Marcus Aurelius on Stoic Physics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere he wrote:

Always bear this in mind; and another thing too, that very little indeed is necessary for living a happy life. And because thou hast despaired of becoming a dialectician and skilled in Physics, do not for this reason renounce the hope of being both free and modest and social and obedient to God. (Meditations, 67)

Marcus on the Emperor Antoninus Pius

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

Antoninus PiusToday we learn Stoicism mainly from books but the ancient Stoics believed that books were of secondary importance, and that they needed to study the characters of exceptional people to really learn Stoic virtue.

In the first book of The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius goes into great detail about the examples of virtue he was lucky enough to obtain from the character and actions of his family and personal tutors, particularly the men who taught him philosophy – mostly other Stoics such as his main Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus.

However, he actually has far more to say about the virtues of his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, than any of the other people he acknowledges. ¬†We have no reason to believe that Antoninus Pius was a Stoic but Marcus does make some interesting observations about him in relation to philosophy. ¬†For example, Marcus says Antoninus had a “high appreciation of all true philosophers without an upbraiding of the others, and at the same time without any undue subservience to them” and he goes on to say that most of all, he had a “readiness to acknowledge without jealousy the claims of those who were endowed with any special gift”, including knowledge of ethics, “and to give them active support that each might gain the honour to which his individual eminence entitled him”. ¬†It seems likely, therefore, that Antoninus approved of and supported Marcus’ most beloved Stoic tutors, such as Apollonius of Chalcedon, Junius Rusticus, and Claudius Maximus. ¬†We know Antoninus¬†sent for Apollonius to be one of Marcus’ first tutors in philosophy.

He apparently “gave no thought to his food, or to the texture and colour of his clothes”, somewhat like Cynics and Stoics. ¬†Marcus says he was free from any superstition regarding the gods. ¬†Religious hokum and superstition is something the Cynics, and to some extent Stoics, were particularly known for attacking.

However, Marcus especially notes Antoninus’ “take it or leave it” attitude to external things.

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

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

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

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

Marcus also thanked the gods:

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

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

The Missing Stoics in Diogenes Laertius

Summary of the original table of contents of Book VII from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, showing the names of the most eminent philosophers of the Stoic school, from Zeno down to Cornutus.

The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, written at the start of the 3rd century AD, is one of our main sources for information about ancient Stoicism.  Book VII, on the Stoic school, is very useful.  However, many people may be unaware that the surviving manuscripts are incomplete.  It cuts off during the life of Chrysippus for some reason.  We know from a table of contents in one of the manuscripts, though, that it should continue with chapters on many subsequent Stoics.

Here is a full list of the eminent Stoic philosophers whose lives and opinions Diogenes considered important enough to include. ¬†Below the list is a Google Map showing the approximate location of each Stoic’s birthplace.

  1. Zeno of Citium РFounder and first scholarch
  2. Aristo¬†[of Chios] – Labelled “heterodox” by Diogenes Laertius
  3. Herillus¬†– Labelled “heterodox” by Diogenes Laertius
  4. Dionysius РSeceded from school to join the Cyrenaics
  5. Cleanthes РSecond scholarch
  6. Sphaerus
  7. Chrysippus¬†-Third scholarch,¬†with whom the surviving manuscripts end…

  1. Zeno of Tarsus
  2. Diogenes [of Babylon] РFourth scholarch
  3. Apollodorus [of Seleucia]
  4. Boethus [of Sidon]
  5. Mnesarchides
  6. Mnasagoras
  7. Nestor
  8. Basilides
  9. Dardanus [of Athens]
  10. Antipater [of Tarsus] РFifth scholarch
  11. Heraclides [of Tarsus]
  12. Sosigenes
  13. Panaetius РSixth scholarch, founder of The Middle Stoa
  14. Hecato [of Rhodes]
  15. Posidonius РHead of the school in Rhodes
  16. Athenodorus [Cordylion]
  17. Athenodorus [Cananites]
  18. Antipater [of Tyre]
  19. Arius [Didymus]
  20. Cornutus РFl. in reign of Nero, c. 60 AD

Notable Omissions

Cato the Younger is not listed here and neither is Seneca, though he was a contemporary of Cornutus. ¬†Seneca was executed in 65 AD, whereas it’s believed Cornutus was still alive and exiled in either 66 or 68 AD. ¬†Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and other Stoics who come later are also missing but that possibly¬†has something to do with the fact that one of Diogenes’ main sources is Arius Didymus, who was a contemporary of the Emperor Augustus and therefore died before their time. ¬†(It’s therefore interesting that Cornutus is included.)

Map

Marcus Aurelius: The Education of a Philosopher

Some notes on what we learn about Stoicism from Marcus Aurelius’ teachers, and what he says he admired most about them.

Bust of Young Marcus AureliusWhat did Marcus Aurelius learn from his Stoic teachers?  We have many references to his philosophical teachers, especially Stoics, who provided him with living role-models of virtue.  So what did he find most praiseworthy and admirable in these men?  Marcus tells us, in particular, that they provided him with examples of integrity, patience, and self-mastery, but also cheerfulness, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness, all of which were also important Stoic traits.

