The Death of Marcus Aurelius

Older Marcus Marcus Aurelius died on 17th March 180 AD.  Excerpt from Herodian of Antioch’s History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus.  

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When Marcus was an old man, exhausted not only by age but also by labors and cares, he suffered a serious illness while visiting the Pannonians. When the emperor suspected that there was little hope of his recovery, and realized that his son would become emperor while still very young, he was afraid that the undisciplined youth, deprived of parental advice, might neglect his excellent studies and good habits and turn to drinking and debauchery (for the minds of the young, prone to pleasures, are turned very easily from the virtues of education) when he had absolute and unrestrained power.

This learned man was disturbed also by the memory of those who had become sole rulers in their youth. The Sicilian despot Dionysus, in his excessive licentiousness, had sought out new pleasures and paid the highest prices for them. The arrogance and violence of Alexander’s successors against their subject peoples had brought disgrace upon his empire.

Ptolemy, too, contrary to the laws of the Macedonians and Greeks, went so far as to marry his own sister. Antigonus had imitated Dionysus in every way, even wearing a crown of ivy instead of the Macedonian hat or the diadem, and carrying the thyrsus instead of a scepter.

Marcus was even more distressed when he recalled events of recent date. Nero had capped his crimes by murdering his mother and had made himself ridiculous in the eyes of the people. The exploits of Domitian, as well, were marked by excessive savagery.

When he recalled such spectacles of despotism as these, he was apprehensive and anticipated evil events. Then, too, the Germans on the border gave him much cause for anxiety. He had not yet forced all these tribes to submit; some he had won to an alliance by persuasion; others he had conquered by force of arms. There were some who, although they had broken their pact with him, had returned to the alliance temporarily because of the fear occasioned by the presence of so great an emperor. He suspected that, contemptuous of his son’s youth, they would launch an assault upon him; for the barbarian is ever eager to revolt on any pretext.

Roman Histories Mockup

Death of Marcus

Marcus Young and OldTroubled by these thoughts, Marcus summoned his friends and kinsmen. Placing his son beside him and raising himself up a little on his couch, he began to speak to them as follows:

“That you are distressed to see me in this condition is hardly surprising. It is natural for men to pity the sufferings of their fellow men, and the misfortunes that occur before their very eyes arouse even greater compassion. I think, however, that an even stronger bond of affection exists between you and me; in return for the favors I have done you, I have a reasonable right to expect your reciprocal good will.

And now is the proper time for me to discover that not in vain have I showered honor and esteem upon you for so long, and for you to return the favor by showing that you are not unmindful of the benefits you have received from me. Here is my son, whom you yourselves have educated, approaching the prime of youth and, as it were, in need of pilots for the stormy seas ahead. I fear that he, tossed to and fro by his lack of knowledge of what he needs to know, may be dashed to pieces on the rocks of evil practices.

You, therefore, together take my place as his father, looking after him and giving him wise counsel. No amount of money is large enough to compensate for a tyrant’s excesses, nor is the protection of his bodyguards enough to shield the ruler who does not possess the good will of his subjects.

The ruler who emplants in the hearts of his subjects not fear resulting from cruelty, but love occasioned by kindness, is most likely to complete his reign safely. For it is not those who submit from necessity but those who are persuaded to obedience who continue to serve and to suffer without suspicion and without pretense of flattery. And they never rebel unless they are driven to it by violence and arrogance.

When a man holds absolute power, it is difficult for him to control his desires. But if you give my son proper advice in such matters and constantly remind him of what he has heard here, you will make him the best of emperors for yourselves and for all, and you will be paying the greatest tribute to my memory. Only in this way can you make my memory immortal.”

At this point Marcus suffered a severe fainting spell and sank back on his couch, exhausted by weakness and worry. All who were present pitied him, and some cried out in their grief, unable to control themselves. After living another night and day, Marcus died, leaving to men of his own time a legacy of regret; to future ages, an eternal memorial of excellence.

When the news of his death was made public, the whole army in Pannonia and the common people as well were grief-stricken; indeed, no one in the Roman empire received the report without weeping. All cried out in a swelling chorus, calling him “Kind Father,” “Noble Emperor,” “Brave General,” and “Wise, Moderate Ruler,” and every man spoke the truth.

