We never know when our lives might be changed suddenly and irrevocably. 2015 was one of the most successful years of my career as a multidisciplinary artist and vocal coach. I was teaching privately and at our local university and collaborating with several other performing artists. My largest project was writing and performing libretto and music for an upcoming dance opera. After a three week intensive with the dance opera company, my collaborator came down with a virus. I gently hugged her aching body and said goodbye. The next day I was sick. I still haven’t recovered.
Stoicism has been of great help in managing my mental and physical health while living with chronic illness. I also believe Stoicism has the potential to shift how society views those disabled by chronic illness—from burdens to human beings capable of flourishing—and to offer the support necessary to make that happen.
My story of becoming sick with a virus and not recovering is becoming more common as the aftereffects of the COVID pandemic sweep the world. Numerous people who were sick with a mild version of COVID are still sick with “long COVID”, experiencing similar symptoms to what I was diagnosed with: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). 56% of Canadians with COVID report symptoms long after infection. 962,000 people in the UK are still unwell. Most of them, like I, are too sick to work, and have no approved treatments.
My initial symptoms were tingling all over my body and overwhelming fatigue. Not the fatigue from pulling an all-nighter, but where going from couch to bathroom wears you out for hours. Where chewing is so exhausting you subsist on liquid meals. Where conversing, reading, or writing sets your brain into a deep fog. Where you shave your head because showering is too exhausting. That sort of fatigue.
About two months into this ordeal, my doctor brought up the possibility of ME/CFS. Until we ruled out other causes I was to rest and not exert myself in any way. After three months, I told my collaborators and voice students I was too sick to work.
ME/CFS has abysmal research funding and the diagnostic criteria isn’t taught in medical schools. Current treatments are limited and only work for some. Up to 60% of ME/CFS (and likely long COVID) patients are women and many aren’t believed when they describe their symptoms because all their tests, like mine, come back normal. People with moderate ME/CFS—like myself—function at about 50% of their previous capacity if they pace themselves well. People with severe ME/CFS are bedridden, live in darkness and silence because of severe sensory sensitivities, and some must be fed through J-tubes directly into their digestive systems.
You mustn’t forget that this body isn’t truly your own, but is nothing more than cleverly molded clay.
In illness everything is laid bare. We suddenly understand just how much we take our bodies for granted. Our ability to work, breathe, walk, write, listen is ripped away. We are an ill thing burdened with aches, pains, and other symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms are so intense we cannot do anything but experience them. Like the box of pain in Dune, we are forced into an initiation that breaks us down into our discrete parts. We drown in sensation.
How Illness Became My Way
You have to assemble your life yourself —action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening.
What does a composer who can’t listen to music do? A performer who can barely stand or speak? A writer who can barely read? I lost my income and my ability to create art. I knew if I did not manage to find some way to create I would fall into a deep depression on top of being so physically ill.
I don’t remember what triggered a need to read more Stoicism, but I got a copy of Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic and found the short entries concise enough for my fatigued brain to handle. Each day I read a page and wrote down one line. There were hours in the day I needed to remain absolutely still and so I contemplated—not ruminated, contemplated—on how I might use Stoicism to help manage my mind since my body was utterly outside my control.
Since I could hardly move, I needed to embrace a slow and sedentary creative medium. Writing wasn’t possible since brain fog and aphasia (trouble finding words) were major issues. I saw a period drama in which a woman was told to “take to her bed to work on her embroidery.” I had taken to my bed. I had done some Ukrainian cross stitch in the past. I had created some text/image pieces before I got sick. I slowly gathered embroidery supplies and started stitching.
I continued contemplating Stoic maxims throughout the day and now had an activity to do while resting. I began to love my life again. My illness gave me the gift of time—something all artists desire—and my brain could rest in the slow, deliberate art of hand embroidery.
A deepening of the concept of ‘the obstacle is the way’ and of the practice of embroidery happened a couple months after I started stitching: as I meditated—my nervous system pinging, tingling, and sparking viscerally through me—I focused in on those sensations. I made them my meditation. As I honed in, I saw each discrete sensation as designs, colours, and stitches. After this experience, I began to stitch my neurological sensations as I experienced them. Because of this exquisite attention, the symptoms became my creative practice—the obstacle became the way in an even deeper way, and so began my symptomatology series. I found I loved my fate, my days, my new creative practice. I felt the power of Amor Fati.