The opening sentence of the Historia Augusta states that Marcus Aurelius ‚Äúthroughout his whole life, was a man devoted to philosophy and was a man who surpassed all emperors in the integrity of his life.‚ÄĚ ¬†We‚Äôre told he¬†was an earnest child who, as soon as he was old enough to be handed over from the care of his nurses to ‚Äúnotable instructors‚ÄĚ, embarked on his study of philosophy.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy. ¬†When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance ‚Äď studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground. ¬†However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins. ¬†He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher [‚Ķ]

These were the typical attire and practices of philosophers in the ancient Socratic tradition, particularly the Cynics and Stoics. ¬†As we’ll see below, Marcus himself suggests the idea for sleeping on a camp-bed and adopting other aspects of the “Greek training” came from Diognetus, his painting tutor. ¬†Marcus was seventeen years old when Antoninus Pius adopted him into the imperial family, so it’s implied that at this age he was already studying Stoicism under Apollonius of Chalcedon. ¬†The history continues:

Furthermore, his zeal for philosophy was so great that, even after he joined the imperial family, he still used to go to Apollonius‚Äô house for instruction. ¬†He also attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea (Plutarch‚Äôs nephew), Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus and Cinna Catulus ‚Äď all Stoics. ¬†He went to lectures by Claudius Severus too, as he was attracted to the Peripatetic School. ¬†But it was chiefly Junius Rusticus, whom he admired and followed ‚Äď a man acclaimed in both private and public life and extremely well practised in the Stoic discipline.

Marcus praises his Stoic teachers’ virtues in the first chapter of The Meditations but here we’re also told that he held them in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.  We know something about most of these men, with the exception of the Stoic Cinna Catulus.

At the end of Book 1, Marcus¬†thanks the gods “That I got to know Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus”, all three of whom were Stoic teachers. ¬†It’s typically presumed by scholars that these were his three most significant teachers. Marcus also studied Platonism under Alexander of Seleucia, known as Peloplaton¬†(“Clay Plato”), and Aristotelianism under Claudius Severus. ¬†There’s no mention of any specific¬†Epicurean teacher, although Marcus was apparently familiar with Epicurean writings.

Diognetus

Marcus said, intriguingly, that his painting tutor, Diognetus, showed him:

[…] not to resent plain speaking [parrh√™sia]; and to become familiar with philosophy and be a hearer first of Baccheius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to write dialogues as a boy; and to set my heart on a camp bed and a pelt and whatever else accords with the Greek training [ag√īg√™].(Meditations, 1.6)

We don’t know who Tandasis or Marcianus were. ¬†Baccheius may be the Platonic philosopher Bacchius of Paphos, about whom little more is known. ¬†The allusion to philosophy here naturally suggests that parrh√™sia may be used in the sense associated with the Cynic philosophers’ way of life, of which it was a central element. ¬†Although this is merely an impression the passage gives, it’s reinforced by the reference to¬†sleeping on a military-style camp bed, under a crude pelt, which some scholars have taken to be a reference to the Spartan ag√īg√™, elements of which were assimilated into the Cynic and Stoic lifestyle. ¬†Unfortunately, however, beyond this cryptic reference, we know nothing of Diognetus, or the three lecturers¬†to whom he referred Marcus. ¬†It’s striking that this passage refers to philosophy, though, and is followed by passages in honour of Marcus’ main¬†philosophy tutors.

Junius Rusticus

From Rusticus, to become aware of the fact that I needed correction and training [therapeia] for my character; and not to be turned aside into an zealous sophistry; nor compose speculative treatises, or deliver little sermons, or try to show off being an ascetic or unselfish man; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and fine language; and not to go about the house in my robes, or commit any such breach of good taste and to write letters without affectation, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to shew oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial overview; nor to be too quick in agreeing with every chatterbox; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me with out of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

Statue of Young Marcus AureliusThe Stoic Junius Rusticus was Marcus’ most important teacher. ¬†The book of Epictetus that Marcus refers to here as¬†as “memoir” or notes must surely be the Discourses we know today, which he quotes elsewhere. ¬†However, there were originally eight Discourses, of which only four survive today. ¬†So it’s possible that Marcus had also read the lost books of Epictetus. ¬†Marcus was aged around fourteen when Epictetus died, and it’s unlikely the two ever met. ¬†However, Junius Rusticus was aged around thirty-five and so it’s tempting to speculate that he’d met and studied with Epictetus and later communicated his philosophical teachings to Marcus, along with a copy of the Discourses from his personal library.

Marcus mentions that it was from Rusticus he learned that his own character needed correction. ¬†That’s important because one of the most psychologically significant roles of a philosophical mentor, especially in Stoicism, was to act as a sort of mirror to younger students and help them become aware of their own blind-spots. ¬†Galen, for example, wrote at length about the necessity of having a wise teacher to provide this kind of insight because we’re naturally oblivious to our own prejudices and character flaws.

He also learned from Rusticus to avoid becoming lost in sophistry or useless philosophical speculation, something Epictetus never tires of warning his students against.  Again, Marcus admires Rusticus for avoiding too much rhetoric and for his plain speaking, like Diognetus.

Intriguingly, when Marcus writes that Rusticus provides a good example of how to be willingly reconciled to those who have lost their temper with you, he may well be referring to his own short-fuse. ¬†Marcus elsewhere¬†thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17). ¬†Perhaps Rusticus was sometimes too blunt in his moral criticisms of the young Marcus and provoked him to anger, but was willing to compromise and be reconciled if Marcus was willing to reconsider his actions.

Apollonius of Chalcedon

The Historia Augusta suggests¬†that Apollonius of Chalcedon was Marcus’ first philosophy teacher and that he saw him before being adopted into the imperial family of Antoninus Pius, aged seventeen, and continued to study with him thereafter.

From Apollonius I learned freedom and unwavering caution; and to focus on nothing else, even for a moment, except reason; and to be always the same, in acute pain, on losing a child, and in long illness; and to see vividly through a living role-model that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the least of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed. (Meditations, 1.8)

The start of this passage can be read as referring to Stoic mindfulness, or Apollonius showing continual attention to his own ruling-faculty and to reason. ¬†What does it mean to be simultaneously both resolute and yielding, or willing to let go? ¬†This could be read as a reference to the famous Stoic “reserve clause”: the Stoic is totally committed to doing what is up to him, or acting virtuously, but he seeks external things lightly, with the caveat that they may go otherwise.

