How Much of Marcus Aurelius is Epictetus?

How much did Epictetus influence Marcus Aurelius?

Epictetus was the most influential Stoic philosopher of the Roman Imperial period and we can see that he had considerable influence over Marcus Aurelius but the relationship between them probably requires some explanation. ¬†Stoicism could take different forms. ¬†The rhetorician Athenaeus, who lived around the same time was Marcus claimed that the Stoics had divided into three branches, who followed the three last scholarchs, or heads of the school: Diogenes of Babylon, Antipater of Tarsus, and Panaetius of Rhodes. ¬†Epictetus never mentions the Middle Stoics, who followed Panaetius in assimilating more aspects of Platonism and Aristotelianism. ¬†He seems instead to hark back to an older form of Stoicism, more aligned with Cynicism. ¬†The only one of these three scholarchs he mentions is Antipater, so it’s possible he saw himself as following that branch of Stoicism. ¬†Marcus is arguably aligned mainly with Epictetus, and part of the same branch of Stoicism.

Marcus was about fourteen years old when Epictetus died. ¬†He’d probably never left Rome so it’s unlikely they ever met. ¬†Epictetus had previously lived and taught philosophy in Rome but left around 93 AD when the Emperor Domitian banished philosophers, nearly three decades before Marcus Aurelius was born. ¬†He set up a Stoic school in Nicopolis in Greece, where he remained for the rest of his life. ¬†However, Marcus surrounded himself with philosophers and it’s quite likely that some of the older men he knew had studied with Epictetus in person.

The Emperor Hadrian was a hellenophile and associated with many philosophers. ¬†Though far from a Stoic himself, he was reputedly a personal friends of Epictetus. ¬†Marcus was close to Hadrian, who chose him to succeed Antoninus, his immediate heir. ¬†So it’s quite possible Marcus first heard of Epictetus from Hadrian and others members of his court. ¬†However, Marcus’ natural mother was another hellenophile and there’s a hint she was friends with Junius Rusticus, whom we’ll return to below. ¬†So it’s vaguely possible she also had some familiarity with Epictetus or his students. ¬†Marcus mentions that Rusticus wrote an admirable letter consoling his mother. ¬†Rusticus was closer in age to Domitia Lucilla than to Marcus. ¬†It’s therefore possible that he was already a family friend prior to becoming Marcus’ tutor in philosophy, and was possibly a follower of Epictetus.

The Discourses and Handbook of Epictetus were not actually written by him but are edited notes made at his school by a student called Arrian of Nicomedia.  However, Arrian was himself an exceptional man.  He was reputedly, like Epictetus, a personal friend of Hadrian.  Hadrian appointed him to the Senate and then made him suffect consul around 132 AD.  He was later made governor of Cappadocia, for six years, where he became an accomplished military commander.  Late in life, around 145 AD, he retired to Athens to serve as archon there, now under the emperor Antoninus.  He was a prolific writer, highly esteemed as an intellectual, as well as a statesman and soldier.  His relationship to Epictetus was therefore compared to that of Xenophon to Socrates.

Arrian probably died not long after Marcus was acclaimed emperor in 161 AD, and it’s quite possible Marcus could have met him if he ever visited Rome. ¬†He must certainly have known of him. ¬†Arrian almost certainly knew Antoninus and probably other men in Marcus’ acquaintance.

Marcus’ main Stoic tutor was Junius Rusticus. ¬†In The Meditations, Marcus said that Rusticus gave him a copy of notes (hypomnemata) of Epictetus’ lectures. ¬†Rusticus could easily have attended Epictetus’ school himself, if he had ever travelled to Greece. ¬†He certainly seems to have encouraged Marcus to study Epictetus’ branch of Stoicism. ¬†It’s also quite possible that Rusticus may at some point have met Arrian, who transcribed and edited The Discourses.

To make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me with out of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

What’s the significance of saying that it came from his own library? ¬†Perhaps copies of this text were rare at the time and Rusticus lent (or gave) him his only copy, something precious, rather than having him wait for a duplicate to be made by scribes.

