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Carnuntum: Where Marcus Aurelius Wrote The Meditations

by April 12, 2022

(Thanks to Landessammlungen Niederösterreich, Archäologischer Park Carnuntum for permission to use photographs of their exhibits.)
If thou would’st master care and pain,
Unfold this book and read and read again
Its blessed leaves, whereby thou soon shalt see
The past, the present, and the days to be
With opened eyes; and all delight, all grief,
Shall be like smoke, as empty and as brief.
– Epigram found at the end of a Vatican manuscript of The Meditations and in the Anthologia Palatina.
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius kept private notes of his philosophical reflections, which survive today.  We know them as The Meditations, although the earliest Greek manuscript bears the title Ta eis heauton or “To Himself”.  The Meditations has become one of the most widely-read spiritual self-help classics of all time.  The Prussian king Frederick the Great was a big fan, referring to Marcus Aurelius as his “exemplar” and his “hero”.  The English philosopher and nobleman Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, actually wrote his own version of The Meditations called The Philosophical Regimen.  The author John Steinbeck was a fan and mentions The Meditations in his novel East of Eden (1952).  More recently, former US President Bill Clinton named it as his favourite book and former US defense secretary General Mattis said it was the one book he’d advise every American to read.  Sir Alec Guinness depicted Marcus Aurelius in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).  Richard Harris later played him in the Hollywood movie Gladiator (2000), which inspired a new generation of readers to pick up The Meditations.  A script is currently in development for a sequel concerning the story of Marcus’ descendants, which may perhaps cause another wave of interest in Marcus Aurelius, his life, and his philosophical writings. 
However, we know frustratingly little about the origin of The Meditations.  There are a couple of intriguing notes, or headings, in the text which helpfully tell us where Marcus was writing.  Between books one and two are the words “Among the Quadi, at the Gran”, a tributary of the River Danube located on the enemy side of the frontier, almost a hundred miles east of Carnuntum.  Between books two and three it simply says “At Carnuntum”. Because of the odd position of these words in the manuscript, it’s not entirely clear to which books he’s referring. My belief is that the first location mentioned is where book one of The Meditations was written.  I suspect this was toward the end of the First Marcomannic War when he had crossed the Danube into the lands of the hostile Quadi and was negotiating peace with them.  This part of the book is sometimes believed to have been written last and added as a sort of preface. I think it’s likely the rest of The Meditations, book two onward, was written at Carnuntum by the banks of the Danube, the capital of the Roman province of Upper Pannonia.  
The Roman historian Cassius Dio confirms that Marcus “fought for a long time, almost his entire life, one might say,” with the tribes in the region of the Danube, both Marcomanni and Sarmatians, one after the other, “using Pannonia as his base”.  For much of the Marcomannic wars Marcus presumably stationed himself in upper and lower Pannonia, at the major Roman military camps in Carnuntum, Aquincum, and Sirmium. (Located on modern-day Austria, Hungary, and Serbia respectively.) The modern town of Petronell-Carnuntum in Austria is the location of the Carnuntum Archeological Park, consisting of three museums, several archeological sites, and detailed reconstructions of Roman buildings, including a functioning Roman bathhouse.  It extends over an area of 10 km². I visited the area recently to find out more about the setting in which The Meditations was written, in the lead up to the publication of my own book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