Why did Marcus Aurelius allow Commodus to succeed him?

This is a first draft.  I’ve not supplied detailed references because I’m writing it off the top of my head just to get it out there.  Please correct any errors.  I’ll check it later and add references, etc.  So apologies for any typos or whatever!

One of the most commonly asked questions on my Facebook group for Stoicism is why Marcus Aurelius, one of the good emperors, would have allowed Commodus, who turned out to be a terrible emperor, to succeed him.  Sometimes people are just puzzled by this.  Sometimes they criticize Marcus for failing in his duty either to bring up a better son or appoint a better heir.  Sometimes they’ve seen the Hollywood movie Gladiator (2000), which focuses on the character of Commodus as a bad emperor, and ask questions about its historical accuracy.  It’s a question that interests me because I run a course about the relationship between Marcus Aurelius’ life and his Stoic philosophy called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, and I’ve just finished writing a book on the same subject.

Marcus and Commodus in Gladiator

Maximus, Commodus, and Marcus Aurelius in GladiatorLet me start by briefly recapping what happens in Gladiator because those images seem to influence a lot of these discussions…  In the first act, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is depicted as Caesar, the heir to the Roman empire, with his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), on the northern frontier, during the Second Marcomannic War.  A frail and elderly Marcus tells Commodus that he has changed his mind about appointing him emperor and that one of his generals, Maximus (Russell Crowe), will serve as an interim ruler managing Rome’s transition back to a republic.

MARCUS: Are you ready to do your duty for Rome?
COMMODUS [with a slight smile on his face]: Yes, father.
MARCUS: You will not be Emperor.
COMMODUS [the smile quickly vanishes leaving in its place painful bewilderment]: Which wiser, older man is to take my place?
MARCUS: My powers will pass to Maximus to hold in trust until the Senate is ready to rule once more. Rome is to be a Republic again.

Commodus then strangles his father, makes himself emperor anyway, and tries to have Maximus murdered, setting up the plot for the rest of the film.

There’s also a Netflix docuseries about Commodus called Roman Empire: Reign of Blood (2016), which approaches the subject from a slightly more historical perspective.  Several academics appear as talking heads, discussing Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and dramatized sections are interspersed depicting the events of his life.  The experts are fairly reliable but the dramatized segments are a little hit and miss in their depiction, inevitably, as they have to make things exciting for the viewer and where there’s some uncertainty or conflict in the ancient sources they sometimes pick the most sensational story to tell.

Marcus Aurelius Chronology

Some Key Facts

This is a slightly complicated story.  However, I find it helps to begin just by stating a few important historical facts, which I believe are partly obscured by the portrayal of events in Gladiator, although even people who have never seen that movie are often mistaken on these points.

  1. At the time Commodus was appointed heir, Marcus was still ruling alongside his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus, who was nine years younger, and much fitter than the notoriously frail and sickly Marcus, so presumably Lucius was expected to be Marcus’ immediate successor.
  2. Marcus and Lucius together appointed Commodus Caesar, official heir to the throne, along with his younger brother, Marcus Annius Verus, on 12th October 166, when Commodus was a child aged five years old.  Presumably at this time the most likely scenario would have been that when Marcus died, Commodus would serve alongside Lucius Verus as his junior co-emperor.
  3. Commodus had already been ruling as Emperor for about three years before Marcus died.  Marcus had his son acclaimed Imperator on 27th November 176 AD and later, in the summer of 177 AD, he was granted the title Augustus, making him co-emperor with Marcus.

So whereas Commodus is portrayed as Caesar in the movie Gladiator, waiting to succeed Marcus, who then refuses to let him take the throne, in reality Commodus had already been emperor for about three years before Marcus died.  Incidentally, although there were rumours that Commodus had Marcus assassinated, which Cassius Dio repeats, he also says that when Marcus was dying he took the precaution of having his son taken under armed guard so that he couldn’t be accused of his murder.

