Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism, and Mithraism

Some notes on Marcus Aurelius and Mithraism.

mithraeumThese are just some rough notes on Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and the Cult of Mithraism.  My hypothesis is that Marcus Aurelius may have been initiated into the mystery religion of Mithraism.

Marcus would certainly have been familiar with Mithraism.  It was extremely popular during his reign, particularly with the army and merchants.  His adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, constructed a Temple to Mithras at the port of Ostia, just outside Rome.  (Numerous mithrea have now been uncovered at Ostia.)  We know his son Commodus was initiated into Mithraism.  We don’t know for sure if Marcus was initiated into Mithraism himself, although arguably it seems very likely that he was.  Marcus was enrolled in all four of the traditional Roman priestly colleges as a young Caesar and he took his role as high priest very seriously.  Later in life, when he toured Athens, he made a point of being initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries.  He had far more opportunity and motivation, though, to be initiated into the mystery religion of Mithraism.

At Carnuntum, the legionary fort where Marcus spent most of his time during the Marcomannic Wars, archaeologists have unearthed six Temples to Mithras.  The modern-day museum at Carnuntum contains an impressive reconstruction of a mithraeum. It’s believed Carnuntum was a location of special importance to the cult.  Indeed, Mithraism was particularly associated with the legions posted along the Danube, where Marcus was stationed as commander for most of his reign.  Porphyry says that Mithras was depicted armed with the “sword of Aries, which is a sign of Mars”, and therefore a military symbol.  Unsurprisingly, for a cult so popular with the military, it’s believed that Mithraism strongly encouraged loyalty to the emperor, the supreme commander of the Roman legions, who was in fact appointed by the army to rule.  Several inscriptions describe Mithras as protector or patron of the empire.

Contemplation of the Stars

Unfortunately, because the cult was shrouded in secrecy virtually no written information survives about it today, despite all the archaeological evidence.  The image above shows a modern reconstruction of a mithraeum or temple of the god Mithras.  Numerous chambers such as this, referred to as caves, although often constructed as long narrow sunken halls, have been found throughout the Roman empire.  The Temples to Mithras were normally filled with astrological symbolism and its believed the ceilings were painted with stars, intended to look like the night sky.  If Marcus stepped into one of the many mithraea at Carnuntum, which seems very likely given the amount of time he spent there, he would have found himself in a mystical atmosphere, surrounded by stars, an image that’s bound to remind us of this passage from The Meditations:

Contemplate the course of the stars, as if you were going alongside them.  And constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another.  Because such thoughts purge away the impurity of life on earth. (Meditations, 7.47)

Likewise, Marcus elsewhere says:

The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies which continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star. (Meditations, 11.27)

Although Marcus nowhere refers to Mithras, he must surely have seen the obvious relevance of these comments to the symbolism of the mithraea and the initiations that took place there.  The neoplatonist Porphyry wrote that “the cave bore the image of the cosmos, which Mithras had created, and the things contained in the cave, by their proportionate arrangement, provided symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos” (On the Cave of the Nymphs).

Mithras and the Sun God

Mithras himself was either a sun god or associate of the sun god, sometimes equated with Sol Invictus who was also popular as a patron of the Roman army.  His two torch-bearing companions, Cautes and Cautopates, are believed to symbolise the stations of the rising and setting sun.  Cautes holds his torch raised up, and Cautopates holds his torch pointed downward.  According to Cassius Dio, on his deathbed, Marcus reputedly said “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.”  More generally the pair are taken to denote the cycles of nature, through which opposites such as day and night, life and death, succeed one another.

The Bull-Slaying (Tauroctony)

Marcus Aurelius Bull SlayingThe central image of Mithraism is that of the god Mithras slaying a bull, which is the focal point of each mithraeum.  Scholars refer to this characteristic Mithraic image as the tauroctony.  We do know that the bull is sacrificial because some of the depictions show it dressed in a conventional Roman sacrificial blanket.  The relief shown here depicts Marcus Aurelius presiding at the ritual sacrifice of a bull, although it probably pertains to one of the conventional state cults of Rome.  There’s no evidence that bull sacrifice actually formed part of Mithraism.

The image of the bull was also very important to Stoicism.  It can be found in the Stoic writings of Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, used as a metaphor for the good man.  The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, apparently described the ideal society as like a herd of cattle feeding in a common pasture and later Stoics frequently refer to the image of the Stoic hero as a mighty bull protecting the rest of his herd.  Marcus refers to himself as emperor, as a bull set over the herd.  The bull was also the sacred animal of the eastern city of Tarsus, which was the home of many famous Stoics and reputedly also the home of Mithraism.

