Theristius on Roman Stoics

Excerpt on Stoicism from the Orations of Themistius.

Junius Rusticus
Junius Rusticus

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.

Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism, and Mithraism

Some notes on Marcus Aurelius and Mithraism.

mithraeumThese 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)

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 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.

Aion: Eternity

leontocephalusIn 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)

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 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.

Marcus Aurelius and the Civil War in the East

Biographical fiction recounting the rebellion of Avidius Cassius in the Eastern Provinces, against the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the way Marcus may have responded by using Stoic psychological exercises, philosophical doctrines, and the therapy of the passions.

Note: This piece is intended as biographical fiction, although it is very closely based on the available information concerning Marcus Aurelius’ life.  Nevertheless, in some cases, I’ve taken rumours literally or added minor details. The letters, speeches, and aphorisms (from The Meditations) of Marcus Aurelius are also close to the original sources but I’ve paraphrased them slightly for the sake of readability.

Prologue

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius sits alone in his quarters at the break of dawn, watching the sunrise outside. He closes his eyes in quiet contemplation and repeats the following Stoic maxims to himself in preparation for the day ahead:

Today you shall meet with meddling, ingratitude, insolence, treachery, slander, and selfishness – all due to their ignorance concerning the difference between what is good and bad. On the other hand, count yourself lucky enough to have long perceived the genuine nature of good as being honourable and beautiful and the nature of evil as shameful. You have also perceived the true nature of your enemy: that he is your brother, not in the physical sense but as a fellow citizen of the cosmos, sharing reason and the potential for wisdom and virtue. And because you perceive this, nothing can injure you, because nobody can drag you into their wrongdoing. Neither can you be angry with your brother or frustrated with him, because you were born to work together, like a pair of hands or feet, or the upper and lower rows of a man’s teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and frustration and dislike are forms of obstruction also, are they not?

Marcus AureliusSlowly and patiently, he pictures the day ahead in his mind’s eye. He thinks of the tasks he has to accomplish today. He imagines the faces of the people he will meet, roughly in the sequence he expects he will be meeting them. He anticipates setbacks, and the worst possible scenarios he may face with certain individuals. He thinks of those present, and the actions of others relayed to him by messengers. He keeps one simple question at the fore of his mind: “What would it mean to respond to this with wisdom and virtue?” What special virtues are called for by each situation: patience, self-discipline, tactfulness, perseverance?

He reminds himself that a true philosopher will not be angry with those who seek to oppose him. Why not? Because he knows that none of us are born wise, and so we inevitably encounter those who are far from wisdom, as surely as the changing seasons. No sane man is angry with nature. To the Stoic, nothing should come as a surprise, and nothing shocks him – everything is determined by the Nature of the universe. Even fools are not surprised when trees do not bear fruit in winter. There are good men and bad men in the world. A true philosopher knows that we must therefore expect to meet foolish or bad men, and for their actions to accord with their character. The wise man is not an enemy but an educator of the unwise. He goes forth each day thinking to himself: “I will meet many men today who are greedy, ungrateful, ambitious, etc.” And he will aspire to view would-be enemies as benevolently as a physician does his patients. The emperor repeats these or similar words to himself every morning. This daily premeditation of adversity forms part of what the Stoics call the Discipline of Fear and Desire, the Therapy of the Passions.  This is how he prepares for life.

Cassius in Egypt

May, 175 AD. A very nervous courier hands over a letter to Gaius Avidius Cassius, commander of the Egyptian legion. It contains only one word: emanes, “You’re mad” – you’ve lost your mind. We don’t know how Cassius responded. He was renowned for his severity and temper. A mercurial character, he was sometimes stern sometimes merciful, although overall he developed a reputation for strictness and cruelty. Soldiers say that one of his favourite punishments was to chain men together in groups of ten and have them cast into the sea or into rivers to drown. He had crucified many criminals. Darker rumours circulated that he once had dozens of the enemy bound to a single 180-foot wooden pole, which was set on fire so that he could watch them burn alive. Even by the standards of the Roman army that was considered brutality. He was renowned among his own troops as a strict disciplinarian, sometimes to the point of savagery. He cut off the hands of deserters, or broke their legs and hips, leaving them crippled, because he believed that letting them live in misery was more effective as a warning to other men than killing them outright. He was also a hero to the people and, next to the emperor, the second most powerful man in the Roman Empire.

In his youth, Cassius was made a legatus or general in the legions along the Danube, watching over the empire’s Sarmatian foes. He earned his reputation for severity when the following incident happened among the troops under his command there. A small band of Roman auxiliaries led by some centurions stumbled across a group of three thousand Sarmatians, who had camped by the Danube, carelessly exposing their position. The centurions seized the opportunity, caught the enemy off guard, and massacared them. They returned to camp laden with the spoils of their fortuitous victory, expecting to be praised and perhaps even rewarded, but they were in for a shock. Cassius was furious because they acted without the knowledge or approval of their tribunes, the senior officers in a legion. “For all you knew, that could have been an ambush,” Cassius roared, “and if you fools had all been captured, the rest of these barbarians’ may have ceased to live in terror of us!” The Roman legions were outnumbered and depended on the psychological advantage that came from their intimidating reputation. So to make an example of these soldiers, he had them crucified as if they were common slaves, which must have horrified the rest of his camp.

Perhaps as a result of this incident, and despite his already fearsome reputation, Cassius’ men mutinied against him. His response was legendary. He stripped off his armour and, like some kind of madman, strode out of his tent dressed only in a wrestler’s loincloth challenging his men to attack and kill him if any of them were brave enough to add murder to the charge of insubordination. The soldiers who had been complaining were cowed into silence when they saw how fearless and intent their general had become. News of this incident greatly strengthened discipline among the Roman legions and struck fear into the hearts of the enemy, who sought a peace deal with the emperor not long afterwards.

The authority he commanded over his troops was second to none. It made him indispensable to Rome and influential with the emperor, who placed great trust in him.  They had long been good friends, although some rumours say that behind his back, Cassius called Marcus a philosophical old-woman and resented aspects of his rule.  However, Marcus was known for saying “It is impossible to make men exactly as one would wish them to be; we must use them such as they are.”  His forgiving nature stood in stark contrast to Cassius’ severity.  Nevertheless, he placed his trust in Cassius, as a great general, despite their opposing characters.

Cassius was put in command of the legions in the Roman province of Syria because it was feared they had become too soft, something symbolised by accusations they had started bathing in hot water like civilians. It was believed that Cassius would restore discipline, which he did, gaining prominence during the Parthian War between 161 and 166 AD, under the command of the then co-emperor, Lucius Verus, adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius. While Lucius remained in camp safely co-ordinating supplies, Cassius, leading the troops in the field, rose to become his second in command. Toward the end of the wars, Cassius burned down and sacked the ancient city of Seleucia, but his soldiers then contracted the Antonine Plague, which some perhaps saw as a kind of divine punishment. However, on returning home, with the spoils of the campaign, he was rewarded by being elevated to the Senate. The legions also brought the plague – possibly smallpox – back home from Parthia. The empire never fully recovered; five million deaths were due to this hideous disease and for a time the army was significantly hampered by the epidemic. Cassius, however, was later made imperial legate, a governor appointed by the emperor himself rather than the Senate, with supreme command over the province of Syria. When, in 169 AD, Lucius Verus died from symptoms of food poisoning, or possibly the plague, the loss of one of the two co-emperors probably left something of a power vacuum, especially in the east.

In 172 AD, while Marcus, the lone surviving emperor, was occupied with the Marcomanni war on the northern frontier, a sudden crisis meant Cassius had to be granted imperium, the military authority of an emperor himself, throughout the whole of the eastern empire. A people called the Bucoli or “Herdsmen”, led by the priest Isidorus, triggered a general revolt against the Roman authorities, perhaps enraged by increases in Roman taxes required to fund Marcus’ war in the north. The story goes that a handful of these men disguised themselves in women’s clothing and approached a Roman centurion, pretending that they were going to give him gold as ransom for their husbands. They attacked the centurion, however, and captured and sacrificed another officer, swearing an oath over his entrails before ritually devouring them. The revolt spread across Egypt. These mysterious Egyptian tribesmen rapidly gained strength from a groundswell of popular support and even defeated the Romans in a pitched battle. They almost captured the Egyptian capital itself, Alexandria, but Cassius was sent with his troops from Syria to reinforce the Egyptian legion garrisoned there. The tribal warriors he faced were so numerous, nevertheless, that instead of attacking them he chose to bide his time, instigating quarrels among them until he was finally able to divide and conquer. His victory in Egypt made him a hero throughout the empire, especially in the eastern provinces and at Rome. He was also left with exceptional powers throughout the eastern empire.

These events led him to this point. Now Cassius is aged forty five. Although he is Syrian by birth he grew up in Alexandria, the capital of Roman Egypt, where his father, Gaius Avidius Heliodorus, a Roman politician, orator, and Epicurean philosopher, served as prefect. He taught his son that the goal of life is to attain a state of untroubled peace of mind and contentment. However, Cassius had come to think that peace of mind is all good and well, for philosophers, but without power your fortune ultimately depends on the whims of other men. Cassius is finally back home, in supreme military command not only of Alexandria, but the rest of the eastern provinces. His mother was a princess of Judea, descended on her mother’s side from Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and on her father’s side from Herod the Great. She was also descended from a Roman client-king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Commagene, making Cassius a member of the Seleucid imperial dynasty. He was born to rule and extremely popular because of his royal descent, his victories in the Parthian Wars, and celebrated defeat of the Bucoli. Since the co-emperor Lucius Verus died Cassius has been steadily climbing the ladder. Now has the virtual authority of an emperor in the eastern empire – there’s nowhere left to climb.