The Legionary Camp and Roman City of Carnuntum

The story of Carnuntum really begins with the fifteenth legion (Legio XV Appollinaris) founding a legionary fortress there in 40 AD.  Shortly after this it became the headquarters of the Pannonian fleet, which patrolled the Danube. The fourteenth legion (Legio XIV Gemina) were subsequently garrisoned there, adopting it as their permanent base.  Over the years a civilian settlement grew up beside the military camp, which had evolved into a major city, and become the capital of the province by the time of Marcus Aurelius.
Study and contemplation in an ancient place
The Roman city of Carnuntum had an estimated population of 50,000.  It thrived because it sat at the intersection of trade routes on the Roman frontier, by the banks of the Danube where the Amber Road crossed the river.  The huge army camp which sprawled beside the city had a legionary fortress at the centre where the provincial governor and presumably also the emperor resided.  It was of enormous strategic importance to the Roman military.
At the start of the First Marcomannic War, in the Spring of 170 AD, the Romans suffered a major defeat.  An invading army led by the Marcomanni, accompanied by allied tribes, reputedly slaughtered 20,000 Roman soldiers in what became known as The Battle of Carnuntum.  King Ballomar of the Marcomanni then led his army down the Amber Road, across the Alps, and through Italy until they reached the Roman city of Aquileia, which they besieged.  Eventually they were driven back by Marcus and his generals Pompeianus and Pertinax, who gradually succeeded in liberating Pannonia and the other provinces from the invading tribes.  It’s believed Marcus stationed himself at Carnuntum from around 171 to 173 AD. A funerary stele commemorating a member of the emperor’s praetorian guard has been unearthed there inscribed with the date 171 AD, proving that Marcus must have been in Carnuntum around that time.  Recent archeological evidence therefore lends support to the note in The Meditations where Marcus suggests that he wrote part of the text there.  

Carnuntum and the Symbolism of The Meditations

That heading is the only explicit references to Carnuntum in The Meditations.  Nevertheless, it’s tempting to relate some of Marcus’ remarks to the setting in which he appears to have been writing.  I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Marcus could easily have been describing his situation, stationed far from home on the front-line of the Marcomannic War in Pannonia, when he wrote to himself that “life is warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land” (2.17).  However, here and throughout the rest of The Meditations the things he sees and hears around him every day are elevated into philosophical metaphors about the meaning of life in general.
Statue of the Danube River God
For example, Marcus refers several times to the image of time as a river.  Like other Stoics, he was influenced by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus who famously said “Everything changes and nothing remains still” and “You cannot step into the same river twice”.  Although the Heraclitean metaphor of time as a river flowing past was almost a cliche, it does acquire more resonance if we think of Marcus writing these words beside the Danube. The Romans personified the Danube in the form of a river god, a bearded middle-aged man, whose image appears on the Aurelian column at Rome and also in an exhibit at the Museum Carnuntinum.  The River Danube was of immense importance to the Romans and must have featured very prominently in Marcus’ life, commanding the troops along its banks.