Virtues as Supports
ME/CFS is a disease with few options for treatment and few doctors who understand it. Many patients fall into depression and some commit suicide. Our society sees illness as amoral—blaming the ill for their sickness instead of seeing health as a preferred indifferent. To blame someone for catching a virus is illogical at best, and ableist at worst. The four Stoic Virtues offer principles through which we can make positive changes both as a society and as chronically ill individuals.
We live in a capitalist society where the worth of a person is wrapped up in their ability to work and/or make money. When one is ill—especially with fatigue—such work is near impossible. We cannot contribute to capitalist society and are seen as burdens. This—paired with abysmal social supports for disabled people—causes extreme wealth inequality. It is expensive to be disabled. We require help with basic necessities like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and sometimes washing ourselves. We require mobility aids. Capitalism is a punitive system for the disabled and chronically ill.
The virtue of Justice is what ME/CFS and long COVID requires. Justice asks: With so many people becoming too disabled to work, what are the options for them? What could healthy people and society do to better support this ever-growing section of the population?
Even if/when we are able to recuse ourselves psychologically from the idea that work = worth, we are left with the cultural pressure to do more than our bodies are capable of. This is where the virtue of Moderation or Temperance comes into play.
One of the best ways to manage fatigue is through pacing ourselves. If those of us with ME/CFS exceed our limits, we fall into post-exertional malaise (PEM)—flu-like symptoms—for days to months depending how far we have pushed ourselves. People have gone from mild ME/CFS to bedridden after following the advice of ignorant doctors who recommend exercise.
Learning to love doing less—to be temperate by creating routines with ample rest and recovery time—means we can flourish as individuals. We can create meaning and self-worth in ways that honour and accommodate the needs of our bodies. I did this through embroidery, and contemplation on the virtue of Moderation can help others find ways that work for them.
To use the discretion of Moderation without falling into laziness requires Wisdom. To turn philosophy into a life well lived in the midst of debilitating symptoms requires Wisdom. Wisdom is key.
Anathema to Wisdom is hubris, and I would be remiss not to mention a major issue facing those with ME/CFS and long COVID: disbelief. There is a cohort of psychiatrists who believe—despite biomedical proof to the contrary—that these illnesses are purely psychiatric. Some doctors have put severely ill people with ME/CFS into psychiatric institutions. Through advocacy work, psychiatric interventions and exercise are no longer listed as treatments for ME/CFS by the CDC, but doctors still recommend them. Funding must be channeled into biomedical research towards viable treatments for these illnesses.
It takes Courage to delve into medical papers to gain information necessary to advocate knowledgeably for oneself. It takes courage to challenge a psychiatric misdiagnosis that overshadows your very physical symptoms. Being adversarial towards—fighting against—our illness doesn’t serve us. Acceptance and seeing where we have agency does.
My life is now calm, ordered, and balanced. The exquisite attention I offer in my symptomatology embroideries is a way of dissecting, understanding, and being compassionate about my symptoms. I am overjoyed and grateful I am significantly less symptomatic since the onset of ME/CFS in 2015, but I am also aware how the many self-compassionate and temperate changes I’ve made in my life due to my Stoic practices help me listen deeply to my body’s needs.
Surviving a major illness changes people. The Stoic virtues of Justice, Moderation, Wisdom, and Courage tied together with the concept and practice of Amor Fati have helped me flourish within my limitations, even though an outside observer may not have that impression. I now reach for these practices when overwhelmed by symptoms, medical appointments, and demands on my limited energy.
Stoicism gives us a way through life’s most challenging situations, and has the potential to shift unhelpful views about chronic illness and disability on a much larger scale. We need more witnessing of this truth. Stoicism gives us the tools to do so.
Lia Pas is a Canadian multidisciplinary artist who works in image, text, and sound exploring body and states of being. She has published one book and two chapbooks of poetry and a few personal essays. She focused on performance-based work until 2015 when she became disabled with a chronic illness. Since then her work has focused on text and fiber arts.
 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. trans. Hays, Gregory. Modern Library, 2003. Book V, section 8, page 56.
Statement from the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada on July 7, 2021
 In Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, Dune, the main character, Paul Atreides, is put through an initiation where he must place his hand in a box that causes extreme pain. If he removes his hand from the box, he will be killed instantly by a Bene Gesserit priestess holding a “Gom Jabbar,” a needle tipped with cyanide.
 The most infamous case of this is Michael Sharpe’s now disproven PACE Trial results. Entry on Michael Sharpe and the PACE trial on MEAction’s Myalgic Encephalomyelitis Encyclopedia. https://me-pedia.org/wiki/Michael_Sharpe
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Meditationswriting:
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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?