Aion: Eternity

leontocephalusIn addition to Mithras, mithrea often include depictions of a mysterious lion-headed figure, wrapped in a serpent, called leontocephalus by scholars.

It’s believed he represents universal time and corresponds with the Hellenistic deity called Aion, or Eternity.  We know Antoninus Pius minted several coins carrying the name AION as a dedication.

Indeed, the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius, which was erected by Marcus Aurelius in his honour, is thought to depict the god Aion.  He is shown in the apotheosis scene, carrying Antoninus and his wife Faustina to heaven.

Marcus refers very frequently to the vastness of time, in some of the most obviously mystical passages of The Meditations.  In fact, he uses the Greek word AION twenty times altogether.  Sometimes he even appears to personify the concept, such as in the following striking passage:

How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus, has Aion already swallowed up!” (7.19)

Addendum

I initially left this passage out of the article because as far as I can see Vermaseren is the only author to make this claim:

There are some well-known monuments associated with Mithras in the pirates’ homeland in the mountainous religions of Cilicia, and recently an altar was discovered in Anazarbos which had been consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as ‘Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras’. (Mithras, the Secret God, M.J. Vermaseren, London, 1963)

As I understand it, the inscription on this altar is damaged and has been read by other experts in a completely different way, not as a reference to Marcus Aurelius.  However, if Vermaseren were correct that would not conclusively support my hypothesis that Marcus was an initiate of Mithraism.  Indeed, it would go further and provide evidence that he was actually a consecrated priest of the cult.  The equation of Mithras and Helios is typical but making him synonymous with Zeus would be interesting in relation to Marcus’ Stoicism.

 

The Royal Purple of Stoicism

Short story about Tyrian purple dye and the origins of Stoicism.

Tyrian PurpleThis is a short story that I used to explain Stoicism to my five year old daughter, Poppy.

The story of Stoic philosophy begins with a shipwreck. The ancient Phoenicians made their fortune by trading a famous purple dye extracted from the murex sea snail. It’s called Tyrian or Royal Purple. It was used to dye the robes of kings but making it was one of the worst jobs in the world. Many thousands of decaying shellfish had to be labouriously dissected by hand just to extract a few grams of this incredibly valuable dye.

One day a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium, from the island of Cyprus, was transporting his cargo of this dye across the Mediterranean when he was caught in a storm. The ship sank but he survived, washed ashore at a port near Athens. He watched helpless on the beach as his precious cargo, his entire fortune, dissolved into the ocean. His fortune came from and now returned to the sea.

Zeno was absolutely distraught. He’d lost everything and was left wandering the streets of Athens, a foreign city, in rags. The legend says he travelled to the famous Delphic Oracle pleading for guidance from the god Apollo.

The Oracle said Zeno was to dye himself with the colour, not of dead shellfish, but of dead men. Zeno trudged back to Athens and sat down at a bookseller’s stall, feeling completely lost. He had no idea what this could possibly mean. He picked up and started reading a book at random. It was written by a famous Athenian general called Xenophon.

Murex ShellfishThe bookseller told him that Xenophon, the author, was once walking through a dark alleyway in Athens when a figure in the shadows held out a wooden staff and blocked his way. The mysterious stranger said “Excuse me, but can you tell me where someone should go if they want to buy some goods?” Xenophon was puzzled but replied, “Of course, we’re right beside the agora, one of the finest marketplaces in the world, you can buy clothes, jewellery, food, whatever your heart desires, just around the corner.” The stranger laughed and said “Thank you. But one more question, can you tell me where someone would go if they want to become a good person?”

Xenophon was completely thrown – he had no idea how to answer. So the stranger stepped out of the shadows and introduced himself… as Socrates. He said: “Well you should come with me then. Together we’ll try to discover how someone can learn to become a good person. That’s surely far more important than knowing where to obtain other sorts of goods.” From that day onward, Xenophon became one of Socrates’ closest friends and one of his most distinguished students. Many years later, after Socrates was executed, Xenophon wrote down some of the most profound things he remembered him saying. That book was called The Memorabilia of Socrates, and the shipwrecked Zeno now found himself reading it.

So what did it say? Well, the majority of people believe there are lots of good things and lots of bad things in the world, all different sorts of things. But Socrates said… they were all wrong. He said that there’s only one good thing and it’s inside us not outside us. He called it both sophia meaning “wisdom” and also arete meaning “excellence of character”. Indeed, the word “philosopher” just means “someone who loves wisdom”. So people asked Socrates why someone who loved wisdom would hang around in the agora of all places, the bustling market. He liked to answer paradoxically: he said it was so he could constantly remind himself how many different things there were that he did not need in life.  And he used to recite to himself the lines from a comedy:

The purple robe and silver’s shine
More fits an actor’s need than mine.