It’s easy to imagine that he had the Danube in mind, therefore, when he describes Nature as “a rushing torrent”, which “carries all things in its stream” (9.29).  All bodies, he says, are swept through the substance of the whole “as through a winter torrent” (7.19).
Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too. (4.43)
At one point, speaking of the river as a metaphor for change, Marcus also brings to mind the little birds who can be heard in the trees and bushes along the banks of the Danube.
At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct. Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young. So in this torrent, in which one can find no place to stand, which of the things that go rushing past should one value at any great price? It is as though one began to lose one’s heart to a little sparrow flitting by, and no sooner has one done so than it has vanished from sight. (6.15)
There are other references to animals that seem to evoke his surroundings at Carnuntum.  For instance, he says that someone who wishes for wicked people to do no wrong is asking the impossible, like wanting horses not to neigh, “or anything else that cannot be otherwise than it is” (12.16).  The sound of distant neighing would often have intruded on his meditations while stationed in the military camp at Carnuntum, I think, where thousands of horses were stabled nearby for the use of cavalry units, etc.
Architecture in Carnuntum
There’s surprisingly little reference to warfare in The Meditations, given that at least some of it appears to have been written at a major military camp during a prolonged war.  However, Marcus appears to mention having witnessed the gruesome sight of severed hands, feet, and heads lying at a distance from their bodies (8.34).  Perhaps he was describing the remains on a battlefield in the aftermath of combat. However, he uses it to illustrate the unnatural way in which someone alienates himself from the universe when he refuses to accept his fate, or from the rest of humankind when he acts in ways that are at odds with the common interest.  
There are two amphitheatres at Carnuntum, a military one at the legionary camp and a civilian one near the city, each with a gladiatorial school beside it.  We know Marcus wasn’t remotely interested in the gladiatorial games. Perhaps because of his Stoic philosophical values, he appears to have found the displays of violence both distasteful and monotonous.
Just as you are sickened by the displays in the amphitheatre and such places, because the same scenes are forever repeated and the monotony makes the spectacle irksome, so you should also feel about life as a whole; for all things, high and low, are ever the same and arise from the same. For how long, then? (6.46)
Indeed, Cassius Dio confirms that Marcus insisted that gladiators, at least at Rome, should fight with blunted weapons.
Carnuntum Museum
Marcus, indeed, was so averse to bloodshed that he even used to watch the gladiators in Rome contend, like athletes, without risking their lives; for he never gave any of them a sharp weapon, but they all fought with blunted weapons like foils furnished with buttons.
Nevertheless, Marcus felt obliged to attend the gladiatorial bouts at the amphitheatre because the public expected it of him.  He almost certainly, therefore, would have attended games at the amphitheatres in Carnuntum, albeit begrudgingly. Nevertheless, we can stroll among the ruins of those two amphitheatres today, contemplating the notion that we may be where Marcus Aurelius once sat reflecting on the principles of Stoic philosophy and trying to apply them to the everyday sights and sounds around him.
Donald Robertson is a cognitive psychotherapist and writer, living in Canada.  His new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius explores the ways in which events in Marcus’ life can be related to his philosophy.

