So it is no surprise to find in his Meditations various reflections on how a rational person—the type of person the Stoic strives to be—must react to disagreements with others.
Though no one reading this is an emperor, we face disagreements everyday with our family, friends, and even strangers on social media. There’s no avoiding that (not that you have to argue with people on social media, but it will be difficult to avoid seeing things posted on there by family and friends that you don’t agree with!).
What we can try to avoid, however, is having these disagreements in an unhealthy manner, and in a way thats gets us nowhere.
Bust of Marcus Aurelius.
One could spend a lifetime learning from the wisdom contained in the Meditations (I know I plan on it!).
Yet, I’ve taken up the much smaller task of providing you with just three pieces of advice from Marcus Aurelius that will, hopefully, allow you to begin having healthier, more productive debates.
1. Being open to change
If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance. Book VI, 21
The first thing is to begin any debate or argument with a devotion to truth. You must say to yourself, “It’s the truth I’m after.” With the truth as your aim, you’re prepared to see where someone might be wrong, where you might be wrong, or where you both might be wrong.
And, of course, sometimes there may be no “Truth” with a capital “T” to the issue in question, in which case the intellectually honest thing to do is to simply say, “I don’t know.” Being able to say those three words is not something everyone has the humility and honesty to do, but it is required more often than not, given how nuanced the world is.
The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
The next thing is to keep in mind that “the truth never harmed anyone.” Now, you might say, doesn’t it often hurt to hear the truth? Yes, it definitely can hurt!
But Marcus is working within the Socratic framework which holds that the truth, however painful (in Plato’s analogy of the cave, the truth is portrayed as the sun, which pains the eyes of the man who has lived his life in the shadows of ignorance), is a good in itself worthy of striving after.
Whatever seems “harmful” or painful about the truth, in reality is good, whereas the only true harm comes from persisting in “self-deceit and ignorance.”
Once you’ve devoted yourself to the truth, and recognized that true harm only comes from persisting in one’s own ignorance, then you’ll be open to change, which is a prerequisite for any healthy debate.
First English translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; 1634.
2. Be patient :
The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t. Book VI, 47
So, great, now you’re open to change. But your interlocutor isn’t. What do you do?
Well, it should not be a shock to learn that most people aren’t open to changing their minds. Reading any Facebook thread serves as a great example of how futile it can often be to try to change someone else’s mind, no matter how many facts or sources you provide that back up your own view.
In fact, sometimes, simply showing someone that they’re wrong can make them more zealous about their beliefs!
This doesn’t mean you should just give up. There is definitely some amount of discerning you must do when deciding who to get into an argument with. If they’re not devoted to the truth, you might be best off to leave it alone. After all, if you’re going to play chess with someone, there’s not much of a point in playing someone who has no interest in playing by the same rules as you.
Cicero attacks Catilina at the Roman Senate, from a 19th-century fresco.
However, if you do choose to debate this person, you must do so with patience.
Sure, it might be frustrating. But weren’t you, at some point, resistant to change, ignorant of the facts regarding some issue or other, or in a situation where you felt your beliefs threatened and so clinged to them tighter?
If you’ve devoted yourself to truth, then all that you need to be concerned with is your own disposition, living “life out truthfully and rightly.” Regarding those who haven’t done so, be patient.
As Marcus writes later on, People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them. Book VIII, 59
3. Be kind, humble, and consistent
Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy. Book VIII, 5
“Be a good human being”: simple enough, right? Well, not quite.
When someone you love is espousing views you detest, it can be easy to get angry, to lose your place, and to forget what nature demands of you. That is, it can be easy to forget your duties as a rational creature.
Rome, Italy. Piazza del Campidoglio, with copy of equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original is displayed in the Capitoline Museum.
Now, perhaps speaking “the truth as you see it” doesn’t sound too difficult. But it’s how you do it that’s important.
You must speak it with kindness. No one wants to hear what you think if you say it with disdain or contempt. When you speak with kindness you separate yourself from those who speak with anger or hatred, and you let the truth of what you have to say stand out more.
You must speak it with humility. People are more likely to be receptive to what you have to say when you speak your mind acknowledging that you could be wrong, that you are open to changing what you believe if good evidence or reasons are provided.
You must speak it without hypocrisy. Be consistent, apply the same standard to yourself that you do to others. Don’t get angry with someone who is being stubborn about changing their mind, when you’ve been stubborn in the past yourself. If you would have wanted someone to be understanding and patient with you then, be understanding and patient with others now.