Sextus of Chaeronea

Sextus of Chaeronea was the nephew of the famous Platonic philosopher Plutarch.  According to Philostratus, Marcus was still attending lectures by Sextus late in life, perhaps around 177 AD, after the rebellion of Avidius Cassius, and before he returned to the northern frontier.

The Emperor Marcus was an eager disciple of Sextus the Boeotian philosopher, being often in his company and frequenting his house. Lucius, who had just come to Rome, asked the Emperor, whom he met on his way, where he was going to and on what errand, and Marcus answered, “it is good even for an old man to learn; I am now on my way to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know.” And Lucius, raising his hand to heaven, said, “O Zeus, the king of the Romans in his old age takes up his tablets and goes to school.”

Marcus writes of him in The Meditations:

From Sextus, kindness [eumenes], and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the concept of living in accord with nature; and a serious demeanour without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that conversations with him were more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly revered by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and organizing, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles [dogmas] necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion and yet full of natural affection; and he could express his approval without a noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without being pretentious. (Meditations, 1.9)

The references to Stoic terminology in this passage are striking. ¬†Sextus showed Marcus the virtuous Stoic feeling of kindness (eumenes)¬†and what it really means to “live in accord with nature”, the Stoic goal of life. ¬†He also showed him what it means to reconcile Stoic indifference (apatheia) with natural affection (philostorgia).

Claudius Maximus

Claudius Maximus¬†is mentioned later than the other Stoic teachers, although it’s believed he died around 161 AD the same year Marcus became emperor. ¬†He was a Roman politician, who served as consul, governor of Pannonia Superior, and then proconsul of Africa. ¬†Marcus mentions the death of Maximus and his wife briefly in The Meditations (8.25).

From Maximus I learned self-mastery, and not to be turned aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a good-tempered character combining gentleness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I noticed that everybody felt he believed in what he said, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his frustration, neither, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do things for the benefit of others, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he gave the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been set right. I saw, too, that no man could ever either think that he was looked down upon by Maximus or think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way. (Meditations, 1.15)

Marcus begins by referring to Maximus’ as a model of Stoic self-mastery (enkrateia) and focus on the goal of living rationally. ¬†He was cheerful in all circumstances, not gloomy as some people imagine Stoics. ¬†He was sincere and authentic but gentle and honourable in his dealings with others, whom he always sought to help. ¬†He was never surprised or shocked by anything, things the Stoics took to be a sign of philosophical naivety. ¬†What he says about Maximus being someone whom one imagines could never be turned astray rather than having to be set on the right path, is recalled later in The Meditations (3.5), where he writes “You should¬†stand upright, not be set upright.”

Marcus Aurelius: the Civil War in the East (Children’s Version)

Piece of biographical fiction about Marcus Aurelius and the civil war in the eastern empire, triggered by Avidius Cassius, written for my five-year old daughter, Poppy, and other children.

NB: This is a children’s story, or rather biographical fiction based on the ancient accounts of Marcus’ reign¬†and other evidence, including The Meditations. ¬†I wrote it for my five-year old daughter, Poppy. ¬†It’s a simplification of a much more detailed account I’d written for adults.


The Philosopher King

Marcus AureliusLong, long ago ‚Äď over two thousand years ago¬†‚Äď there was a famous philosopher named Socrates. Socrates was extremely wise, perhaps the wisest man who ever lived. He used to talk a lot to people about the difference between a good person and a bad person. Once he said that kings are powerful and philosophers are wise, so the world would be better if all kings became¬†philosophers, because then they would be both powerful and wise. Most kings are not philosophers, though. In fact, there had never really been a king who was a philosopher. After Socrates died, over five hundred years passed before a philosopher finally became a king. His name was Marcus Aurelius and he was the emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in the world. An emperor is like a king but even more important. He rules over not one but many different countries. Marcus Aurelius ruled over a vast empire that stretched from England through Europe into the north of Africa and the Middle East. (Not Scotland, though!)

When Marcus was just a young boy, the emperor Hadrian asked his successor, Antoninus Pius, to adopt him, so that he could be next in line to the throne. On the day he was adopted, young Marcus had a strange dream in which his shoulders and arms were made of ivory.  When someone asked him if they could lift a heavy weight he discovered they were much stronger than before.  A wise man told him the dream meant he was destined to be a great leader and to say beautiful things.  Antoninus gathered together the best teachers for Marcus from around the world. He learned lots of different things but the subject he loved most was philosophy, or how to become wise. When he was twelve years old he started to wear the traditional grey cloak of a philosopher and trained himself in toughness by doing things like sleeping on a mat on the ground instead of in a normal bed. He carried on studying for the rest of his life. In fact, he was still going to philosophy lessons when he was an old man. When people asked him why he spent so much time studying philosophy, Marcus used to quote Socrates’ saying: The people will only be happy when philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers.

Lucius VerusWhen Antoninus died, Marcus became the new emperor of Rome but he wanted to share the job with his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus. (We say “adoptive” because neither of the boys were born the sons of the emperor Antoninus Pius but he chose them both to become his sons, and took them into his family.) Marcus said he didn’t want to become emperor unless his little brother, Lucius, was emperor too. So for the first time ever Rome had two co-emperors. Marcus was older, though, and had more experience in government, so he was really the one in charge. ¬†Marcus was very serious and worked hard. ¬†Lucius was almost the opposite of his brother. ¬†He was very lazy and he liked to play games and throw fancy parties instead of working, but Marcus loved him anyway because he was his little brother and he treated him in some ways like a son.

