May 9, 2020 at 5:39 pm #37724
Who is everyone’s favorite Roman philosopher and why?May 9, 2020 at 8:03 pm #37732
Almost exactly twenty years ago, I first bought the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, I was a young man in my first year of college. I didn’t know who Marcus Aurelius was but something drew me to this book almost immediately. The Stoics would call it fated—but what arrived would change my life. I would also become what is referred to as a “centireader,” reading Marcus Aurelius well over 100 times across multiple editions and copies.
In the course of those readings and my study of Stoicism, a lot has changed. Marcus Aurelius has guided me through breakups and getting married, through being relatively young and poor and relatively older and well-off. His wisdom has helped me with getting fired and with quitting, with success and struggles. I’ve carried him to close to a dozen countries and moved him to multiple houses. I’ve turned to him for articles and books and casual dinner conversation. The one pristine white cover is now its own shade of tan, but with every read, every time I’ve touched the book, I’ve gotten something new or been reminded of something timeless and important.
It was the opening passage of Book 5—about our reluctance to get out of bed and get moving in the morning—that struck me most on my first read. As you can see, I wrote “F***” with a highlighter and you can see how important that passage was to me at the time. Later, I would print out this passage and put it next to my desk and bed. I think it was that as a college student I needed that extra motivation. I was a little lazy and entitled. I needed to seize life and take advantage of it—and Marcus served me well in that regard for a long time.
Later on while serving in the middle east I wrote, “So we throw out other people’s recognition. What’s left for us to prize?” I answer in blue pen in one read, “To embrace and to resist our nature.” What do I—what did Marcus—mean by that? I think it’s encouraging what is good about us and to fight against what is bad. To encourage the parts of ourselves that are moral, helpful, honest, and aware and to fight against what is selfish, petty, shortsighted and wrong.
In that same passage, Marcus also writes “If you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free—free, independent, imperturbable.” I have in my copy I jotted note, “Only when you’ve lost everything, you are free to do anything.”
When I first read Meditations, I was in the middle of some ridiculous drama with my college roommates. I won’t bore you with the details, but at the time, I was frustrated, disappointed and miserable about where I was living. I think this was the reason that I latched on to the meditation in Book Six, about how if you were sparring with someone and they hurt you, you wouldn’t yell at them or whine or hold it against them—you’d just make a mental note about it and act accordingly in the future. I can see where I actually wrote the name of my roommates down to explicitly make this connection. “Do not hate them,” I wrote to myself, “remain aloof.”
Later when I saw the film Gladiator I saw Marcus Aurelius as the “old guy”. Future research taught me that the depiction was even more interesting than the movie presented. First off, Maximus (Russell Crowe’s character) was based on a real Roman story—the general Cincinnatus, who saved Rome but wanted simply to return to his farm. Second, Marcus’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) was real too—and probably even more horrible in real life. It makes you think: How could such a great man have had such an awful son? What does that say about his teachings?
Marcus writes “Mastery of reading and writing requires a master. Still, more so life.” It occurs to me now that I first understood this passage only partway—I was focused on the first half, when really the “more so life” line is the most important. Understanding this could have saved me a lot of trouble.
On what I would guess is my third or fourth read, I marked this passage: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” There are not many reminders of your own mortality at 20. This was one of my first, but not the last during my time in the military.
-In Book Five, I learned what philosophy really was. It’s not an “instructor,” as Marcus put it. It’s not the courses I was taking in school. It is medicine. It’s “a soothing ointment, a warm lotion.” It’s designed to help us deal with the difficulties of life—to heal, as Epicurus said, the suffering of man.