Marcus Aurelius and myself, taken at the Metropolitan Museum of New York.
Some concluding reflections
These are just some of the many bits of advice Marcus Aurelius has to offer us when it comes to dealing with our fellow human beings in a healthy and productive way.
Those familiar with the Meditations will know that what I have listed above is a mere fraction of what Marcus had to say.
Yet, I think you’ll agree that it is very helpful advice.
Whether it’s your family, a friend, or a stranger on social media, the words of Marcus Aurelius can guide you to having healthier and more productive debates.
You’re not always going to win everyone over. You’re not gonna change everyone’s mind. Nor should that be your goal, since sometimes it is your own mind in need of changing.
The point is to try to get closer to the truth, or to realize how far away from it you are.
At least, that was what the great minds of the classical world hoped to do.
By Rodrigo Ferreyra, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is no secret that the origins of Christian thought are closely related to other Mediterranean philosophies and religions. Already determined by its Jewish heritage, Christianity additionally borrowed for itself different elements such as the Golden Age myth, the fatalism of living in a fallen world, and Zoroastrian duality. Greco-Roman influence is no less present. It was Stoicism, however, that held a remarkably special position in early Christianity.
To the recognition of the Stoics as “ecclesiastical writers” by church fathers like Saint Ambrose and Saint Jerome, we shall add the apocryphal correspondence maintained between the Latin writer Seneca and the apostle Saint Paul. Sadly, these documents, which have reached us in the format of fourteen letters, have been proved false. This does not, however, dismiss the fact of an existing bond between the Stoic school of thought and the genesis of Christianity.
Michael Pacher – Altarpiece of the Church Fathers
First of all, we are to immediately notice how broadly linked their discourses are… This is especially so in their understanding of philosophy as lecturing on ethics, that is, the idea of a practical philosophy that is composed to assist one on how to act.
At the same time, they both developed an ethic extremely interested in self-improving by detachment from the mundane activities of the mind and body. Christianity finds its grace in salvation personified in the resurrection of Christ. The Christian life, as a sum of practices, guides to it.
Seneca by Vorsterman, Lucas Datierung: 1610 / 1675
The Stoics, for their part, found guidance in being in harmony with nature throughout their everyday lives. Although these ethical positions seem to invite virtue to be part of our beings, it is interesting to notice how the Stoics ‘deal’ with these virtues. In On the Tranquility of Mind, Seneca writes:
I like for my servant a young house-bred slave without training or polish, for silverware my country-bred father’s heavy plate that bears no maker’s stamp, and for a table one that is not remarkable for the variety of its markings * or known to Rome for having passed through the hands of many stylish owners, but one that is there to be used, that makes no guest stare at it in endless pleasure or burning envy.
Saint Gregory the Great. Engraving by A. Hogenberg after D.
Nevertheless, Seneca admittedly defended slaves as humans and preached for a just and kind behavior in dealing with them. As a matter of fact, in both Seneca and Gregory’s writings slaves are integrated into their ethical safeguard judgments: They too are to reach salvation/harmony.
How come, then, that these two schools of thought have shown a similar hypocritical ethic or, at least, no signs whatsoever of impugning the social order with their own ethical judgments?
In his Phenomenology, Hegel argues that the historical development of Stoicism was a movement from a collective to an individual consciousness: the “freedom of self-consciousness”. It was after the fall of the Roman Republic that the most influential Latin Stoics appeared. Stoicism was a response to the ending of the institution in charge of society’s mind. The Republic was replaced with a ‘State’ in which these new thinkers had no part.
Epicurus in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy
Yes, both servants and slaves are free owners of their consciousness, but at the same time, they are unable to address critical thinking in order to change any nature nor salvation they may be pursuing. Judgment remains solely within the “rational”, that is, the Latin or Christian social order. Control always remains in the self without reaching, as Hegel states, the further skepticism required for the true realization of this freedom: Where mere self-discipline and awareness find its limit.
We can acknowledge, then, that both Christianity and Stoicism preached ‘self-improving’ as a means to an end. And while their purpose was certainly different, the adepts of both philosophies identically adopted a passive role over the world in which they lived to achieve it.
