Information and schedule of speakers for Stoicon-x Toronto 2017, the conference on modern Stoicism, Sunday October 15th. The day following the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto.
Stoicon-x events are smaller conferences organized around the world to complement the main Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto and Stoic Week 2017. The goal of Stoicon-x is for local Stoic groups to put on their own mini-conferences in their own areas. You can read our [tips and guidelines] for putting on your own events.
Stoicon-x Toronto will be held on October 15th, the day after Stoicon 2017. You don’t need to be attending the main Stoicon 2017 conference to come to this. It’s a completely separate event, organized by some of the same people. In addition to a few fixed keynote talks, there will be slots for lightning talks of 5-10 minutes. Any attendee (that means you!) can sign up to present a lightning talk on a topic related to Stoicism of their choosing, time permitting. Networking will follow. So if you have something to say about Stoicism or just can’t get enough of Stoicism come along to Stoicon-x Toronto!
10am Introduction: The Popularity and Relevance of Stoicism Today
Donald Robertson, author of Teach Yourself Stoicism
10.15 am Keynote 1: Achieving Personal Freedom Through Stoic Principles
Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life
10.45am Morning break (15 min.)
11am Lightning Presentations on Modern Stoicism
12pm Afternoon break (15 min.)
12.15pm Keynote 2: ‘People Learn while they Teach’: The Whys and Hows of Building a Local Stoic Community Greg Lopez, Founder of NYC Stoics and Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship
12.45pm Closing Donald Robertson (15 min.)
1pm – 1.30pm Networking
NB: Please note that the details of this event may be subject to change.
The main conference venue for Stoicon is the Holiday Inn Toronto-Yorkdale hotel, who will provide accommodation at a discounted rate if you’re attending Stoicon 2017. We cannot guarantee that rooms for all delegates will be available at the Holiday Inn. However, there are several other hotels nearby where you can stay.
What were previous Stoicon conferences like?
You can watch this YouTube video about one of our previous conferences, and some of the previous talks are available online.
Some notes on Stoic Ethics understood in terms harmony and consistency across our threefold relationship with ourselves, other people, and the world.
Discussions of Stoic Ethics usually focus on the fourfold division of the cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude. These are frequently mentioned by the Stoics, although they go back to Plato. They may have originated with Socrates, or possibly even with an earlier source. However, the Stoics actually refer more often to a threefold structure that permeates their philosophy. (See Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel for more on this.) For example, Zeno was reputedly the first to divide Stoicism into the three topics called Logic, Physics, and Ethics in his book Exposition of Doctrine. Most other Stoics shared the same division, although some treated them in a different order. All seem to have agreed that these three subjects overlapped, though. Moreover, according to Diogenes Laertius, some Stoics actually referred to virtues as Logical, Physical, and Ethical. My hypothesis in this article is basically that Stoic Ethics, particularly the Stoic concept of virtue, can best be understood in terms of this threefold structure, as a way of living harmoniously across three domains or relationships we have in life: with our own self, with other people, and with external events in the world.
Living at one with our own true nature, as rational beings, with natural self-love, and without inner conflict, division, or tension.
Living at one, or harmoniously, with other people, even our “enemies”, by viewing ourselves as part of a single community or system.
Living at one with external events, by welcoming the Fate that befalls us, without complaint, fear, or craving for more.
The Stoics were pantheists, who believed that the totality of the universe, the whole of space and time, is divine. By contemplating the unity of the whole, and our place within it, as our guide in life, we help ourselves to fulfill our nature and approach virtue and wisdom. Alienation, conflict, frustration, and complaint, toward ourselves, other people, or our Fate, is symptomatic of vice for the Stoics. I take it that living wisely and harmoniously across these three levels is part of what Zeno and other Stoics meant by “living in agreement with Nature”. Even though the Stoic Sage may experience pain, and flashes of emotional suffering (propatheiai), he still retains a fundamental composure in his voluntary responses to self, others, and world. His life goes smoothly, in a sense, because he responds wisely, and harmoniously, to everything he experiences.
Living in Agreement with Nature
The famous slogan of Stoicism, that encapsulated the supreme goal, was “the life in agreement with nature” (to homologoumenos te phusei zen). Diogenes Laertius says that Zeno coined this expression in his book On the Nature of Man. It also resembles the title of another, presumably later, book by Zeno: On Life According to Nature (Peri tou kata physin biou). The composite Greek word translated “agreement” literally means same-saying, or same-thinking. To agree with Nature, in other words, means echoing its laws in our thoughts. For the Stoics, in more theological terms, Nature is synonymous with Zeus, so it’s easier perhaps to think of agreeing with the laws of Nature as agreeing with the teachings of Zeus, by studying them and mirroring them in our thoughts and actions. We’re told, by Diogenes Laertius, for example, that the Stoics described virtue or fulfillment as a way of being where every action helps to bring our inner spirit into harmony with the Will of Zeus.