[Marcus Aurelius] passed away on the seventeenth of March, not as a result of the disease from which he still suffered, but by the act of his physicians, as I have been plainly told, who wished to do Commodus a favour.  When now he was at the point of death, he commended his son to the protection of the soldiers (for he did not wish his death to appear to be due to Commodus) […] (Cassius Dio)

Marcus was nearly sixty and apparently dying of the plague, so it hardly seems necessary for Commodus to have gone to the trouble of ordering his physicians to assassinate him, although it’s possible.

Hadrian’s Succession Plan

Emperors in GalleryNow let’s get a little deeper into the complexities…  Imperial succession arrangements were often complicated and mysterious.  To understand Commodus we have to go right back to his great-grandfather, by adoption, the emperor Hadrian.  Hadrian was childless.  Toward the end of his life his behaviour was becoming erratic.  He surprised everyone by choosing a man called Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor.  Hadrian granted him the  imperial title Caesar, starting a tradition that the heir to the throne would take that title in advance.  However, the man died suddenly about a year later, forcing Hadrian to come up with another candidate.

He then adopted a man called Aurelius Antoninus and appointed him Caesar on condition that Antoninus would in turn adopt a young boy called Marcus Annius Verus and make him his own successor.  The boy Marcus took Antoninus’ family name and became forever known as Marcus Aurelius.  So there was a plan that stretched decades into the future.  However, these arrangements could easily be overturned by events.  The man Hadrian had originally appointed Caesar had a young son, also called Lucius.  The Senate were terrified of the possibility of civil war caused by rival factions fighting over claims to the throne.  When Hadrian died he was hated by the Senate for spying on and executing his enemies at Rome.  He’d also left them with the problem of what to do about the boy Lucius.

Marcus and Lucius as Co-Emperors

Lucius VerusWhen the Emperor Antoninus died, Marcus Aurelius was acclaimed emperor but he insisted that the Senate recognize Lucius as his co-emperor.  Lucius then took Marcus’ family name and became the Emperor Lucius Verus.  Lucius was also betrothed to Marcus’ young daughter, Lucilla, making him Marcus’ son-in-law as well as his adoptive brother.  (I know, it’s confusing but bear with me…)  This was the first time that Rome had been ruled by two emperors jointly.  It was probably considered necessary to unite the empire and prevent instability caused by the mess Hadrian had left by creating two rival dynasties with a claim on the throne.

The histories make it clear that although on paper they were  (virtually) equals, Marcus was effectively the senior party and Lucius obeyed him like a provincial governor or a lieutenant in the army.   I won’t go too much into Lucius’ character except to say he was quite the opposite of Marcus and whereas Marcus was a workaholic who spent his youth tirelessly studying and gaining experience of Roman law and government, Lucius was very idle and clearly came nowhere near Marcus’ level of competence and experience as a ruler.  The one thing Marcus lacked was any military experience.  As far as we know Lucius didn’t have any either but he was young, handsome, obsessed with sports, and probably quite popular, so it seems to have been envisaged his role would be more involved with the military.  When the two emperors were acclaimed, therefore, it was Lucius who was sent to deliver a speech to the soldiers, and not long after, when the Parthian War broke out, Marcus sent Lucius to Syria to oversee the campaign.

We’ve no direct confirmation of this but it stands to reason that at this point in time it would have been assumed that Lucius would outlive Marcus and effectively become his successor.  Lucius was nine years younger than Marcus and much fitter and healthier than him.  He was also married to Marcus’ daughter, and it was said Marcus treated him more like a son than a brother.  He may also have been a bad emperor but it seems that Marcus felt it was necessary, for some reason, to appoint him.  Presumably because it was feared that a rival dynasty would split the empire, which in turn would leave it vulnerable to invasion, as we’ll see.

Lucius didn’t really distinguish himself during the Parthian War.  He reputedly spent his time partying far away from the action and let his generals do all the work for him.  One in particular, Avidius Cassius, became a rising star, and we’ll be returning to his part in the story later.  However, Lucius returned to Rome and celebrated his victory.  Unfortunately, the Roman legions returning to their garrisons across Europe brought back a disease, probably a strain of smallpox, which became known as the Antonine Plague.  This pestilence ravaged the empire throughout the rest of Marcus’ reign and well into the reign of Commodus.  We’re told bodies were carried out of Rome by the cartload.  It’s been estimated that five million people across the empire may have died as a result of this plague.  The Antonine Plague is an important character in this story because the histories tell us that by taking the lives of so many people it disrupted society in many ways.  Those to whom family fortunes were bequeathed died prematurely.  Experienced senators, military officers, and government officials died prematurely and had to be replaced – there was a high turnover of staff in important positions.  We can see this affected the imperial succession also.