There’s something poignant about last words. A final flourish made all the more beautiful because we know there’s no more wisdom to come. A reminder that all things come to an end. Eugene Delacroix, the 19th century romantic artist, certainly thought so when he painted ‘Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius’. The piece is exactly what you would expect when you picture the final utterances of someone so storied as Marcus Aurelius. Attendants and family clamouring around the deathbed with Commodus, Marcus’ son, prominently featured.
Interestingly, Aurelius and Delacroix had more in common than perhaps either would have realised. Aside from being a great admirer of the Stoics, Eugene Delacroix is also considered by some to be one of the last ‘old masters’ of European painting, while Marcus Aurelius is considered to be the last of the ‘good Emperors’ who oversaw the Pax Romana. This was a ‘Golden Age’ of Rome’s majesty, a time of unparalleled consolidation, development, peace and prosperity. These two men unwittingly oversaw the end of an era in their respective fields.
So, Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor, and last in a line of greats. But what were his last words exactly, and why do they still resonate with us nearly 2,000 years after his death? Well, first, to better understand his words we must better understand the man.
Originally born Marcus Annius Verus, he received the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus when he was adopted by Antoninus Pius, the adopted son of the then emperor Hadrian (of Hadrian’s Wall fame). This was a very common practice amongst the upper and senatorial classes of ancient Rome, as Roman inheritance laws did not favour women, and so it was important to guarantee familial legacy and succession through adoption. Of course, these adoptions were not random. Marcus was born to a family of significant political renown, with his grandfather serving as Consul and even Prefect of Rome, and his aunt, Annia Galeria Faustina, was spouse of Antoninus Pius, Marcus’ eventual adoptive father. It is safe to say, Marcus was groomed to rule.
After Antoninus’ death, Marcus would be raised to the status of co-emperor with his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, where he would receive his imperial name; Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. It’s important at this point to note that it was at Marcus’ insistence that Lucius was appointed co-emperor. Furthermore, Lucius does not appear to have had much of a political support base, and so he could have tried to have this potential rival removed and ruled alone. The fact that Marcus insisted upon this joint rule with his adoptive brother speaks volumes to the quality of his character. For eight years the pair served as co-emperors, until Lucius died of a stroke while returning with Marcus from campaigning in the Danube region.
Despite a successful reign, Marcus Aurelius is best known today for his philosophical writings. Throughout his reign as emperor Marcus wrote what have come to be known as his Meditations, a series of personal journals detailing Marcus’ innermost thoughts and musings. An avid student of philosophy throughout his life and particularly of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, Marcus’ journals show him to have been an incredibly introspective man, grappling with the heavy weight of his office, whilst being acutely aware of the transient nature of life. From writings such as “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” it is clear that, like any of us, the circumstances of his life impacted Marcus as he tried to find his way through the challenges he faced.
Though it is not clear that these journals were ever meant to be shared with anyone, the collection is now one of the most popular philosophical texts around, thanks to a relatively recent resurgence in popularity as so many of us seek the wisdom of the ancients to help us navigate an increasingly uncertain future. Marcus’ Meditations have proven to be full of wisdom that transcends race, class, and time. Like many of us, Marcus was grappling with his purpose in life, even as he held one of the most powerful positions in the world. In fact, I think because we know these are personal journals, notes to himself, they resonate with us all the more. Even one of the most powerful men alive, for all his wealth, status, and success, grappled with the same issues we do today.
So, what of his last words? Well, to that I ask; which ones? Should we consider his last words to be the last thing he spoke aloud, or the last thing he put to paper? We have records of both. Usually, we would only consider the former in such a discussion, but given the lasting impact of Marcus’ writing, I think you will find his written words even more compelling.
According to Cassius Dio, a Roman historian and senator, the last spoken words of Marcus Aurelius as he lay dying were “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.”. To this day there is still some uncertainty around exactly what he meant. Was the rising sun Marcus’ own son and heir, Commodus? Given what we know of Commodus’ turbulent reign this may seem unlikely, but in truth Marcus did everything he could to groom his son to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, Cassius Dio even writes that Marcus put Commodus under armed guard just before his death to ensure none could accuse him of having a hand in it. It is only through hindsight that we know Commodus proved to be an unworthy successor.
Donald Robertson, the American author and historian, has a different, and fascinating, take on Marcus’ last spoken words. He makes note of several references within Marcus’ Meditations of comparisons between wisdom and sunlight where he considers the mind as the sun, and wisdom and virtue as sunlight. Marcus felt that a wise mind casts out its virtues to illuminate the world just as the sun’s rays fall upon the Earth. His last words then, could be considered a call to put faith in wisdom and virtue, and find one who exudes these virtues to lead Rome.