The one-word missive he now holds in his hands came from one of Rome’s most distinguished men of letters, a scholar of Greek philosophy and literature called Herodes Atticus, a friend and childhood tutor of the sole surviving emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus happens to be all that now stands between Cassius and the imperial throne itself.

Marcus in Pannonia

At the other side of the Roman Empire, in his base camp, the Roman legionary fort of Carnuntum by the river Danube in the province of Pannonia, Marcus greets an army despatch rider. The messenger is exhausted, having journeyed through the night to the gates of the fortress, where he was met by the guards of the Legio XIV Gemina garrison. When the soldiers heard what he was carrying, they rushed him straight to the Emperor’s praetorium, his residence and office in the camp. It took nearly three weeks to get the news here, from the east of the Empire via Rome. Nevertheless, Marcus tells the messenger to take a moment, and get his breath back before speaking. Marcus’ generals and members of his personal entourage gather around him, restlessly waiting for the message. They don’t know the details yet but it’s obviously bad news from Rome. Eventually, he speaks. What he says is so remarkable that he seems scarcely to believe it himself: “My lord Caesar… Avidius Cassius has betrayed you… the Egyptian legion have acclaimed him Emperor!”

The courier has with him a letter from the Senate, confirming the news: On May 3rd 175 AD, Avidius Cassius was acclaimed Emperor of Rome by the Egyptian legion under his command in Alexandria, Legio II Traiana Fortis. “My lord, they’re telling everyone that you’re dead”, he explains. The news of Cassius’ sedition came from Publius Martius Verus, a distinguished Roman general who served as governor of the eastern province of Cappadocia. Support for the rebellion came from Cassius’ own legions in Syria and Egypt, and has started to spread throughout the Eastern Empire. The support of the current Prefect of Egypt, Calvisius Statianus, has given his claim an important seal of approval. The Roman province of Judea now acclaims him as emperor as well. Cassius is an accomplished military strategist with seven legions under his command. He also controls Egypt, the breadbasket of the empire – Rome depends on Egypt for its supply of grain. Crucially, however, Verus’ alarming news comes with the reassurance that he and his own three legions in Cappadocia have declared their loyalty in favour of Marcus. Nevertheless, the threat is extremely serious.

Marcus has been very sick, close to death indeed. Aged 54, perceived as frail and in poor health, his condition has long been the subject of gossip back in Rome. He has severe pains in his stomach and chest. It is said he can only eat during the daytime with the aid of theriac, the traditional cure-all favoured by emperors, prescribed to Marcus by his personal physician Galen. Faustina, his wife and the daughter of his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, had travelled south, back to Rome, several months earlier. Rumours say that frightened by the possibility of his imminent demise, she urged Cassius to stake his claim to the throne. The emperor’s son, Commodus, is only thirteen years old. He is doubtless aware that if his father dies or the throne is usurped while he is still too young to succeed him, his life will be placed in grave peril. Faustina’s plan was said to be that by pre-empting Marcus’ death, Cassius may outmanoeuvre other pretenders to the throne, such as Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, and perhaps even safeguard the succession of her son by marrying her. Others said that Cassius acted on his own initiative, deliberately circulating bogus rumours of Marcus’ death to seize power and declaring Marcus deified to quell accusations of opportunism. Perhaps the most likely explanation was that he’d simply acted in error, not treasonously but genuinely deceived by false intelligence that declared the emperor dead or nearly so.  That seems to be what Marcus assumes has happened. Once the Senate declared him hostis publicus, a public enemy, and seized his assets, however, he apparently felt the situation had spiralled out of control.  Cassius couldn’t back down, and found himself on the brink of fighting a civil war.

Whatever Cassius’ motives were, this has to be treated as an emergency. Marcus’ illness has remitted, at least for now, and he wastes no time in responding to the sedition. He looks over the faces of his generals. They already know that he must prepare to abandon the northern frontier and lead an army south with great haste. Cassius’ legions will soon march against the capital of the empire, if he wishes to secure his claim to the imperial throne. This realisation has thrown the city of Rome into a state of total panic. To make matters worse, it has given Marcus’ opponents on the Senate an opportunity to sabotage his costly Marcomanni campaign. The emperor faced civil unrest when he announced that to push back the barbarian hordes he would have to take emergency measures, conscripting slaves and gladiators into the army and raising taxes throughout the provinces. That made him temporarily unpopular in the east, where the public resent funding a war on the other side of the empire – in Egypt and Syria the Marcomanni and their allies seem like someone else’s problem. The family of his deceased co-emperor, Lucius Verus, and their allies, have formed a kind of anti-war faction, stoking the fires of discontent over his lengthy absence in the north.

Not long after the Parthian wars of Lucius Verus had ended in the east, the Marcomannic wars began in the north. From 168 AD onward, Marcus became personally involved in the northern campaign. He commands twelve legions, about 100,000 men in total, the largest army ever massed on the frontier of the Roman empire. Despite his complete lack of any military training or experience, the men under Marcus’ command have come to love and admire him. Soldiers tell stories about him: how in June of 174 AD his prayers once sent a mighty thunderbolt from the heavens to destroy a siege engine being used by the Sarmatians, as if he’d summoned the fury of Jupiter himself. A month later he drew down a sudden torrential rain to quench the thirst of his soldiers, a detachment of the Thundering Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) led by his general Publius Helvius Pertinax. Their drinking water was gone and they were hemmed in and outnumbered by the Quadi. The story goes that his men were so thirsty that as they fought off the barbarians they gulped down rainwater mixed with the blood streaming from their own wounds. The Quadi charge was allegedly broken by hailstorms and lightning strikes, throwing them into disarray. In honour of these and other victories, the army acclaimed Marcus imperator for the seventh time.  The troops also love and admire his wife, Faustina. During the Quadi campaign, the men nicknamed her Matrem Castrorum, “Mother of the Camp”. She came to war with them, accompanying Marcus, travelling with them and raising their morale. Conditions on the northern frontier could be harsh, though. The winters in Carnuntum were particularly brutal. One day the centurions were interrogating a barbarian youth they’d captured. They couldn’t break him with threats. Marcus noticed how badly the boy was shivering as they stood outside in the snow together. He said, “Lord, if you will only give me a coat, I’ll answer you.” The centurions laughed out loud but Marcus knew that if the tribes wanted to migrate south into Roman provinces badly enough he could bargain with the offer of resettling them in more hospitable regions.

After hours of heated discussion, the emperor finally retires to his private quarters. His generals want to keep discussing what action to take, through the night. However, that can wait. They will have weeks to talk. He gives orders that he is to be left alone with his meditations for the rest of the evening. Sitting in silence, he gradually withdraws into his own mind, focusing on the incipient disturbance he feels: anger, frustration. These are emotional reflex-reactions, the Stoics call propatheiai, or proto-passions. Thoughts rush into his mind unbidden: memories of conversations, unanswered questions, fear, worry… Some say he had long dreamt of founding the Roman provinces of Marcomanni and Sarmatia, and was close to doing so until Cassius’ revolt. In any case, that will now have to be put on hold until order has been restored. He imagines his enemies in Rome, who oppose the northern campaign, rubbing their hands with glee at this predicament, and hastening their plots against him. Another anxious thought suddenly occurs: Commodus will have to be summoned from Rome, for his own protection – it’s not safe for him there now. Faustina has only recently returned to Rome – but she would never betray him like this. So many thoughts, so many questions…

For a while, Marcus merely observes his harried mind from a distance, trying to refrain from being swept along by the impressions passing though his awareness… trying not to agree with them, or perpetuate them any further… He observes the subtle changes in his own body with the detachment of a natural philosopher: his hands want to clench, his shoulders tense, his brow furrowed, he notices his heart beating faster than normal, as his temperature literally rises. It feels like half the empire want him dead. Maybe his death is drawing closer, his body is failing him. Finally, he arrives at a conclusion about what to do with his feelings. The Stoic teacher Epictetus said everything has two handles. For now, this is the handle he will have to use to pick up the crisis, in order to regain his composure. He quickly writes down a summary of his guidance to himself:

If you require a crude kind of comfort to reach your heart, perhaps you can best be reconciled to death by remembering from what you are going to be removed, and the morals of those with whom your soul will no longer be associated. For it is never right to feel offended by people but it is your duty to care for them and to bear with them gently. And yet remember that your departure will be from people who do not have the same moral principles as you do. For this, if anything, is the one and only thing that could draw us back and attach us to life: to be permitted to live with friends who share our values. But now that you see how much trouble arises from conflict between those who live in this world, you can say: “Come quick, O death, lest perchance I, too, should forget myself.” [Meditations, 9.3]

This is indeed crude medicine. When feelings are overwhelming, Stoics bide their time, waiting for them to abate naturally before trying to reason with themselves. The Stoic Athenodorus, advisor to the first emperor, Augustus, once taught him to respond to rising feelings of anger by slowly reciting the Greek alphabet, to gain time for his feelings to abate before doing anything else.  Marcus is buying himself time to deal with the underlying cause of his anger. He sets the worry aside in this way, and tries to sleep, although the pain in his stomach, as always, is threatening to keep him awake.

At daybreak, Marcus immediately sends the despatch rider on his way with letters for the Senate, his ally Verus in Cappadocia, and most importantly for Cassius in Egypt. His message is clear: the emperor confirms that he is alive, in good health, and is returning to Rome. Now he must make rapid arrangements for peace in the north so that he will be free to march south, restore order, and quell rumours with his presence. However, it would be premature to address his troops about the incident until he knows for certain that civil war is unavoidable. He also doesn’t want the barbarians getting wind of the crisis back home.