Insight from the Garden of Epicurus

by April 6, 2022

by Enda Harte
Epicurus was said to have been born into a noble family in Samos, Greece, around 341 BC. He was considered Athenian, as Athens had pockets of land in that area. At the age of approximately 18, he moved to Athens, where he immersed himself in the world of philosophy, learning under various schools and teachers. Throughout his adult life he moved to various places including Lesbos and Lampsacus. In his time in both cities, he taught and acquired followers.
He moved back to Athens in approximately 306 BC and set up his own school, which drew from his vast array of teachers. These included Democritean philosophers, physicists, and astronomers, and he was also largely influenced by the works of Aristotle. This school came to be known as The Garden, due to the meetings taking place in his private residence in Athens, and from this, we have one of the three dominant Hellenistic philosophies: Epicureanism.
Epicurus remained in Athens until his death, c. 270 BC. He died at the age of 70 or 71. In accordance with his philosophy, Epicurus did not fear death. A famous quotation of Epicurus goes, ‘Death is nothing to us, so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.’
Getting to the point
The main belief of Epicureanism is that pleasure is the end goal (or telos). By pleasure, it is generally understood to refer to lack of pain: the freedom of the body from pain, as well as freedom of the soul from disturbance.
To the Epicureans and many others, peace of mind and good living is achieved with the help of philosophy.
An example of these are:
  1. Intellectual stimulation
  2. Serenity of your spirit
  3. A healthy body
Within the Epicurean school, most sources claim it taught moderate abstinence and general self-control, plus independence of thought. Pleasures which endure throughout our lives are sought out, and not fleeting moments. Epicurus is said to have praised a life that would escape other people’s line of sight.
It is important to note that Epicurean hedonism is often associated with the modern terminology for excess and pure pleasures. However, it is generally agreed that Epicureanism promotes the need for a calm and tranquil life, with pain being evil, and pleasure good. It is noted that Epicureanism promotes avoiding pleasures which are extreme, as they often have painful consequences.
Other beliefs
It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself. Epicurus
To Epicureans, there was a need to distinguish pleasure, into two categories: higher pleasures and lower pleasures. The higher pleasures are related to the mind and reflection, focusing on intellectual prowess, and aesthetics. The lower pleasures, would be those that relate to the body, including food, drink, and sexual intercourse.
Epicurus himself sought virtue in some form, which is a common theme in every Hellenistic school of thought. As mentioned above, this was centered around a calm and tranquil soul. It focuses on the individual’s pleasure and well-being, as opposed to being a member of the great cosmopolis and assisting others, which you might find in the likes of Stoicism.
Epicurus also put great emphasis on friendship, as your own pleasure is partially dependent on others’ influence. The Epicurean school had a cavalier attitude to death and dying. For them it was the limit of your life experience, and wasn’t subject to the quality of your life while on Earth. They suggested you should not fear death, because of its emptiness.
Lastly, Reason, or Practical Reason (phronesis) was an important part of the Epicurean way of life. For Epicurus and others, Reason is the need to balance out one thing with another to therefore seek future happiness. To the Epicureans, all things were chained together from atoms and linked in constant motion. With this simple fact in mind, you can overcome superstitions and general fear.
Opposing views
Historically, Epicureanism was not a philosophy of sages and leaders like Stoicism. The founder often mentions avoiding pain at all costs. While most people will argue about what the ultimate pleasures are in life, Epicurus suggests we avoid pushing to achieve too much. For Epicurus, a humble life was the greater goal. As he said himself…
Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; but remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.