The Marcomannic Wars

Marcus Annius VerusShortly after Lucius returned, a huge coalition army of barbarian tribes from the north, led by King Ballomar of the Marcomanni, invaded the northern provinces, overrunning them.  They crossed the Alps, Rome’s natural defensive barrier, and rampaged through Italy, finally besieging the Roman city of Aquileia.  This time both Marcus and Lucius took command of the military response and left Rome together to drive the barbarian horde out of Italy and liberate the northern province of Pannonia.  War in the north would occupy Marcus for most of the rest of his reign and it would also cost the lives of many Romans, including men in senior positions.  The city of Rome itself was thrown into total panic by the news that a barbarian army had penetrated Italy, because they feared Rome would be sacked.

Ballomar had seized the opportunity when Rome was weak.  Beleaguered troops were still on their way back to their garrisons in the north from the Parthian War far to the east.  The legions had also been devastated by the plague, which thrived in the conditions found in army camps.  It was at this time that Marcus and Lucius agreed to appoint Marcus’ two sons, Commodus and Marcus Annius Verus, as Caesar.  This was undoubtedly done in response to the panic at Rome.   Although his own succession had been planned by Hadrian far in advance, Marcus himself wasn’t appointed Caesar by Antoninus until he was eighteen.  It was clearly assumed that both Marcus and Lucius might die suddenly and that it was better to have a successor in place than leave Rome in chaos.  The death rate among children due to the plague would have been particularly high.  That may be one reason who two boys were appointed Caesar but it’s also likely that Marcus planned for the brothers to rule jointly one day, as he and Lucius had done.

People often comment online that the Roman emperors typically adopted their successors and Marcus should have done likewise.  The precedent for this was set when Julius Caesar adopted Octavian who went on to become Augustus, the first Roman emperor.  However, the Roman emperors who adopted heirs normally did so because they had no suitable natural heirs of their own.  For example, Hadrian adopted Antoninus and Antoninus adopted Marcus because they had no sons available to succeed them.  The Roman people actually believed very strongly in natural succession, just like most barbarian peoples did.  An emperor who had a natural heir, like Marcus, and chose to bypass him to adopt an heir, would risk creating a rival dynasty and dividing the empire.  As rivals to the throne were often murdered, adopting a successor would also mean placing his own son’s life in very serious jeopardy.  (On the other hand, as we’ll see, Marcus possibly did consider adopting an interim successor, Pompeianus, who would perhaps have become emperor if Marcus died while Commodus was still a boy, subsequently appointing Commodus his co-emperor, to rule jointly, when he reached a suitable age.)

The fact that Marcus’ two sons were appointed Caesar did perhaps create a slight anomaly because the most likely scenario would be that Lucius would have outlived Marcus, as we’ve seen.  There would be two Caesars but only one position open, in that case, for a co-emperor.  So presumably it was envisaged that Commodus would serve as junior co-emperor to Lucius Verus and later, after the death of Lucius, Marcus Annius Verus would join his brother and rule alongside him.  Also, Lucius was childless but if he’d had a son surely it would have created another conflict over succession.  (Rome would have potentially been ruled by an emperor who had a natural heir but had already appointed two sons of his deceased brother as his heirs.)  In any case, I would suggest that the Senate urged Marcus and Lucius to appoint these children Caesars before leaving for war because they felt it was necessary for the stability of the empire.

Death of Lucius and Marcus Annius Verus

Shortly after these wars began on the northern front, two deaths shook the empire and upset these plans.  The young Caesar Marcus Annius Verus died during an operation on a tumour.  Marcus lost about seven children altogether, including several sons.  He was getting old now and Commodus, still a child, was his only surviving son.  Shortly after this, the emperor Lucius Verus suddenly dropped dead, possibly another victim of the plague.  There were, as always, rumours that Marcus had him assassinated but most scholars dismiss this as typical court gossip.  Nevertheless, there was a faction on the Senate who opposed Marcus’ ongoing campaign in the north and they possibly propagated these and other rumours against him.