I’ve been lucky enough that some generous friends have sent me rare old copies of Meditations. They’re falling apart, worn with age. It strikes me what a Stoic would have thought if given a book that was then a couple hundred years old. They’d think about the person who owned it and what became of them (dead), they’d think about all the things the person did other than study philosophy (mostly pointless stuff), and they’d also think of the difficult times that the wisdom contained within may have helped them (which is what I think now). And then they’d consider how we are all subject to the rhythm of events and that someone may pick up this book after them and have the same thoughts.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely is what we say. But Marcus had absolute power. To me, his writing and his life are proof that the right principles and the right discipline—if followed rigorously—can help buck this timeless trend.
It’s also interesting to think that we have no idea if the meditations were once ordered differently. All we have now are translations of translations—no original writing from his hand survives. It all could have been arranged in an entirely different format originally (Did all the books have titles originally—as the first two do? Are those titles made up? Were they all numbered originally? Or were even the breaks between thoughts added in by a later translator?)
-Who hasn’t used the expressions “I’ll be honest with you” or “With all due respect” or “I’ll be straight with you.” It wasn’t until I read Marcus’s specific condemnation of these phrases that I really thought about what they were saying—honesty, respect, straightforwardness should be the default. If you have to specifically preface your remarks with it, that’s a sign something is wrong with your normal speech and your normal habits.
It must have been many reads in before I came to understand that many of the admonishments—Don’t waste time, Don’t lose your temper, Stop getting caught up in things that don’t matter—must be there because Marcus had recently done the exact opposite. Remember, this was essentially his journal, the meditations are reflections written after a long hard day. They are not abstractions, they are notes on what he can do better next time.
Imagine the emperor of Rome, with his captive audience and unlimited power, telling himself not to be a person of “too many words and too many deeds.” How great is that? How inspiring?
After I read Marcus, I immediately read Epictetus (Lebell’s The Art of Living translation), then Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, then back to the Penguin translation of Epictetus, then Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life. It’s been a decades-long journey now, and I still feel like I am at the very beginning of it. Or at least, there is so much further left to go.
I think instinctively while very young years old, I rejected the idea of predetermination? No free will? Please. That sounded religious. College kids are often attracted to atheism for precisely the freedom and empowerment it implies. But as I have gotten older, I’ve started to understand how much we are shaped by chance and forces beyond our control. It strikes me, then, that the debate is not whether we are in fact the dog tied to the moving cart but rather, just how long the rope is? How much room to we have to explore and determine our own pace? A lot? A little?
As a reminder of the man and the principles in the book, I ended up buying a marble bust of Marcus carved in 1840 that sits on my desk where I can see it daily. It’s probably the most expensive piece of “art” I own. But for the reminders it’s given me and the calming presence it has had, it’s worth every penny. To think that 3 or 4 generations of people may have owned this thing. That someone will own it after I die.
The more you read you also come to realize and understand the deeper historical references. For instance, in one passage, Marcus writes “To escape imperialization, that indelible stain.” I know, obviously, what “imperialism” and “imperial” mean but it wasn’t until many reads later that I came to understand he meant to escape the trappings of his office. He was saying: I must avoid being changed and corrupted by my office. Not all of us hold executive power, but we all can use that advice.
Another interesting factoid about Marcus—proof, I think that he lived his philosophy. He was selected for the throne by Hadrian who set in line a succession plan that involved Hadrian adopting the elderly Antoninus Pius who in turn adopted Marcus Aurelius. When Marcus eventually ascended to the throne, what was his first decision? He appointed his step-brother Lucius Verus co-emperor. He was given unlimited, executive power and the first thing he did was share it with someone he was not even technically related to? That’s magnanimity.
The best way to learn and to lead is by example. I think that’s why I liked Marcus’s book so much—he was showing me (us) what is possible. As he put it “Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.”
In my own education I’ve always followed Marcus’s dictum to “go straight to the seat of intelligence—your own, the world’s, your neighbors.” He also writes that learning to read and write requires a master—and so does the art of life. You have to go straight to the sources of knowledge and absorb what you can from them.
