The Stoic philosopher Epictetus liked to present his students with examples of Stoic role models from recent Roman history. One of his favourite moral exemplars appears to have been the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher, Paconius Agrippinus, a prominent member of the Stoic Opposition faction. Epictetus tells this anecdote in which Agrippinus exhibits a typical Stoic attitude toward justice:
When Agrippinus was governor, he used to try to persuade the persons whom he sentenced that it was proper for them to be sentenced. “For,” he would say, “it is not as an enemy or as a brigand that I record my vote against them, but as curator and guardian; just as also the physician encourages the man upon whom he is operating, and persuades him to submit to the operation.” (Epictetus, fr. 22)
Agrippinus lived during the reign of the Emperor Nero, in the middle of the 1st century AD. He was exiled from Italy around 67 AD following the execution of the Stoic Senator Thrasea, by Nero. He sounds like a formidable character.
For this reason it is right to praise Agrippinus, because, although he was a man of the very highest worth, he never praised himself, but used to blush even if someone else praised him. His character was such, said Epictetus, that when any hardship befell him he would compose a eulogy upon it; on fever, if he had a fever; on disrepute; on exile, if he went into exile. And once, he said, when Agrippinus was preparing to take lunch, a man brought him word that Nero ordered him into exile; “Very well,” said he, “we shall take our lunch in Aricia.” (Epictetus, fr. 21)
The town of Aricia was apparently the first stop outside of Rome, for those travelling south and east. Epictetus likewise concludes the first of his Discourses, ‘On what is under our control and what is not’, with the following anecdote:
Wherefore, what was it that Agrippinus used to remark? “I am not standing in my own way.” Word was brought him,
“Your case is being tried in the Senate.”
“Good luck betide! But it is the fifth hour now” (he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then a cold bath at that hour); “let us be off and take our exercise.”
After he had finished his exercise someone came and told him,
“You have been condemned.”
“To exile,” says he, “or to death?”
“What about my property?”
“It has not been confiscated.”
“Well then, let us go to Aricia and take our lunch there.”
This is what it means to have rehearsed the lessons one ought to rehearse, to have set desire and aversion free from every hindrance and made them proof against chance. I must die. If forthwith, I die; and if a little later, I will take lunch now, since the hour for lunch has come, and afterwards I will die at the appointed time. How? As becomes the man who is giving back that which was another’s. (Discourses, 1.1.28-30)
Epictetus also tells a story about Agrippinus giving advice to another Roman politician, who was swithering about whether to contribute to a festival in honour of Nero, by performing some part in a tragedy. (Possibly Gessius Florus, the notoriously unpopular procurator of Judea.)
Wherefore, when Florus was debating whether he should enter Nero’s festival, so as to make some personal contribution to it Agrippinus said to him, “Enter.” And when Florus asked, “Why do you not enter yourself?” he replied, “I? why, I do not even raise the question.” For when a man once stoops to the consideration of such questions, I mean to estimating the value of externals, and calculates them one by one, he comes very close to those who have forgotten their proper character.
Come, what is this you ask me? “Is death or life preferable?” I answer, life. “Pain or pleasure?” I answer, pleasure. “But unless I take a part in the tragedy I shall be beheaded.” Go, then, and take a part, but I will not take a part. “Why not?” Because you regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment. What follows, then? This, that you ought to take thought how you may resemble all other men, precisely as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads. But I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. Why, then, do you say to me, “Be like the majority of people?” And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red? (Discourses, 1.2.12-13)
Stoic Therapy Toolkit
Five-page summary of key Stoic ideas and practices for self-improvement.
Subscribe to download my Stoic Therapy Toolkit (PDF) free of charge, and receive your email newsletter.