A Stoic Skill: Premeditatio Malorum

by February 18, 2022

by Andrew Rattray
What makes you nervous?
What worries you?
We all have something that ties our guts up in knots when we think about having to do it, don’t we? Life is full of these situations, where we find ourselves concerned about what the future holds. Especially now, with the ever-negative deluge of the 24 hours news cycle, it’s hard to shore ourselves up against the uncertainties of what’s to come. So, what can we do? Well, as ever, we can turn to the wisdom of the ancients to guide us. The Stoic practice of Premeditatio Malorum, or premeditating evil, was developed for precisely these paralysing worries. It’s a tool to help us bolster our defences against the spectre of an uncertain future, and remind ourselves that we have the ability to overcome any challenges we might face.
Premeditatio Malorum simply refers to the visualisation of negative outcomes. It’s the mental preparation for the worst that might happen; a way to build mental fortitude in the face of uncertainty. To give you an idea of the technique in practice, let us turn to Epictetus, one of the most prominent Stoic philosophers of all time. When considering how to visualise negative outcomes, he states in his work, the Enchiridion:
When you set about any action, remind yourself of what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, represent to yourself the incidents usual in the bath—some persons pouring out, others pushing in, others scolding, others pilfering. And thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go to bathe and keep my own will in harmony with nature.” And so with regard to every other action.”
That’s all well and good, I hear you say, but how exactly does this help us? Well, Epictetus says it himself: by mentally preparing ourselves, we are able to maintain our will in a virtuous manner. In other words, we are able to deal with these difficult situations, and keep our cool in the moment. Great, but how does this process help alleviate the anxiety we face about these looming situations? Isn’t this just a form of pre-emptive worrying? Well, not really.
Strength through Wisdom
Seneca, the Roman statesman and philosopher, summarised the ideas behind the practice in one of his many letters, writing:
“If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. To the fool, however, and to him who trusts in fortune, each event as it arrives, “comes in a new and sudden form,” and a large part of evil, to the inexperienced, consists in its novelty. This is proved by the fact that men endure with greater courage, when they have once become accustomed to them, the things which they had at first regarded as hardships. Hence, the wise man accustoms himself to coming trouble, lightening by long reflection the evils which others lighten by long endurance.”
What Seneca is saying is that being caught off-guard by negative situations is always worse. By exercising negative visualisation of eventualities ahead of time, we allow ourselves to be ready if they happen, and remove the sting of surprise. That readiness also removes some of the fear and anxiety we face about the future. We no longer need to worry about what we will do, for example, if we find people jostling and splashing us in the swimming pool as Epictetus suggests.
This allows us to cultivate resilience. We can trust in ourselves that we have the fortitude and virtue to weather whatever the future has in store for us. Building this trust in ourselves in turn helps to soothe our worries. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and another prominent Stoic, captured this idea beautifully in his Meditations writing:
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” 
The strength of endurance is already within us, for we have already endured many events that were once uncertain futures, and so the future that now looms is nothing more than another step on a path we are already well travelled in.
Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius
Memento Mori… But In A Good Way
Now, let me take a moment to address the often-levelled criticism of Stoic practitioners; that they’re absolutely miserable all the time. I can see how someone might arrive at that conclusion, particularly when faced with the practice of negative visualisation, but it’s not as desolately terrible as it seems. In truth, the technique allows for happiness to grow and flourish within us precisely because it helps to soothe our fear of the unknown. Seneca reminds us, ‘What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise.
So, you see, the practice isn’t to drive ourselves into depression, quite the opposite! Let me give you another example, the Stoic Memento Mori, translated as ‘remember your mortality’, or more morbidly, ‘remember you must die’. Again, without the proper context it seems like dwelling on our eventual death isn’t a particularly good strategy for being happy – but you’d be wrong! Let me explain.  
Once again, Seneca has wisdom to share on this subject, writing in one of his letters to his friend Lucilius:
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
You see, the Stoics view the time granted to us as a gift and by remembering that it will ultimately come to an end we can invigorate ourselves to steal the day, to do the things we’ve been putting off, to try for that new job, to ask that person on a date, because why not? It’s all going to end eventually, we might as well enjoy the ride while it lasts and not put off those things we wish to accomplish! This is the purpose of the Memento Mori, and negative visualisation more generally: to push ourselves toward a more positive outlook. 
Negative visualisation in this way is a juxtaposition, a way to achieve peace and happiness by reminding ourselves of the very worst things that can happen. By thinking on how things can go wrong for us, we remove the sting of surprise if they do. In knowing things might go wrong, we can prepare ourselves mentally for the eventuality and so remove the anxiety and fear associated with the unknown. The most important thing to remember, though, is that things almost never go as badly as we might imagine they will. By building up an expectation for the worst to happen, we allow ourselves the pleasure of life being easier than we had expected. After all, as Seneca once wrote, “We often suffer more in imagination than in reality.” 