In private, he continues to meditate on his reaction to the news. The hardest thing to deal with is the uncertainty of the situation. If only he knew more about what was happening. It’s hard not to worry and think the worst when there are so many unanswered questions. However, he needs to regain his focus because much work will have to be done here before he is free to abandon the northern frontier. So narrowing his attention, he focuses upon the very core of his being: the seat of reason, his ruling faculty. He seeks to identify the value judgements responsible for the feelings of anger and frustration persisting within him. Sometimes he catches himself dwelling on the impression that he has been harmed by the rebellion, and he wants to harm Cassius and the other conspirators. He pauses for a moment then writes the following reminder to himself:

If they did the wrong thing then that’s bad for them. But for all you know they did nothing wrong. (Meditations, 9.38)

Nothing can truly harm me, by damaging my character, except my own value judgements. Cassius has harmed himself, not me. Marcus repeats the phrase Epictetus taught his students to use in situations like this: “It seemed right to him.” He has to assume at some level that Cassius believed he was doing the right thing. He acts out of ignorance of what is genuinely right and wrong for no man does wrong knowingly.  Of course, it’s precisely this philosophical attitude that Cassius resents in Marcus because to him forgiveness is merely a sign of weakness.

Marcus Announces the Civil War

Several weeks pass. By now, news must have reached Cassius that Marcus is still alive but there has been no word of him standing down. Rumour and unrest are starting to spread around the camp. The time has come for the emperor to address his men, and announce that they will be marching south to defend Rome and engage Cassius’ legions. At least he can assure them, bassed on the letter he received, that Martius Verus, the highly-regarded commander of the legions in Cappadocia, is on their side.  Cassius’ rebellion clearly lacks unanimous support among the eastern provinces.

Fellow soldiers, it is not to give way to bitter resentment or to complain that I have now come before you. What would be the point of being angry with God, to whom all things are possible. Still, perhaps it is necessary for those who unjustly experience misfortune to lament over the actions of others, and that is now my case. For it is surely a dreadful thing for us to be engaged in war after war. Surely it is remarkable that we are now involved in a civil war. And surely it seems beyond terrible and beyond remarkable that there is no loyalty to be found among these men, and that I have been conspired against by one whom I held most dear. Although I had done no wrong and nothing amiss, I have been forced into a conflict against my will. For what virtue can be considered safe, what friendship can any longer be deemed secure, seeing that this has befallen me? Has not trust utterly perished, and optimism perished with it? Indeed, I would have considered it a small thing had the danger been to me alone — for assuredly I was not born to be immortal. However, now there has been a secession, or rather a rebellion, in the state and civil war touches us all alike. And had it been possible I would gladly have invited Cassius here to argue the matter at issue out before you or before the Senate. I would willingly have yielded the supreme power to him without a struggle if that seemed expedient for the common good. For it is only in the public interest that I continue to incur toil and danger, and have spent so much time here beyond the bounds of Italy, old man as I now am and ailing, unable to take food without pain, or sleep without care.

However, since Cassius would never agree to meet me for this purpose — for how could he trust me after having shown himself so untrustworthy toward me? — you, my fellow soldiers, ought to be of good cheer. For Cilicians and Syrians and Jews and Egyptians have never been a match for you, and never will, no, not though they numbered many thousands more than you whereas now it is many thousands less. Nor need even Cassius himself be held of any great account regarding the present crisis, however much he may seem to be a great commander and credited with many successful campaigns. For an eagle at the head of daws makes no formidable foe, nor a lion at the head of fawns, and as for the Arabian war and the great Parthian war, it was you not Cassius who brought them to a successful conclusion. Moreover, even if he has won distinction by his Parthian campaigns, you have Martius Verus on your side, who has won no fewer but far more victories, and acquired greater territory than he. However, perhaps even now, learning that I am alive, Cassius has repented of his actions. For surely it was only because he believed me dead that he acted thus. Nevertheless, if he still persists in this course, even when he learns that we are indeed marching against him, he will doubtless think better of it both from dread of you and out of respect for me.

Let me tell you the whole truth. There is only one thing I fear, fellow-soldiers: that either he should take his own life, being too ashamed to come into our presence, or that another should slay him on learning that I coming and have already set out against him. For then I should be deprived of a great prize both of war and of victory, a prize such as no human being has ever yet obtained. And what is this prize? To forgive a man who has done wrong, to be still a friend to one who has trodden friendship underfoot, to continue being faithful to one who has broken faith. What I say may perhaps seem incredible to you, but you must not doubt it. For surely all goodness has not yet entirely perished from among men, but there is still in us a remnant of the ancient virtue. However, if anyone should disbelieve it, that merely strengthens my desire, in order that men may see accomplished with their own eyes what no one would believe could come to pass. For this would be the one profit I could gain from my present troubles, if I were able to bring the matter to an honourable conclusion, and show all the world that there is a right way to deal even with civil war.

After reciting these words to the soldiers, he sends a written copy of the speech to the Senate. He tries to avoid criticising Cassius too much. Although they are now at war, and despite rumours that he criticised him behind his back, Cassius has never in the past said or written anything in open criticism of Marcus.

Marcus’ Meditations

Marcus and his legions must march for almost a month to reach Rome. En route he has plenty of opportunity to contemplate what is happening. Now that his initial feelings of anger and frustration have finally abated he rehearses his Stoic doctrines more carefully and systematically. He still faces uncertainty over Cassius’ motives, so he anticipates every possibility he can imagine.

When you’re offended with someone’s immoral behaviour, ask yourself immediately whether it’s possible that no immoral men exist in the world? No, it’s not possible. So don’t demand what’s impossible. The man who troubles you is another one of those shameless people who necessarily exist in the world. Let the same considerations be present to your mind in the case of crooked and untrustworthy men, and of everyone who does wrong in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible in general these sort of men should not exist, you will grow disposed to be more kindly toward every one of them as an individual. [Meditations, 9.42]

Marcus pauses and contemplates the cold logic of his reasoning. There are both good and bad people in the world, it would be naive to say otherwise. So isn’t it dishonest, in a sense, to act surprised when you happen to run across a bad man, who does bad things? Shouldn’t you expect that to happen frequently in life? The wise man anticipates all things, at least in broad strokes. He might not know who or when, but he knows as surely as he knows winter is coming, that sooner or later someone will probably betray him.

It’s also useful, when the occasion arises, to recall immediately the virtues nature has given men to counteract to every wrongful act. She has given us mildness as an antidote against the stupid man, and other powers against other kinds of men. And in all cases it is possible for you to set the man who is gone astray right by teaching him because every man who errs misses his object and has gone astray. [Meditations, 9.42]

As a student of Stoicism, Marcus was taught to confront himself with this question: What virtue, what possible quality or ability, has nature given you that’s best designed to deal with this problem? That’s why it was useful to learn by heart the many names of virtues. To go through that mental list and consider how a prudent man would respond, or how justice would have us respond. The cardinal virtue of Stoicism in relation to the social sphere is called dikaiosune. “Justice” makes it sound formal, “righteousness” maybe too pompous, “morality” perhaps a bit too vague – but it’s something between those ideas. The Stoics divided “justice” into two main subordinate virtues: benevolence and fairness. The virtue Marcus settled on as most relevant here was benevolence, kindness, which in the hands of an emperor we call clemency. Now he’s given a name to the virtue the situation demands, it seems a little easier to imagine something other than anger and vengeance, to picture another way of responding, a more rational way forward. We help others most by educating them, according to Socrates. Wisdom is the greatest good, therefore we should help others to move closer toward wisdom. Marcus believes his duty is to set Cassius and the others back on the right path, if possible, and to set an example of virtue through his own clemency toward them.

Anyway, how have you been injured? You’ll find that none of the people with whom you’re irritated have done anything by which your character could be made worse. That which is bad for you and harmful has its foundation within you only. And what harm is done or what is there to be surprised at if a man who has not been instructed acts like an uninstructed man? Consider whether you shouldn’t rather blame yourself, because you didn’t expect a man like this to err in this way. For you had the means, through reason, to suppose that he would likely commit this error, and yet you have somehow forgotten this and are amazed that he has. [Meditations, 9.42]

He recalls the closing words of Epictetus’ Handbook: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” Did Socrates really say that? Those were two of the men who brought him to trial. What he meant was that even though they have him cast in prison, and executed, nobody can harm his character, and that’s all that matters, ultimately. If anything, Marcus reasons, he should blame himself for not having seen this coming. Cassius and the others should be educated, somehow, if possible that would be a more philosophical solution than having them exiled or executed.

All of these doctrines were of some benefit. However, the one he finally settles upon as most in keeping with the situation is this: nobody can frustrate us unless we allow them to.  If we naively assume that they are going to keep treating us with gratitude, and foolishly place great importance on them doing so, although it is beyond our direct control, we’re obviously making ourselves vulnerable to emotional distress, such as anger.

But most of all when you blame someone for being faithless or ungrateful, take a look at yourself. For the fault is obviously your own, whether you trusted someone of that character would keep his promise or whether you neither conferred your kindness unconditionally nor so as to have received all reward from the very act itself. For what more do you want when you have done a man a service? Are you not content that you’ve done something true to your nature; do you seek to be paid back for it as well? That would be just like the eye demanding a reward for seeing, or the feet for walking. For these limbs and organs are formed for a particular purpose, and by working according to their nature obtain what is their own reward. Likewise, man is formed by nature for acts of kindness and so when he has done anything benevolent or in any other way beneficial to the common interest of mankind he has acted in accord with his nature and he thereby gets what’s his own reward. [Meditations, 9.42]

Marcus talks himself through this.  When you handed such power to Cassius, making him virtually a dictator over the eastern empire, did you expect his gratitude? You should have known better. You set yourself up by assuming that he would be so grateful he would never do anything to displease you. It’s your duty according to Stoicism to act virtuously without expecting anything in return.