The Parthian Wars & the Plague

To keep him busy and out of trouble, Marcus sent Lucius to lead a war that had started far to the east in a land called Parthia. Lucius couldn’t be bothered fighting, though, so he just based himself¬†in the city of Antioch, where he played dice all night long, watched gladiatorial fights and circus games, and held notorious banquets where he drank and feasted until he passed out¬†at the table. They say while his generals and their legions were risking their lives¬†on the battlefield of Parthia, Lucius was out hunting in the countryside or touring the seaside¬†towns with groups of musicians and his good-for-nothing¬†friends. ¬†Some say Marcus was actually the one planning how to fight the war, from back in Rome, even though Lucius was based in a city closer to the fighting. ¬†Lucius took charge of organizing all the food and supplies and avoided doing anything dangerous because he wasn’t very brave. He let his generals do all the fighting for him while he took the glory. The war raged on for five years and one of Lucius‚Äô generals in particular, named Avidius Cassius, fought and won many battles with his legions. As he defeated more enemies¬†he was given powers, until he was nearly as powerful as Lucius, who remained safely back in the city, far from all the action. One day, Cassius sacked an ancient town named Seleucia, with whom the Romans had agreed peace. ¬†Despite the fact that Seleucia had welcomed¬†the Roman soldiers¬†as friends, Cassius ordered them to steal everything they could and destroy everything else that was left behind. People said the gods were angry with Cassius and gave his soldiers a terrible disease, called the plague. When Lucius and Cassius came back home from Parthia to Rome they were both treated as war heroes, even though Cassius had done all the fighting. The Roman people were overjoyed. But without realising it, the soldiers had also brought back something very bad indeed back from Parthia. They brought back the disease called the Antonine Plague, or smallpox.

The plague spread through the whole Roman empire, for¬†fifteen long years. The Roman people were very sad and very worried. They say maybe a third of the population¬†died. People with the disease would become very sick, they’d get a fever, their throat would hurt, their stomach would hurt, and their skin would become very sore and lumpy. It was horrible to see. Everyone prayed to the gods to save them and doctors tried everything they could think of to help. But back then they didn’t really understand what was going on, or how the plague worked, so even the best doctors in the empire couldn’t help much. ¬†Maybe five million people died as a result. ¬†Marcus Aurelius was friends with a very famous doctor named Galen who studied the plague and tried to find a cure to protect the emperors.

The Marcomanni Wars

While the disease was spreading, more and more¬†soldiers were dying, and so the army became much weaker. Then, at the worst possible time, another disaster happened. Not long after the wars to the east, in Parthia, had ended, millions of barbarian tribesman called the Quadi and Marcomanni started to invade Rome from the other side of the empire, far to the north. They broke through into Roman towns and stole everything. People were very afraid of going to war in the north because the barbarians were so many, and the Roman armies were suffering from the¬†plague. Lucius wanted to stay home and rest but Marcus said it was an emergency and they both needed to lead the Roman army north to drive back the invaders. Because the army was so weak, Marcus did something that shocked the people. He took slaves and gladiators into the army to help replace the soldiers who’d died from plague. And he sold many treasures from his¬†imperial palace to raise money that was used to help pay the soldiers wages.

Marcus and Lucius put on¬†their army cloaks and rode north to war. At first, they struggled to defeat the barbarians who numbered many more than the Romans. But gradually, as they learned more about their enemies and about the country they were in, the Romans started to win more battles. However, yet another disaster struck. Marcus wanted Lucius to stay in the north but finally gave in to his demands and allowed him to go back home. While travelling back to Rome, though, Lucius fell sick with the plague. The best doctors in the empire tried but they couldn’t save him and he died. Lucius‚Äô family were angry and said he should never have left Rome but it was too late. ¬†Many other noblemen died in battle on the northern frontier, and Marcus built statues to them. ¬†Some Romans started to feel that¬†between the plague and the wars, too many people had died.

Marcus was very sad about the loss of his brother but he continued the war in the north. Even though he’d never led an army before, and never trained as a soldier, Marcus was very wise and became a great general. The army loved and admired him. His soldiers all thought the gods were helping Marcus because of a miracle some of them claimed they‚Äôd seen. One day, ¬†one of Marcus’ best generals and his soldiers were surrounded and outnumbered by warriors of the Quadi barbarian tribe. It was the middle of summer and the Roman soldiers had no water, they were feeling very weak and thirsty because of the heat. They say Marcus prayed for them and something incredible happened. Suddenly storm clouds appeared in the sky overhead and it started raining very heavily. The soldiers caught the rain in their helmets and drank as they carried on fighting. They all cheered because of the miracle and started to fight back more bravely. As the barbarians charged at them on horseback, thunder sounded and lightning struck them. Fire and water came down from the skies and helped the Romans defeat their enemy. After this famous victory, the soldiers all celebrated Marcus‚Äô as their supreme commander and told stories about how he brought them good luck.

During one of their most famous battles, the Romans chased the Marcomanni across the frozen river Danube. The barbarians assumed they would have a great advantage against the Romans on the ice because they were used to it, so they turned to fight, but they were in for a shock. The Romans had been training hard through the winter. When the Marcomanni surrounded them on the icy surface, the Romans packed themselves in a tight formation, placed their shields on the ice, and put one foot on top so that they could stand more firmly. Then as the barbarians charged, they grabbed the reins of their horses and pulled them to the ground, so they slipped on the ice and fell. The Romans were victorious because they’d carefully studied how to fight in these surroundings and practised tricks that would help their soldiers defeat the local tribes.

The Rebellion of Avidius Cassius

However, while Marcus was far away, busy fighting in the north, the people in the eastern empire felt neglected and were growing restless. They hadn’t seen Marcus for a long time, and Lucius was dead now. Millions of people had died of the plague and many more of their men were sent to fight with Marcus in the distant north and most of them were slain in battle and never returned home. Things were becoming expensive because taxes had increased to pay for Marcus’ war against the Marcomanni, people had to give more money to the emperor and they didn’t like that. One day, a mysterious Egyptian tribe called the Herdsmen said “We’ve had enough.” They tricked and killed two Roman officers and declared war on the Romans in Egypt. More and more people joined their revolution until the Roman Prefect or ruler of Egypt became worried. This was a big problem because most of the grain used to make bread came from Egypt, so the Romans called it the breadbasket of their empire. Marcus decided it was an emergency and told Cassius to march his legions to Egypt and stop the Herdsmen. However, to do that he had to make Cassius even more powerful, so he granted him imperium throughout the east, which meant people had to obey him as if he were the emperor. Cassius led the Roman armies into Egypt but there were so many of the Herdsmen he didn’t fight them in a pitched battle. Instead, he slowly tricked them into arguing with each other, until they fell out, and then he beat them, something we call a “divide and conquer” strategy. People said¬†Cassius had saved Rome and they thought he was very clever. So he became an even bigger hero, and was left with supreme command throughout the eastern part of the empire.