It seems almost certain these notes were what we now call The Discourses, the notes of Epictetus’ discussions written and edited by Arrian. ¬†Indeed, Marcus quotes several passages, which are found in The Discourses. ¬†However, whereas four volumes of Epictetus’ Discourses survive today, there were originally eight – half of them are now lost. ¬†In addition to the quotations from the surviving Discourses, however, Marcus attributes another passage to Epictetus in The Meditations.¬† It seems likely that this comes from one of the lost¬†Discourses.

Marcus doesn’t always cite the name of the author he’s quoting, or even indicate when something is a direct quote or paraphrase from another text. ¬†So it’s quite possible that there are other passages in The Meditations which actually quote or paraphrase Epictetus’ lost Discourses. ¬†Indeed, some of the sayings popularly attributed to Marcus, for all we know, could be quotations from other authors, including Epictetus.

Epictetus in The Meditations

Marcus mentions Epictetus by name in the illustrious company of Chrysippus and Socrates, which seems to confirm the exceptionally high regard in which he held him.

How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus has eternity already engulfed. (7.19)

Marcus quotes from¬†Discourses (1.28 and 2.22) where Epictetus paraphrases Plato’s Sophist.

‚ÄėNo soul‚Äô, he said, ‚Äėis willingly deprived of the truth‚Äô; and the same applies to justice too, and temperance, and benevolence, and everything of the kind. It is most necessary that you should constantly keep this in mind, for you will then be gentler towards everyone. (7.63)

The word “he” probably refers either to Socrates or Epictetus.

In another passage, he attributes a saying to Epictetus not found in The Discourses, which is numbered Fragment 26.

You are a little soul carrying a corpse around, as Epictetus used to say. (4.41)

Marcus quotes this phrase again later,

Children‚Äôs fits of temper, and ‚Äėlittle souls carrying their corpses around‚Äô, so that the journey to the land of the dead appears the more vividly before one‚Äôs eyes. (9.24)

Marcus elsewhere appears to have a well-known saying of Epictetus in mind when he writes:

You can live here on earth as you intend to live once you have departed. If others do not allow that, however, then depart from life even now, but do so in the conviction that you are suffering no evil. “Smoke fills the room, and I leave it”: why think it any great matter? (5.29)

Elsewhere he appears to be quoting the Stoic slogan of Epictetus “bear and forbear” (or “endure and renounce”):

Wait with a good grace, either to be extinguished or to depart* to another place; and until that moment arrives what should suffice? ¬†What else than to worship and praise the gods, and do good to your fellows, and “bear” with them and “forbear”; but as to all that lies within the limits of mere flesh and breath, to remember that this is neither your own nor within your own control. (5.33)

Book 11 of The Meditations appears to conclude with a flurry of quotations or paraphrases from The Discourses.  The first is from Discourses 3.24.86-7.

It takes a madman to seek a fig in winter; and such is one who seeks for his child when he is no longer granted to him. (11.33)

Epictetus is named by Marcus in the next one, which is from Discourses 3.24.28.

Epictetus used to say that when you kiss your child you should say silently ‚ÄėTomorrow, perhaps, you will meet your death.‚Äô‚ÄĒBut those are words of ill omen.‚ÄĒ‚ÄėNot at all,‚Äô he replied, ‚Äėnothing can be ill-omened that points to a natural process; or else it would be ill-omened to talk of the grain being harvested.‚Äô (11.34)

Then he quotes from Discourses 3.24.91-2.

The green grape, the ripe cluster, the dried raisin; at every point a change, not into non-existence, but into what is yet to be. (11.35)

Then from Discourses 3.22.105, a phrase which Epictetus repeated several times elsewhere.

No one can rob us of our free will, said Epictetus. (11.36)

This is followed by Epictetus Fragment 27, which appears to be from a lost book of the Discourses.

He said too that we ‚Äėmust find an art of assent, and in the sphere of our impulses, take good care that they are exercised subject to reservation, and that they take account of the common interest, and that they are proportionate to the worth of their object; and we should abstain wholly from immoderate desire, and not try to avoid anything that is not subject to our control‚Äô. (11.37)

Epictetus Fragment 2 also apparently from a lost book of the Discourses, but related to Discourses 1.22.17-21.

‘So the dispute‚Äô, he said, ‚Äėis over no slight matter, but whether we are to be mad or sane.‚Äô (11.38)

That appears to be linked to the last passage, which is probably also from one of the lost Discourses.