Despite his privileges, Marcus Aurelius had a difficult life. The Roman historian Cassius Dio mused that Marcus “did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign.” But throughout these struggles he never gave up. It’s an inspiring example for us to think about today if we get tired, frustrated, or have to deal with some crisis. Marcus is a beautiful writer, capable of finding beauty in strange places. In one passage, he praises the “charm and allure” of nature’s process, the “stalks of ripe grain bending low, the frowning brow of the lion, the foam dripping from the boar’s mouth.” I’ve learned a lot from this skill of his. As a person, I’ve learned more. It’s about looking for majesty everywhere and anywhere.
Marcus constantly points out how the emperors who came before him were barely remembered just a few years later. To him, this was a reminder that no matter how much he conquered, no matter how much he inflicted his will on the world, it would be like building a castle in the sand—soon to be erased by the winds of time. The same is true for us.
It’s interesting how much of Meditations is made up of short quotes and passages from other writers. In a way, it’s really Marcus’s commonplace book (and he’s inspired me to keep my own). One of my favorites is Marcus quoting a lost line from Euripides: “You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.”
Marcus was one of the first writers to articulate the notion of cosmopolitanism—saying that he was a citizen of the world, not just of Rome. This is an interesting and impressive thought…
Marcus had many responsibilities, as those who hold executive power do. He judged cases, heard appeals, sent troops into battle, appointed administrators, approved budgets. A lot rode on his choices and actions. He wrote this reminder to himself which beautifully illustrates the kind of man he was: “Never shirk the proper dispatch of your duty, no matter if you are freezing or hot, groggy or well-rested, vilified or praised, not even if dying or pressed by other demands.”
How was Marcus introduced to the Stoics? We’re not quite sure but we do know that he got his copy of Epictetus from Rusticus (and in fact, Rusticus may have provided him his own notes from attending Epictetus’s lectures). A number of my favorite books came to me from my teachers. In fact, I was introduced to the Stoics by asking a professor for a book recommendation. Who did he recommend? Epictetus.
At one point, Marcus essentially says to not ever do anything that we would be worried might remain ‘behind closed doors.’ It’s easy to say, but hard to do. Who wouldn’t be embarrassed if their email account was leaked or if a fight with their spouse was made public? We all do things in private that we would never do in front of other people. Which is a good thought/test to evaluate our behavior before we embark upon action.
In Book Six we find one of the strongest encouragements that Marcus gives himself. He says, basically: If someone else has done it—then it is humanly possible. If it’s humanly possible, then of course you can do it too.
What is tragic about Marcus, is how his “philosophy—which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others—was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line he anointed on his death.” As I said, Marcus’s terrible son, is an important reminder that it doesn’t matter how good you are at your job, if you neglect your duties at home…
In Meditations we find one of the most helpful exercises when seeking perspective: “Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend.” Eventually, all of us will pass away and slowly be forgotten. We should enjoy this brief time we have on earth—not be enslaved to emotions that make us miserable and dissatisfied.
I’ll leave you with one final lesson. Marcus was clearly a big reader, he clearly took copious notes and studied philosophy deeply. Yet he took the unusual step of reminding himself to put all that aside. “Stop wandering about!” he wrote. “You aren’t likely to read your own notebooks, or ancient histories, or the anthologies you’ve collected to enjoy in your old age. Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue—if you care for yourself at all—and do it while you can.”
At some point, we must stop our reading, put all the advice from Marcus and the other stoics aside and take action. So that, as Seneca put it, the “words become works.”
That’s what I have tried to do. To alternate between the reading and the doing. I’m not perfect at it. I’m not even as far along as I’d like to be. But I am making progress.
I hope you are too.
T. Terentius VarroMay 18, 2020 at 10:50 pm #37956
My time studying philosophy is relatively short. I started reading philosophy august of last year when I quite accidently came across the school of Stoic philosophy. During that time, I was recently graduated from nursing school and waiting for approval to take the state exam required to obtain a nursing license. Long story short, the state agency didn’t receive all the paperwork it required to award approval to test and it delayed the process several months. Studying for the exam was stressful enough but dealing with state bureaucracy was also quite frustrating. It was during this time that I as introduced to Stoic philosophy through an article I happened to find online.