The phrase “living in agreement with nature” probably implies both living in harmony with the universe and in acceptance of its nature, or laws. It means the opposite of being alienated from nature through either ignorance or complaining. Diogenes says that for the Stoics this life in agreement with nature is identical with virtue because when we follow nature we are guided by it toward the goal of virtue. We’re told that Chrysippus said living excellently (virtuously) is synonymous with living in accord with our experience of the actual course of nature, because our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe. In other words, by genuinely understanding the cosmos as a whole, of which we’re part, and living accordingly, we simultaneously flourish as individuals and fulfill our own human nature.
They say virtue, in this sense, also consists in a “smoothly flowing” life, which has the connotation of a state of inner serenity. Diogenes writes: “By the nature with which our life ought to be in accord, Chrysippus understands both universal nature and more particularly the nature of man, whereas Cleanthes takes the nature of the universe alone as that which should be followed, without adding the nature of the individual.” This twofold distinction between human nature and cosmic nature appears to become the basis for a threefold distinction between our own inner nature, the nature of other people, and the Nature of the whole.
Consistency and Elenchus
According to Diogenes, Cleanthes said that virtue consists in a “harmonious disposition”, i.e., a habit of living in agreement with nature, or a “state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious.” And he emphasised that virtue is its own reward, and not to be chosen as a means to some other end, i.e., out of hope for something desirable or fear of some unwanted consequences. Moreover, they say it is in virtue that happiness consists because virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious. The good is defined as “the natural perfection of a rational being qua rational”, which encompasses virtue as well as its supervening healthy passions. They hold that the virtues involve one another, and that the possessor of one is the possessor of all, inasmuch as they have common principles, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his work On Virtues. However, virtue or wisdom is also understood as a kind of consistency. Contradictory opinions must be false, therefore, the Sage’s world view must be totally internally-coherent.
The Stoics admired the Socratic method of elenchus, which attempts to expose contradictions in the opinions of the another person by penetrating questioning. The Sage would be like someone who has endured this interrogation about his life, and resolved any conflicts between his thoughts or actions. The connotation of the phrase “living in agreement”, therefore, also appears to be living “in agreement with ourselves” or consistently. It seems novice Stoics probably had teachers who acted as personal mentors, cross-examining their life and actions in terms of consistency with their moral principles. Galen, the personal physician of Marcus Aurelius, described this in detail in his writings, apparently drawing on lost works by Chrysippus. In Marcus’ own case, it’s possible that his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus, served this role. Marcus mentions that he often felt angry with Rusticus, perhaps because he questioned him very bluntly. However, it’s easy to see how enduring this cross-examination could lead to a more consistent world-view and way of life. When Seneca describes cross-examining himself after reviewing his actions throughout the day, at the end of each evening, he may be describing a similar exercise, intended to be used in the absence of a teacher.
The constancy of the Sage is a major theme running through Stoic literature. The Sage is the same in every eventuality. His world view is free from contradictions and totally coherent. His thoughts don’t “flutter” between contradictory opinions, which is one Stoic definition of emotional disturbance or unhealthy passion. The Athenian decree in honour of Zeno, after his death, highlights the fact that he was known as a teacher whose life was completely in accord with his philosophical doctrines. He was supremely consistent, his thoughts were in harmony with one another, and his actions were in harmony with his thoughts. We could say that the Sage is a fully-integrated individual, free from inner conflict, who doesn’t struggle against himself, although he still exerts one kind of inner “tension” in paying attention to and remaining detached from incipient proto-passions and misleading impressions.
Oikeiôsis and Natural Affection
This wisdom and harmony that operates across all of his relationships in life can also be understood in terms of the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, which is central to Stoic Ethics. It’s a tricky word to translate but is derived from the Greek for “household” and related to the English word “economy”. It denotes the action of making something or someone part of your household. Sometimes it’s therefore translated as “appropriation”, although we could also describe it as a process of taking “ownership”. However, it seems to me that it’s best understood as a process of moral and metaphysical identification. Sometimes it’s also translated as “affinity” and I believe it’s much easier to understand oikeiôsis by considering its opposite: alienation. According to the Neoplatonist Porphyry, those who followed Zeno, the Stoics, “stated that oikeiôsis is the beginning of justice” but it’s much more than that, as we’ll see. As Porphyry’s words imply, though, oikeiôsis was a concept particularly associated with the Stoic school of philosophy, and their use of it distinguished their position from other Hellenistic philosophies such as Epicureanism.