What is it, then, that arouses your discontent? Human wickedness? Call to mind the doctrine that rational creatures have come into the world for the sake of one another, and that tolerance is a part of justice… (Meditations, 4.2)
The virtue of justice is one of the main themes that runs throughout The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. For Stoics, this is a less formal concept than the English word implies and really refers to social virtue in quite a broad sense. Justices entails the exercise of wisdom, kindness, and fairness in our relationships with others both individually and collectively. However, it’s also bound up with Stoic pantheism, the belief that everything in the universe, including every human being, is part of a sacred whole. We’re all in this together as citizens of a single world-city – a notion sometimes referred to as ethical “cosmopolitanism”. More than that, though, the Stoics believed that nature intended human beings to actively help one another. We’re fundamentally designed to co-operate for our own mutual benefit – and malice or conflict between us, though common, is against our true nature.
Marcus Aurelius on Horseback
Marcus, like other Stoics, assumes that human nature is inherently reasoning – we are essentially thinking creatures – and that we therefore have a duty to apply reason consistently to our lives. Doing so would culminate, of course, in the virtue of wisdom. However, there’s a less well-known assumption in Stoicism, which holds that humans are not only essentially rational but also social. “Now every rational being,” writes Marcus, “by virtue of its rationality, is also a social being” (Meditations, 10.2). From this it follows that in order to truly flourish and fulfill our own natural potential, we should excel in terms of our social relationships. Doing so would culminate in the virtue of justice. Humans are naturally rational and social creatures – the Stoic wise man (or woman) is therefore someone who excels in both regards, exercising both wisdom and justice consistently in his (or her) life.
Marcus tells himself that the supreme good of every creature lies in the goal for which it is naturally constituted and that the supreme good for a human must consist in kinship with others, and the exercise of social virtues such as justice, as it has “long been proved that we were born for fellowship” (Meditations, 5.16). Indeed, he goes as far as to say that whoever commits an act of injustice acts impiously against the most venerable of gods “since universal nature has created rational creatures for the sake of one another, to benefit their fellows according to their deserts and in no way to do them harm” (Meditations, 9.1).
He therefore reasons that as he is part of the social system, his every action should be dedicated toward improving society, which he tends to call the goal of seeking “the common welfare of mankind”. Any action which does the opposite “tears your life apart”, in a sense, by alienating us from the rest of mankind and preventing us from experiencing a sense of oneness with the rest of humanity – “as does the citizen in a state who for his own part cuts himself off from the concord of his fellows” (Meditations, 9.23).
Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Indeed, Marcus repeatedly argues that because humans are essentially social creatures our individual welfare necessarily depends upon the welfare of our society, and ultimately the welfare of our species – the great city or society of humankind as a whole. “What brings no benefit to the hive”, he says, “brings none to the bee” (Meditations, 6.54). Elsewhere he explains more literally “What causes no harm to the city causes no harm to the citizen” (Meditations, 5.22). He actually advises himself to respond to every impression of having been harmed by affirming to himself that: “If the community is not harmed by this, neither am I”. He adds that if the community really is harmed he should not be angry with the person who is responsible but rather show him what he has failed to see.
Elsewhere Marcus goes further and states that only what harms the laws can truly harm the city presumably if they are rendered unjust (Meditations, 10.33). He reasons that those things the majority of us ordinarily complain about as misfortunes in life – such as illness, poverty, or persecution from others – do not themselves corrupt the laws, and can therefore bring genuine harm neither to the city nor to its citizens.
If I remember, then, that I am a part of such a whole, I shall be well contented with all that comes to pass; and in so far as I am bound by a tie of kinship to other parts of the same nature as myself I shall never act against the common interest, but rather, I shall take proper account of my fellows, and direct every impulse to the common benefit and turn it away from anything that runs counter to that benefit. And when this is duly accomplished, my life must necessarily follow a happy course, just as you would observe that any citizen’s life proceeds happily on its course when he makes his way through it performing actions which benefit his fellow citizens and he welcomes whatever his city assigns to him. (Meditations, 10.6)
At first there were gods but no mortal creatures. When the time came, the gods fashioned countless animals by mixing together the elements of fire and earth. Zeus commanded the titan Prometheus to assign different abilities to each living thing.
Some creatures were slow moving and so to make up for this he gave them great strength. Others were weak and so to these Prometheus granted speed. Some he armed while others were given various forms of protection. Small creatures were granted the capability for winged flight or for concealing their dwellings underground. Large beasts had their size for protection. And he took care to grant all creatures some means for their own preservation so that no species should be in danger of elimination by others.