Is Joe Rogan a Modern Day Gadfly?

by February 16, 2022

by Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classsical Wisdom
Long time readers may recall Classical Wisdom’s former Managing Editor, Van Bryan. This week we are treated to a guest column by him – asking whether Joe Rogan is like Socrates? He makes his case belowPlease bear in mind, we are a broad church here at Classical Wisdom, with many different opinions and perspectives. Over to Van:
Dear Reader,
Today, I rise in defense of a surprising subject…
It’s none other than podcast extraordinaire and gladiator commentator Joseph Rogan.
No…seriously… I mean it.
Mr. Rogan finds himself in hot water. The allegations are grave: He believes in strange gods. He’s corrupting the youth. He speaks to Alex Jones!
But I have a soft spot for misfits and rascals. And Mr. Rogan reminds us of a classical rascal near and dear to our heart.
You may recall that our beat is the classics. We share the literature, history, art, and philosophies of the classical age.
The classics are more than dusty books that people lie about reading during undergrad. They’re a map. A guide through the calamities, faults, and false starts of our world.
The classics have much to teach us. You need only show up for class. 
But Mr. Rogan—so far as we know— won’t be found in the classical canon. He led no hoplites into battle. He didn’t study at Plato’s Academy. And we’re pretty sure “The Joe Rogan Experience” isn’t required listening for freshmen antiquity classes.
But history is a funny thing, dear reader…
Sometimes it rhymes. Sometimes it repeats. Sometimes it hits you over the head with unmistakable parallels.
As we write, allegations have been levied against Mr. Rogan. The most serious is that he spread misinformation about the dreaded plague. The consequences are swift.
A group of presumably qualified professionals “slam” him. The Twitter Robespierres ready the proverbial guillotine. Neil Young takes his music off Spotify!
But I’m not so sure Mr. Rogan deserves such scorn. And we can’t help but think (no matter how hard we try!) that I’ve seen this somewhere before…
The Gadfly
The year is 399 BC. And Socrates—the grandaddy of Greek philosophy—is on trial for his life. He is charged with “corrupting the youth” and “believing in strange gods.”
But the philosopher believes his crime is far worse. He’s embarrassing powerful people.
Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him – his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination – and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.
Prior to his trial, Socrates had embarked on a series of examinations of classical Athens’ elite and powerful. The examinations were intended to tease out answers to profound questions.
What is justice? What is piety? What is love? These dialogues can still be read in Platonic works like The Republic, Euthyphro, and Symposium.
Socrates views his role as that of a “gadfly” that might spur Athens to philosophical greatness through his incessant—and uncomfortable—questioning. 
I am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the Gods; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life.
But the consequence of these inquiries is that Socrates shows that powerful men of his time maybe, possibly, potentially… don’t know what the heck they’re talking about.
He’s spreading ancient misinformation!
Or to put it another way:
There was no Twitter in classical Athens. So, the accusers de-platform Socrates the old-fashioned way.
They kill him.
After drinking a hemlock potion, the most influential classical philosopher dies amongst his friends in an Athenian prison.
Strange Gods
The great legacy of Socrates is his method of inquiry that now bears his name, the Socratic method. And there was a time when we admired such inquiry. We taught it. We encouraged it. We took pride in practicing it.
And this type of thinking used to be common throughout the polis. We were curious. We were skeptical. We said heretical things like “Well, how do you know that?” or “Um… are you sure?”
We believed in strange gods. And we were better for it.
But such thinking is…well… ancient.
We now live in an age of prophets. We Know (capital “K”) the eternal and unquestionable Truths (capital “T”).
It used to be that only the gods were omnipotent. But thanks to “independent fact checkers,” we’ve stolen that gift like Prometheus and the fire.
There is no answer unknown. No more mysteries in Heaven or Earth. No room for doubt, or questions, or Socrates…
It’s all been settled, you see.
We Know, for instance, that the origins of the plague could not possibly be from a lab.
We Know that cloth masks definitely, totally, absolutely work and we should put them on all our toddlers for hours on end.
We Know that it is utterly impossible to contract or spread the plague once you have taken two doses of the sacred elixir.
Even more impressive… We Know all this without any humility, embarrassment, or sense of humor.
And dear reader… If you believe otherwise—even if you question it—you’re probably anti-science. Or a bigot. Or both!
It’s true… an independent fact checker told me so!
Socrates isn’t here. But Joe Rogan is.
Mr. Rogan may not be a classical scholar, but he can deploy the Socratic method with the best of them. And every episode is a symposium in its own right. Sometimes right. Sometimes wrong. But always curious.
Says the man himself:
I’m interested in finding out what is correct and also finding out how people come to these conclusions and what the facts are.
I want to show all kinds of opinions so we can all figure out what’s going on…
Like Socrates, the man has become a gadfly upon the haunches of some great beast. And like the philosopher before him, the archons of Athens wish to fix him a hemlock cocktail.
But it is only by asking the uncomfortable questions—sometimes at great personal risk—that we ever move closer to The Good, as Plato would call it.
We used to believe that. We believed in strange gods. We listened to our daimon. We can again.
Socrates isn’t here, dear reader.  So, for now, we’ll have to make do with a podcaster.