Alternatively, it may have a more simple meaning. When the day is done, we look on to our plans for tomorrow; when Marcus was gone, he wished for his successors not to tarry but to move on to a new day, and new plans for the Empire. Ultimately, we may never know.
So, those were Marcus’ spoken words, but what of his final writing? I find the final entry to his Meditations to be a much more impactful and fitting epilogue to Marcus’ life. His final entry reads:
“Mortal man, you have lived as a citizen in this great city. What matter if that life is five or fifty years? The laws of the city apply equally to all. So what is there to fear in your dismissal from the city? This is no tyrant or corrupt judge who dismisses you, but the very same nature that brought you in. It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. ‘But I have not played my five acts, only three.” ‘True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.’ Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation. Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you.”
When talking about the ‘great city’ Marcus is referring to the world as a whole, and all the wonders within, before going on to muse about his looming exit. With his usual introspective reflection he considers the inefficacy of being upset by the natural process of dying. He underlines the importance of acceptance, and leaving with grace, rather than railing against the end. Ultimately, this is so much of what we expect from one of the most famous Stoic philosophers to have ever lived; an acceptance of one’s circumstances.
All things come to an end eventually, whether they be as insignificant as an article we’ve enjoyed, or as significant as our time on Earth, but we can look to the wisdom of those past and take solace in their own courage in facing these ends when they arrive. There is no benefit in raging against the dying of the light, it will end all the same. Better, in fact, to take these things in our stride, and accept the facts of life as they are. Like Eugene Delacroix, I too am a great admirer of Marcus Aurelius, and the impact of his life, death, and final words are as keen now as they were in 1844, and in 180.
by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy, Wright State University
Marcus Aurelius was arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors. He is also the author of one of the primary Stoic texts, the Meditations. As far as scholars can tell, it was intended as a private journal, in which he recorded his observations about the people around him, as well as advice to himself on how to deal with those people.
For someone curious about what it means to behave in a Stoical manner, Book One of the Meditations is essential reading. In just a few pages, Marcus tells us what he has learned from the various mentors he has been blessed with in the course of his life.
One of these mentors was Stoic philosopher Maximus, who had mastered, Marcus says, “the art of being humorous in an agreeable way.” From him, Marcus learned the importance of maintaining “cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining.” So much for the common belief that the Stoics were glum, pessimistic, emotionless individuals! This was a man, says Marcus, about whom “everybody believed that in all that he did he never had any bad intention.”
From Catulus, another Stoic philosopher, Marcus learned not just to love his children but to love them “truly.” He also acquired useful strategies for dealing with other people. He learned, for example, that when a friend unjustly blamed him of something, he should not get angry but should instead try to restore that friend to “his usual disposition.” Along similar lines, the Stoic philosopher Rusticus taught him that when someone insulted him or wronged him, he should “be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled.” If you can’t tolerate the occasional vexatious behavior of friends, you probably don’t have any!
From Diognetus, the philosopher who introduced him to Stoicism, Marcus learned not to busy himself about “trifling things.”
From an unnamed tutor—he refers to this individual as his “governor”—Marcus learned “endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.”
From the philosopher Sextus, he learned “to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.” Sextus, he tells us, “never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion.” This makes Sextus sound like a wooden being, but this apparently wasn’t the case, inasmuch as Marcus also describes him as being “most affectionate.”
Although Sextus possessed considerable knowledge, he did not display it in an ostentatious manner, a trait that Marcus thought was admirable. Along similar lines, Marcus appreciated the subtle but effective manner in which the scholar Alexander corrected the speech of those he encountered. If they uttered “a barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression,” Alexander would not mock them; he instead attempted “dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used,” so the person could learn the correct usage without having been chided for misusing language.
Marcus’s mentors also taught him that, besides not flaunting his own knowledge, he should not begrudge others their knowledge. He notes that Antoninus Pius—who was both Marcus’s adoptive father and emperor of Rome just ahead of Marcus—was “most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else; and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts
From the philosopher Alexander, who was a Platonist rather than a Stoic, Marcus learned not to form the habit of telling people that he had no time for leisure, or of continually excusing neglect of loved ones by claiming that he had important business to attend to.
One last comment is in order: it was the practice of Stoicism that led Marcus to actively seek out mentors. A Stoic takes his life to be a work in progress, so he is grateful for any insights other people can provide him. Most people don’t seek mentors, for the simple reason that they don’t think they have any important lessons left to learn.