The most familiar sense of the word is the one in which it refers to the Stoic progressively extending moral consideration to other people and as such it’s closely related to their concept of “natural affection” or “familial affection” (philostorgia). The Stoics believed that we humans, like many other species, have a natural (instinctive) tendency to care for their own offspring, and also their mates. Plutarch says that in The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, the ideal society was described through the analogy of a herd (presumably of cattle) feeding in a common pasture. The theme of the Stoic hero or wise man as a mighty bull who protects weaker members of his herd recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature. The Stoics frequently repeat their fundamental claim, in opposition to the Epicureans, that man is by nature both rational and social. (So, in one sense, the two most fundamental cardinal virtues for Stoics were wisdom and justice.) The bull identifies with, and has “familial affection”, for the rest of his herd. He will face a lion and endure pain and injury from his claws, to defend the weaker members, because their lives instinctively matter to him, as members of his herd or, if you like, his “household”. (Incidentally, a number of important Stoics came from the great city of Tarsus in Cilicia, which was traditionally associated with the symbol of the bull.) Stoicism involves progressively applying oikeiosis to other people, cultivating natural affection toward them, and bringing them into our “household” or “family”, as if we were all members of the same herd.
For Stoics, because humans possess reason, we have an obligation to extend our “household” to encompass all rational beings, as our kin. The ultimate goal is to attain the supremely “philanthropic” (loving mankind) and cosmopolitan (citizen of the universe) attitude of the Stoic Sage, who views his “household” as the cosmic city and the rest of humanity as his brothers and sisters. The Stoic Hierocles actually recommends that we imagine our relationships as consisting of a series of concentric circles. We are at the centre, our family and friends in the next rings, then our countrymen, and the rest of humanity. He advises us to imagine drawing those in the outer circles closer to the centre, i.e., treating others progressively more and more as if we identified with them, bringing them further into our metaphorical household. He even suggests we call friends “brother” or “sister” and so on, using our language to encourage a stronger sense of kinship. Indeed, we can see Stoics like Marcus Aurelius actually do remind themselves to refer to others in this way, he even calls strangers “brother”. When asked to define what a friend is, Zeno said “a second self” (alter ego), which perhaps assumes the level of identification found in the perfect Sage. Aristotle also uses this phrase several times in the Nicomachean Ethics, saying both that the friend of a virtuous man is a second self to him and that parents naturally treat their offspring as a second self. On the other hand, the Stoics are keen to avoid alienation from the rest of mankind, which they see as a symptom of vice. Even toward one’s enemies, there should be a sense of connection. As Marcus puts it, we should view other people as though we’re the top and bottom rows of teeth, designed by nature to work together, even in opposition to one another. Zeno reputedly said in The Republic that the good alone are “true citizens or friends or kindred or free men” and that those lacking wisdom, the vicious, are the opposite, i.e., foreigners to the cosmic city, enemies to one another, alienated from the rest of mankind, and inner slaves to their own passions. Indeed, in the case of humans, he said that even parents and their offspring become enemies, as opposed to having natural oikeiôsis for one another like animals, insofar as they are foolish and vicious.
However, it’s long been understood that for Stoics oikeiôsis functions at two levels: self and social. The Stoics believed that it was important to give a developmental account of moral psychology. The explain that human infants resemble other animals but gradually develop psychologically and acquire the capacity for language use and abstract reasoning. At birth, we’re driven by our self-preservation instincts. Gradually, we come to identify more with our mind than our body. If you were to ask someone whether they’d rather lose their mind and keep their body, or vice versa, most people would obviously rather be a brain in a vat than a mindless zombie. The Stoics think of this increasing identification with the mind, and our capacity for thinking, as a form of oikeiôsis that operates within the individual. On the other hand, we’re to avoid alienation from our true selves, from reason and our capacity for virtue. As Epictetus puts it, someone who succumbs to unhealthy passions and abandons the law of reason has, in a sense, turned themselves into an animal, and lost touch with their true nature, which is rational and even divine. We become divided within ourselves, and at conflict with our own rational nature, when we allow ourselves to be degraded by vice.
When combined with our social instincts, it drives the social oikeiôsis that causes us to feel an affinity with other thinking beings. For example, if a stone could think and speak, we might come to assign more rights to it than to a human being who’s trapped in a permanent vegetative state, incapable of thought or consciousness. For the Stoics, this means also that we’re akin to the gods, with whom we share reason. It should also have meant that Stoics viewed themselves as akin to the people Greeks and Romans called “barbarians”, foreigners who didn’t speak their language. Race and culture are less important than whether someone is rational and therefore capable of attaining wisdom – that’s what makes them our brother or sister in the Stoic sense.