As Zeno was reading these tales about Socrates he suddenly realised what the Oracle meant when she said he had to dye himself with the colour of dead men. His destiny was to study the lives and opinions of philosophers like Socrates, from previous generations, and permanently colour his mind with their teachings.

Zeno put down the parchment, jumped up, and asked the bookseller: “Where can I find a man like this today?” And he replied, “Talk to that guy over there!” Because by chance the famous Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes was walking right past them. Zeno trained with Crates and other Socratic philosophers for the next twenty years. He flourished and became famous as a philosopher himself. So he used to say: “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune”. Eventually he founded his own school on a public porch in Athens called the Stoa Poikile, near the agora where Socrates used to teach. And his followers became known as the Stoics or Philosophers of the Porch.

So having started with the first famous Stoic let’s conclude by mentioning the last, who lived nearly five hundred years later. He was one of the most powerful men in European history, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus also mentions the purple Phoenician dye, which Zeno had lost in his shipwreck. He liked to say that even his own imperial purple robes were nothing more than sheep’s wool dyed in putrid shellfish gore. These external things are really nothing, he said, compared to the goal of wisdom. And what matters in life is not how we colour our clothing, but how we colour our minds.

Lady Stoics #2: Fannia

Brief article on Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea and wife of Helvidius Priscus, and along with them a member of the Stoic opposition to Nero.

Fannia was part of the “Stoic opposition” against Nero, led by her father, the Stoic political hero Thrasea, along with her celebrated husband Helvidius Priscus.  She lived during the reign of Nero and died around 103 AD, under the reign of Trajan.  In Fyodor Bronnikov’s painting Reading of Thrasea Paetus’ Death Sentence, she is presumably depicted as one of the women who comfort her father, Thrasea.

She was the granddaughter of a famous Roman woman called Arria Major, whom she related the following story about to Pliny the Younger.  Arria’s husband, Caecina Paetus, was ordered to commit suicide for his part in a rebellion by the Emperor Claudius.  He did not have the courage to take his own life so Arria grabbed the dagger from him, stabbed herself with it, and returned it to him saying “It doesn’t hurt, Paetus!

Pliny the Younger described Fannia herself as a woman of fortitude and respectability but a political rebel. She followed her husband Helvidius Priscus into exile when he was banished by Nero for sympathizing with the Republican heroes Brutus and Cassius (which Nero prohibited).  She then followed him into exile for a second time under Vespasian for opposing his reign.  Priscus was later executed by Vespasian.

Fannia herself was exiled by Domitian in 93 AD for asking the Stoic Herennius Senecio to write a biography praising her late husband, and Herennius was executed.  During his trial, Fannia was asked threateningly if she’d instructed Herennius to write the book and she boldly confirmed that she had given her husband’s diaries to him.  Pliny writes that: “she did not utter a single word to reduce the danger to herself.”  Her possessions were seized, but Fannia saved her husband’s diaries and the biography of him.

When she was sick and apparently dying, her friend Pliny wrote of her:

Only her spirit is vigorous, worthy of her husband Helvidius and father Thrasea. but everything else is going down, and I am not merely afraid but deeply saddened. It pains me that so great a woman will be snatched from the eyes of her people, and who knows when her like will be seen again.  What chastity, what sanctity, what dignity, what constancy!

He goes on to say:

How pleasant she is, how kind, how respectable and amiable at once-two qualities rarely found in the same person. Indeed, she will be a woman whom later we can show our wives, from whose fortitude men too can draw an example, whom now while we can still see and hear her we admire as much as those women whom we read about. To me her very house seems to totter on the brink of collapse, shaken at its foundations, even though she leaves descendants. How great must be their virtues and their accomplishments for her not to die the last of her line. (Pliny the Younger, Letters 7.19.L)

Thrasea

Marcus Aurelius at the Amphitheatre

Description of Marcus Aurelius at the amphitheatre and circus, observing the games, and how he tried to use this as an opportunity to rehearse his practice of Stoic philosophy.

GladiatorsAs a young man Marcus himself was fond of boxing and wrestling.  He was fit enough to spear wild boars from horseback, and to practice fighting in armour.  However, some said that as he became more committed to his studies of literature and philosophy, he neglected his body, and these sort of activities, and so gradually became less physically fit and strong, and less interested in watching the games and races.  As a child, his first tutor taught him that it was wise not to take the side of the Green Jacket or the Blue in the races, or to back the light-shield champion or the heavy-shield in the lists, and so on (1.5).  His brother Lucius was completely caught up in these tribal attitudes about the races and games but to Marcus it was an absurd distraction from his duties as emperor.

