered him to be living in total freedom. Diogenes did what he wanted, when he wanted, and from all we can glean from contemporary texts he was perfectly happy doing so. In no way is this better illustrated than in his conversation with Alexander the Great. Although the validity of the accounts of their meeting have been questioned, both Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch recount the story. Alexander is said to have found Diogenes, excited to meet such a famed philosopher, and offered if he could offer any favour Diogenes need only name it. Diogenes replied simply “Stand out of my sunlight.” .
Painting by Monsiau, depicting the encounter between Alexander and Diogenes
Painting by Monsiau, depicting the encounter between Alexander and Diogenes
It’s almost impossible not to be a little jealous of this carefree attitude. How many times have you wished you could tell your boss how you really feel? How many times have you gotten frustrated at being told you can’t do something simply because it’s ‘frowned upon’? But is it a freedom you truly desire, or just a vanishing craving to set the world to rights? Might it not be better to live as Marcus Aurelius did, with a well-measured and tempered response to the adversities in our lives?
While the comparison between the likes of Marcus Aurelius and Diogenes of Sinope is an extreme one, it does help to demonstrate not just the key differences between the Stoics and the Cynics, but also the different perceptions of the two philosophies in practice. Marcus Aurelius, and the Stoics more generally, accepted the benefits of some luxuries and a life lived in harmony with others, whereas Diogenes, and the Cynics, rejected the trappings of wealth and excess and focused instead on their individual freedom, in some cases at the expense of others.  Both philosophies believe freeing oneself from external influence is the key to a good life, but the Stoics believe that one can enjoy certain aspects of life without allowing them to influence you.
Though the development of the two philosophies is deeply intertwined I think it is fair to say that the Stoics refined and tempered many of the tenets of Cynic philosophy into a practice that found more mainstream acceptance whilst still promoting the inward focus on virtue and wisdom as being key to reaching a state of eudaimonia. However, the Cynics paved the way, bringing much of these shared ideals of austerity and forbearance from temptation into the public consciousness. Without the Cynics, there could be no Stoicism, but without the Stoics, the wisdom of such irksome characters as Diogenes may well have been clouded in their extremely oppositional approach to the world and lost to the ages.