Socrates used to say, ‚ÄėWhat do you want? To have the souls of rational or irrational beings?‚Äô ‚ÄėOf rational beings.‚Äô And of what kind of rational beings, those that are sound or depraved?‚Äô ‚ÄėThose that are sound.‚Äô ‚ÄėThen why are you not seeking for them?‚Äô ‚ÄėBecause we have them.‚Äô ‚ÄėThen why all this fighting and quarrelling?‚Äô (11.39)

It’s possible that some of the passages surrounding these, or elsewhere in the text could either be quotes or paraphrases from The Discourses, or in some cases quotes from other authors cited in The Discourses.

Last Chance to Enrol on my New Stoicism Course!

Last chance to enrol on my new How to Think Like a Roman Emperor online course.

Hi everyone,

Utere non reditura.
Use the hour, it will not come again.

Today is your last chance to enrol on How to Think Like a Roman Emperor!

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Remember, if you enrol on this pilot version of the course, you’ll be receiving¬†$50 discount off the standard price, including e-learning and live webinars. You’ll also have access to any future updates or improvements, via lifetime access. I’m also providing a¬†bonus live webinar¬†to people taking part in the first course.

If you’re interested but have questions, please feel free to get in touch. (I get loads of emails from people about courses and answer all of them personally.)

Thanks once again for your support and feedback, and I look forward to seeing you in person on the course!

Warm regards,

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Donald Robertson

Enrolling on How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Announcing some webinars to chat about the new How to Think Like a Roman Emperor online course.

Enrolment has now opened for my new How to Think Like a Roman Emperor online course and you can find out more by clicking the button below:

I’ll be hosting a¬†YouTube Live webinar¬†on Tuesday 15th August at 2pm Eastern Time, to chat about the course and hopefully answer some of your questions.

To make sure nobody misses out because the time, I’ll also be doing a¬†Facebook Live broadcast¬†on the same day at the later time of 7pm Eastern Time. ¬†If you’re interested in attending either, go there now and set up a reminder notification for yourself.

Stoics Should Avoid Trivial Debates

Some quotes from the Stoics about not wasting time on frivolous discussions or abstract philosophical debates.

Monkey SymposiumOne of the recurring themes in the Stoic literature is the notion that doing philosophy exposes us to the risk of becoming preoccupied with trivial digressions and becoming distracted from the true goal of life.

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one. (10.16)

Likewise:

Be not a man of superfluous words or superfluous deeds. (3.5)

Elsewhere he even says:

Away with your books!  Be no longer drawn aside by them: it is not allowed. (2.2)

And again, “But away with your thirst for books, that you may die not murmuring but with good grace” (2.3).

Do the external things which befall you distract you? Give yourself leisure to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around. But then you must also avoid being carried about the other way. For those too are triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity, and yet have no object to which to direct every movement, and, in a word, all their thoughts. (2.7)

For the Stoics, philosophy should aspire to be clear and simple, where possible, and focused on the most important practical questions in relation to ethics.

In the ancient world a sharp contrast was often made between Diogenes the Cynic and Plato, to illustrate two very different attitudes toward philosophy after the death of Socrates. ¬†Diogenes sneered at Plato for being too “Academic”, in the modern sense – too concerned with abstract or long-winded arguments and not enough with practical training in virtue. ¬†Plato called Diogenes “Socrates gone mad”. ¬†Cynics apparently rejected the study of Physics and Logic, and bookishness in general, as intellectual vanity, not unlike Sophistry, and as diversions from practical philosophy. ¬†Zeno of Citium, who was originally a Cynic and later studied in the Platonic Academy, appears to have adopted a middle ground. ¬†He did encourage his Stoic followers to study Physics and Logic but Stoics also appear to warn us that we should not become lost in these subjects but should be careful to keep the goal of virtue in mind. ¬†We shouldn’t indulge in arguments like the proverbial “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” or become so engrossed in philosophical wordplay that we “disappear up our own backsides”, as it’s crudely put today.