He came to loathe the amphitheatre and similar public spectacles but felt obliged to attend, at the insistence of his friends and advisors.  Marcus was so averse to the thought of unnecessary bloodshed that when the audience insisted that a lion that had been trained to devour humans should be brought into the arena he refused to look at it.  The people demanded that the lion-trainer should be made a citizen and frequently protested about this but Marcus, who was normally in favour of greater enfranchisement of slaves, refused and even had it publicly proclaimed that the man had done nothing to deserve his freedom.  Indeed, it was said he restricted the gladiatorial games in many ways.  He insisted that the gladiators before him would use blunted weapons, fighting like athletes, without any risk to their lives.  He likewise introduced a law requiring that the young entertainers who danced on tightropes should be given safety nets, to prevent any of them being injured.

Later, during the first Marcomannic War, at the height of the plague, Marcus was forced to take emergency measures to replace lost troops and defend Rome against the barbarian incursions.  He recruited gladiators, taking them away from the arena, arming them and calling them The Compliant.  When he did this there was unrest among the people who complained that he was going to take away their entertainment and drive them all to the study of philosophy.  He was careful not to openly criticise their crass tastes but nevertheless it was well-known that he looked down on such things, and some people resented him for doing so.

They openly ridiculed him as a snob and a bore because they could clearly see that though present at the circus he was ignoring the games to read documents and discuss them with his advisors.  Marcus was told he had to show his face at these events, to keep the Roman people happy, but the entertainments bored him and he wanted to use the time instead to address the serious business of running the state.  Though he would allow himself to be persuaded to go to the games, and theatre, and hunting, etc.,  his heart was no longer in these pursuits.

When required to attend, Marcus tried to make best use of the situation by treating it as an opportunity to practice contemplative exercises, viewing the games he observed as spiritual metaphors, through the lens of Stoic philosophy.  Although the crowds were addicted to them, the shows seemed very monotonous to him so he contemplated their tedious and repetitive nature as symbolising the whole of human life.  There’s nothing new under the sun.  Everything is familiar, from the Stoic perspective (6.46).  Different fighters and animals enter the arena but fundamentally it’s the same thing over and over again.  Every day our lives are superficially different but from a deeper perspective, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we’re still facing the same fundamental challenges.  Pain and suffering may take countless different forms but the wise man is still faced with the same basic challenge of enduring them.  Marcus tells himself:

Remaining no better than you are and allowing yourself to be torn apart by such a life is worthy of a foolish and greedy man, and resembles the life of the wild-beast fighters who are half-devoured in the arena, who through a mass of wounds and gore, beg to be kept until the next day, only to be thrown again, though wounded, into the arena, to be rent by the same teeth and claws. (10.8)

Marcus himself had boxed and wrestled as a youth and was particularly interested how the violent sport known as pankration, which combined boxing, wrestling, kicking and choking, could serve as an allegory for life.  As he watched the pankratiasts, for example, he told himself that life is more like wrestling than dancing because we have to be ready to stand unshaken against every assault, no matter how unforeseen (7.61).

We can also learn something about how to deal with overwhelming events from the training of these sportsmen:

Analyze a piece of music into its notes and ask yourself of each in isolation: “Does this overpower me?”  The same is true in the pankration; if you analyze the fight into each individual move, it will seem less overwhelming.  Do this with everything except with the good, with virtue.  But  dissect all external things objectively, into smaller parts, until they lose their power over your mind (11.2).

Indeed, Marcus tells himself that in his use of Stoic philosophical doctrines, he should imitate the pankratiasts, who box and wrestle, rather than the gladiators.  The gladiator lays aside the sword he uses, and picks it up again.  But the barehanded fighter is always armed and needs only to clench his fist. (12.9)

Marcus had trained in painting as a youth, indeed it was his painting teacher Diognetus who introduced him to philosophy.  So with the eye of a painter he also considers how beauty can be found even in these tiresome spectacles, such as the wild beasts released against the animal-fighters.  

Gladiator Tiger

The byproducts of natural processes have a particular type of charm when viewed in the right context, as part of something greater.  The cracks that appear when bread is baked are like random flaws but stimulate our appetite.  Even the furrowed brow of an angry lion in the arena, or the foam dripping from a wild-boar’s jaws during a hunt, are not things of beauty when viewed in isolation, but as part of a magnificent creature, they lend something to its overall appearance.  The wise man sees beauty in all things, even if it is only as a byproduct of something else’s beauty.  He will even look on the fearsome gaping jaws of real wild beasts with no less pleasure than the representations of them in works of art by painters and sculptors.  There are many such things that the foolish cannot appreciate but in which the wise can learn to distinguish a different kind of aesthetic value (3.2.1-2).  Indeed, all things come from the same source, from Nature, even the terrifying jaws of the lion and such things are but side-effects of the grand and beautiful.  So do not be alienated even from these things but see them as part of the whole, and originating in the one source of all things (6.36.2).