Fate and Free Will – The Stoic Perspective

by September 8, 2021

by Mariami Shanshashvili        
It is no secret that ancient teachings of Stoicism have seen a massive revival in modern times. From academia to the general public, people have been closely rethinking Stoic philosophy.  One of the primary reasons behind this surging popularity of Stoicism, I would say, is the appeal of exercising a complete control over your mind. It is true that Stoic practices allow us the greater freedom over our psyche and emotions. One area, however, where Stoicism does not spoil us with as much freedom, is the freedom of will.
When it comes to fate and free will in Stoicism, a key debate exists beween what’s referred to as the ‘Lazy Argument‘ from critics of Stoicism, and the Stoic Response to the Lazy Argument developed by the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus. By examining this debate we can gain a better insight into the truth of the Stoic understanding of fate and freedom.
Ancient Stoics believed in a causal or ‘soft’ determinism: a view that maintains that everything that happens has a cause that leads to an effect. Each and every event is a part of the unbreakable chain of cause and effect, which is dictated and steered by the gods’ providential plan of fate. Nevertheless Stoics, however, also assert that even in a deterministic world, our actions are ultimately ‘up to us’.
The Lazy Argument attacks this claim by attempting to show the futility of any action in the face of fate. The argument is formulated in the following way:
  • If it is fated that you will survive a snakebite, then you will survive whether you go to a hospital or not.
  • Likewise, if you are fated to not survive a snakebite, then you will not survive whether you go to a hospital or not.
  • One of them is fated.
  • On either alternative, it does not matter what you do because the fated outcome will happen anyway.
The essence of the Lazy Argument is to demonstrate how no action matters if every event is fated. And since your life is set to unwaveringly follow a determined track, there is no point to exert any effort or even think about the right course of action. Simply put, the Lazy Argument makes just being lazy an appealing choice.
The Stoic response, attributed to Chryssipus by Cicero in his De Fatō, is designed to show that the Lazy Argument is unsound, and our actions indeed do have a bearing on the outcome of events. According to Chryssipus, not all premises of the Lazy Argument is true. Ancient Stoics accept that everything is fated, but dismiss the rest the argument. To say something is fated to happen does not mean that it will happen regardless of what you do. Rather, to the Stoics it means that this event is a part of the unbreakable cause-effect chain in which some causal elements are crucial for bringing about the effect. Moreover, knowing that the outcome is fated does not give you any insight into what actions lead up to it.
Some events, claims Chryssipus, are co-fated, meaning that they are interconnected and conjoined to the others. The prophecy of Laius, the father of Oedipus, is a telling example of this concept: Laius was warned by the oracle that he would be killed by his own son. But this would not happen if he did not beget a child. Simply put, Laius’ end is co-fated with begetting Oedipus, which is in turn co-fated with having intercourse with a woman. It is not true that Laius will still meet the same end whether or not he has a child.
The course of fate, therefore, does not necessarily dispose of the causal relationship between the events. Quite the opposite, the Stoic fate is remarkably logical: it is operating under the sound logic of ’cause and effect’. Therefore, according to the Stoics, the claim of the Lazy Argument that a certain event will occur no matter what we do grossly overlooks the necessary connections between events. So, to put it another way, if we want to survive the snakebite, we really better go to a hospital.
The Death of Laius, at the hands of his son Oedipus
Some might argue that the objection of whether or not our actions are ‘up to us’ is a completely different objection. The Stoic response is taking the Lazy Argument as a question of mechanical correspondence between cause-effect, while what the argument is actually drawing on is how the absence of agency or choice over our actions renders any choice meaningless.
One way or another, Stoics have much more to say about the choice and agency. Let us consider the Stoic argument through the lens of objection raised by Stoic scholar Keith Seddon:
“Though seeing [two events being co-fated] doesn’t to any degree undermine the fatalist’s position, for just as your recovering was fated (if only you had known it), so was your calling the doctor! This might be how it happened, all right, but if the event of your calling the doctor was caused by prior circumstances (as all events are, according to the theory of causal determinism) then in what sense could you be considered to exercise your free will?” (2004, “Do the Stoics Succeed?”).
Stoics would say that the matter is more complicated, as the same phenomena can have different effects on different agents. Chryssipus illustrates this with the following metaphor: “if you push a cylinder and a cone, the former will roll in a straight line, and the latter in a circle (LS 62C)[1]. Similarly, different men will assent differently to the same push. And assent, just as we said in the case of the cylinder, although prompted from outside, will thereafter move through its own force and nature.”[2] Therefore, our internal nature shapes the way we respond to the external stimuli. Simply put, character is fate, with the further inference being that our character itself is determined.
I think the most successful Stoic response to the Lazy Argument is their dog analogy: “When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity, but if it does not want to follow it will be compelled in any case. So, it is with men too: even if they do not want to, they will be compelled in any case to follow what is destined.” (Hippolytus, Refutation of all heresies 1.21, L&S 62A). In other words, nothing is up to you, except the way you react to it. A very Stoic thought!
Tim O’Keefe, The Stoics of Fate and Freedom, the Routledge Companion to Free Will, eds. Meghan Griffith, Neil Levy, and Kevin Timpe, 2016.
“A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987). ”
Cicero, On Fate 
Brennan, T. (2005-06-23). The Lazy Argument. In The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate. : Oxford University Press.

[1] “A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987). ”
[2] On Fate 42–3 (SVF 2.974; LS 62C(5)–(9)).

The Journey To Stoicism:

by August 16, 2021

A Guide to a Good Life
We write to you today from the Mediterranean, about an hour from the port of Piraeus, en route to the ancient Minoan stomping grounds of Crete. 
It’s hard not to feel inspired by the wine-dark seas, the fading tips of the nearby islands and the gentle rocking of Poseidon’s domain. 
Yes Dear Reader, we have made the journey to Greece in time for our upcoming event next week, to really get into the spirit of the Symposium.
After all, this is the very spot where so many great ideas began… 
The inspiring Aegean…
In fact, it was during his voyage from Phoenicia to Piraeus, our very point of departure, that Zeno of Citium found himself shipwrecked. The wealthy merchant from Cyprus then did what may seem a bit odd to us now; he went to a local bookseller and found himself with Xenophon’s Memorabilia.
So pleased with the portrayal of Socrates, he sought out philosophers from which he could learn more and ended up under the tutelage of the Cynic, Crates of Thebes. Zeno took up the Cynic way of life as best his native modesty allowed… but with time developed his own way of thinking, creating a new guide to living a good life. 
Zeno taught this approach under the colonnade in the Agora of Athens, known as the Stoa Poikile, in 301 BC… and thus began the origins of the philosophy Stoicism. 
Today, Stoicism is enjoying a revival, helping individuals around the globe find a new perspective with this ancient wisdom, in huge part due to modern philosophers such as William B. Irvine and his wildly successful book, A Guide to a Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. 
Professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, USA, and author of eight books that have been translated into more than twenty languages, Dr. Irvine’s work on Stoic Joy illustrates just how applicable and insightful Stoicism is in our modern era. 
Using the psychological insights and the practical techniques of the Stoics, Dr. Irvine offers a roadmap for anyone seeking to avoid the feelings of chronic dissatisfaction that plague so many of us. The book delves into Stoic techniques for attaining tranquility and illustrates how to put these techniques to work in our own life. 
It’s a fantastic read, and also remarkably practical… with tips on how to minimize worry, how to let go of the past and focus our efforts on the things we can control, and how to deal with insults, grief, old age, and the distracting temptations of fame and fortune. 
With Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, as well as the good Phoenician and founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, as your guide, you can find the ancient art of Stoic Joy. 
Get Your Copy of A Guide to a Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, Here:
You can also watch Dr. Irvine speak LIVE on Sunday, August 22nd, during our second keynote panel discussion, along with Donald Robertson and A.A. Long, on what control we have over the Fall of Nations… and how we can prepare for their evitable end. 
Make sure to get your tickets now – and remember – you can pay what YOU WANT. Reserve your spot here:
Get Tickets to Watch the panel LIVE Sunday night:

Secrets of a Roman Emperor

by August 6, 2021

Plato once wrote that there wouldn’t be peace until philosophers were kings. But what about Emperors?
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already heard of Marcus Aurelius; Roman emperor, philosopher, and author of the much beloved Meditations.
Perhaps no other book quite captures what we mean by ‘Classical Wisdom’ than the Meditations, the insights of an emperor on daily life. In our information-saturated, multimedia world, the words of Marcus Aurelius have even MORE potency than in his own day, as he reminds us, ‘Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.’
Marcus Aurelius has had an enormous surge of popularity in recent years. Yet how much do we really know about the philosopher and emperor? How can we understand not just his life, but his inner life? And what can he teach us about today?
Donald Robertson’s fantastic and enormously popular book How To Think Like A Roman Emperor brings vividly to life the mind of this great thinker. We come to know the details of his life, but more than that, we learn the secrets that gave him his famous Stoic resilience, and how to apply them to our own lives.
These secrets speak to us through the ages and are every bit as relevant as they were in the days of Marcus Aurelius (if not moreso!).
As a cognitive psychotherapist and one of the founders of Modern Stoicism, Donald Robertson is uniquely able to illustrate how philosophical doctrines and therapeutic practices together can build emotional strength so that anyone can endure tremendous adversity. Following the life of Marcus Aurelius, readers can learn these ancient techniques and put them to use for themselves.
When Plato spoke of peace, he meant the affairs of states and nations. Marcus Aurelius offers us something perhaps even more valuable: the spirit of inner peace. 
“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.” These profound words once written by Marcus Aurlieus illustrate the importance of our upcoming Symposium where Donald Robertson will be speaking LIVE on the topic of Stoicism and the Imperial Rule of Marcus Aurelius.
Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see Donald Robertson, alongside a host of the world’s most renowned experts on Ancient Greece and Rome.
Taking place August 21/22 – this will truly be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Reserve your tickets HERE!
Want wine with your tickets?? Get into the Spirit of the Symposium with our exclusively sourced Mediterranean collection… but you’ll need to ACT FAST. This offer closes August 10th!
Get your wine HERE!