Now since the co-emperor Lucius had died, Cassius had gradually become so powerful, that he started to feel like he should be an emperor himself. Indeed, some people even say that when Lucius was alive he tried to warn Marcus that he’d heard Cassius wanted to overthrow him. ¬†Marcus said that he¬†shouldn’t worry because whatever will be will be, and that they couldn’t judge Cassius based on rumours anyway. ¬†He told Lucius to remember their adoptive father the emperor Antoninus, who used to say¬†“No one ever kills his successor”. ¬†However, Marcus had been very sick for many years, with pains in his chest and stomach. He found it hard to eat and at night he struggled to sleep because he was so ill. Some people say that because of his illness, Marcus’ wife, Faustina, worried that he was about to die. They say she told their friend Cassius that if Marcus was dying he was to get the army to acclaim him emperor instead, as quickly as possible, before any of their enemies could seize the role. Perhaps Faustina even planned to marry Cassius if Marcus died, to protect their son Commodus, and make sure he could become emperor one day. Nobody knows for sure, but some people say that was Faustina and Cassius’ plan. Somehow, one day, Cassius heard news that Marcus was really sick and was probably dying so the Egyptian army quickly acclaimed Cassius the new emperor. But he’d made a terrible mistake. Marcus had indeed been very ill, weeks ago, but he’d recovered and now he was better.

When the Senate, the government in Rome, found out, they were angry. ¬†This was a huge rebellion. ¬†They immediately declared Cassius a public enemy and took away all the money and land that belonged to him and his family. The people in Rome¬†panicked because they thought Cassius would be so angry that now he’d march the Egyptian army into their city¬†and destroy everything. When the people within a¬†country fight one another, that’s called a civil war. Everyone was worried that now there were two emperors, they would have to fight over control of Rome, and there would be a huge civil war. Marcus was so far away it would have taken several weeks for the news to reach him. When he found out he thought his friend Cassius must have made a terrible mistake and would change his mind and give up, so he waited for news, but Cassius didn’t back down or surrender, instead he gathered his armies and prepared for war. ¬†Some of Lucius‚Äô family and other politicians in Rome also opposed Marcus‚Äô war in the north because it was so expensive and the lives of so many Roman soldiers had been lost. So some politicians in Rome¬†did take sides with Cassius but there weren‚Äôt very many of them. Most Romans remained loyal to Marcus, as their true emperor.

Everyone was shocked at what Cassius had done. They thought Marcus would be shocked too and really angry. But for his whole life Marcus had been preparing to respond philosophically to things like this. Every morning he would meditate and patiently tell himself “Today you will meet ingratitude, treachery, lies, and selfish people…” He planned how to deal calmly with even the most difficult situation, and never to be surprised by anything. He’d learned that from the ancient philosophers he studied as a young man. Finally, he was just about to win his wars in the north, after years and years of fighting. ¬†However, instead, he would have to quickly pack up and march his armies all the way across the empire¬†to fight a new war against his own friend. Fortunately, Marcus was very organised and hard working. He sent one of his generals ahead with a small army to reach Cassius first and block¬†his path¬†to Rome. He sent another general to Rome where he was to calm everyone down and stop the panic. Marcus himself took time to agree peace with the local tribes and prepare a much larger army, containing¬†some of the toughest and most experienced soldiers. ¬†When they were ready he started the long march south to defeat Cassius.

Marcus Prepares for Civil War

Before they left, as soon as¬†he realised Cassius wasn’t going to back down, Marcus gave a speech to his soldiers. He told them that he wasn’t angry or upset. Everyone was amazed how calm he was. He always tried to see things from both sides. He wanted¬†to understand other people‚Äôs motives, what was important to them, and what they were thinking. When someone did something that seemed bad, he‚Äôd learned from the philosophers to pause and say to himself: ‚ÄúIt must have seemed right to him.‚ÄĚ So he said he wanted everyone to forgive Cassius and his friends, and let them live in peace if they would surrender. Marcus said nobody in Rome was to hurt any of Cassius’ supporters and that ones that had been exiled, or sent away, were to be invited to come back home. The soldiers were surprised he was being so gentle but that was what he’d learned from philosophy. Marcus‚Äô response was very different from the politicians’ in Rome; whereas he remained calm and offered to pardon Cassius, the Senate were angry, panicked, and wanted to punish everyone involved in the rebellion.

The army led by Marcus began marching toward Egypt to fight the main battle of the civil war. ¬†Something surprising happened, though, before they could reach the enemy. The legions¬†in Egypt heard that Marcus wanted to forgive them all but their commander, Cassius, still refused¬†to give up. The soldiers knew that Marcus had a much bigger and much stronger army, and they were afraid they were¬†going to lose. So they decided to get rid of Cassius themselves. Two of their officers charged at him on their horses when he wasn’t expecting it, caught him by surprise, and chopped his head off. They took Cassius’ head to Marcus but he said he didn’t want to look at it and told them to bury it instead. He was sad that his friend had been killed because he said it was all a big mistake and he wanted to pardon¬†him. Marcus had won the war, but he refused to celebrate. ¬†He¬†said he wanted to make sure that nobody else was killed, and he asked the Senate to give back all of Cassius’ money to his children, to let them go wherever they want to go, and to protect them from harm.