The March South & Cassius’ Death

Over time, with daily meditations of this kind, Marcus has regained his famous composure. And his perspective has shifted, his habitual thoughts returning back to the wisdom he rehearses each morning. Reason tells him that setbacks like this are to be expected – it would be foolish and naive for a sovereign to act surprised at the appearance of a would-be usurper.  Now he has to reconcile acceptance with action.

However, the Senate’s message made it clear that Rome has been thrown into complete panic by the news of Cassius’ sedition and the threat of civil war is real. The people were now terrified that Cassius would invade Rome in Marcus’ absence and sack the whole city in revenge.  The Quadi had sued for peace and Marcus was left pursuing the Iazynges when Cassius rebelled. To leave the north, he has been forced to agree a hurried truce with the Iazyges, on terms that he is reluctant to accept. The barbarian leaders rushed to offer their services in putting down Cassius’ rebellion but Marcus refused their help because he felt enemy nations should not be allowed to know about the troubles arising between Romans. To do so would risk undermining their fear and respect for the Roman army, which he knew was crucial in maintaining order.

One of Marcus’ finest generals on the northern frontier, Marcus Valerius Maximianus, has already been sent ahead with twenty-thousand men, to engage with Cassius’ legions in Syria preemptively and stall any movement toward Rome. Marcus has also sent the distinguished military commander Vettius Sabinianus with a detachment from Pannonia to secure the city of Rome against any possible advance by Cassius and also to quell unrest caused by Marcus’ political enemies. The news was that Cassius was preparing to instigate a civil war, now that he realised the Senate would not recognise his acclamation as Emperor.

Cassius was in a strong position at the beginning. However, support for his rebellion has failed to spread. With the exception of a few dissenters, Marcus has the support of the Roman Senate. In the east, the provinces of Cappadocia and Bithynia both remain loyal to Marcus. The Egyptian Prefect, Calvisius Statianus joined the revolt and Cassius retains command over seven legions: three in Syria, two in Roman Judaea, one in Arabia and one in Egypt. However, this is a fraction, maybe less than a third, of the legions who remain under Marcus’ supreme command, throughout the rest of the empire. Moreover, Marcus’ own northern legions are battle-hardened and highly-disciplined veterans, whereas the legions of the east are perceived as relatively soft.

Now, precisely three months and six days, after Cassius was acclaimed emperor, another despatch rider arrives at Marcus’ camp, while his army is on the move southward. “My lord Caesar,” the messenger announces, “general Cassius lies dead, slain by his own legion.” While he was walking, Cassius encountered a centurion called Antonius who charged toward him on horseback and stabbed him in the neck. Cassius was badly wounded but still alive, and nearly escaped with his life, but a cavalry officer (decurion) finished him off. Together the men cut off Cassius’ head and have set off with it to meet with Marcus.

The revolt ended suddenly when the Egyptian and Syrian legions under Cassius’ command learned that Marcus himself was leading the legions of the Danube against them to suppress the revolt. Realising that they were hopelessly outnumbered and lacking the will to fight, the Egyptian legion convinced one of their centurions to assassinate Cassius. Now, several days have passed, and Antonius and his companion have arrived with grisly evidence of the usurper’s demise. Marcus orders them turned away, refusing to look at the severed head of his former friend. His instructions are that it should be buried instead. Although his troops are euphoric, Marcus does not celebrate. Maccianus, an ally of Cassius, who was placed in charge of Alexandria, was also killed by the army, as was his prefect of the guard. By forgiving the legion, Marcus had inadvertently signed Cassius’ death warrant. The Egyptian and Syrian legions had no more reason to fight the larger and far superior army approaching them from the north. The only thing between them and their pardon was Cassius, who refused to stand down. So his officers said, “If you’re so eager to die here, be our guest”, and removed his head from his body at the first opportunity.

Epilogue

Marcus was recognised as sole emperor again, throughout the Empire, by July 175 AD. He did not take severe measures against Cassius’ loved ones, who survived him. He only executed a few of those involved in the plot, men who had committed other crimes. As agreed, he did not punish the legionaries under Cassius’ command either but sent them back to their usual role, keeping watch over the Parthian Empire. He prohibited the Senate from severely punishing those involved in plotting the rebellion. He asked that no Senators be executed during his reign, that those Senators who had been exiled should return. He pardoned the cities who had sided with Cassius, even Antioch which had been one of Cassius’ greatest supporters and critical of Marcus’ rule. However, he did end their games, public meetings and assemblies, and released a stern proclamation against them. At first, Marcus refused to visit Antioch or Cyrrhus, the home of Cassius, when he visited Syria, although later he did agree to visit the former city. However, he treated Alexandria with greater clemency, perhaps because the garrison there were the ones who actually brought an end to the rebellion.

We’re told Marcus wrote a letter to the “Conscript Fathers” of the Senate, pleading with them to act with clemency toward those involved in Cassius’ rebellion. He asks that no Senator be punished, no man of noble birth executed, that the exiled should return, and goods returned to those from whom they had been seized. Accomplices of Cassius among the senatorial and equestrian orders were to be protected from any type of punishment or harm. “Would that I could recall the condemned also from the Shades”, he says. The children of Cassius were to be pardoned, along with his son-in-law and wife, because they had done no wrong. Marcus ordered that they were to live on under his protection, free to travel as they please, and Cassius’ wealth divided fairly between them. He wanted to be able to say that only those slain during the rebellion had died as a result. There were to be no witch-hunts or acts of revenge afterwards.

Mercy toward those Senators who had supported Cassius was probably wise in any case, as Marcus doubtless wanted to restore peace quickly in Rome, so that he could return to the northern frontier. First, though, he found it necessary to tour the eastern provinces to help restore order there, in the wake of the crisis. Indeed, his popularity in the eastern empire grew as a result. Marcus also passed a law that no senator could become governor in the province where he had been born, to try to prevent provincial rulers becoming overly-powerful. He reputedly ordered all of Cassius’ correspondence to be burned, however, which gave rise to rumours that there was something to hide, such as a plot between Cassius and Faustina.

Indeed, Faustina died in winter 175 AD or spring 176 AD, within half a year of the revolt being suppressed. There were rumours she committed suicide because of her association with Avidius Cassius. She was held in high regard by Marcus, however, and deified after her death. She remained an immensely popular figure after her death, despite the rumours surrounding her life.  Shortly after Faustina’s death, in January 177 AD, Commodus was appointed a consul and co-emperor with Marcus, aged fifteen. By law, consuls normally needed to be 33 years old. Perhaps Marcus rushed things to try to secure Commodus’ position as his heir. However, after Marcus’ death in 180 AD, and against his orders for clemency, Commodus had the descendants of Cassius sought out and burned alive as traitors.

We can assume that even after the death of Cassius, each morning, Marcus continued his daily Stoic practice.  Mentally-rehearsing hypothetical encounters with meddling, ungrateful, insolent, treacherous, slandering, and selfish people, just as he had done for many years before Cassius’ betrayed him.  Perhaps, looking back on events, he also repeated to himself the Stoic maxim: “It seemed right to him.”

How “eclectic” were the Stoics?

Brief outline of the influence of other philosophical schools on the Stoic tradition.

Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

In ancient philosophy the term “eclecticism” normally refers to philosophers who don’t adhere to a particular school of thought but borrow concepts and theories from multiple sources.  In particular, the philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon, the teacher of Cicero, introduced an eclectic approach to the Platonic Academy, which attempted to assimilate elements of Stoic and Aristotelian thought into Platonism.

However, when people today talk about eclecticism they often just mean a more general notion of combining different philosophical elements.  The Stoic school itself was originally “eclectic” in this sense.  When Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, arrived in Athens, he found himself at a bookseller’s stall and allegedly read Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates.  (Possibly the section in which Socrates’ relates the parable called The Choice of Hercules, developed by his friend, the Sophist Prodicus.)  According to other accounts, though, Zeno had already read the Dialogues of Plato in his youth.

Zeno was originally a wealthy Phoenician dye merchant who reputedly lost his fortune at sea, and was shipwrecked near Athens.  The story goes that Zeno consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was told to “take on the colour of dead men”, which he interpreted as meaning he should study the philosophers of previous generations.

After reading about Socrates, Zeno turned to the bookseller and asked where he could meet such a man.  The Cynic Crates of Thebes was walking past at that moment, and the bookseller pointed him out to Zeno, who became his follower for many years as a result.  Crates had been the student of Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynicism.  Diogenes in turn was allegedly inspired by one of Socrates’ closest and most highly-regarded followers, Antisthenes.  (Although modern scholars doubt Diogenes could have actually met Antisthenes, it’s quite possible he encountered his writings and perhaps even some of his followers.)

Hence, in the ancient world, authors such as Diogenes Laertius, claimed that the Stoic school founded by Zeno descended directly from Socrates via Antisthenes, and the Cynics Diogenes and Crates.  This is sometimes called the “Cynic-Stoic succession” theory.  Antisthenes was sometimes even referred to as the founder of Cynicism in the ancient world – he was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon (“Absolute Dog”) and taught at the Cynosarges (“White Dog”) gymnasium.

We’re also told that Zeno studied in the Platonic Academy, under the famous scholarchs Xenocrates and Polemo.  The Cynics did not teach Physics or Logic and it seems that Zeno felt this was a serious omission, which he could rectify by attending other more “academic” philosophical lectures.  Nevertheless, we also know that Zeno attacked Plato’s philosophy, particularly in his Republic, a critique of Plato’s book of the same name.