Those two forms of oikeiôsis are familiar to many students of Stoicism but In The Elements of Ethics, the Stoic Hierocles explicitly states that oikeiôsis was understood by Stoics as operating across the three levels we mentioned earlier: self, others, and world. That maps the central ethical concept of oikeiôsis directly onto the same threefold model that recurs throughout the surviving Stoic literature. I would presume that when Hierocles speaks of oikeiôsis applied to the level of the world that actually denotes a theme that’s already familiar and occurs frequently throughout the Stoic literature. In part, it’s what we call amor fati, borrowing Nietzsche’s phrase: the Stoic acceptance or love of fate. Alienation from our fate is a common theme in the Stoic literature and is marked by frustration and complaining. Ownership of our fate requires, first and foremost, that we grasp the indifferent nature of externals. If we believe that externals are intrinsically good or bad, in the strong sense, then we’ll be disturbed either by the loss of things we desire or by the occurrence of things to which we’re averse. To avoid being alienated from life, to live at one and in harmony with events beyond our control, we have to view them with Stoic indifference.
The Four Virtues and Threefold Structure
As Pierre Hadot and others have observed, in the Stoic literature, particularly in Marcus Aurelius, it’s possible to discern a rough correlation between the three topics of Physics, Ethics, and Logic, and the four cardinal virtues. It may also be that Epictetus’ three “disciplines” map onto this triad as suggested below:
Note that there are some passages in the Stoic literature, though, that appear to conflict with this schema. However, arguably it appears consistent enough to treat those as exceptions. Even if this model was employed by some Stoics, it’s likely not universal, and would be contradicted by other Stoics.
Excerpt on Stoicism from the Orations of Themistius.
There’s a little-known passage about Stoics and other philosophers in Roman political history in the 34th Oration of Themistius, from the 4th century AD, entitled In Reply to Those who Found Fault with him for Accepting Public Office:
The emperor [Theodosius] has shown those who are now alive something they no longer expected to see: philosophy passing judgment in union with the highest power, philosophy broadcasting inspired and action-oriented precepts that up to now she has merely been proposing in her writings. Future generations will sing the praises of Theodosius for his summoning of philosophy to the public sphere, just as they will praise Hadrian, Marcus [Aurelius], and Antoninus [Pius], who are his ancestors, his fellow citizens, founders of his line. Theodosius was not content merely to inherit the purple from them; he also brought them back into the palace as exemplars after a long lapse of time and set philosophy by his side, just as they had done.
Neither the Persian Cyrus nor Alexander the Great could reach this level of distinction. Alexander deemed his guide Aristotle worthy of many great honors and peopled Stagira for him, but he did not give the philosopher a role in the exercise of that massive power of his. Neither did Augustus give Arius such a role, nor Scipio Panaetius, nor Tiberius Thrasyllus. In these individuals the three statesmen had only observers of their private struggles: even though they might have greatly desired to drag them into the stadium’s dust, they were unable to do so. But this was not the experience of our current emperor’s fathers and the founders of his line [Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius], whose names are great. They pulled Arrian and [Junius] Rusticus away from their books, refusing to let them be mere pen-and-ink philosophers. They did not let them write about courage and stay at home, or compose legal treatises while avoiding the public domain that is law’s concern, or decide what form of government is best while abstaining from any participation in government. The emperors to whom I am now alluding consequently escorted these men to the general’s tent as well as to the speaker’s platform. In their role as Roman generals, these men passed through the Caspian Gates, drove the Alani out of Armenia, and established boundaries for the Iberians and the Albani. For all these accomplishments, they reaped the fruits of the eponymous consulship, governed the great city [of Rome], and presided over the ancient senate. For the emperors [who thus employed them] knew that it is proper that public office, like the body, be cleansed, and that the greater and more noble the office is, the more cleansing it needs. These emperors understood that opinion was held by the ancient Romans, who saw the learned Cato hold the quaestorship, Brutus the praetorship, Favonius the plebeian tribunate, Varro the office with six axes and Rutilius the consulship. I pass over Priscus, Thrasea, and others of the same sort; writers will sate you with them if you should choose to consult their accounts.13 Nor was Marcus [Aurelius] himself anything but a philosopher in the purple. The same can be said for Hadrian, Antoninus [Pius], and, of course, for our current ruler Theodosius.