This is how Marcus passes his time at these events.  As a Stoic, his duty is to try to respond with wisdom and virtue in even the most banal environment, even when bored and confronted with something that seems the opposite of edifying to him.  He does this by making meaning from the situation, like an artist, viewing the fighters and the animals as expressing something greater and more noble, providing him with a way to reconnect with his spiritual and philosophical values, and to transcend the mediocrity of his surroundings, and to rise above the clamour of the baying crowd that surround him.  In later years, on campaign in the northern frontier, he would use some of the same mental strategies that he’d been rehearsing for years trapped in his seat at the circus, to retain his composure when faced with the real horrors of war.

An Ancient Stoic Meditation Technique

Description of a simple meditation technique derived from a method described by Athenodorus combined with the psychological processes defined by Marcus Aurelius.

Athenodorus in the haunted houseWhen I wrote The Philosophy of CBT, about eight years ago, I tried very hard to provide a totally comprehensive overview of all the major psychological “techniques” that I could identify in the surviving Stoic literature.  This was made easier for me by the seminal work of the French academic Pierre Hadot, who documented many “spiritual exercises” in Hellenistic philosophy.  I interpreted these from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, and spotted a few more.  Over the subsequent years, I kept studying the Stoic literature, looking for things that I may have missed.  However, I was disappointed.  I only found a few minor variations of existing techniques.  One was a passage where Epictetus mentions that the Stoic Paconius Agrippinus used to write eulogies to himself about any hardships that befell him, focusing on what positive things he could conceivably learn from them.  If he developed a fever or was sent into exile, for example, he would write himself a letter about it from a Stoic perspective.  Now, we already knew that so-called consolation letters were an important part of the Stoic tradition.  They were normally addressed to another person, like a kind of psychotherapy, using Stoic arguments to help them cope with the suffering caused by events such as bereavement.  Agrippinus, however, appears to have had a practice of writing similar letters but addressing them to himself.

Aside from a few observations like that, I came across nothing new.  One day, however, I suddenly realised that another sort of ancient Stoic meditation technique was potentially hiding in plain sight, right before my eyes.  The Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites, a student of Posidonius, was personal tutor to the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, in the latter half of the first century BC.  We know fairly little about Athenodorus’ life or philosophy, aside from a few isolated remarks in the ancient literature.  We do know that he was held in high regard as a philosopher and that he was friends with Cicero, and perhaps assisted him in writing On Duties.  (And he features in an ancient ghost story.)  What interested me about him, though, was that according to Plutarch, he taught the Emperor Augustus a very specific mental strategy for coping with anger:

Athenodorus, the philosopher, because of his advanced years begged to be dismissed and allowed to go home, and Augustus granted his request. But when Athenodorus, as he was taking leave of him, said, “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet,” Augustus seized his hand and said, “I still have need of your presence here,” and detained him a whole year, saying, “No risk attends the reward that silence brings.” (Moralia, Book 3)

Now, on the face of it, this seemed like relatively familiar and trivial advice.  Like advising someone “count to ten each time you get angry”, before doing or saying anything.  It was several years after reading this passage before it occurred to me that it could, and perhaps should, be viewed somewhat differently.  It started with a simple observation.  Athenodorus is talking about the Greek alphabet.  Greek has twenty-four letters; the Latin alphabet used in ancient Rome had twenty-three.  Unlike the letters of the modern English alphabet, all the letters of the Greek alphabet have names of two or more syllables: alpha, beta, gamma, etc.  So reciting those takes marginally more time and effort than just counting to ten.  If we assume that it’s not meant to be rushed, because the subject is trying to cope with anger, then it’s natural to repeat each letter slowly, on the outbreath.  Most people take 12-20 breaths per minute, so that would normally take about a minute and a half on average.  Now, although it might not sound like it, that’s actually quite a long time to stop and think, by most people’s standards.  Try closing your eyes right now and doing nothing for ninety seconds, or just breathing normally and counting twenty-four exhalations of breath.  One day, I did that, as Athenodorus suggested, and noticed that it required a bit of patience.