I was soon reading Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius on my spare time and taking inspiration. Teachings from all three of these philosophers gave me the tools and practices I needed to help me prepare for my exam with confidence and a sense of calm acceptance to any outcome. Seneca states, “I do not know whether I shall make progress; but I should prefer to lack success rather than to lack faith.” This quote was a great reminder to me not to dwell in anxiety regarding the N-clex exam. Even to this very day the quote reminds me of the pointlessness of dwelling in anxiety and boosts my confidence when facing challenging moments at work.
Because of this I would have to say then that my favorite Roman philosopher is Seneca. The first two books of stoic writings I bought were the Enchiridion from Epictetus and letters from a stoic by Seneca. Even though I am fond of both of these philosophers, Seneca’s teachings are the ones that I practiced first and inspired me to explore philosophy overall. “One must therefore take refuge in philosophy; this pursuit, not only in the eyes of good men, but also in the eyes of those who are even moderately bad, is a sort of protecting emblem.” He also states that man cannot control how long he lives but how nobly he lives. These writings and others really helped me to see the benefit in practicing philosophy and how very practical it can be for people in all walks of life.May 19, 2020 at 12:33 am #37958
A beautiful introduction! So often the writings of the stoics have guided me through the lows and highs. If anything their words are a steady hand on the rudder of life. Steering through the storms if life with a resemblance of even handedness. Keeping things on course, sometimes…
Aquila, are you joined the Collegium Philosophicum? It would be very nice to develop that group.
Bene vale!May 20, 2020 at 10:15 am #37962
I enjoy your analogy of the philosophers words being like a steady hand on the rudder of life. It very much feels that way to me. Marcus Aurelius comparing philosophy to a healing ointment also comes to mind.
I have in fact joined the Collegium Philosophicum. I agree it would be nice to develop the group. I am more than happy to do my part. How can I help?
Bene ValeMay 20, 2020 at 2:26 pm #37963
Titus Flavius SeverusDenarii: 𐆖 1,400.35PatriciusSarmatia
Often, when discussing in various Roman philosophers, attention is paid mainly to the same names, while the world of philosophy is diverse and has given us many wonderful figures who are, to some extent, deprived of attention.
I would name two interesting personalities and philosophers – Plotinus and Porfiry. Why? Because their thoughts and outlook on being are interesting and deserve attention, and, among other things, their works have had a significant impact on the modern world.
T. Fl. SeverusMay 21, 2020 at 7:46 pm #37976
Severus, tell us more! You have my attention. 🙏🏻🙂May 22, 2020 at 5:36 pm #38004
Titus Flavius SeverusDenarii: 𐆖 1,400.35PatriciusSarmatia
Plotinus philosophy described in the Enneads, there are three principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. His teacher was Ammonius Saccas, who was of the Platonic tradition. Historians of the 19th century invented the term Neoplatonism and applied it to Plotinus and his philosophy, which was influential during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. His metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, and Islamic metaphysicians and mystics, including developing precepts that influence mainstream theological concepts within religions, such as his work on duality of the One in two metaphysical states. The emperor Julian the Apostate was deeply influenced by Neoplatonism, as was Hypatia of Alexandria. Neoplatonism influenced many Christians as well, including Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. St. Augustine, though often referred to as a “Platonist,” acquired his Platonist philosophy through the mediation of the Neoplatonist teachings of Plotinus.
Porphyry was a Neoplatonic philosopher, he wrote original works on a wide variety of topics, his Isagoge, an introduction to logic and philosophy, was the standard textbook on logic throughout the Middle Ages in its Latin and Arabic translations. Through works such as Philosophy from Oracles and Against the Christians (which was banned by Constantine the Great), he was involved in a controversy with early Christians.
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