The Man Who Made Stoicism Cool

by August 4, 2021

Sure, Stoicism is a household term these days. 
Pundits toss the word about, vloggers casually mention the concepts and tweeters of the world find inspiration from neatly encapsulated Stoic memes.
You can discuss Stoicism with your hairdresser, taxi driver and most certainly your gym instructor. 
But it wasn’t always that way…
Back when Dr. Anthony Arthur Long (Tony) began delving into the subject in the 60’s and 70’s, it was considered passé. You could even go so far as to say it was obscure. Just another ancient philosophy tucked away in the corners of the history books. 
Overlooked and ignored. 
Tony’s interest and exploration of the subject is what brought it out to the limelight. Indeed, he is often credited with spearheading the modern Stoic movement.
Yup, Dr. Long made Stoicism cool again. 
Just imagine how many folks around the world he has helped by bringing this ancient philosophy to the surface! It is for this reason we are overjoyed to welcome this philosophical legend to our Sunday night (August 22) Symposium Panel. 
Today we’d like to introduce one of this weekend’s Symposium Panel Members, the highly respected and renowned philosopher, A.A. Long.
Anthony Arthur Long is a British and naturalised American classical scholar and Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Classics and Irving Stone Professor of Literature Emeritus, and Affiliated Professor of Philosophy and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.
He has had a fascinating career, complete with a plethora of books and a specialization in stoicism in the face of disaster. 
(You can hear all about it in his last year’s interview on the Classical Wisdom Speaks Podcast, below:)
In the year 62, citing health issues, the Roman philosopher Seneca withdrew from public service and devoted his time to writing. His letters from this period offer a window onto his experience as a landowner, a traveler, and a man coping with the onset of old age. They share his ideas on everything from the treatment of enslaved people to the perils of seafaring, and they provide lucid explanations for many key points of Stoic philosophy.
Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long, this selection of fifty letters brings out the essentials of Seneca’s thought, with much that speaks directly to the modern reader. 
Above all, they explore the inner life of the individual who proceeds through philosophical inquiry from a state of emotional turmoil to true friendship, self-determination, and personal excellence. 
But that’s not all from Dr. Long! His contributions to the modern Stoic movement continue with his excellent book, How to be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life.
Born a slave, the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 55–135 AD) taught that mental freedom is supreme, since it can liberate one anywhere, even in a prison. In How to Be Free, A. A. Long—one of the world’s leading authorities on Stoicism and a pioneer in its remarkable contemporary revival—provides a superb new edition of Epictetus’s celebrated guide to the Stoic philosophy of life (the Encheiridion) along with a selection of related reflections in his Discourses.
How to be FREE has been translated into German and Greek. Translations of Epictetus into other European languages are forthcoming, and also into Arabic,Turkish, Korean, Japanese, and most recently Indonesian.
Next year will see the publication of Seneca, Fifty Letters of a Roman Stoic, jointly by Margaret Graver and Tony, and his translation and study of Plotinus, On Matter.
Watch Dr. A.A. Long Speak LIVE
On Sunday, August 22nd, Tony will once more partake in a panel discussion, along with Donald Robertson and William B Irvine at this year’s Classical Wisdom Symposium. 
It is the first time the three of them will be in a conversation together. They will discuss the control one has at the end of empires… and what we need to do to prepare for the fall of Nations. 
In fact, Dr. Long has a very unique perspective on this. As a British born, American naturalized citizen, Tony has personally witnessed the fall of one empire and the rise of the next. Combined with his philosophical expertise, you can only imagine how valuable his insights on the matter will be… 
It will be a truly important and fascinating conversation!
Whether you can watch LIVE on the day, or enjoy the videos whenever it’s convenient, you will have FULL access to the event.