Augustus / OctavianThe point is that we potentially have an exercise that takes enough time to constitute a proper contemplative experience.  If you repeated that type of count ten times, it would take fifteen minutes on average.  The thing that seems to me to most resemble is the meditation technique developed by Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response (1975).  Benson was a professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School who carried out physiological studies on self-hypnosis and many different relaxation and meditation techniques, in the 1970s.  The simplest method he found was the mantra yoga of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation school.  The good news for the TM people was that Benson found their technique of simply repeating a Sanskrit mantra on each exhalation of breath was effective at reducing nervous arousal, and triggering the physiological relaxation response.  Even better, it worked as well as other relaxation methods but was much simpler and easier to teach than, say, progressive muscle relaxation or self-hypnosis.  The bad news for them, however, was that Benson found that it made no real difference what phrase was repeated: you could pick more or less any word or short phrase and get the same result.  So that removed any mystical or philosophical significance from the technique, at least in terms of the physiological relaxation effect.  

So we have a Stoic technique, which, is basically monotonous enough to require patience for a couple of minutes.  That’s still not meditation.  However, what I realised was that it makes a whole world of difference what attitude one adopts to something as mundane as repeating the letters of the Greek alphabet.  That is, in order to understand this procedure we surely have to interpret it within the context of Stoic philosophy and psychology.  We have to take into account what the Stoics actually say about the attitude they tried to adopt in response to anger and other passions.  Indeed, what the Stoics said about this is very remarkable:

Let the ruling [hegemonikon] and master faculty of your soul be unchanged by any rough or smooth motions in the body.  Do not let it mingle with them but instead draw a line around it and set a boundary limiting those affects [i.e., proto-passions] to where they belong.  However, when through a sympathetic reaction [passion] these tendencies spread into your thinking, because it is all occurring in the same physical organism, you must not try to suppress the feeling, as it is natural, but rather see that your ruling faculty does not add any judgement of its own about whether it is good or bad. (5.26)

What Marcus says here is perfectly consistent with the writings of earlier Stoics, such as Seneca’s On Anger or The Discourses of Epictetus.  We should view our minds as if there’s a fairly sharp dividing line between two domains: what we do, and what happens to us.  Modern psychologists would call that the distinction between “strategic” or voluntary cognitive processes, and “automatic” or involuntary ones.  

What Marcus says here is that when we spot the early-warning signs of distressing or unhealthy “passions”, by which the Stoics mean either desires or emotions, we should maintain a sense of detachment from them, viewing them as from a distance.  Modern cognitive-behavioural therapists call this “cognitive distance” or “verbal defusion”.  It’s basically the ability to view our own thoughts and feelings as merely events in our stream of consciousness, without getting too caught up in them, or confusing them with reality.  Marcus says two crucial things here.  First, when these involuntary thoughts, sensations, or impressions (which the Stoics call propatheiai or “proto-passions”) arise in our minds, we should view them with detachment, like a scientist, or natural philosopher, calmly and objectively observing a natural phenomenon, such as a rainbow.  Second, we should not struggle against these experiences by trying to block or suppress them from our minds, because they are natural – despite being the seeds of potential emotional distress, as they stand they are neither good nor bad, but indifferent.  This is a more sophisticated way of putting something Epictetus repeats over and over again in The Discourses.  Indeed, it’s the meaning of the very first line of his Stoic Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some things are not.”  This is the subtle attitude that Stoics must strive to maintain throughout life, and especially during contemplative exercises of this kind.

So to return to Athenodorus, how should this exercise be practised in relation to the observations from Stoic psychology above?  Well, first of all, we can assume it doesn’t make much difference whether we repeat the Greek alphabet or the English (modern Latin) alphabet.  You could just as well count from one to ten, repeating each number in your mind on each outbreath.  You could repeat the days of the week or the names of the Seven Dwarves.  If you wanted you could just repeat “alpha, beta, gamma”, “one, two, three”, and then start at the beginning again.  Or you could just repeat the same word on each breath, such as “alpha”, although more or less any other short word would do just as well.  One advantage to counting, or repeating the alphabet, or any series of words, is that you’re more likely to notice when your attention inevitably wanders because you’ll probably lose your place.  That’s helpful.  Rather than being annoyed, just (figuratively) shrug, respond with indifference, and start the process again with the first word or number.  It doesn’t matter.  The same goes if you fall asleep: when you wake up just continue as if nothing had happened.