If you should look at his belt and cloak, you will number him with the vast majority of emperors; but if you cast your eyes on his soul and his intellect, you will class him with that famous triad [of philosophical emperors]. For surely he should be placed among those who are similarly minded, not among those who are similarly garbed.
Summary of specific Stoic moral precepts from Diogenes Laertius, with commentary.
Stoic Ethics is often articulated in abstract terms as being based around the doctrine that virtue is the only true good. Indeed, some Stoics, such as Aristo, believed that grasping the true nature of the good was all that really mattered because individuals could then infer their own moral precepts from that insight.
However, in his summary of early Stoic philosophy, Diogenes Laertius does provide the following list of Stoic precepts that offer more specific guidance. In some cases, the context is obscure or there are puzzles over translation but this is what he says, with some minor editing for readability:
“Now they say that the wise man is passionless [has apatheia], because he is not prone to fall into [passions]. But they add that in another sense the term apatheia is applied to the wretched man, when, that is, it means that he is hard and unrelenting.” Note: That this means we would have to be cautious in talking as if apatheia is the goal of life. These first three comments refer to three key qualities of the wise man having to be carefully distinguished from similar qualities in the bad man, viz., his aloofness from passions, the opinion of others, and pleasures.
“Further, the wise man is said to be free from arrogance for he is indifferent to the good or bad opinions [of others]. However, he is not alone in this, there being another who is also free from arrogance, he who is ranged among the rash, and that is the wretched man.” Note: Stoics would therefore also have to be cautious in viewing their goal as indifference to opinions of others because that could as easily lead them into folly and vice.
“Again, they tell us that all good men are austere or harsh [i.e., strict], because they neither have dealings with pleasure themselves nor tolerate those who have. The term harsh is applied, however, to others as well, and in much the same sense as a wine is said to be harsh when it is employed medicinally [bitter medicine] and not for drinking at all.” Note: Stoics are not harsh like bitter medicine but they are wary of pleasure-seeking.
“Again, the good are genuinely in earnest and vigilant for their own improvement, using a manner of life which banishes evil out of sight and makes what good there is in things appear.” Note: Zeno says that we should focus on what we can learn about virtue from others.
“At the same time they are free from pretence; for they have stripped off all pretence or ‘make-up’ whether in voice or in look.” Note: Marcus particularly emphasises the value of honesty and plain-speaking, but this can be traced back to the Cynics.
“Free too are they from all business cares, declining to do anything which conflicts with duty.” Note: They may make money, but are not entangled in business obligations that divert them from philosophy or virtue.
“They will take wine, but not get drunk. Nay more, they will not be liable to madness either; not but there will at times occur to the good man strange impressions due to melancholy or delirium, ideas not determined by the principle of what is choiceworthy [i.e., healthy] but contrary to nature.” Note: Even the wise man may suffer from clinical depression or delirium.
“Nor indeed will the wise man ever feel emotional suffering; seeing that such suffering is irrational contraction of the soul, as Apollodorus says in his Ethics.” Note: That is not to say that he will not experience emotional reactions that impinge on his mind from impressions.
“They are also, it is declared, godlike; for they have a something divine within them; whereas the bad man is godless. And yet of this word godless or ungodly- there are two senses, one in which it is the opposite of the term ‘godly,’ the other denoting the man who ignores the divine altogether: in this latter sense, as they note, the term does not apply to every bad man.” Note: The good man is divine himself, whereas the bad man is not. Although some bad men are religious, and worship the gods, they are nevertheless all alienated from the divine.
“The good, it is added, are also worshippers of God for they have acquaintance with the rites of the gods, and piety is the knowledge of how to serve the gods. Further, they will sacrifice to the gods and they keep themselves pure; for they avoid all acts that are offences against the gods, and the gods think highly of them: for they are holy and just in what concerns the gods. The wise too are the only priests; for they have made sacrifices their study, as also the building of temples, purifications, and all the other matters appertaining to the gods.” Note: Only the wise can truly be pious, in other words, and they are the only true priests of Zeus. However, Stoics will typically observe the outward rituals of their society’s established religion.
“The Stoics approve also of honouring parents and brothers in the second place next after the gods.” Note: This resembles The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, quoted by both Seneca and Epictetus.
“They further maintain that parental affection for children is natural to the good, but not to the bad.” Note: Natural affection is the basis of Stoic Ethics, and part of our instinctive animal nature, but in the foolish and vicious it is presumably corrupted. Obviously, some parents do not love their children, though, and the Stoics want to say this is unnatural.