We also know, however, that Zeno studied under philosophers of another Socratic sect: the Megarians and the associated Dialecticians.  The Megarian school specialised in logic and was founded by Euclid of Megara, another one of Socrates’ circle.  The head of the Megarian school in Zeno’s day, Stilpo, was considered one of the greatest intellectuals of his time.  We find references to him and to Megarian Logic scattered throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  Zeno also appears to have studied with another famous Megarian called Diodorus Cronus.  Although the Megarians were particularly renowned for their Logic, they also had influential ethical teachings, which may have resembled those of the Cynics and other Socratic sects in holding that virtue is the only true good.

Zeno therefore studied under the main figures of all three major surviving Socratic sects of his day.  Xenophon, whose Memorabilia Zeno had read, greatly admired Antisthenes.  Like the Stoics, the Cynics believed that virtue was the only true good.  Antisthenes also appears to have believed this, and perhaps to have attributed it to Socrates.  Likewise, Xenophon appears to suggest this was Socrates’ ethical philosophy.  There are some indications that this was also the position of the Megarian school, and possibly they too derived it from Socrates.  The Stoics therefore possibly believed that the doctrine that became associated with them, that virtue is the only true good, was derived ultimately from Socrates himself, via most of his followers, with the notable exception of Plato, who portrays Socrates saying this in some of his earlier Dialogues, but equivocates elsewhere.  The Platonic Academy later became associated with the doctrine that virtue is the highest but not the only good, and that the good life is composed of virtue in combination with bodily and external goods, which was also the position of the Aristotelian school.

On some accounts, Zeno is surprisingly silent about Aristotle.  However, Plutarch claims that Zeno was heavily critical of the Peripatetic school.  Aristotle stood somewhat outside of the Socratic tradition, and Zeno apparently did not choose to study in the Lyceum.   The early Stoics generally appear relatively uninterested in Aristotle’s philosophy.

Those were the major Hellenistic influences on Stoicism.  However, there are also many references to the pre-Socratic philosophy of Pythagoreanism in the surviving Stoic literature, particularly to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras.  We know that Zeno wrote a book on Pythagoreanism.  So he may have studied Pythagorean writings when developing his conception of the Stoic philosophy.

It’s also generally believed that the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus was important to Stoicism.  There’s no evidence Zeno studied Heraclitus.  However, Cleanthes, Zeno’s successor, the second head of the Stoa, wrote a book on Heraclitus.  For all we know, though, Zeno may have also referred to Heraclitus in his own writings on Physics and that may be why Cleanthes chose to write about him.

These philosophies all influenced the development of Zeno’s original Stoic school, and they continue to be influential among Stoics right down to the Roman Imperial age.  That’s probably because references to these different schools of philosophy were interspersed in the canonical Stoic writings, which subsequent generations of Stoics continued to read.  As far as we’re aware, among other topics, Zeno wrote books on Plato (The Republic), Pythagoras (Pythagorean Questions), and Memorabilia of Crates the Cynic.  He also wrote books on Homer and other poets.

These different philosophical and literary traditions influenced Stoicism in many ways.  However, the Stoic curriculum combined the scholarly study of Physics, Ethics and Logic, probably influenced by the scope of the Platonic Academy.  It’s sometimes said, crudely, that the Stoics derived their Ethics from the Cynics, their Logic from the Megarians, and their Physics from Heraclitus.  They also appear to have been particularly known for taking the Cynic ethical doctrine that virtue is the only true good (perhaps shared with Antisthenes, Xenophon, and the Megarians) and reconciling it with the Platonic (and Aristotelian) doctrine that the good life consists in a combination of virtue, bodily, and external goods.  They did this by introducing the novel concept that virtue consists in making proper selections between things of secondary value (axia), known as “preferred indifferents”.

Although Zeno was the founder of Stoicism, it’s sometimes held that the third head of the Stoa, Chrysippus, was in fact the most influential Stoic scholarch.  He was by far the most prolific of the school’s founders, writing over 700 texts.  Chrysippus modified the earlier doctrines of Zeno and Cleanthes significantly.  It was traditionally claimed that he did so in order to defend them against an onslaught of criticism from the rival Epicurean and Academic schools, particularly from the Academic Skepticism of Arcesilaus, which was just being developed, prior to Arcesilaus being appointed head of the Academy.

Did Marcus Aurelius Persecute the Christians?

Article surveying some of the evidence for and against the claim that Marcus Aurelius persecuted Christians.

It’s often said on the Internet, and occasionally in books, that Marcus Aurelius somehow or other persecuted Christians.  I find that specific details are often lacking, though.  In fact, there are two questions worth considering here:

  1. Did the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius actively persecute Christians himself?
    Most modern scholars think that he almost certainly did not.
  2. Did Marcus allow others to persecute Christians?
    This is harder to answer, although the weight of evidence suggests Marcus actually tried to prevent others from persecuting Christians.  Some persecution of Christians undoubtedly took place during his reign, but it’s unclear how much, to what extent he was aware of it, and what opportunity he would have had to stop it.

After reviewing the accounts of Christian persecution during the reign of Marcus, H.D. Sedgewick observed:

The only evidence there is that Marcus Aurelius had any direct relation with any of these cases is this statement in Eusebius that during the trial at Lyons the governor wrote to ask him for instructions.

So let’s look at the main pieces of evidence, starting with Eusebius account of the events at Lyon…

Eusebius

The most famous alleged persecution of Christians during the reign of Marcus Aurelius was at Lyon in Gaul in 177 AD.  The one and only piece of evidence for this incident comes from the Christian historian Eusebius, who quotes a rather odd letter in his Ecclesiastical History, which described the events as follows:

The greatness of the tribulation in this region, and the fury of the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings of the blessed witnesses, we cannot recount accurately, nor indeed could they possibly be recorded.  For with all his might the adversary [Satan] fell upon us, giving us a foretaste of his unbridled activity at his future coming. He endeavored in every manner to practice and exercise his servants against the servants of God, not only shutting us out from houses and baths and markets, but forbidding any of us to be seen in any place whatever.  But the grace of God led the conflict against him, and delivered the weak, and set them as firm pillars, able through patience to endure all the wrath of the Evil One.

And they joined battle with him, undergoing all kinds of shame and injury; and regarding their great sufferings as little, they hastened to Christ, manifesting truly that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us afterward.’ Romans 8:18 7. First of all, they endured nobly the injuries heaped upon them by the populace; clamors and blows and draggings and robberies and stonings and imprisonments, and all things which an infuriated mob delight in inflicting on enemies and adversaries. Then, being taken to the forum by the chiliarch [garrison commander?] and the authorities of the city, they were examined in the presence of the whole multitude, and having confessed, they were imprisoned until the arrival of the governor.

The letter continues to describe numerous gory tortures with a level of detail that can appear somewhat excessive and colourful.  Many modern readers consequently find the style suggestive of fiction, or at least embellishment.

Moreover, there are several very striking problems faced by those who want to try to use this letter as evidence for the claim that Marcus persecuted Christians:

  1. Eusebius finished writing the Ecclesiastical History in roughly 300 AD, over a hundred and twenty years after the alleged incident took place.  There’s no indication when the letter he’s quoting was actually written.  However, he is claiming that the events described in it happened long before he was even born, and so has no first-hand knowledge of them.
  2. Historians have to take into account the “argument from silence”: no other pagan or Christian author of the period makes any mention whatsoever of these events having happened, despite their striking and dramatic nature.  It’s highly remarkable that no other Christian author of the period actually refers to this incident.  Indeed, the first author in Gaul to mention this event was Sulpicius Severus, writing 400 years later, and his only source appears to be Eusebius.
  3. The church father Irenaeus, the Christian Bishop of Lyon, where the incident allegedly took place, wrote his mammoth five volume Adversus Haereses in 180 AD, three years after the alleged persecution.  And yet, he makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of this incredible event having happened in his city.  In fact, on the contrary, he actually says “The Romans have given the world peace, and we [Christians] travel without fear along the roads and across the sea wherever we will.” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 30, Sentence 3).
  4. The church father Tertullian, was aged around twenty at the time the incident at Lyon supposedly happened.  As we’ll see, although he was actually alive at the time, he also makes no mention of the persecution at Lyon, and actually says quite emphatically that Marcus Aurelius was a “protector” of Christians.
  5. The letter quoted by Eusebius begins by blaming the actions of the mob on “the adversary” or “Evil One”, by which the authors clearly meant Satan. It goes on to describe how Christian martyrs survived inconceivable torture and extensive wounds, were miraculously healed and restored to health when stretched on the rack, and even raised from the dead.  This adds a supernatural or implausible element to the account, which many modern readers may find indicative of fabrication or embellishment.
  6. The letter actually concludes by blaming the mob and city of Lyon authorities – it does not attribute responsibility to Marcus Aurelius or to Rome.  When this event allegedly happened, incidentally, Marcus was busy on campaign in the northern frontier, roughly three weeks’ march away from Lyon.
  7. We have the surviving text of an Imperial edict from Marcus that provides evidence he actually tried to prevent the persecution of Christians by provincial authorities (see below).
  8. Finally, and bizarrely, Eusebius himself several times admitted that his church history contained deliberate “falsehoods” or pious fraud.  He’s often therefore seen as a very unreliable source for this kind of information.

Edward Gibbon, for instance, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, liked to point out that Eusebius admitted employing deliberate misinformation to promote the Christian message.  For example, one of his chapter headings reads: “That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.”  Indeed, the historian Jacob Burckhardt described Eusebius as “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity”.  It would, in fact, be more appropriate to call Eusebius a Christian propagandist rather than historian.