The point is that you’re deliberately engaging in an excruciatingly simple procedure: merely saying the alphabet, or counting to ten.  That frees you up to focus all of your attention on the way you do it, the attitude of mind that you adopt toward the procedure.  Stoics like to divide that into two dimensions.  You should notice that many involuntary thoughts and feelings pop into your mind.  That’s completely natural.  The first part of your job is therefore to view everything that automatically enters your mind, as Marcus says, with total indifference, as neither good nor bad.  In fact, consider this an opportunity to train yourself in an attitude of indifference toward all such things, whether you suddenly feel irritated or notice a pain in your shoulder, etc., everything except the procedure itself, and the way you’re doing it, is indifferent to you right now.  Viewing things with indifference – and it’s important to bear this in mind – means accepting them, as opposed to trying to get rid of them or block them from consciousness.  Benson described this as a “So What?” attitude and he said it was the main factor that he found to correlate with success among individuals learning techniques to control their relaxation response.  Pretty much anything that could potentially be a distraction or an obstacle to you during meditation is grist to this mill, merely another opportunity for you to train yourself in indifference.

The second part of the procedure is what you’re actually doing strategically and voluntarily: the way you repeat the words or numbers in your mind.  You should do that simple task with what the Stoics call excellence or “virtue” (arete).  The Stoics tell us to focus our attention on the present moment and completing whatever task is before us to the best of our ability, in accord with virtue.  During this meditation we can train the mind and study that attitude more easily because the task itself is exceptionally simple and mundane, making it easier to focus on the way we go about it.  The Stoics tell us to ask ourselves continually what virtue, or characteristic, a particular task demands from us.  In the case of this sort of meditation on a repetitive stimulus, perhaps the most obvious virtue would be patience or even endurance, which, incidentally, was considered part of the cardinal Stoic virtue of courage (andreia).  

I’d say another important factor is that we don’t allow our awareness to narrow in scope, which is symptomatic of anxiety and other forms of emotional distress, according to modern research in cognitive psychology.  The Stoics said that all virtue entails a quality called magnanimity, literally having a great soul, or expansive mind.  One simple way of maintaining that is to remember that you’re not trying to block anything from awareness.  When a distracting thought or feeling comes to your attention, go back to the repetition of your word, or the alphabet, but allow awareness of the intrusive thought to remain there, as it were, in the background.  Your attention should be focused on the word you’re repeating, sometimes called a mental “centering device” but not to the exclusion of everything else.  Rather you should be able to “walk and chew gum”, to repeat your phrase while still allowing room for other things to cross your awareness, albeit in the distance.  What you’re trying to avoid is what the Stoics called the tendency to be “swept along” with intrusive thoughts and feelings, to go along with them, rather than just noticing them, in a detached way, and doing nothing.  

Another key element of ancient Stoicism, perhaps the most important element, which many modern students of Stoicism nevertheless tend to neglect, is the role of natural affection (philostorgia).  That’s the reason why we do things: “for the common welfare of mankind.”  Buddhists call this compassion, (karuna) but Stoics dislike that word because etymologically it denotes colluding in another’s passions or emotional distress –- like the word “commiserate”, to share in another person’s misery.  Our primary goal in meditation, as in life, is to cultivate virtue, by perfecting what is up to us, or under our direct control.  However, as Zeno said, that’s meaningless unless it refers to an external target or outcome.  Cicero portrays Cato explaining this by the famous Stoic analogy of the archer.  His goal is to notch his arrow and fire it skillfully from his bow.  Whether or not it hits the target is indifferent to him, insofar as, once it’s in flight, it’s no longer under his direct control.  Nevertheless, he does aim at an external object – he has to point his arrow at something.  Stoics live, and therefore meditate, for the sake of their own virtue, but also for the common welfare of mankind, although the latter can only be wished for with the caveat we call the “reserve clause”, which says “if nothing prevents it” or “God Willing”.  In meditation, each moment is both in the service of virtue, and, fate permitting, in the service of the rest of mankind, because the closer we come to wisdom and virtue ourselves, the more able we are to benefit other people.  

My advice would therefore be to try Athenodorus’ technique for yourself.  I’ve been using some version of the Benson technique more or less every day for about the past fifteen or twenty years or so.  It’s a very simple and versatile method, with many hidden benefits.  If you can’t repeat the Greek alphabet, use the the English alphabet, or just count to ten.  Say one word or number in your mind with each exhalation of breath, and then start again at the beginning when you’re done.  Repeat this for about ten or twenty minutes, once or twice each day.  Before you do so, contemplate the passage from Marcus Aurelius above.  Think always about these two dimensions of the Stoic attitude: indifference toward indifferent things, including automatic thoughts that pop into your mind; and continually acting with virtue, dedicating your action affectionately to the common good.  Was this how Caesar Augustus said the alphabet, when he noticed himself getting angry?  I don’t think we’ll ever know.  But it seems to me that the method is psychologically sound and it makes perfect sense in terms of the Stoic literature on the passions discussed above.

Marcus Aurelius on Stoic Physics

Excerpt from The Meditations in which Marcus lists what he considers to be the few doctrines of Physics that are sufficient for him, and reminds himself to set aside his books.

Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius says to himself in The Meditations that he’s grateful he wasn’t distracted from the essence of Stoic philosophy, living as a Stoic, by reading too many books on Logic and Physics.  He thanks the gods:

[…] that, when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories, or in the resolution of syllogisms, or occupy myself about the investigation of celestial phenomena; for all these things require the help of the gods and fortune. (Meditations, 1.17)

This is followed by an interesting couple of passages near the start of Book 2, in which Marcus lists a series of Stoic doctrines about Physics, concerning human nature and the nature of the universe.  He concludes by saying that these doctrines are enough for him.  These are sandwiched between two reminders to set aside his textbooks.

Throw away your books!  No longer distract yourself with them: it is not allowed.  But as if you were already dying, look down upon the flesh.  It is nothing but blood and bones and a network, a network of nerves, veins, and arteries. Consider the breath also, what kind of a thing it is, air, and not always the same, but every moment expelled and then drawn in again. The third part is the ruling faculty [hegemonikon].  Consider that you are an old man; no longer let yourself be a slave, no longer like a puppet whose strings are pulled by selfish impulses.  No longer be dissatisfied either with your present lot, nor dread the future.

All that is from the gods is full of Providence. That which is from fortune is not separate from nature or from interweaving and interlacing with the things which ordered by Providence. From that all things flow, and there is also necessity, and that which is for the welfare of the whole universe, of which you are a part. But that which the nature of the whole brings about, and what serves to maintain this nature, is good for every part of nature. Now the universe is preserved, by the changes of the elements but also by the changes of things compounded of the elements.

Let these doctrines be enough for you, hold them always as fixed principles [dogmas]. But cast away your thirst after books, that you may not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from your heart thankful to the gods.  (Meditations, 2.2-3)

Marcus on the Emperor Antoninus Pius

Some notes on Marcus Aurelius’ description of the virtues of the Emperor Antoninus Pius in The Meditations.

Antoninus PiusIn the first book of The Meditations, Marcus has far more to say about the virtues of his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, than any of the other people he acknowledges.  We have no reason to believe that Antoninus Pius was a Stoic but Marcus does make some interesting observations about him in relation to philosophy.

Marcus says Antoninus had a “high appreciation of all true philosophers without an upbraiding of the others, and at the same time without any undue subservience to them” and he goes on to say that most of all, he had a “readiness to acknowledge without jealousy the claims of those who were endowed with any special gift”, including knowledge of ethics, “and to give them active support that each might gain the honour to which his individual eminence entitled him”.  It seems likely, therefore, that Antoninus approved of and supported Marcus’ most beloved Stoic tutors, such as Apollonius of Chalcedon, Junius Rusticus, and Claudius Maximus.  We know Antoninus sent for Apollonius to be one of Marcus’ first tutors in philosophy.

He apparently “gave no thought to his food, or to the texture and colour of his clothes”, somewhat like Cynics and Stoics.  Marcus says he was free from any superstition regarding the gods, which is something the philosophers, especially the Cynics, were known for attacking.  However, Marcus particularly notes Antoninus’ “take it or leave it” attitude to external things.

The example that he gave of utilising without pride, and at the same time without any apology, all the lavish gifts of Fortune that contribute towards the comfort of life, so as to enjoy them when present as a matter of course, and, when absent, not to miss them.

This is so important that he seems to repeat it a few paragraphs later, comparing it to the legendary self-mastery of Socrates.  He says that Antoninus considered everything calmly (with ataraxia) and methodically, and that:

One might apply to him what is told of Socrates, that he was able to abstain from or enjoy those things that many are not strong enough to refrain from and to o much inclined to enjoy.  But to have the strength to persist in the one case and to be abstemious in the other is characteristic of a man who has a perfect and indomitable soul, as was seen in the case of Maximus.

Presumably, Marcus is here comparing Antoninus to one of his favourite Stoic tutors, Claudius Maximus, whom he praises for “self-mastery” and “cheerfulness in sickness as well as in all other circumstances”.

Marcus also thanked the gods:

That I was subordinated to a ruler and a father capable of ridding me of all conceit, and of bringing me to recognise that it is possible to live in a Court and yet do without bodyguards and gorgeous garments and linkmen and statues and the like pomp; and that it is in such a man’s power to reduce himself very nearly to the condition of a private individual and yet not on this account to be more paltry or more remiss in dealing with what the interests of the state require to be done in imperial fashion.

We know from the histories that on his deathbed, Antoninus gave the tribune of the night-watch the password of the day as aequanimitas (equanimity) before lapsing into sleep, and dying peacefully.  As was often the case, this final phrase was taken as symbolic of his reign.