Marcus travelled around all the different countries in the east of the empire and helped to calm them down and restore peace. The people said he was a hero because they were terrified that there was going to be a civil war but he’d managed to stop it without any fighting by saying that he was going to forgive everyone involved. He was loved by all the eastern provinces and¬†they say that many of the people there started to study philosophy because of their admiration for Marcus.

What Seneca Really Said about Epicureanism

Survey of Seneca’s remarks about Epicurus in the Letters to Lucilius, and elsewhere.

EpicurusPeople often notice¬†that, despite being a Stoic, Seneca quotes Epicurus favourably at the start of the Letters to Lucilius. ¬†That’s hard to miss. ¬†He mentions him in about the first thirty letters, and periodically thereafter. ¬†Seneca also refers to Epicurus and Epicureanism, albeit sometimes more indirectly, throughout his other writings.

From that evidence people occasionally¬†leap to the conclusion that Seneca was espousing a hybrid of Epicureanism and Stoicism, or at least that he had assimilated significant Epicurean ideas into his version of Stoicism. ¬†This would be surprising, of course, because the Stoics were generally known for their ardent criticism of Epicureanism. ¬†They traditionally saw it as fundamentally opposed not only to their own philosophy but to most schools of Hellenistic philosophy derived from Socratic ethics. ¬†The Discourses of Epictetus, for example, contain very blunt and hostile criticism of Epicureanism. ¬†The same criticisms¬†are made by Seneca, typically with greater diplomacy but, as we’ll see he was also sometimes extremely¬†hostile toward¬†Epicureanism. ¬†These appear to be¬†well-established¬†Stoic lines of argument, that probably derive from much earlier sources. ¬†The main bone of contention was that¬†most schools of philosophy viewed the doctrine that virtue is an end-in-itself (“virtue is its own reward”) as fundamental. ¬†The Epicureans were one of the few schools to reject this view, and to propose instead that virtue in itself is of merely instrumental value, as a means to attaining pleasure (hedone) or tranquility (ataraxia).

At the beginning of the Letters to Lucilius, Seneca actually seems quite¬†positive about Epicureanism. ¬†Although, as we’ll see, his compliments are carefully qualified. ¬†As he proceeds, in the later letters, he begins to intersperse more serious criticisms. ¬†Likewise, elsewhere in his¬†writings, such as On Benefits, Seneca is scathingly critical of Epicurean ethics. ¬†One interpretation that scholars have offered is that Seneca wrote the Letters to Lucilius precisely in order to persuade Epicureans to “convert” to¬†the Stoic philosophy. ¬†He goes out of his way here to open with references to Epicurus and to emphasise areas of apparent common ground, leaving his criticisms until later.

He sometimes praises Epicurus’ character, while nevertheless attacking his philosophy. ¬†Indeed, it was a common strategy among other Hellenistic¬†authors to argue that certain philosophers are more praiseworthy than their teachings, i.e., that their own character and way of life was inconsistent with their philosophy. ¬†Even within the Letters to Lucilius, therefore, Seneca makes it clear right from the outset that Epicureanism is to be viewed as the¬†enemy camp:

The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp – not as a deserter but as a scout. (Letters, 2)

Note that here as elsewhere, such as in On Leisure, Seneca stresses that he is merely scouting out Epicureanism and not deserting Stoicism, in any sense.  He later explains,

It is likely that you will ask me why I quote so many of Epicurus’ noble words instead of words taken from our own school. ¬†But is there any reason why you should regard them as sayings of Epicurus and not common property? (Letters, 8)

He says several times that the quotes he draws from Epicurus typically articulate very commonplace ideas found in the writings of many earlier philosophers, poets, and playwrights.  There are many ideas expressed by the Stoic school which we should not be surprised to find echoed elsewhere.  However, that does not mean that the Stoics or Seneca agree with everything, or even the main things, said by these other authors.  Indeed, Seneca is implicitly criticising Epicurus by pointing out that what is good in Epicureanism is not unique, and what is unique in it is not good.

By the ninth letter, Seneca is openly criticising Epicureanism, however.  He rejects the Epicurean doctrine that the wise man needs friends to achieve the goal of living a truly pleasant life, free from fear and pain.  The Stoic position is that the wise man is self-sufficient but that he prefers to have friends, fate permitting.  Seneca quotes a letter of Epicurus as saying that the wise man needs friends for the reason:

That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want.

Seneca, like other Stoics, criticises¬†Epicurus for¬†teaching¬†his followers to develop what we call today “fairweather friendships”. ¬†Friends are valued by the Epicureans only as a means to the end of protecting their own peace of mind, comfort, and tranquillity. ¬†This is something Seneca, like other Stoics, sees as morally¬†reprehensible. ¬†Seneca writes:

He who regards himself only [i.e., his own self-interest], and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly. ¬†The end will be like the beginning: he has made friends with one who might assist him out of bondage; at the first rattle of the chains such a friend will desert him. ¬†These are the so-called “fair-weather” friendships; one who is chosen for the sake of utility will be satisfactory only so long as he is useful. […] He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays. ¬†(Letter, 8)

The Stoics believe that genuine¬†friendship is based on love of another person’s character, because they are¬†good (virtuous), and share our values, not merely because having them as our friend is expedient. ¬†(What happens when their company ceases to be calming? ¬†Do we ditch them?)