In summary, for these and other reasons, Eusebius is considered an extremely unreliable source by many modern scholars.  His accounts of Christian martyrdom refer to events several generations before he was even born, as we’ve seen, and are embellished with extravagant details that have the air of fiction about them.  For example, persecution is not portrayed as sporadic but inflicted by Satan on myriads of Christians throughout the empire.  The scale and severity of this persecution is totally out of keeping with the testimony of other Christians alive at the time and difficult to reconcile with the paucity of evidence from other authors.  Moreover, he includes many supernatural claims that undermine the credibility of his accounts in the eyes of modern readers.  For example, he elsewhere states as fact miracles such as that Christian martyrs survived inside the stomachs of lions after being eaten or levitated hundreds of feet into the sky, by the grace of God.  As noted above, the letter itself also describes the miraculous healing and restoration of martyrs at Lyon who were near death.  If we question these supernatural claims, it’s difficult to know what other aspects of the letter to take seriously.

Eusebius is also known to be particularly unreliable with regard to this era of Roman history because, remarkably, at various points he actually confuses Marcus Aurelius both with his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, and with his adoptive father Antoninus Pius.  Moreover, it is often the case that the documents (letters, etc.) quoted in ancient sources are found unreliable by scholarship because many forgeries circulated then and ancient authors often lacked the resources to authenticate them.  Scholars have, in fact, already identified numerous documents quoted in the writings of Eusebius as clear forgeries.  In this particular letter, unusually, no date is actually given in the rubric cited, so it’s not clear on what basis Eusebius arrived at the conclusion that it was intended to refer to events during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  The letter itself only employs the generic title Caesar, for the Emperor.  Eusebius may just be guessing the date, and that the Caesar in question is Marcus Aurelius, although frankly it seems likely that the letter is a forgery anyway.  As noted above, however, this document is the one and only piece of alleged evidence for the persecution at Lyon!

Tertullian

Indeed, the only sources which describe persecution during the reign of Marcus Aurelius come from later generations of Christian authors, who were not witness to the events they describe.  None of them actually attribute responsibility to Marcus.  The most famous account is the persecution of Lyon, which, as we have seen, is of highly questionable authenticity.

By contrast, the church father Tertullian was actually a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius and his testimony is that Marcus was emphatically a “protector” of Christians.

But out of so many princes from that time down to the present, men versed in every system of knowledge, produce if you can one persecutor of the Christians. We, however, can on the other side produce a protector, if the letters of the most grave Emperor Marcus Aurelius be searched, in which he testifies that the well-known Germanic drought was dispelled by the shower obtained through the prayers of Christians who happened to be in the army. (Apology, 5)

This appears to create an internal contradiction in the Christian literature, at least for those who (dubiously) wish to read other Christian accounts as somehow blaming Marcus for the persecution of Christians.  (As we’ve seen, the letter quoted by Eusebius doesn’t actually appear to blame Marcus himself.)  Indeed, not a single author, Christian or pagan, appears to quote any edict by Marcus condemning Christians.  This is noteworthy because if he had actually issued one, they would certainly have mentioned it.

Marcus’ Letter to the Asian Provinces

We do, however, have a surviving edict attributed to Marcus and entitled Letter of Antoninus to the Common Assembly of Asia, which appears to provide evidence that he actively intervened to prevent the persecution of Christians.  It is dated 161 AD, and issued from Marcus as Emperor, which suggests it was one of his first actions shortly after being acclaimed to the throne.

He explicitly refers to the problem of Christians who are regarded by Romans as atheists because they do not worship the conventional pagan gods.  Marcus warns the provincial authorities: “you harass these men, and harden them in their convictions, to which they hold fast, by accusing them of being atheists”.  He states that provincial governors had many times written to his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, whose response was always “not to molest such persons“, unless they were actually making attempts to undermine the Roman government.  Marcus says he has also frequently repeated this non-harassment policy to them himself, as Emperor.  He actually goes so far as to say: “And if any one persist in bringing any such [Christian] person into trouble for being what he is, let him, against whom the charge is brought, be acquitted even if the charge be made out, but let him who brings the charge be called to account.”  In other words, he suggests that provincial authorities may be punished by Rome for persecuting Christians solely on the basis of their religion.

C.R. Haines, who published this edict as an appendix to his Loeb translation of The Meditations, included an essay entitled “Note on the Attitude of Marcus Toward the Christians.”  He begins “Nothing has done the good name of Marcus so much harm as his supposed uncompromising attitude toward Christians” and concludes:

As a matter of fact, Marcus has been condemned as a persecutor of the Christians on purely circumstantial and quite insufficient grounds.  The general testimony of contemporary Christian writers is against the supposition.  So is the known character of Marcus.

He goes on to argue that the retrospective claim of Eusebius about myriads of Christians being persecuted and horribly tortured to death throughout the Roman Empire two centuries earlier is also inconsistent with numerous historical facts – often cited by Eusebius himself and other Christian authors.  For example, the presence of a bishop at the head of a community of Christians was tolerated in Rome itself, there were multiple Christians serving in Marcus’ own household, and probably even Christians in the Roman Senate.  According to Eusebius and three other Christian sources, for instance, the Senator Apollonius of Rome was allegedly condemned to death, under Commodus.  However, that means that during Marcus‘ reign Apollonius was apparently permitted to serve on the Senate, although a Christian.  Several sources, including Tertullian, attest that the Thunderbolt Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) commanded by Marcus on the northern frontier was composed largely of Christian soldiers.

Marcus’ obsession with kindness, justice and clemency, is clearly demonstrated throughout The Meditations.  However, this is reinforced by numerous references to his character in the writings of other Roman authors.  Marcus is portrayed with remarkable consistency as being a man of exceptional clemency and humanity – that was his universal reputation.  Latin authors typically used the word humanitas (kindness) to describe his character; in Greek the word philanthropia (love of mankind) was favoured.

Haines therefore also finds it implausible that someone so universally regarded as a man of exceptional kindness and clemency would have “encouraged mob-violence against unoffending persons, ordered the torture of innocent women and boys, and violated the rights of citizenship”.  Indeed, as we’ve seen, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever that Marcus was actually responsible for the persecution of Christians.  The weight of evidence, rather, suggests that he was, as Tertullian claims, a “protector” of Christians, and tried to prevent provincial authorities from persecuting them.

Beginners Guide to Stoicism

“Where do I begin if I want to learn more about Stoicism?” Read this blog post and find out the answer…

One of the most frequently asked questions on my Facebook group for Stoicism, and elsewhere, is “Where is the best place to begin if I want to learn about Stoicism?”  People often want recommendations for reading, in particular.  So I’ve written this post to summarise the advice I normally give.  The answer is actually quite simple.

General Information

At the risk of stating the obvious, you can do a lot worse than start by looking at the excellent Wikipedia article on Stoicism.  The Stoicism Subreddit (see below) also has a superb FAQ page on Stoicism.  Read my blog article A Simpified Modern Approach to Stoicism, if you want an outline of a simple daily practice.

Reading

At a rough estimate, less than 1% of the many ancient writings on Stoicism actually survive today.  We have no complete texts by the Greek founders of Stoicism, only fragments.  Most of our knowledge of it comes from three Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  They lived in the first and second centuries AD, three hundreds years after Zeno of Citium had founded the Stoic school.  By their time, the Athenian school of Stoicism no longer existed, and the Stoic school had no formal head (“scholarch”) to guide it.  Nevertheless, we learn a great deal about Stoicism from their writings.  We also learn a great deal about Stoicism from many comments made by non-Stoics, most notably the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero, who was a Platonist himself but nevertheless very sympathetic toward Stoic ideas.  We do also have about a book’s worth of fragmentary sayings and passages attributed to the early Greek Stoics, although these tend to be of slightly more interest to academics than to newcomers.

Gregory Hayes, The MeditationsThe Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The first text on Stoicism that most people read is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  It’s very small book, written in a beautiful aphoristic style.  There are many translations available, and it’s easy to obtain older (out of copyright) editions free online.  The only real limitation of this book is that it’s not a systematic account of Stoic philosophy.  Having read it, people often still lack a basic understanding of the basic doctrines of Stoicism, at least in an explicit form.  Nevertheless, it’s where I recommend beginning.  The translation I recommend for modern readers is by Gregory Hayes.

The Handbook of Epictetus

The second book that I would recommend reading is the famous Handbook or Encheiridion of Stoic Philosophy, written by Arrian, a student of Epictetus, based on his teacher’s lectures.  Marcus was greatly influenced by Epictetus, and probably thought of himself as a follower of this particular sect of Stoicism.  The Handbook is very short and also written aphoristically, although in more confrontational style than The Meditations.

The Discourses of Epictetus

If you like Epictetus then it would be natural to follow reading his Handbook by reading the Discourses on which they’re based, also noted down by his student Arrian.    (There are also a few fragmentary sayings of Epictetus worth reading.)  If not, skip to the writings of Seneca below.

There were originally eight volumes of the Discourses but only four have survived to the present day.  Marcus Aurelius appears to say that he was given a copy by his Stoic friend and mentor Junius Rusticus so it’s possible he had read all eight volumes.  (It may even be that some passages from The Meditations are actually quotes or paraphrases from the lost Discourses of Epictetus as Marcus cites the known volumes several times.)

The Lectures and Sayings of Musonius Rufus

If you enjoyed the Handbook and Discourses then you should read the less well-known Lectures and Sayings of Epictetus’ own teacher, Gaius Musonius Rufus.  Musonius’ surviving writings are relatively few and short.  They’re written in a strikingly similar style to Epictetus’ Discourses.

The Letters of Seneca to Lucilius

This is where many people begin, so if you’re not drawn to Marcus or Epictetus, you might choose to start with Seneca.  Seneca wrote in Latin whereas Marcus and Epictetus, though Roman, wrote in Greek.  Marcus and Epictetus never mention Seneca, although he lived before them.  His style of Stoicism is slightly different, and perhaps owes more to the “Middle Stoa” of Posidonius.  His Letters to Lucilius go by different names but you’ll usually find them referred to as the main collection of moral letters (or epistles) by Seneca.  These constitute a series of very well-written letters or essays addressed to a novice Stoic and they’re often read from start to finish, although they cover different themes.