Marcus Aurelius and the Sophists on Justice

by August 4, 2021

by Donald Robertson, author of “How to Think like a Roman Emperor”
What is it, then, that arouses your discontent? Human wickedness? Call to mind the doctrine that rational creatures have come into the world for the sake of one another, and that tolerance is a part of justice… (Meditations, 4.2)
The virtue of justice is one of the main themes that runs throughout The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. For Stoics, this is a less formal concept than the English word implies and really refers to social virtue in quite a broad sense. Justices entails the exercise of wisdom, kindness, and fairness in our relationships with others both individually and collectively. However, it’s also bound up with Stoic pantheism, the belief that everything in the universe, including every human being, is part of a sacred whole. We’re all in this together as citizens of a single world-city – a notion sometimes referred to as ethical “cosmopolitanism”. More than that, though, the Stoics believed that nature intended human beings to actively help one another. We’re fundamentally designed to co-operate for our own mutual benefit – and malice or conflict between us, though common, is against our true nature.
Marcus, like other Stoics, assumes that human nature is inherently reasoning – we are essentially thinking creatures – and that we therefore have a duty to apply reason consistently to our lives. Doing so would culminate, of course, in the virtue of wisdom. However, there’s a less well-known assumption in Stoicism, which holds that humans are not only essentially rational but also social. “Now every rational being,” writes Marcus, “by virtue of its rationality, is also a social being” (Meditations, 10.2). From this it follows that in order to truly flourish and fulfill our own natural potential, we should excel in terms of our social relationships. Doing so would culminate in the virtue of justice. Humans are naturally rational and social creatures – the Stoic wise man (or woman) is therefore someone who excels in both regards, exercising both wisdom and justice consistently in his (or her) life.
Marcus tells himself that the supreme good of every creature lies in the goal for which it is naturally constituted and that the supreme good for a human must consist in kinship with others, and the exercise of social virtues such as justice, as it has “long been proved that we were born for fellowship” (Meditations, 5.16). Indeed, he goes as far as to say that whoever commits an act of injustice acts impiously against the most venerable of gods “since universal nature has created rational creatures for the sake of one another, to benefit their fellows according to their deserts and in no way to do them harm” (Meditations, 9.1).
He therefore reasons that as he is part of the social system, his every action should be dedicated toward improving society, which he tends to call the goal of seeking “the common welfare of mankind”. Any action which does the opposite “tears your life apart”, in a sense, by alienating us from the rest of mankind and preventing us from experiencing a sense of oneness with the rest of humanity – “as does the citizen in a state who for his own part cuts himself off from the concord of his fellows” (Meditations, 9.23).
Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Indeed, Marcus repeatedly argues that because humans are essentially social creatures our individual welfare necessarily depends upon the welfare of our society, and ultimately the welfare of our species – the great city or society of humankind as a whole. “What brings no benefit to the hive”, he says, “brings none to the bee” (Meditations, 6.54). Elsewhere he explains more literally “What causes no harm to the city causes no harm to the citizen” (Meditations, 5.22). He actually advises himself to respond to every impression of having been harmed by affirming to himself that: “If the community is not harmed by this, neither am I”. He adds that if the community really is harmed he should not be angry with the person who is responsible but rather show him what he has failed to see.
Elsewhere Marcus goes further and states that only what harms the laws can truly harm the city presumably if they are rendered unjust (Meditations, 10.33). He reasons that those things the majority of us ordinarily complain about as misfortunes in life – such as illness, poverty, or persecution from others – do not themselves corrupt the laws, and can therefore bring genuine harm neither to the city nor to its citizens.
If I remember, then, that I am a part of such a whole, I shall be well contented with all that comes to pass; and in so far as I am bound by a tie of kinship to other parts of the same nature as myself I shall never act against the common interest, but rather, I shall take proper account of my fellows, and direct every impulse to the common benefit and turn it away from anything that runs counter to that benefit. And when this is duly accomplished, my life must necessarily follow a happy course, just as you would observe that any citizen’s life proceeds happily on its course when he makes his way through it performing actions which benefit his fellow citizens and he welcomes whatever his city assigns to him. (Meditations, 10.6)
Protagoras of Abdera /Painting by Ribera -
Protagoras of Abdera, Painting by Ribera