“It is one of their tenets that sins are all equal: so Chrysippus in the fourth book of his Ethical Questions, as well as Persaeus and Zeno. For if one truth is not more true than another, neither is one falsehood more false than another, and in the same way one deceit is not more so than another, nor sin than sin. For he who is a hundred furlongs from Canopus and he who is only one furlong away are equally not in Canopus, and so too he who commits the greater sin and he who commits the less are equally not in the path of right conduct. But Heraclides of Tarsus, who was the disciple of Antipater of Tarsus, and Athenodorus both assert that sins are not equal.” Note: This doctrine is well-known from other sources. However, here we’re told Stoics were able to reject it, beginning with the scholarch Antipater. It’s notable that it’s here linked with the bivalent theory of truth.
“Again, the Stoics say that the wise man will take part in politics, if nothing hinders him -so, for instance, Chrysippus in the first book of his work On Various Types of Life– since thus he will restrain vice and promote virtue.” Note: The Stoic will engage in public life, Fate permitting, as he has a duty to restrain vice and promote virtue in his society. This was a well-known contrast with Epicureanism, which advised a life of relative seclusion. Zeno himself was a moral, and perhaps political, advisor to King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia; he later sent two of his best students to advise him at court.
“Also, they maintain, he will marry, as Zeno says in his Republic, and beget children.” Note: Again, this contrasts with Epicurus who reputedly said his students should typically avoid marrying and having children. Epicetus’ students also allude to this obligation and gently make fun of him for failing to marry himself. Though he never married, he reputedly later adopted a child.
“Moreover, they say that the wise man will never form mere opinions, that is to say, he will never give assent to anything that is false…” Note: This is a well-known Stoic doctrine. He will however give assent to self-evident impressions, particularly the firmly-grasped nature of the good.
“He will also play the Cynic, Cynicism being a short cut to virtue, as Apollodorus calls it in his Ethics.” Note: Diogenes Laertius and Epictetus seem particularly influenced by this reading of Stoicism but Seneca, by contrast, does not often mention Cynicism. By “playing the Cynic” he probably means sincerely adopting the Cynic lifestyle, while accepting Stoic doctrines.
“He will even turn cannibal under stress of circumstances.” Note: This was used as a criticism of Stoicism. However, in this passage it seems clear that they’re talking about turning to cannibalism being acceptable under extreme circumstances. It’s probably also related to the Stoic interpretation of Greek tragedy, in this case Thyestes who was tricked into eating his children. Presumably Chrysippus said this act was not morally evil because it was unintentional on his part and that the “tragedy” is always due to the protagonist’s value judgments.
“They declare that he alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same; though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination, and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being slave-ownership; and this too is evil.” Note: This passage appears to distinguish between i) inner slavery (to passions), ii) being subordinated by another, iii) being owned as a slave and subordinated by a master. Remarkably, we’re told slave-ownership is morally bad, which appears to be a criticism of the institution of slavery.
“Moreover, according to them not only are the wise free, they are also kings; kingship being rule unaccountable to others, which none but the wise can maintain: so Chrysippus in his treatise vindicating Zeno’s use of terminology. For he holds that knowledge of good and evil is a necessary attribute of the ruler, and that no bad man is acquainted with this science.” Note: As the Cynics said earlier, only the morally wise man truly has the mind of a king.
“Similarly the wise and good alone are fit to be magistrates, judges, or orators, whereas among the bad there is not one so qualified.” Note: This naturally follows, but what implications does it have for Stoic attitudes toward legal institutions?
“Furthermore, the wise are infallible, not being liable to error. They are also blameless; for they do no harm to others or to themselves.” Note: Although, no perfectly wise person actually exists – this is an ideal.
“At the same time they are not pitying and make no allowance for anyone; they never relax the penalties fixed by the laws, since indulgence and pity and even equitable consideration are marks of a weak mind, which affects kindness in place of chastizing. Nor do they deem punishments too severe.” Note: The Stoics are supposed to be kind and fair but not pitying, because if the laws (derived from nature and reason) are applied fairly then there should be no need to be more lenient or bend the rules for individuals.
“Again, they say that the wise man never wonders at any of the things which appear extraordinary, such as Charon’s mephitic [noxious] caverns, ebbings of the tide, hot springs or fiery eruptions.” Note: The wise man is not incredulous at unusual natural phenomena.
“Nor yet, they go on to say, will the wise man live in solitude; for he is naturally made for society and action.” Note: He will not live in seclusion, like Epicurus in his Garden, and withdraw from public life.
“He will, however, submit to training to augment his powers of bodily endurance.” Note: We have many examples of this from Cynicism, such as hugging bronze statues, naked, in winter, to become used to intense cold, but also the Stoics recommend moderate exercise, perhaps walking briskly or running, which Cynics traditionally did barefoot. Seneca mentions other forms of physical exercise such as athletic jumping and lifting weights.