The Essays and Dialogues of Seneca

If you liked Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius then we have many more surviving writings by him concerning Stoicism, which you should read.  Either get a copy of his complete writings or look for abridged collections of his various essays (often other, longer letters) and dialogues.

The Writings of Cicero

Cicero was a Platonist, not a Stoic.  However, his writings provide one of our major surviving sources for information on Stoicism.  He also wrote in Latin.  He lived before the Stoics mentioned above and was very well-read in Stoic philosophy, which he travelled to  Athens to study.  Cicero’s form of Platonism was quite eclectic and he was happy to engage with Stoic ideas and integrate them.  He has many writings which provide important accounts of Stoicism.  Most notably, though, his De Finibus (“On Moral Ends”) consists of a series of dialogues in which philosophers representing Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Platonism take turns criticising each other’s philosophy and describing their own.  The account of Stoicism in this book was put into the mouth of Seneca’s friend and rival the great Roman Stoic hero Cato of Utica, who had recently died opposing Julius Caesar.  It draws upon early Greek Stoic thought and provides an much more systematic account of Stoic Ethics than you find in Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.

Other Stoic Writings

There are many other lesser known Stoic writings and other non-Stoic ancient sources that are of importance to the study of Stoicism.  I can’t provide a full list here but I would particularly recommend the Philosophical Regimen of the Earl of Shaftesbury, if you liked Marcus Aurelius.  Shaftesbury was an English philosopher and scholar of ancient Greek and wrote his own Stoic journal in the style of The Meditations.  It can also be read as an insightful commentary on Marcus and Epictetus by a man who was trying to adopt a similar Stoic way of life, albeit in the early modern era.  Likewise, special mention should go to US Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot.  Stockdale was taken prisoner in the Vietnam War and used his knowledge of Epictetus’ Stoicism to cope with the ordeal.

Modern Commentaries

There are many superb modern books on Stoicism.  I can’t cite them all here, but I’ll mention in particular William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, which is perhaps the bestselling popular book on Stoicism.  Irvine’s book is seen by some readers (myself included) as occasionally portraying Stoicism in a way that more resembles its rival school, Epicureanism.  Nevertheless, it’s undoubtedly one of the best introductions to the subject.

I should mention my own book Teach Yourself Stoicism, which was written as a self-help guide based on Stoicism.  I’m also the author of The Philosophy of CBT, a book about the history of science and philosophy that tries to provide a detailed analysis of the relationship between Stoic psychological practices and modern cognitive therapy.  (My book, Build your Resilience, is also a self-help text, which combines elements of Stoicism with third-wave cognitive-behavioural therapy.)

Goodreads List

If you want even more, take a look at this list of suggestions maintained by different members of Goodreads: Popular Books on Stoicism.

Discussion

There are many excellent online discussion forums for Stoicism.  Here are just a few suggestions:

Stoic Week

Every Autumn since 2012, the Stoicism Today team has organised a free, international, online event called Stoic Week.  Stoicism Today is a multi-disciplinary (non-profit) team of classicists, philosophers, psychologists, and therapists, with a special interest in Stoicism.  Several of the team are authors of books on Stoicism and related subjects.

You can find more out about Stoicism Today on our blog, currently hosted by Exeter University.  You can find out more about Stoic Week on the official website.  Stoic Week challenges you to “live like a Stoic” for seven days, by following a structured daily routine consisting of readings, recordings, and psychological exercises.  In 2015, we had over 3,000 participants from all over the world.  It’s a great way to begin learning about applying Stoicism to modern living.

 

Introducing: The Philosophy of CBT (2010)

Brief introduction to my book, The Philosophy of CBT (2010), with an excerpt from the start of the book.

Philosophy-of-CBT-Cover.jpgIt’s been a long time since I’ve written about my first book on Stoicism.  The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy was published in 2010 by Karnac, a UK publisher specialising in psychotherapy.  It’s subtitle is Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy because it’s mainly concerned with the historical relationship between cognitive therapy, particularly Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), and ancient Stoic philosophy, although it also explains how early twentieth century “rational” psychotherapists, who preceded CBT by half a century, also explicitly drew upon concepts and practices derived from ancient Stoic philosophy.

After some discussion, Karnac invited me to submit a book proposal about philosophy and cognitive therapy.  My first degree was in philosophy and I’d recently finished a masters programme in philosophy and psychotherapy at the University of Sheffield’s multi-disciplinary Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies.  I was a practising psychotherapist with a special interest in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), self-help techniques, and psychological strategies such as meditation and self-hypnosis.  I was also studying the early history of psychotherapy, particularly the late 19th and early 20th century origins of the discipline.  I discovered Stoicism through the writings of the eminent French scholar Pierre Hadot.  Hadot did a superb job of describing a wide range of “spiritual exercises” to be found in classical philosophical literature.  These spanned all of the Hellenistic schools but were particularly associated with Stoicism.  I was also aware that Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck, the two founders of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy had both mentioned that Stoic philosophy was the inspiration for the approach they developed, in contrast to Freudian psychoanalysis.  I was, however, struck by the fact that nobody had written at length about what seemed to me to be the very obvious similarities between the psychological strategies Hadot identified in classical literature and those employed in modern CBT.  So that’s what I set about doing.  It seemed to me, at first, to be a very easy task because the parallels were so apparent.  However, this was one of my first books and a lot of effort went into writing it.

Looking back now, the only thing I’d really change is that I think I tried to cram in too much information, perhaps.  If I could revise it, I’d perhaps try to give it slightly more structure and trim back the content.  Because at that time a handful of the academics I spoke to were unconvinced that psychological or therapeutic strategies could even be found in the ancient literature.  I thought that had already been conclusively proven by Hadot’s research but I wanted to back it up by providing additional references.  Professor Stephen Palmer, one of the best-known CBT trainers and authors in the UK, wrote in the foreword:

[F]or many of us, something is missing from most of the literature.  What has been needed is a book that covers the underlying philosophy of the cognitive-behavioural therapies in much greater depth. […] This book […] includes some therapeutic techniques that seem to be modern, yet were developed and written about many years ago.

In other words, when psychologists  are actually presented with the a survey of the relevant quotations from ancient literature, it becomes pretty self-evident to them that philosophers such as the Stoics were indeed describing psychological strategies very similar to those we employ today in CBT.  Now, though, just a few years on, that argument seems to be pretty much settled and people no longer need to be convinced.  The debate has moved on.

Initially some people said they wanted to know more about how to actually apply these practices to daily life.  The Philosophy of CBT was never meant to be a self-help book.  It wasn’t a book on philosophy per se either.  It was conceived more as an academic text on the history of ideas, specifically the historical relationship between ancient Greek philosophy and 20th century psychotherapy.  (So it combined history of philosophy with history of science and medicine.)

Although, I’d studied academic philosophy for four years at Aberdeen and philosophy and psychotherapy for two years at Sheffield, I was still concerned that the scholarship would be of an adequate standard because I was writing as a psychotherapist rather than a professional academic.  However, I sought feedback from academics over the years and was reassured that they agreed with my work.  I was also heartened when positive reviews of the book appeared in professional journals, of both psychotherapy and philosophy.  In response to the request for more self-help style guidance, I subsequently wrote Teach Yourself Stoicism, published by Hodder.  (Hodder had previously invited me to write Teach Yourself Resilience, which combined modern third-wave behaviour therapy with Stoic philosophy.)

Around the same time, I was invited to become one of the founding members of Stoicism Today, a multi-disciplinary team of writers, academic philosophers, psychologists, cognitive therapists, and classicists, led by Prof. Christopher Gill of Exeter University.  Every Autumn since 2012, we’ve run an online event called Stoic Week, which encourages people to try following Stoic practices for seven days.  Stoic Week has been a huge success.  So much so that we launched a more rigorous, four-week long course called Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT), which also runs each year. Over ten thousand people around the world have now participated in these courses and our work has been covered extensively in the media.

Over the years, as I mentioned earlier, the debate has shifted.  More recently, the main criticism we’ve encountered has probably been that by combining elements of Stoicism and CBT, and drawing parallels between them, we’re somehow equating these two things.  That surprised me, in a way, because it’s actually the opposite of what I wrote in The Philosophy of CBT.  I get asked about this frequently, though.  So having provided a little bit of context, I just wanted to clarify exactly what position it takes on this topic by quoting from the start of the book, which explains its orientation and provides a brief synopsis of the contents.  What I said was that the concepts of therapy and philosophy were not entirely distinct in the ancient world.  However, modern psychotherapy has become largely separated from philosophy, over the centuries.  For example, my summary of the main themes in the book below concludes with the following point:

Socratic philosophy has a broader scope than modern psychotherapy, and allows us the opportunity to place such therapy within the context of an overall “art of living”, or philosophy of life.

Ancient Stoicism and modern CBT are not “the same thing”, in other words.