Prometheus creates man
Having equipped them to survive among each other in this way Prometheus then granted them protection against their environment and the harshness of the seasons. He clothed some with dense hair or thick skin, sufficient to endure the heat of summer and ward off the cold through winter months. To some he gave strong hooves, to others claws and hard bodies that were not easily wounded. And every creature was assigned its own source of food. Some pastured on the earth, others ate fruits hanging from trees or roots from beneath the ground. Yet others were predators who fed upon certain types of animals for their meat. To the predators he assigned fewer offspring whereas their prey were more abundant so that there would always be enough to serve as food.
Once he had finished assigning to each species its own special capabilities, however, Prometheus was left with the realization that he had nothing left to give the race of man. Humans are born naked, unshod, unarmed, and with no bed in which to lay their head and rest safely. They were more vulnerable than other creatures and seemed bound to perish. Not knowing what else to do, in desperation, Prometheus stole the technical expertise of the gods Hephaestus and Athena and gave that to mankind, along with the gift of fire.
Once human beings were granted these divine gifts, however, they sensed their kinship to the gods and began praying and building altars to them. They invented clothing, bedding, dwellings, agriculture, and even the use of language to express their thoughts and acquire learning. Men lived apart at first but finding themselves beset continually and harassed by wild beasts they sought to build cities for their own mutual protection.
Prometheus steals fire
However, the wisdom that concerns our relations with others belonged to Zeus alone, king of the gods and patron of friendship and families. No sooner than men gathered together trying to save themselves, being lawless, they began instead to wrong one another and fighting broke out among them. Scattering once again from their failed cities, they continued to perish in the wild.
Looking down upon this chaotic scene with dismay, Zeus feared for the destruction of the entire human race. He therefore sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to teach mortals about justice and also to instill in them a sense of shame concerning wrongdoing as a deterrent against injustice. By this means Zeus now granted mankind a unique capacity to unite themselves in cities governed by law and the principles of justice, maintaining order through the bonds of friendship and fostering their sense of community.
Hermes asked Zeus whether he should distribute justice and the various social and political virtues among men in the same way as technical knowledge concerning the other crafts had been shared. One man who possesses the knowledge of medicine, for example, was enough to benefit many other men. However, Zeus decreed that every human being must be granted at least some rudimentary knowledge of justice and the arts needed to unite society. He even laid down the law that anyone who was found unable to respect justice and the rule of law should be put to death to prevent them from becoming a pestilence in the city.
Statue of Zeus
For this reason, said Protagoras, although we seek the advice only of those few who are experts with regard to crafts such as medicine or carpentry, concerning justice we allow every citizen to have his say. Further, if someone boasts of being an expert in playing the flute or some such art but is found to be nothing of the sort then he is merely ridiculed as a fool. However, anyone found incapable of respecting justice should be expelled from society because each and every citizen is expected to share at least somewhat in this capacity, so that he may live harmoniously in the company of others.
The Sophist Protagoras originally expressed this doctrine that humans are naturally social creatures in the guise of a myth. According to the tradition that followed, we are obliged to realize our potential for wisdom by exercising the gift of reason to the best of our ability. So we are also obliged, as Marcus Aurelius said many centuries later, to fulfill our natural potential for friendly collaboration with others by exhibiting the virtue of justice.
“If Chrysippus had not existed, neither would the Stoa.”
This became a popular catchphrase of the Stoics. The Stoics viewed Chrysippus as a central figure in helping to establish the core doctrines and principles of Stoicism. Chrysippus is often hailed as the “second founder of Stoicism.”
Roman copy of a Hellenistic bust of Chrysippus (British Museum)
The Stoics who we often think of as central to the tradition, such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus (known as the big three of Stoicism), considered Chrysippus as one of the most important figures within Stoicism. So I think it is due time that we give Chrysippus the recognition that he deserves.
Chrysippus was born in Soli, modern day Mersin, Turkey, and lived from 280-207 BCE. Before studying under Cleanthes, Chrysippus trained as a long-distance runner. Not much else is well known of his personal life.
He was the third head of the Stoic school and wrote voluminously on a wide range of philosophical subjects.It is reported that he wrote more than 700 books during his time! The accuracy of this number is often questioned, however, as we don’t have a single book of his in its entirety. Instead, we have just over 400 fragments from his original works.