In Letter thirteen, Seneca opens by praising the philosophy of Epicurus:

I myself believe, though my Stoic comrades would be unwilling to hear me say so, that the teaching of Epicurus was upright and holy, and even, if you examine it narrowly, stern: for this much talked of pleasure is reduced to a very narrow compass, and he bids pleasure submit to the same law which we bid virtue do – I mean, to obey nature. (Letters, 13)

However, he immediately qualifies this by saying that Epicureanism lends itself to abuse and misinterpretation by contemporary adherents looking for an excuse to justify their own bad habits

Luxury, however, is not satisfied with what is enough for nature.  What is the consequence?  Whoever thinks that happiness consists in lazy sloth, and alternations of gluttony and profligacy, requires a good patron for a bad action, and when he has become an Epicurean, having been led to do so by the attractive name of that school, he follows, not the pleasure which he there hears spoken of, but that which he brought thither with him, and, having learned to think that his vices coincide with the maxims of that philosophy, he indulged in them no longer timidly and in dark corners, but boldly in the face of day.  I will not, therefore, like most of our school, say that the sect of Epicurus is the teacher of crime, but what I say is: it is ill spoken of, it has a bad reputation, and yet it does not deserve it.

Once again, Seneca begins by apparently praising the virtue of the Epicurean school, and defending it against critics, but then subtly shifts toward criticism as the letter proceeds. ¬†He does this by blaming Epicurus himself for fostering this popular misinterpretation of his philosophy. ¬†He portrays the Epicurean schools as a brave man dressed in effeminate clothing, noisily¬†banging a drum to draw attention. ¬†Apparently in reference to the motto above the door to the Garden (“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”) Seneca writes:

Choose, then, some honorable superscription for your school, some writing which shall in itself arouse the mind: that which at present stands over your door has been invented by the vices.

Clearly, this no longer sounds like praise of Epicureanism, the tone has shifted dramatically toward criticism.  He immediately proceeds to argue that making pleasure the supreme goal of life, as Epicurus did, is problematic unless it is subordinated to reason.

He who ranges himself on the side of virtue [i.e., the Stoics] gives thereby a proof of a noble disposition: he who follows pleasure [i.e., the Epicureans] appears to be weakly, worn out, degrading his manhood, likely to fall into infamous vices unless someone discriminates his pleasures for him, so that he may know which remain within the bounds of natural desire, which are frantic and boundless, and become all the more insatiable the more they are satisfied.  But come!

However, whereas Stoics make reason (wisdom) the supreme goal and subordinate pleasure to it, the Epicureans inverted this and made reason or virtue of merely instrumental or subordinate value to their goal of pleasure (or absence of pain, ataraxia).

Let virtue lead the way: then every step will be safe.  Too much pleasure is hurtful: but with virtue we need fear no excess of any kind, because moderation is contained in virtue herself.  That which is injured by its own extent cannot be a good thing: besides what better guide can there be than reason [as opposed to pleasure] for beings endowed with a reasoning nature?  So if this combination pleases you, if you are willing to proceed to a happy life thus accompanied, let virtue lead the way, let pleasure follow and hang about the body like a shadow: it is the part of a mind incapable of great things to hand over virtue, the highest of all qualities, as a handmaid to pleasure.

So from fulsome praise of Epicurus, Seneca has very rapidly proceeded into scathing criticism, and ends up apparently selling the advantages of Stoicism over Epicureanism as a  guide to the best way of life.

In letter thirty-three, Seneca, as he has done several times already, stresses that Epicurus’ valuable sayings are common to poetry, plays, and philosophy in general.

Poetry is crammed with utterances of this sort, and so is history.  For this reason I would not have you think that these utterances belong to Epicurus.  They are common property and are emphatically our won.  They are, however, more noteworthy in Epicurus, because they appear at infrequent intervals and when you do not expect them, and because it is surprising that brave words should be spoken at any time by a man who made a practice of being effeminate.  For that is what most persons maintain.  In my opinion, Epicurus is really a brave man, even though he did wear long sleeves.  (Letters, 33)

Again, Epicurus’ character is praised, although his philosophy is being criticised. ¬†This may have generally been considered courteous, although it also serves as a rhetorical strategy for softening the blow of criticisms made against Epicureanism.

For example, Seneca elsewhere rejects as absurd, in two letters, the teaching of Epicurus that the wise man even experiences pleasure while being tortured.  In letter sixty-six, his theme is to show that virtue, the supreme good, can flourish even in a frail, sickly, ugly, or impoverished body.  He opens by declaring the Stoic doctrine that virtue needs nothing else to set it off Рit lacks no extrinsic goods, in other words.  Seneca compares this to what Epicurus said:

Epicurus also maintains that the wise¬†man, though he is being burned in the bull of Phalaris, will cry out: “Tis pleasant, and concerns me not at all!” ¬†(Letters, 66)

Here as elsewhere, Seneca notes that it is hard to believe, or implausible, that the Epicurean wise man finds it “pleasant to be roasted in this way”.

We find mentioned in the works of Epicurus two goods, of which his Supreme Good, or blessedness, is composed, namely, a body free from pain and a soul free from disturbance. ¬†These goods, if they are complete, do not increase; for how can that which is complete increase? ¬†The body is, let us suppose, free from pain; what increase can there be to this absence of pain? ¬†The soul is composed and calm; what increase can there be to this tranquillity? ¬†[…] Whatever delights fall to his lot over and above these two things do not increase his Supreme Good; they merely season it, so to speak, and add spice to it. ¬†For the absolute good of man’s nature is satisfied with peace in the body and peace in the soul.

Seneca goes on to say that Epicurus’ writings contain “a graded list of goods just like that of our own [Stoic] school”, by which he presumably means the Stoic list of virtues and also the hierarchy of things considered to be of secondary value (axia), which are not “good” in the strict sense. ¬†(The Stoics sometimes use the word “good” loosely to describe “indifferent” things, which are merely “preferred”.)