“And the wise man, they say, will offer prayers, and ask for good things from the gods: so Posidonius in the first book of his treatise On Duties, and Hecato in his third book On Paradoxes.” Note: However, Epictetus says that the good things we should prayer for help with are our own virtues rather than external “goods”.
“Friendship, they declare, exists only between the wise and good, by reason of their likeness to one another. And by friendship they mean a common use of all that has to do with life, wherein we treat our friends as we should ourselves. They argue that a friend is worth having for his own sake and that it is a good thing to have many friends. But among the bad there is, they hold, no such thing as friendship, and thus no bad man has a friend.” Note: This is another well-known doctrine, derived from Zeno’s Republic. Here friendship seems to imply common use and possibly ownership of external “goods”, i.e., possibly communal property. Zeno, like Aristotle, said a friend is another self (alter ego). Friends are worth having for their own sake, not because they help us achieve peace of mind, pace Epicureanism.
“Another of their tenets is that the unwise are all mad, inasmuch as they are not wise but do what they do from that madness which is the equivalent of their folly.” Note: Another well-known Stoic doctrine, but as the wise man is exceedingly rare, that surely means everyone, even the founders of Stoicism, is technically classed as mad.
“Furthermore, the wise man does all things well, just as we say that Ismenias [a famous Theban flautist] plays all airs on the flute well.” Note: This surely can’t mean that the wise man has every practical skill but that he does all things morally well.
“Also everything belongs to the wise. For the law, they say, has conferred upon them a perfect right to all things. It is true that certain things are said to belong to the bad, just as what has been dishonestly acquired may be said, in one sense, to belong to the state, in another sense to those who are enjoying it.” Note: Again, this perhaps suggests a sense in which all property would be communal in the ideal Stoic Republic.
It is a tenet of theirs that between virtue and vice there is nothing intermediate, whereas according to the Peripatetics there is, namely, the state of moral improvement. For, say the Stoics, just as a stick must be either straight or crooked, so a man must be either just or unjust. Nor again are there degrees of justice and injustice, and the same rule applies to the other virtues. Note: See above. This is a well-known Stoic doctrine.
Further, while Chrysippus holds that virtue can be lost, Cleanthes maintains that it cannot. According to the former it may be lost in consequence of drunkenness or melancholy; the latter takes it to be inalienable owing to the certainty of our mental apprehension. Note: This seems to be a trivial disagreement. Presumably, Cleanthes meant that knowledge of important matters cannot be lost under normal conditions, unless our thinking is impaired – and Stoic virtue is a form of knowledge.
And virtue in itself they hold to be worthy of choice for its own sake. At all events we are ashamed of bad conduct as if we knew that nothing is really good but the morally beautiful. Note: Virtue is its own reward, in other words. This is a central doctrine of Stoicism. We are typically ashamed of bad conduct regardless of its consequences, which implies that it is bad in itself, and by contrast, that the good is good in itself.
Moreover, they hold that it is in itself sufficient to ensure well-being: thus Zeno, and Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Virtues, and Hecato in the second book of his treatise On Goods: “For if magnanimity by itself alone can raise us far above everything, and if magnanimity is but a part of virtue, then too virtue as a whole will be sufficient in itself for well-being -despising all things that seem troublesome.” Panaetius, however, and Posidonius deny that virtue is self-sufficing: on the contrary, health is necessary, and some means of living and strength. Note: This suggests that Panaetius and Posidonius shifted closer to the Platonist or Aristotelian position.
Another tenet of theirs is the perpetual exercise of virtue, as held by Cleanthes and his followers. For virtue can never be lost, and the good man is always exercising his mind, which is perfect.
Again, they say that justice, as well as law and right reason, exists by nature and not by convention: so Chrysippus in his work On the Morally Beautiful. Note: This is in contrast to the Epicureans, who held that justice is a social contract or convention.
Neither do they think that the divergence of opinion between philosophers is any reason for abandoning the study of philosophy, since at that rate we should have to give up life altogether: so Posidonius in his Exhortations. Note: This is obviously in contrast to the Skeptics who held that contradictory opinions between philosophers is evidence of the impossibility of arriving at a firm conclusion.
Chrysippus allows that the ordinary Greek education is serviceable. Note: This is notable because Zeno apparently denounced the ordinary Greek education, in rhetoric as opposed to philosophy, in the Republic, although that caused some controversy.