Ten Things We Can Learn From the Ancients: How to Live Better

by February 15, 2022

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Greeks and Romans have decisively shaped Western civilization, which in turn has influenced modern global culture and society. Today, we can still learn from their teachings and thought. They were interested in the same things as we are, such as happiness, freedom, and well-being. Graeco-Roman civilization can help us to live life to the full, and to achieve our potential.
1. Control Your Responses and Not the World
Life in the ancient world was tough and hard. War was constant, and there was always years of famine and plague. The Greeks and Romans developed a number of philosophies to help them to cope. One of these was Stoicism, which urged its followers to accept their external circumstances, but to try to control their responses and become more resilient. In this way we can help to find inner strength, and even peace according to the Roman thinker Seneca the Younger.
2.  Holistic Approach to Wellness
The Greeks and later the Romans loved intellectual pursuits, and yet they were also people of action. For example, they loved both poetry and sports. There was no division between an intellectual or athletic in the Classical world, one had to be both. The Ancients believed that happiness and peace of mind required an integrated approach of developing both our mind and body.
3. Be a Citizen of the World
The Stoic School of Philosophy urged people to see themselves as citizens of the world. This teaching is known as cosmopolitanism. We all have the same needs and fate, and this is more important that national and ethnic distinctions. In an increasingly global world, this seems only sensible. Seeing ourselves as a citizen of the world could open up a range of opportunities for us.
4. Social World
The Greeks and Romans believed that participation in the social and political life was essential for a full life and allowed a person to flourish. Only by participating in the world around us could we grow as a person. Aristotle said that ‘humans are political animals’ and needed to participate in public life. More of us need to take part in public life to do good and find more purpose in our life.
Bust of Aristotle
Bust of Aristotle
5. Hubris
The Greeks and Romans believed that pride and arrogance preceded a fall or some disaster. The concept of hubris can be likened to an infatuation or madness send by the gods to punish the overmighty. They believed that over-confidence and arrogance were dangerous and offended the divinities. Be aware of our inclination to pride and boastfulness, which could lead to costly mistakes and failures.
6. The Good life
The Greeks and the Romans believed that reason was essential for happiness and the good life. Epicurus argued that a person who was rational could see that passions and pleasure did not lead to happiness. They were fleeting, and often led to poor decision-making and unhappiness. Epicurus believed that reason could lead to happiness, which he defined as peace of mind and tranquillity.
Bust of Epicurus
Bust of Epicurus
7. Excellent Character
The ancients believed that human flourishing required an excellent character. Sophrosyne was a Greek concept that encompassed both sound mind and good character. Those who wanted to succeed needed to develop the right character. Sophrosyne is often seen as the opposite of hubris. Those who have the qualities of sophrosyne are well-balanced and more likely to flourish according to Plato. Having these qualities can help us to be successful both professionally and personally.
8.  Live in Accordance with Nature
Today the environmental crisis is the number one challenge facing humanity. The Cynic school of philosophy believed that happiness and peace of mind were only possible if we lived in accordance with nature. If we live in a sustainable way, not only are we protecting the environment, but we are also helping our mental and emotional wellbeing.
Diogenes of Sinope was a famous Cynic
Diogenes of Sinope was a famous Cynic
9. Be Careful What You Believe
The Greek and Roman Skeptics were a school of thought that believed knowledge was uncertain. This was not something to be feared, but rather allowed people to have peace of mind. It is necessary to suspend our judgment, and this can lead to tranquillity. Today, we are too willing to believe in anything we read or hear, especially on the internet. and this leads to anxiety. Like the Skeptics if we suspend our judgments, we will be less anxious.
10. Philosophy is About Happiness
There’s a preconception that philosophy is, by definition, a very abstract form of study: something very removed from the needs of everyday life. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. For the ancients, philosophy, was about how we live. Most importantly, it was about how we can attain peace of mind and happiness. If we examine ourselves and the world in which we live, we will be able to live a better life. We will be able cope with anything that the world throws at us, just like the Greek and Roman Stoics.
Today, people are worried about many things. Issues such as inequality, the environment, technological changes, pandemics and so much more can weigh on our minds. However, the wisdom of Graeco-Roman culture can help us to change our attitudes, and learn how to get the most out of life. The ancients  can help to give us peace of mind in this most anxious age.
Russell, Bertrand (1990). History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge.