Around this time, Marcus also lost his main Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, who was back at Rome serving as urban prefect.  So he must have felt increasingly isolated.  I believe there are signs in The Meditations and in the histories that Marcus was greatly affected by the loss of his children and struggled to cope emotionally by leaning more heavily on his Stoic training.  (Did he perhaps begin writing The Meditations partly as a way of coping with the loss of his tutors and family members?)  I think the whole empire was worried that Commodus wouldn’t survive, during the plague when many children died.  And I think we can see hints that Marcus was affected by this climate and also concerned about the possible loss of his only surviving son, especially now that Lucius was gone.  All eyes were  suddenly on Commodus, though still a child.

The children of Roman nobles were usually raised by nurses who were slaves and possibly their mothers took some part in their care but often they had little contact with their fathers until they became older.  On the other hand, Marcus’ private letters to Fronto reveal him to be an incredibly affectionate man and a loving parent.  He describes his children as his little chicks in a nest.  (These displays of familial affection seem perhaps a little out of character for a Roman of this period.)  Nevertheless, for most of Commodus’ youth Marcus was extremely busy.   With no military experience whatsoever, after the death of Lucius Verus, Marcus was suddenly and unexpectedly left in command of the largest army ever massed on a northern frontier, numbering an estimated 140,000 men, including legions, auxiliary units, naval units on the Danube, etc.  Marcus was mostly stationed at the front line, in Pannonia (modern Austria), several weeks’ travel away from Rome.  It seems his family sometimes visited him but generally we have to assume he was just far to busy fighting a massive campaign and running the empire in a time of great turmoil, far away from Rome, to have had much time to participate in his son’s upbringing.  Nevertheless, we’re told Marcus took great care to provide the best possible tutors for his son, presumably men of good character and wisdom.

Pertinax and Pompeianus

Tiberius Claudius PompeianusThe plague and war took the lives of many men whose positions had to be filled, so it created the opportunity to promote new men.  Marcus caused some controversy by promoting individuals of humble stock, based on merit.  One of them, Pertinax, was the son of a freedman who rose to become one of Marcus’ two right-hand men during the Marcomannic Wars.  Later, he would succeed Commodus and,this son of a former slave would, albeit briefly, become emperor.  The other was Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, a Syrian of humble origins who had distinguished himself during the Parthian War.  He was close friends with Pertinax and rose to become Marcus’ most senior general on the northern frontier.

Marcus betrothed Pompeianus to his daughter, Lucilla, the widow of Lucius Verus.  She was one of the most powerful women in Rome, being titled Augusta, empress, from her marriage to Lucius, and also a daughter of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  By marrying her, Pompeianus was brought into Marcus’ dynasty.  It was rumoured that Marcus asked Pompeianus to become Caesar, presumably as an interim ruler while Commodus matured and gained experience.  However, for some mysterious reason he refused.  Indeed, it’s said Pompeianus was invited to become emperor three times altogether and refused each time.  (Marcus invited him to become Caesar, Pertinax asked him to accede to the throne after Commodus was assassinated and Julianus who succeeded Pertinax asked him to become joint emperor with him.)

Pompeianus was probably almost as powerful as Avidius Cassius, another Syrian general.  However, Cassius was of extremely noble birth and “born to rule” so I would suspect he possibly resented the fact that his rival was a countryman from the lower ranks of society.  We can’t know for sure but I wonder whether Pompeianus refused the invitation to become Marcus’ successor because he was concerned it would incite Cassius to declare civil war.  We’re told Pompeianus later lost his eyesight, which was a common consequence of the plague, due to the pustules spreading onto the eyes.  It may be that in later life he felt he wasn’t physically up to the task of ruling and it’s a sign of the esteem in which he was held, perhaps, that he was twice invited to rule despite being almost blind.  The Aurelian Column which depicts Marcus’ campaign on the northern frontier shows him with Pompeianus by his side.  Incidentally, Russell Crowe’s character the general named Maximus in Gladiator appears to be loosely based on Pompeianus.