It is their doctrine that there can be no question of right as between man and the lower animals, because of their unlikeness. Thus Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Justice, and Posidonius in the first book of his De officio. Note: Human rights are intrinsically more important than animal rights, presumably because we possess language and reason.
Further, they say that the wise man will feel affection for the youths who by their countenance show a natural endowment for virtue. So Zeno in his Republic, Chrysippus in book i. of his work On Modes of Life, and Apollodorus in his Ethics. Note: The Stoics thought virtue showed itself in a person’s facial expression, movement and gestures, etc. True beauty is the inner beauty of virtue, which nevertheless we know through a person’s behaviour.
Their definition of love is an effort toward friendliness due to visible beauty appearing, its sole end being friendship, not bodily enjoyment. At all events, they allege that Thrasonides, although he had his mistress in his power, abstained from her because she hated him. By which it is shown, they think, that love depends upon regard, as Chrysippus says in his treatise Of Love, and is not sent by the gods. And beauty they describe as the bloom or flower of virtue. Note: Some commentators take Thrasonides to be an otherwise unknown Stoic philosopher. Love is a judgement, like other passions in Stoicism, and not a form of divine madness or an irrational impulse. It’s the desire to be loved, reciprocally, by someone whom we judge to be good (equivalent to friendship), and whose physical appearance we find attractive, although physical pleasure is not its true aim.
Of the three kinds of life, the contemplative, the practical, and the rational, they declare that we ought to choose the last, for that a rational being is expressly produced by nature for contemplation and for action. Note: This appears similar to the division between contemplation and action used by Aristotle, although here the conclusion is decidedly in favour of using reason to live for both contemplation and action.
They tell us that the wise man will for reasonable cause make his own exit from life, on his country’s behalf or for the sake of his friends, or if he suffer intolerable pain, mutilation, or incurable disease. Note: Stoic euthanasia. A foolish man, which is the majority, though, is not justified in taking his own life, especially if driven by a passion like clinical depression.
It is also their doctrine that amongst the wise there should be a community of wives with free choice of partners, as Zeno says in his Republic and Chrysippus in his treatise On Government [and not only they, but also Diogenes the Cynic and Plato]. Under such circumstances we shall feel paternal affection for all the children alike, and there will be an end of the jealousies arising from adultery. Note: It’s known Zeno said this in the Republic. Presumably he meant that both husbands and wives are shared in common. The Stoic ideal of oikeiosis, means bringing others into our family or household. Hierocles described ways of helping us imagine this by referring to cousins as “brother” or “sister” and picturing concentric circles representing our relationships, bringing them gradually closer to the centre of our concern. However, in Zeno’s Republic it sounds like everyone is actually part of the same household and family in a more literal sense, and this helps to illustrate the Stoic moral ideal.
The best form of government they hold to be a mixture of democracy, kingship, and aristocracy (or the rule of the best). Note: Presumably this was not the utopian government of Zeno’s Republic, as it is populated by wise men, but rather a prescription for real-world government, among the imperfectly wise.
“Such, then, are the statements they make in their ethical doctrines, with much more besides, together with their proper proofs: let this, however, suffice for a statement of them in a summary and elementary form.”
These are just some rough notes on Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and Mithras. 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.) So arguably it seems likely Pius would have been made an initiate of Mithraism, although perhaps just as a political gesture. We also know Marcus’ son Commodus was initiated into Mithraism. According to the Historia Augusta at least, Commodus:
He desecrated the rites of Mithra with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror.
What we don’t know for sure is whether 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, as we’ll see.
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. It would therefore appear more important for Marcus to show his support for Mithraism by being initiated while at Carnuntum, than to be initiated into the Eleusianian Mysteries, which we know he did as soon as the first war was concluded and he was able to visit Greece.
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.” To the many followers of Mithras among his legions on the Danube, that must surely have sounded like an allusion to the symbolism of their cult. 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. Many references to this theme of cyclical change can be found in The Meditations, although it is also common in philosophical literature generally.
The Bull-Slaying (Tauroctony)
The 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 real bull-sacrifice actually formed part of Mithraism. As far as we know the bull-slaying in Mithraism was purely symbolic.
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. Some scholars believe there are links between the Stoics of Tarsus and the cult of Mithras.
In addition to the images of Mithras, these temples 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 also know Antoninus Pius minted several coins carrying the name AION as a dedication, adding to his links with the cult.
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. 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)
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 about the inscription on this altar being consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as “Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras”, that would directly support my hypothesis that Marcus was an initiate of Mithraism. Indeed, it would go even 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 particularly interesting in relation to Marcus’ Stoicism.
Short story about Tyrian purple dye and the origins of Stoicism.
This 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.
The 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.
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)