Marcus Aurelius was apparently introduced to philosophy by his painting master, Diognetus, aged around twelve, who seems to have been influenced by Cynicism. ¬†He says that one of the first things he learned was “not to busy myself about trifling things”. ¬†He¬†repeatedly counts his blessings that he’s been lucky in his education to avoid getting sidetracked by scholastic trivialities.

From the gods… that when I had my heart set on philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of a sophist nor sat alone writing, nor untangled syllogisms nor preoccupied myself with celestial phenomena. (Meditations, 1.17)

Epictetus taught that we should constantly remind ourselves that reading books is a means to an end, for attaining eudaimonia, and avoid getting sidetracked by frivolous subjects.

For what purpose do you choose to read? Tell me. For if you only direct your purpose to being amused or learning something, you are a silly fellow and incapable of enduring labour. But if you refer reading to the proper end, what else is this than a tranquil and happy life? But if reading does not secure for you a happy and tranquil life, what is the use of it? (Discourses, 4.4)

Although the Stoic curriculum covered Logic and Physics, the Stoics consistently attach the caveat that these subjects should be approached with caution by students. ¬†They should serve Stoic Ethics, and not become a diversion from it. ¬†We shouldn’t get caught in hairsplitting arguments about logic or become absorbed in idle speculation about metaphysics or theology. ¬†To do so would be the opposite of Stoicism.

What does it matter to me, says Epictetus, whether the universe is composed of atoms or uncompounded substances, or of fire and earth? Is it not sufficient to know the true nature of good and evil, and the proper bounds of our desires and aversions, and also of our impulses to act and not to act; and by making use of these as rules to order the affairs of our life, to bid those things that are beyond us farewell? It may very well be that these latter things are not to be comprehended by the human mind, and even if one assumes that they are perfectly comprehensible, well what profit comes from comprehending them? And ought we not to say that those men trouble in vain who assign all this as necessary to the philosopher’s system of thought? […] What Nature is, and how she administers the universe, and whether she really exists or not, these are questions about which there is no need to go on to bother ourselves.  (Epictetus, Fragment)

Marcus Aurelius likewise warns himself to remember, with humility, that many philosophical subjects remained obscure even to the greatest Stoic thinkers.

Things are in a sense so wrapped up in mystery that quite a few philosophers, even the exceptional ones, have concluded that they are wholly beyond our comprehension.  Even to the Stoics themselves they seem difficult to understand.  Indeed, every assent we give to the impressions of our senses is liable to error, for where is the man who never errs? (5.10)

Marcus even describes those as “wretched” or “struggling” in life, who preoccupy themselves with things that cannot be known with any certainty.

Nothing is more wretched than a man who goes all around and “pries into the things beneath the earth”, as the poet [Pindar] says, and speculates about what is in the minds of his neighbours… ¬†(2.13)

Elsewhere Marcus says that not only Stoicism and Epicureanism, but indeed all other schools of philosophy, were in agreement that nothing should divert us from the pursuit of wisdom, especially “not chatter with the ignorant and those who have no understanding of nature” (9.41).

Moreover, in addition to avoiding pointless hairsplitting debates and idle chit-chat, Epictetus advised his students to speak less in general:

Be mostly silent; or speak merely what is needful, and in few words. (Enchiridion, 33)

Today, Epictetus’ warnings about associating with uneducated people in a way that leads us to¬†become swept along with their habits and conversation could be applied to Facebook.

If a man frequently interacts with others for talk, or drinking together, or generally for social purposes, he must either become like them, or change them to his own fashion. For if a man places a piece of quenched charcoal close to a piece that is burning, either the quenched charcoal will put out the other, or the burning charcoal will light that which is quenched. ¬†Since the danger is therefore so great, we must cautiously enter into such intimacies with people of the common sort, and remember that it is impossible that a man can keep company with one who is covered with soot without getting soot upon himself. For what will you do if a man speaks about gladiators, about horses, about athletes, or what is worse about men? ¬†“This person is bad, this person is good; this was done well, this was done badly.” ¬†Further, what if he scoff, or ridicule, or show an ill-natured disposition? ¬†(Discourses, 3.16)