The Civil War of Avidius Cassius

Then something else happened that sheds considerable light on the status of Commodus.  Marcus was notoriously sickly.  During the winter of 174/175 AD he seems to have become extremely ill and rumours of his death spread across the empire like wildfire.  This led to Avidius Cassius being acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion, far away in the east.  Marcus survived, however, and this led to a civil war.  Cassius was a notoriously strict and brutal military commander.  He’d climbed rapidly to power following the Parthian War and after quelling a huge uprising in Egypt, he was now effectively governor-general over the whole of the eastern empire.   It’s said that after the death of Lucius Verus, six years earlier, he began plotting against Marcus.  By this point he was probably the second most powerful man in the empire next to Marcus himself.  The prefect of Egypt gave him his support as did most of the eastern provinces, and a number of senators.

So we can probably assume that for many years, Marcus was aware that Cassius presented a potential threat and he was cautious about a situation like this arising.  Although Commodus turned out to be a bad emperor, his character at this point was probably unknown to Marcus.  However, Cassius was known to be a brutal man and Marcus and the Senate perhaps feared the possibility that he would claim the throne and become a tyrannical ruler.  Although we often have ambiguous historical information about the motives of these individuals, we can once again see very clearly what actions Marcus took in response to this crisis.

He immediately had Commodus brought from Rome to the military camp in Pannonia.  Commodus happened to be fifteen years old now so Marcus had him take the toga virilis, signifying that he had become an adult Roman citizen.  It seems clear that Marcus wanted to protect Commodus from danger, to build support for him among the northern legions, and to put him in a position to assume power so that there was less uncertainty over the succession.  From this point on, Commodus remained in his father’s company.  So we could argue that Marcus now had time to mentor his son and study his character.  However, it’s far too late now for Marcus to change course.  He couldn’t strip Commodus of the title Caesar, granted to him ten years earlier.  If he wanted to stop Commodus becoming his successor his only real option would be to have him assassinated, which would be against his Stoic Ethics.  Even if he’d stripped Commodus of the title Caesar, he would have created a situation where he remained in the wings as a potential rival to any successor, around whom opposing factions could rally, splitting the empire in another civil war.

Marcus and Commodus as Co-Emperors

Commodus as HerculesMarcus successfully put down the civil war and Cassius was beheaded by his own officers.  As noted above, Commodus was then rapidly promoted to the rank of co-emperor.  Some of the histories suggest that Marcus now began to realize that Commodus was going to be a bad emperor.  However, we’re also told that he wasn’t so much a bad person as a weak or gullible one.  He was easily swayed by hangers-on.

This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature.  And this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died, leaving him many guardians, among whom were numbered the best men of the senate. But their suggestions and counsels Commodus rejected, and after making a truce with the barbarians he rushed to Rome; for he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city. (Cassius Dio)

In particular, Marcus asked his son-in-law and most trusted general, Pompeianus, to take responsibility for Commodus after his death and keep him out of trouble.  After Marcus died, with Commodus now as sole emperor, it’s said that he immediately sought to abandon the northern campaign by paying huge bribes to the barbarian kings, so that he could return to Rome.  We’re told Pompeianus was the only one brave enough to confront the new emperor and challenge his behaviour, arguing that he must remain with the army and finish the campaign.

So there was allegedly a sort of tug-of-war between Pompeianus and Commodus’ friends.  After a few weeks, his friends won and Commodus abandoned the legions to return to Rome.  There wasn’t much that Pompeianus could do to stop him.  In one fell swoop, he’d lost all credibility with the army.  An emperor normally requires the support of the legions or the Senate or the people of Rome.  I think Commodus was now forced to become a populist in order to secure his position.  Without the support of the legions or the Senate he turned himself into a sort of celebrity, fighting in the arena, throwing extravagant spectacles for the people and building a mythology around himself.  He even had statues erected portraying himself as the Greek hero (and deity) Hercules, bearing his distinctive club and lion-skin headdress.

Was Marcus to Blame?