Excerpt from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy

Philosophy & Psychotherapy

 Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man […] each individual’s own life is the material of the art of living.  (Epictetus, Discourses, 1.15.2)

Why should modern psychotherapists be interested in philosophy, especially ancient philosophy?  Why should philosophers be interested in psychotherapy?  There is a sense of mutual attraction between what are today two thoroughly distinct disciplines.  However, arguably it was not always the case that they were distinct.  Ancient philosophy was frequently concerned with what the French philosopher Michel Foucault, has called a technê tou biou, or an “art of living.”  As the Stoic philosopher Seneca, writes,

Philosophy teaches us to act, not to speak; it exacts of every man that he should live according to his own standards, that his life should not be out of harmony with his words, and that, further, his inner life should be of one hue and not out of harmony with all his activities.  This, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom –that deed and word should be in accord, that a man should be equal to himself under all conditions, and always the same.  (Seneca, Letters, 20)

Philosophy, to a large extent, has always been about transforming the life of the philosopher, in a manner resembling modern psychotherapy or self-help in many important respects.  As far back as Socrates, portrayed in Plato’s Gorgias, philosophy has been compared to the art of medicine applied to the mind or soul, i.e., what we now call “psychotherapy.”

By reconsidering the generally received wisdom concerning the history of these closely-related subjects, we can learn a great deal about both philosophy and psychotherapy, under which heading I include potentially solitary pursuits such as “self-help” and “personal development.”

  • Philosophers can gain insight into how modern evidence-based psychotherapy might provide ideas for the practical application of familiar philosophical wisdom.
  • Psychotherapists are likely to discover new practical techniques, strategies, and concepts, which may come as a surprise, as they are often consistent with modern therapy models, but relatively neglected by them.
  • Moreover, both therapists and philosophers may also discover the possibility of fitting the existing theory and practice of their profession into the framework of a vast philosophical vision of the universe and man’s place within it, and even find a whole way of life consistent with their professional activities.

The Origins of Philosophical Therapy

Many modern psychotherapists appear to think that Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was the first psychotherapist.  Those who look a little further into the history of the subject will realise that Freud not only had contemporary rivals such as Pierre Janet and Paul Dubois, but had himself trained, albeit briefly, in hypnotic psychotherapy by visiting the two leading centres of his day, attending the Salpétrière lectures of Charcot and the “Nancy school” of Bernheim.  Modern psychotherapy first coalesced, in the latter half of the 19th Century, around the dominant schools of hypnotherapy.  Hypnotic psychotherapy itself originated over half a century prior to psychoanalysis, in 1841, when the Scottish physician and surgeon, James Braid, first attempted to take the therapeutic practices of Mesmerism and re-interpret them in the light of Scottish realist (“Common Sense”) philosophy of mind, substituting the psychological laws of association, habit, sympathy and suggestion, etc., for the occult theory of “animal magnetism.”  That is, broadly speaking, how I conceive of the origins of modern psychotherapy, as a branch of scientific medicine.

Of course, there may also be a vague recognition that psychotherapeutic practices resemble in some way the much older religious notions of pastoral counselling and confession.  However, what many non-Christians may inevitably perceive as the scriptural and doctrinaire orientation of Christian theology somewhat restricts the value of any analogy with modern psychotherapy.  Some therapists are aware that seemingly very ancient Oriental practices such as chanting or meditation may serve a kind of therapeutic purpose but these are often shrouded in exotic symbolism, and religious ideas alien, and often inscrutable, to our culture.  There may even, among some therapists, be a sense that throughout European history various authors may have hinted at obscure self-help techniques or contemplative exercises, fragmentary and fleeting, which they appear to have stumbled across in seeking a balm for their own troubled minds.  In the literature of theology, secular self-help, philosophy, biography, fiction, and poetry, nuggets of therapeutic advice, concepts, and even psychological exercises can be found, for instance, in the Remedies for Love of Ovid, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Consolations of Boethius, in Montaigne and Bacon’s Essays, Spinoza’s Ethica, Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full, to pick just a handful of the most relevant examples.

However, there is an important sense in which psychotherapy, even as we know it today, can trace its roots much farther back, perhaps all the way back into prehistory, before such ideas were committed to writing.  Modern psychotherapy, especially in the form of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the most “modern” of our contemporary schools, can also be viewed as part of an ancient therapeutic tradition derived from the informal philosophical circle surrounding Socrates (470-399 B.C.), and therefore stretching back to Athens in the fifth century B.C.  Of the various schools of Socratic philosophy the one which bears the strongest therapeutic orientation is undoubtedly Stoicism especially that of the later Roman schools.  According to Galen, physician to the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, Chrysippus, one of the founders of Stoicism, emphasised the role of philosopher as that of “physician of the soul”, someone whom we would now refer to as a psychotherapist.

Socratic philosophy in general and the Stoic school in particular definitely bear the strongest similarity to cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), out of the various contemporary schools of psychotherapy.  Narrowing our focus down even further, the Stoicism of Epictetus and the Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) of Albert Ellis, a major precursor of CBT, are perhaps the two schools of thought through which the ancient and modern traditions of psychotherapy may come closest to meeting, and between them a bridge may perhaps be built which can allow a commerce of ideas to flow between ancient and modern traditions, and a fruitful dialogue to develop.

To return to the questions with which we began: why, then, should philosophers and psychotherapists be concerned with one another?  First of all, the difference between what the ancients did and what modern therapy does lies largely, but not exclusively, in its scope.  Philosophy answers a craving for something more expansive; it embraces the totality of things through their essence.  It has the capacity to raise the head of modern psychotherapy and tilt its gaze upwards toward the vastness around us, perhaps even the whole of time and space, as Socrates and the Stoics, literally, recommended.

It is precisely this “bigger” philosophical picture which, I think, the psychotherapist-qua-psychotherapist must wrestle with at some point in his or her career.  When the therapist goes home from work, leaving his clients behind, when he lies in bed at night, he must wonder about certain things.  He must ask himself what therapy means.  What role it plays in life.  Whether its truths must stay locked up in the consulting room when the lights are switched off, and the doors locked shut overnight, or whether they spread and grow, touching other areas of life, colouring things as a whole.  How does a therapist relate to God?  How does he relate to the absence of God?  What does he make of life itself?  What happens when, in quiet contemplation, he puts himself on the treatment couch, or when he attempts to think of his relationship with the universe itself, in its totality, using the intellectual tools of his trade?  These are the philosophical questions which must surely stir in the minds of many professional psychotherapists, and which philosophical therapy can at least strive to answer.

Recent decades, likewise, have seen the growth of interest in “philosophical practice” (Marinoff, 2002) and other movements which seek to promote philosophy outside of the academic institutions, as something that “ordinary people” do in cafés, or apply to their own life problems in the form of individual counselling or group sessions with a quasi-therapeutic style.  Even many academic philosophers appear to crave, quite understandably, a return to the days when philosophical discourse was meant to be rooted in corresponding behavioural and emotional transformation and not merely an “academic” pursuit abstracted from any practical application.  The ancients conceived of the ideal philosopher as a veritable warrior of the mind, a spiritual hero akin to Hercules himself, but since the demise of the Hellenistic schools he has become something else, perhaps something more like a librarian of the mind.

 

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Summary

Some of the key points of the following text might be summarised as follows, for the benefit of readers requiring an overview of what may seem a complex and unusual inter-disciplinary subject,

  • The origins of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy can be clearly traced, through early twentieth century rational psychotherapists, back to the ancient therapeutic practices of Socratic philosophy, especially Roman Stoicism.
  • The notion of Stoicism as a kind of intellectualism opposed to emotion is a popular misconception.  Stoicism has traditionally attempted to accommodate emotion, especially the primary philosophical emotion of rational love toward existence as a whole.
  • Ancient philosophy offers a clear analogy with modern CBT and provides many concepts, strategies, and techniques of practical value in self-help and psychotherapy.
  • The contemplation of universal determinism, of the transience or impermanence of things, including our own mortality, and the meditative vision of the world seen from above, or the cosmos conceived of as a whole, constitute specific meditative and visualisation practices within the field of ancient Hellenistic psychotherapy.
  • Contemplation of the good qualities (“virtues”) found in those we admire and in our ideal conception of philosophical enlightenment and moral strength (the “Sage”) provides us with a means of role-modelling excellence and deriving precepts or maxims to help guide our own actions.
  • The rehearsal, memorisation, and recall of short verbal formulae, precepts, dogmas, sayings, or maxims resembles the modern practice of autosuggestion, affirmation, or the use of coping statements in CBT.
  • The objective analysis of our experience into its value-free components, by suspending emotive judgements and rhetoric, constitutes a means of cognitive restructuring involving the disputation of faulty thinking, or cognitive distortion.  By sticking to the facts, we counter the emotional disturbance caused by our own “internal rhetoric.”
  • Mindfulness of our own faculty of judgement, and internal dialogue, in the “here and now”, can be seen as analogous to the use of mindfulness meditation imported into modern CBT from Buddhist meditation practices, but has the advantage of being native to Stoicism, the philosophical precursor of CBT, and to European culture and language.
  • The enormous literary value, the sheer beauty, of many of the classics with which we are concerned marks them out as being of special interest to many therapists and clients, just as it has marked them out for many thousands of previous readers throughout the intervening centuries.
  • Socratic philosophy has a broader scope than modern psychotherapy, and allows us the opportunity to place such therapy within the context of an overall “art of living”, or philosophy of life.

The division of labour, the industrialisation of psychotherapy, has compartmentalised it in a manner which is bound to cause contradiction, and tension.  What once was a lifestyle and calling, a vocation in the true sense of the word, has now been degraded into a mere “job.”  By nature, however, we do not merely study the cure of human suffering in order to alleviate it, but also to understand and transform ourselves and our relationship with life itself.  Perhaps, as the ancients seemed to believe, the philosopher-therapist must first transform his own way of life, making it a living example of his views, in order to be able to help others.  Philosophers and psychotherapists have a great deal to talk about, and a clearing is required in which the two traditions can shake hands and exchange ideas.

By contrast, if the goal of the “rational” or “philosophical” therapist is merely to do his job and leave it all behind him at the weekend, to treat what we call “psychotherapy” as just another profession…  Well, perhaps that’s not a very rational or philosophical goal.