For there are some things, he declares, which he prefers should fall to his lot, such as bodily rest free from all inconvenience, and relaxation of the soul as it takes delight in the contemplation of its own goods. ¬†And there are other things which, though he would prefer that they did not happen, he nevertheless praises and approves, for example, the kind of resignation, in times of ill-health and serious suffering, to which I alluded a moment ago, and which Epicurus displayed on the last and most blessed day of his life. ¬†For he tells uss that he had to endure excruciating agony from a diseased bladder and from an ulcerated stomach, so acute that it permitted no increase of pain;” and yet, “he says, “that day was none the less happy.”

Seneca appears to be alluding to the Epicurean definition of the Supreme Good, mentioned earlier by him, and defined as “a body free from pain and a soul free from disturbance.” ¬†However, the “resignation, in times of ill-health” he mentions is the virtue of fortitude or endurance, which Epicurus reputedly valued only as a means to the end of maintaining pleasure and tranquillity.

Seneca began this letter by praising goods such as rational pleasure and tranquillity in agreement with Epicurus, he then argued at length contrary to Epicurus that virtue must be equal to other goods.  Now, however, he qualifies that position by concluding that reason or virtue maintained in the face of adversity is obviously more praiseworthy and admirable than the peaceful tranquillity of someone living a pleasant and contented life.

Allow me, excellent Lucilius, to utter a still bolder word: if any goods could be greater than others, I should prefer those which seem harsh to those which are mild and alluring, and should pronounce them greater.

He suggests that though all uses of reason and virtue are equal, greater “I should bestow greater praise on those goods that have stood trial and show courage, and have fought it out with fortune.” ¬†He follows this with the celebrated example of¬†Gaius Mucius Scaevola, who burned his own hand to defy the Romans’ enemies.

Why should I not reckon this good among the primary goods, and deem it in so far greater than those other goods which are unattended by danger and have made no trial of fortune, as it is a rare thing to have overcome a foe with a hand lost than with a hand armed?

He even goes so far as now to say that he should desire adversity himself, as an opportunity to exercise virtue.  Somehow, what started off as praise of Epicureanism, by the end of the letter, has turned into a very different stance, where Mucius is held up as a Stoic exemplar that seems obviously at odds with the Epicurean ideal.  Once again, Epicurus is praised for his personal virtue of endurance in the face of physical pain, which is presented as being at odds with his own teaching that virtue is of merely instrumental value and the absence of physical pain is part of the Supreme Good.

In letter ninety-eight, Seneca criticises Epicurus more openly, although pairing that with a (fairly commonplace, once again) point of agreement:

Let us disagree with Epicurus on the one point, when he declares that there is no natural justice, and that crime should be avoided because one cannot escape the fear which results therefrom; let us agree with him on the other – that bad deeds are lashed by the whip of conscience, and that conscience is tortured to the greatest degree because unending anxiety drive and whips it on, and it cannot rely upon the guarantors of its own peace of mind. (Letters, 88)

The Stoics were appalled by the Epicurean doctrine that the main reason to avoid committing a crime or injustice is basically fear of being caught. ¬†They typically point out that in many situations there is absolutely no risk of being found out, so Epicureanism provides no rationale for acting in the manner we’d normally consider ethical. ¬†They agree that vice tends to lead to inner turmoil, but for the Stoics a good man refrains from immoral deeds because they are immoral, not just because they cause him anxiety.

In his other writings, Seneca is more openly critical of the Epicureans.  For example, Book IV of On Benefits, deals with the Socratic and Stoic contention that virtue is its own reward.  Seneca contrasts this with the Epicurean doctrine that virtue is merely of instrumental value, as a means of procuring pleasure or the absence of suffering (ataraxia):

In this part of the subject we oppose the Epicureans, an effeminate and dreamy sect who philosophise in their own paradise, amongst whom virtue is the handmaid of pleasures, obeys them, is subject to them, and regards them as superior to itself. ¬†You say, “there is no pleasure without virtue.” ¬†But wherefore is it superior to virtue? ¬†Do you imagine that the matter in dispute between them is merely one of precedence? ¬†Nay, it is virtue itself and its powers which are in question. ¬†It cannot be virtue if it can follow; the place of virtue is first, she ought to lead, to command, to stand in the highest rank; you bid her look for a cue to follow.

This is really the fundamental Stoic criticism of Epicureanism.  It constitutes a complete difference of opinion of their respective definitions of the supreme goal of life.  Seneca continues:

“What,” asks our [Epicurean] opponent, “does that matter to you? ¬†I also declare that happiness is impossible without virtue. ¬†Without virtue I disapprove of and condemn the very pleasures which I pursue, and to which I have surrendered myself. ¬†The only matter in dispute is this, whether virtue be the cause of the highest good, or whether it be itself the highest good.” ¬†Do you suppose, though this be the only point in question, that it is a mere matter of precedence? ¬†It is a confusion and obvious blindness to prefer the last to the first. ¬†I am not angry at virtue being placed below pleasure, but at her being mixed up at all with pleasure, which she despises, whose enemy she is, and from which she separates herself as far as possible, being more at home with labour and sorrow, which are manly troubles, than with your womanish good things.

Compare this to Seneca’s slightly more opaque version of essentially the same argument, in Letter 66 above. ¬†He¬†continues to criticise his Epicurean “opponents” throughout On Benefits. ¬†For example, later in Book IV, he presents criticisms of Epicurus’ negatively-defined goal of life, absence of suffering, as being akin to sleep (or death), which were first made many centuries earlier by the Cyrenaic school:

You Epicureans take pleasure in making a study of dull torpidity, in seeking for a repose which differs little from sound sleep, in lurking beneath the thickest shade, in amusing with the feeblest possible trains of thought that sluggish condition of your languid minds which you term tranquil contemplation, and in stuffing with food and drink, in the recesses of your gardens, your bodies which are pallid with want of exercise; we Stoics, on the other hand, take pleasure in bestowing benefits, even though they cost us labour, provided that they lighten the labours of others; though they lead us into danger, provided that they save others, though they straiten our means, if they alleviate the poverty and distresses of others. (On Benefits, 4.13)