Mersin, Turkey (Soli)
Chrysippus developed an empirical theory of epistemology and a metaphysical theory. He wrote on free will and determinism and produced what might be considered the first theory of compatibilism, which seeks to reconcile a deterministic cosmos with the idea of human free will.
He believed that happiness and living virtuously are tied to one another. For Chrysippus, wisdom and virtue are essentially the same thing. He taught that it was through the study of natural philosophy that we are likely to gain wisdom and thus become virtuous and happy.
As though all of this wasn’t enough, he also developed a theory of logic, known as propositional logic. This differed from the logic of Aristotle and Chrysippus was the first philosopher to formalize this type of logic.
Chrysippus was clearly an all-star in philosophy…
He developed a metaphysical theory known as materialism, which was in direct contrast with Plato’s ideas. Essentially, a materialist believes that everything that exists is matter in motion.
His metaphysical theory includes the concept of God, which may seem strange in a materialist worldview. Unlike the traditional western notions of God,. Chrysippus thought of God as the universe or nature itself. Thus, the universe, for Chrysippus and many other Stoics, is determined through the laws of nature (i.e. God).
With this mindset the universe is deterministic and follows a pattern of cause and effect. Chrysippus, however, argued that future events are not necessary, only fated. By fate he meant an ongoing natural order of things where one series of events is followed by another.
It seems natural, following this line of thinking, to conclude that we have no free will. After all, if everything is fated or determined by the laws of nature or God, how do we maintain any ability to act freely in the world? Wouldn’t we simply act and think in such a way that was determined or fated by previous events?
Chrysippus tried to save free will, but nonetheless many philosophers believed he failed. A single passage, which is sometimes attributed to Chrysippus and other times to his teacher Cleanthes, is one of the few pieces of writing left behind which attempts to justify free will within a deterministic framework.
Cleanthes, engraving from 1605
The passage goes…
“When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity, but if it does not want to follow it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they do not want to, they will be compelled in any case to follow what is destined.”
In this thought experiment, the dog wants to follow the cart, but even if he didn’t want to, he must follow the cart. He has no choice in the matter because he is tethered to the moving cart. There may be an illusion of being free in this example, but let us not mistake an illusion for the real thing.
Okay, so the Stoics might not have been the best meta-physicians… but that’s okay, because Stoicism is more about ethics, virtue, and living well, right?
The Stoics believed that happiness was the end goal of life, and that virtue would lead us to this end goal. Chrysippus also taught that vice leads to unhappiness.
So, if virtue and happiness are intertwined, what exactly is virtue?
For Chrysippus, to live virtuously and thus happily is “to live in accordance with one’s experience of the things which come about by nature.”
This has often been interpreted to mean that one must live in accordance with their particular type of nature. We are human beings and as such we have the unique ability to reason – this is part of our nature.
Thus, in order to live virtuously, one must live in accordance with reason, which begets wisdom, and happily ever after we all shall live.
That’s the idea, anyway…
Chrysippus fleshed out the Stoic tradition through his elaborate writings, which he passed on to his successors. Without Chrysippus, it is likely that we wouldn’t have the timeless wisdom of the later Stoics, which include the likes of Marcus Aurelius.
The importance of Chrysippus can hardly be overstated, and this importance extends not just to the Stoics, but to western philosophy in general.
So, what do you think… Does Chrysippus deserve a spot among the big three?
Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher that lived from 55-135 CE. He came before Marcus Aurelius and after Seneca. Epictetus was a slave for much of his youth and began studying philosophy under Musonius Rufus during his enslavement.
He gained his freedom sometime after the death of Emperor Nero and began to teach philosophy in Rome. He founded his own school of philosophy in Greece after Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome in 93 CE.
Though missing several parts, Discourses is Epictetus’ largest surviving text. It is said to have been originally comprised of eight parts, four of which we have today.
Keeping with Stoic tradition, Epictetus’ philosophy is practical and actionable, as opposed to mere theoretical inquiry. Eudaimonia (happiness or flourishing) is the primary goal of philosophical pursuits, according to Epictetus. Apatheia (freedom from passion) and ataraxia (imperturbability) are central to one’s journey toward eudaimonia.
Epictetus teaches that much of human unhappiness or discontentedness occurs through false beliefs about what is good or evil, and through hasty judgments of one’s circumstance. For Epictetus, the good is only what is virtuous, and evil is vice in action or thought.