I’ll let others decide to what extent Marcus was to “blame” for Commodus.  To me it seems that Marcus and the Senate were struggling to prevent civil war from dividing the empire because they knew that in its weakened state Rome would potentially be overrun by barbarian invaders if rival factions started fighting over the throne.  I think they also planned for joint rule as a safety measure against a bad or tyrannical emperor taking control of Rome but the Marcomannic Wars and the Antonine Plague created turmoil that interfered with these plans.  I also think Marcus tried to surround Commodus with advisors and to put him in the care of Pompeianus as a safety measure but that was negated when Commodus simply fled from the front leaving Pompeianus and others behind, and surrounding himself with individuals at Rome who further corrupted him.  I think he found himself in a situation where he felt it was necessary to become a celebrity rather than a genuine ruler, something Marcus would have warned him against, and that inevitably led him further and further astray.

The Stoics would say that we can’t hold parents responsible for their children.  Even Socrates had wayward sons and students.  You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  One of the very early philosophers admired by the Stoics was Stilpo, of the Megarian School, a teacher of Zeno of Citium.  He had a notoriously dissolute daughter, apparently.  People used to hold that against him but Stilpo replied, I think with some justification, “Her behaviour can no more brings dishonour upon me than mine can bring honour upon her.”  I think it’s worth contemplating how that saying might relate to Marcus and Commodus.

What do the Stoic Virtues Mean?

Stoic Virtue Infographic by Rocio de TorresThe Stoics often refer to the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  (Or if you prefer: wisdom, morality, courage, and moderation.)

We don’t know where this classification originated.  It appears to go back as far as Plato or Socrates, although probably even further.  This was a very ancient, conventional schema for understanding virtue.  The Stoics don’t appear to have assumed it was the only or the best way to conceptualize the virtues.  They often prefer to think of virtue, from a slightly different perspective, as living in harmony with Nature at three different levels.  In some ways these models overlap.

However, the cardinal virtues have remained popular as a way of interpreting ancient philosophical ethics throughout the ages.  One of my hesitations about introducing newcomers to Stoicism through this model is that the Greek words are difficult to translate into modern English and the meanings were probably also somewhat stretched by the Stoics to fit their philosophy.  It’s a slightly ill-fitting classification, although it’s simple and appealing, so we shouldn’t get to hung up on taking it literally, as if these words provide the only way to describe virtue.

People often wrangle over the definitions of Greek philosophical terms, which can lead to some rather speculative translations.  Believe it or not, though, we actually have a Greek philosophical dictionary that survives from the time of Plato.  It’s called Definitions, and is believed to have probably been written by one of Plato’s followers at the Academy.  So there’s are not Stoic definitions of the virtues but knowing how Platonists defined them certainly helps us a lot.  For instance, this is how the Academy defined the word “virtue” itself:

aretê (virtue/excellence).  The best disposition; the state of a mortal creature which is in itself praiseworthy; the state on account of which its possessor is said to be good; the just observance of the laws; the disposition on account of which he who is so disposed is said to be perfectly excellent; the state which produces faithfulness to law.

It’s also worth mentioning the notoriously tricky eudaimonia, which is conventionally rendered as “happiness”, although most scholars agree that’s a misleading translation.  Its meaning is closer to the archaic sense of the word “happiness”, which was the opposite of hapless, wretched or unfortunate.  A better translation would be “fulfillment” or “flourishing”, as you can see from the Academic definition.

eudaimonia (happiness/fulfilment).  The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.

This will be a slightly more scholarly blog post than some.  I’ve listed the four cardinal virtues below with the definitions from the Academy and also some notes on what the early Stoic fragments say in Diogenes Laertius, Stobaeus, etc.  I’ve not referenced everything extensively here, though, for the sake of brevity.  (It’s just a quick blog post.)  You’ll find most of this information in the Stoic fragments from Diogenes Laertius and Stobaeus, though, and in Pierre Hadot’s Inner Citadel and A.A. Long’s Epictetus.

The Cardinal Virtues

phronêsis (prudence/practical wisdom)

The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.