Although Marcus undoubtedly inherited these ideas from his own Stoic teachers there’s also a much earlier source for the notion that humans are designed to work together by exercising social virtues such as justice, kindness, and fairness to one another. It comes from a speech called The Great Discourse by the first great Sophist thinker, Protagoras. It originated about six centuries before the time of Marcus Aurelius but remained very well-known in the ancient world because Plato recorded a version of it in his dialogue named after Protagoras. What follows is a rough paraphrase of the speech’s content…
The Great Discourse of Protagoras
At first there were gods but no mortal creatures. When the time came, the gods fashioned countless animals by mixing together the elements of fire and earth. Zeus commanded the titan Prometheus to assign different abilities to each living thing.
Some creatures were slow moving and so to make up for this he gave them great strength. Others were weak and so to these Prometheus granted speed. Some he armed while others were given various forms of protection. Small creatures were granted the capability for winged flight or for concealing their dwellings underground. Large beasts had their size for protection. And he took care to grant all creatures some means for their own preservation so that no species should be in danger of elimination by others.
Prometheus creates man
Prometheus creates man
Having equipped them to survive among each other in this way Prometheus then granted them protection against their environment and the harshness of the seasons. He clothed some with dense hair or thick skin, sufficient to endure the heat of summer and ward off the cold through winter months. To some he gave strong hooves, to others claws and hard bodies that were not easily wounded. And every creature was assigned its own source of food. Some pastured on the earth, others ate fruits hanging from trees or roots from beneath the ground. Yet others were predators who fed upon certain types of animals for their meat. To the predators he assigned fewer offspring whereas their prey were more abundant so that there would always be enough to serve as food.
Once he had finished assigning to each species its own special capabilities, however, Prometheus was left with the realization that he had nothing left to give the race of man. Humans are born naked, unshod, unarmed, and with no bed in which to lay their head and rest safely. They were more vulnerable than other creatures and seemed bound to perish. Not knowing what else to do, in desperation, Prometheus stole the technical expertise of the gods Hephaestus and Athena and gave that to mankind, along with the gift of fire.
Once human beings were granted these divine gifts, however, they sensed their kinship to the gods and began praying and building altars to them. They invented clothing, bedding, dwellings, agriculture, and even the use of language to express their thoughts and acquire learning. Men lived apart at first but finding themselves beset continually and harassed by wild beasts they sought to build cities for their own mutual protection.
Prometheus steals fire
Prometheus steals fire
However, the wisdom that concerns our relations with others belonged to Zeus alone, king of the gods and patron of friendship and families. No sooner than men gathered together trying to save themselves, being lawless, they began instead to wrong one another and fighting broke out among them. Scattering once again from their failed cities, they continued to perish in the wild.
Looking down upon this chaotic scene with dismay, Zeus feared for the destruction of the entire human race. He therefore sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to teach mortals about justice and also to instill in them a sense of shame concerning wrongdoing as a deterrent against injustice. By this means Zeus now granted mankind a unique capacity to unite themselves in cities governed by law and the principles of justice, maintaining order through the bonds of friendship and fostering their sense of community.
Hermes asked Zeus whether he should distribute justice and the various social and political virtues among men in the same way as technical knowledge concerning the other crafts had been shared. One man who possesses the knowledge of medicine, for example, was enough to benefit many other men. However, Zeus decreed that every human being must be granted at least some rudimentary knowledge of justice and the arts needed to unite society. He even laid down the law that anyone who was found unable to respect justice and the rule of law should be put to death to prevent them from becoming a pestilence in the city.
Statue of Zeus
Statue of Zeus
For this reason, said Protagoras, although we seek the advice only of those few who are experts with regard to crafts such as medicine or carpentry, concerning justice we allow every citizen to have his say. Further, if someone boasts of being an expert in playing the flute or some such art but is found to be nothing of the sort then he is merely ridiculed as a fool. However, anyone found incapable of respecting justice should be expelled from society because each and every citizen is expected to share at least somewhat in this capacity, so that he may live harmoniously in the company of others.
The Sophist Protagoras originally expressed this doctrine that humans are naturally social creatures in the guise of a myth. According to the tradition that followed, we are obliged to realize our potential for wisdom by exercising the gift of reason to the best of our ability. So we are also obliged, as Marcus Aurelius said many centuries later, to fulfill our natural potential for friendly collaboration with others by exhibiting the virtue of justice.
Donald Robertson is the author of How To Think Like A Roman Emperor.
He will also be appearing LIVE at our online Symposium in August. Get your tickets HERE.