For the Stoics, virtue is synonymous with arete or excellence. To cultivate excellence as a human being one must understand and live in accordance with one’s nature. It is also necessary, in the pursuit of eudaimonia, to properly condition and maintain one’s prohairesis (moral character).
In addition to the categories of good and evil, Epictetus discusses “indifferent things” as a third category. Those things which are indifferent are simply preferred or dispreferred, and neither good nor evil.
Some examples of things that fall under the preferred-indifference category, according to Epictetus, would be money and health. I’m not sure about you, but I happen to believe that a modest amount of money and health is a truly good thing, and not a matter of indifference.
Dispreferred-indifferences would include sickness and poverty. Again, these things seem bad to me, rather than a matter of indifference. Perhaps I am not as Stoic as I might be…
For Epictetus, indifferences are not necessary in order to attain eudaimonia, rather the way in which one obtains or makes use of these indifferences is what is important.
For instance, if someone pursued wealth as a preferred-indifference, and in their pursuit they had to lie, they would be harming their moral character. In this situation, for Epictetus, it would be better if one were poor but honest, rather than wealthy and dishonest.
As I already mentioned above, philosophy is more than theoretical reflection for the Stoics. Epictetus gives us not only ideas and concepts as to how one might live the good life, but he also describes three categories of activity to help us put those concepts into action.
The three categories of activity include:
The Discipline of Desire
This activity consists of knowing what is truly good and virtuous, and desiring only those things. If we have desires beyond what is good or virtuous, we will be led into feelings of anxiety and experience misfortunes and sorrow as a result. It’s better to want LESS than have MORE.
The Discipline of Action
In cultivating this activity, we begin to see that the consequences of our actions are never entirely within our control, but our pursuit of certain values are within our control.
If we choose to act in accordance with a value system that is in harmony with our pursuit of eudaimonia and moral excellence, we are more likely to attain eudaimonia than if we simply chose a desired outcome and made attempts to manifest that outcome through any means necessary. Therefore, we must be less concerned with the outcome, and more concerned with quality of action. Ie, Exercise for the discipline and health rather than the beach bod.
The Discipline of Assent
This is an activity of proper judgment. To give assent to something is to approve of or agree with it. One mustn’t judge hastily, rather one should examine the situation, become aware of what is occurring, and judge only after some reflection.
An example straight from Epictetus says that just because someone is insulting you, doesn’t mean it is an outrage in itself, but the thought that it is an outrage makes it so. If one viewed an insult as unimportant, it wouldn’t make them angry. Herein lies our power to judge and experience a seemingly-negative situation in a positive or indifferent manner.
Basically, offense is in the ear of the hearer. It was a popular mantra for some in the schoolyard (for some of us at least!)… Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
If one is to flourish and live a happy life, one must know what is within their power and what is not. According to Epictetus, we cannot control external events, or the behavior of another person, and so we mustn’t worry about such things; doing so will only cause us anxiety, anger, and frustration. We are in control of our own thoughts, opinions, and actions, and so we must focus on these instead.
Focusing on his thoughts, instead of the external world.
One can see the influence that youth enslavement undoubtedly had on the philosophy of Epictetus. To simply accept external circumstances and turn our attention inward sounds like an effective way of life for someone stuck in a situation from which they cannot escape.
There are many things of which we have no control over and must accept, such as the life we were born into and our genetic predispositions… but this doesn’t mean we have to accept or become indifferent to the behavior of a person that is acting in a malicious way, and I think it is dangerous to believe that we have no control over external events.
After all, it is human beings that shape those external events. By turning inward and being dispassionate toward the rest of the world, we passively give assent to unprovoked behavior and harmful situations.
Anger, frustration, and other seemingly negative emotions play a vital role in our lives, and being inspired through these negative emotions is, in my opinion, an integral part of being human.
When framed in this light, the philosophy of Epictetus begins to seem like a mode of being that asks us to live against our nature, rather than living in accordance with it.
As with anything, though, we mustn’t view the philosophy of Epictetus as an all-or-none sort of situation. Perhaps we should take what is useful and integrate that with other ideas, concepts, and doctrines that we also find useful. In so doing we get to truly live in accordance with our nature.
(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.
Wandering Carnuntum – possibly passing over an area where Marcus Aurelius once stood
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.
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.