The Four Stoic Virtues

by February 4, 2022

by Andrew Rattray
What makes a person good? What separates those people who always seem to make the best choices from those who are plagued by their vices? Like so many other philosophies, the Stoics spent significant time and effort establishing their ideas around ethics and virtue to determine what exactly makes a person ‘good’. After all, Stoic practitioners have always sought to live a good life, but how do they quantify that? Well, the Stoics believe that the good life is a virtuous one, and that virtue has four facets, known as the four Stoic virtues. 
So, what are the four virtues? Some of you may be familiar with them already, under a different title: the Cardinal Virtues. You see, the Stoics did not entirely devise these virtues themselves. In fact, Plato in the Republic was the first to outline the four virtues, when discussing what characteristics a ‘good city’ would exhibit stating, “Clearly, then, it will be wise, brave, temperate, and just.”  These four virtues formed the basis of much ethical discussion amongst many philosophies of the ancient world, and were later absorbed into Christian theology as the Cardinal Virtues. All well and good, but what are the Stoics’ thoughts on these and how do they fit into a life well lived?
Before we delve into that, it is important to consider the idea of the Stoic ‘Sage’, as this will help provide a framework around which we can explain our virtues. You see, in Stoic philosophy the Sage is not a person, but an ideal. A perfect Stoic, and in being so, a perfect person, against whom a Stoic adherent might measure themselves. The Sage is completely free from the impact of the world around them, having achieved the Stoic aim of transcending the circumstances of their life, and reaching a state of total freedom, living in complete accordance with the four virtues. 
So, as we know, Stoics strive to live a life in harmony with nature, to avoid excess and temptation, and to accept their circumstances without falling to despair. In order to achieve these things, a practising Stoic must be able to discern the good from the bad. This is why wisdom (or prudence), the first of the four virtues, plays such an important role in Stoic philosophy. 
Personifications of the Christian Cardinal Virtues
Personifications of the Christian Cardinal Virtues
In his Meditations the Roman emperor and dutiful Stoic Marcus Aurelius wrote “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” I think this is a prime example of the pursuit of wisdom. We must be open to accepting that we are wrong, and to change our ideas and behaviours when we are confronted with that fact. This is the core of wisdom in my mind: having the ability to change and grow. None of us are born perfectly wise, indeed none of us can ever become perfectly wise, but much like the unattainable ideal of the Sage, it is important that we try. There is virtue in the attempt. 
Once we have the wisdom to recognise what we need to change, we must then grasp the next Stoic virtue: courage. In particular, the courage to press forward with those changes. Again, Marcus Aurelius has a fantastic take on this: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” In truth, this is not only one of my favourite insights from Marcus Aurelius, but one of my favourite pieces of wisdom altogether. It is so easy to worry about what the future has in store for us, especially today, with the deluge of negative stories forced upon us through both social media and more traditional outlets. The future does not always look bright, but we must remember that we have faced difficult times in our past, and they too were also uncertain futures once upon a time. No matter what life has thrown at us, we were able to navigate those challenges, thanks to our own fortitude and courage. 
The Stoics believe that courage is not in the absence of fear, but in conquering it. Seneca, the Roman statesman and philosopher, writes in one of his letters “There are misfortunes which strike the Sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel.” The final line here is vitally important to understanding the Stoic perspective on courage. There is no virtue in acting bravely when one is not having to overcome their emotions to do so. It is in conquering fear and moving forward in the face of adversity, where virtue lies. 
After courage comes temperance, or self-management, which yet again forms a key pillar of Stoic practice. Once more, we can turn to Seneca to help illuminate this aspect of Stoic virtue for us. He writes “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” This really speaks to the Stoic idea that in order to be happy we must be free, and that includes freeing ourselves from our materialistic wants and impulses. 
Now, that’s not to say that Stoic adherents do not recognise that some things are useful to have: this is the Stoic idea of preferred indifferents. Money is a key example of this. A Stoic will recognise that money is useful, and makes life easier. We should not, however, strive to have it simply because of this fact. If we have some, great, if not, that’s fine too. After all, I’m sure we all know someone who is shackled by their desire for the most up-to-date phone, or designer labels. Again, Seneca brings incising and insightful thoughts on this; “Pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments.” The Stoics believe exercising our self-management will allow us to free ourselves from the confines of materialism to better focus on living a good life. 
Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius
The last, but by no means least, of the four virtues is justice, described by Cicero, the Roman statesman and historian as the “…crowning glory of the virtues.” When Stoics speak of justice, it is important to note that this is not just the idea of retribution and balance for wrongs, such as those punishments doled out by the legal system. Stoic justice goes far beyond this and considers what is the moral and correct approach to our dealings with others. This sort of virtue encompasses our attitudes towards each other, our kindness, and consideration to those around us. Marcus Aurelius writes “What is not good for the beehive, cannot be good for the bees.” This beautifully and succinctly captures this idea. When we do not act in accordance with the common good, we are not behaving justly and are damaging not only our community, but ourselves in the process. I like to think of this Stoic sense of justice as acting in a way in which, if everyone acted, things would continue to move smoothly. For example, let’s consider people who pick flowers at the public park. It seems innocuous but were we all to act this way the park would soon be bereft of flowers, and nobody would be able to enjoy them. 
Now, despite the separate explanations I have offered here it is important to remember that the four virtues do not stand apart in practice. They are all segments of the same whole. To have one is to have them all. How can we be courageous, just, and temperate without the wisdom to know how, and how could we be wise without the courage to seek the truth, and what use is the truth if we do not exercise it in a way that benefits ourselves and our community? An analogy can help to capture this idea. Consider someone who is multi-talented. Many of today’s celebrities are styled as both an actor, musician, and author, yet they are still one individual. The Stoic virtues work together in the same way. 
Defining what’s ‘good’ can be a difficult affair. So often, it’s one of those things that’s nebulous and hard to grasp, but we know it when we see it. However, I think the four virtues go a long way toward setting an objective framework against which we can benchmark such things. What do you think? Do these four virtues go far enough to encapsulate all that one might need to live a good and happy life?