This is reminiscent of the old saying: “If you lay down with dogs you get up with fleas.” ¬†I don’t think Epictetus means to be dismissive of all common people. ¬†He thinks Stoics should debate in public, and should marry, have children, and engage with public life, if nothing prevents them. ¬†However, he’s warning his students to avoid bad company, and being drawn into time-wasting activities, particularly joining in with badmouthing other people, etc. ¬†The Stoics in general were wary of gambling and spectator sports, which became an obsession for many in the ancient world. ¬†For example, Lucius Verus, the co-emperor and adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius, was obsessed with supporting his favourite chariot racing team and criticized for neglecting his duties as emperor. ¬†Marcus says he’s thankful he was taught early in life not to get too into supporting one team or another, or to waste his time in pursuits like gambling. ¬†He also repeatedly warns himself not to be overly concerned with what other people say or think unless it actually contributes to the common good.

Fritter not away what is left of your life in thoughts about others, unless you can bring these thoughts into relation with some common good. (3.4)

Coming Soon: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor!

Announcing the forthcoming How to Think Like a Roman Emperor online course.

‚ÄúThe mind, unconquered by violent passions, is a citadel, for a man has no fortress more impregnable in which to find refuge and remain safe forever.‚ÄĚ ‚Äď Marcus Aurelius

Thanks for following my blog. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve got a big announcement coming up. For the last¬†six months¬†I’ve been busy doing research for a new online course, which I will be making public in a few days.¬†It’s been a real labour of love for me.

It’s a new sort of training in applying Stoic philosophy to daily life, for a more meaningful existence, using Stoic psychology to build emotional resilience. There are a lot of resources in it that I wouldn’t be able to put into a book, like audio and video recordings, discussions, quizzes, graphics, and even some of the written content. It’s based around the example of the Roman emperor¬†Marcus Aurelius, the most famous Stoic of all. It’s called¬†How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. The course is four weeks long, and each week includes reading, videos, quizzes, discussion, and also live webinars you can choose to attend. You can view the main page already. However,¬†enrolment won’t open for another couple of days…

I’m looking for people who want to join the first group to take the course and to provide feedback on ways it could possibly be made even better.¬†So stay tuned for more information over the next few days.¬†And thanks for being a part of this…

Marcus Aurelius, Politics, and Freedom

Some quotes about Marcus Aurelius’ reign and his attitude toward political freedom.

Marcus AureliusJust a few quotes worth putting side-by-side…

In the first, Marcus gives thanks that he learned to love his family, truth, and justice from the Aristotelian Claudius Severus. ¬†He learned from him the concept of a republic in which the same law applies to all, administered with equal rights and freedom of speech, where the sovereign’s primary value is the freedom of his subjects.

From my “brother” [Claudius] Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain. (Meditations, 1.14)

Surprisingly, from an Aristotelian, Marcus learned of the Stoic opposition to Nero, two of the leading figures being Thrasea and Helvidius. ¬†(Notably Marcus mentions these famous Stoics but not Seneca, whose collaboration with Nero they criticized.) ¬†The other figures he has in mind are thought to be as follows… ¬†Cato of Utica, the famous Stoic who opposed Julius Caesar, and tried unsuccessfully to prevent him turning the Roman Republic into a dictatorship. ¬†Brutus, his nephew, influenced by Stoicism and Platonism, who was the leading assassin of Caesar. ¬†And the Dio he mentions is most likely Dio Chrysostom, a student of Epictetus, who opposed the Emperor Domitian, and was influenced by a mixture of Cynicism, Platonism, and Stoicism. ¬†The overall theme is one of political opposition by philosophers against the tyrannical Roman emperors Nero and Domitian, and the dictator Julius Caesar.

The following come from the Historia Augusta and describe Marcus’ rule in terms that echo his remarks about freedom in The Meditations.

And now, after they had assumed the imperial power, the two emperors [Marcus and Lucius] acted in so democratic a manner that no one missed the lenient ways of [Antononius] Pius; for though Marullus, a writer of farces of the time, irritated them by his jests, he yet went unpunished. (Historia Augusta)

The following is particularly striking when compared to Marcus’ remarks above:

Toward the people he [Marcus] acted just as one acts in a free state.  He was at all times exceedingly reasonable both in restraining men from evil and in urging them to good, generous in rewarding and quick to forgive, thus making bad men good, and good men very good, and he even bore with unruffled temper the insolence of not a few. (Historia Augusta)