In a sense, all of the virtues can be understood as wisdom applied to our actions, or moral wisdom.  Prudence is the most important and most general of the Stoic virtues because it refers, as here, to the firmly-grasped knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent in life.  In other words, understanding the most important things in life or grasping the value of things rationally.  It’s opposite is the vice of ignorance.  Most crucially for Stoics it means firmly grasping the nature of the good: understanding that virtue or wisdom itself is the only true good, and living accordingly.  Prudence is therefore closely related to the very meaning of the word “philosophy”: love of wisdom.

However, it can also refer to our ability to discern the value (axia) of different external things rationally, i.e., distinguishing wisely between different “preferred indifferents”.  (A point discussed in detail by the Stoic Cato of Utica in Cicero’s De Finibus.)  Marcus refers to this as acting and responding to things “in accord with value”.  Stobaeus likewise says the early Stoics defined it as knowing the nature of the good and bad, understanding indifferent things, and knowing what would be “appropriate action” under different circumstances.  Diogenes Laertius says that Chrysippus and others sub-divided prudence into good counsel (euboulia) and understanding (sunesis).  That’s intriguing because it links prudence to Stoic Rhetoric, and the ability to communicate the truth appropriately to other people, honestly but tactfully, such as the way Marcus described his wise Stoic teachers expressing their doctrines.  It’s also clear that the Stoics believed the wise man is able to offer himself good counsel.

The Stoics divided their curriculum into three: Logic, Ethics, and Physics.  They may have linked Prudence with the topic of Stoic Logic, which encompassed epistemology and psychology, and appears related to the practices that Epictetus called the Discipline of Assent.

dikaiosunê (justice/morality)

The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.

This is perhaps the most problematic translation.  Our modern word “justice” seems too formal or narrow for what the Stoics meant.  The Stoics don’t just mean what’s just in the legal sense but what would be moral in our dealings with others more generally.  For instance, they take it to encompass a mother’s attitude toward her children or our sense of piety toward the gods.  In the past it was therefore often translated more broadly as “righteousness”, or some modern authors simply refer to it as social virtue or morality.  It’s opposing vice occurs when we are unjust or do wrong by another person morally.

We’re told that it was composed mainly of the subordinate virtues of kindness and fairness.  So although it may not be apparent from the word “justice” this is a much broader concept of social virtue, which encompasses the numerous references to kindness, benevolence, or goodwill toward others found in Stoic writings, particularly throughout The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.   Indeed, Marcus actually says that justice is the most important of the virtues.

You can view justice largely as moral wisdom applied to our actions, particularly in relation to other people individually or society as a whole.  Stobaeus says that it is the knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person or fair “distributions”, i.e., in relation to preferred indifferents (external things).  Diogenes Laertius says the Stoics divided justice mainly into impartiality (isotês) and kindness/courtesy (eugnômosunê).  It may have correlated with the Stoic topic of Ethics, including politics, and what Epictetus calls the applied Discipline of Action (or Impulse to Act, referring to our voluntary intentions).

sôphrosunê (temperance/moderation)

Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.

This is also a slightly difficult term in some ways.  It refers to moderation or self-discipline/self-control but also to self-awareness or being self-possessed.  We could even view it as closely related to what many people today mean by “mindfulness”.    It’s the opposite of the vice called “wantonness” or “licentiousness”.  The many references to appropriate feelings of “shame” in Epictetus are related to this virtue and we could view it as (very) loosely related to the Christian idea of moral conscience.  Stobaeus says that it entails knowledge of “what is to be chosen, avoided, and neither” in the domain of “impulses”, i.e., it guides our intentions to act on certain desires.   Diogenes Laertius says the Stoics defined moderation mainly as good self-discipline (eutaxia) and propriety/decorum (kosmistês).

Surprisingly, some academics, most notably Pierre Hadot, view this and fortitude as being the virtues corresponding with the topic of Stoic Physics and Epictetus’ applied Discipline of Fear and Desire, which we could also call the Stoic Therapy of the Passions.  That’s easier to understand when we observe many of the Stoic exercises related to Physics and cosmology.  By viewing events in a detached manner, like a natural philosopher or a physician, the Stoics aimed to achieve an “Objective Representation” of them, suspending any judgements of good or bad, and therefore eliminating fear and desire.  Think of the modern notion of scientific detachment and objectivity.   Likewise, Hadot refers to the Stoic practice of imagining the whole of space and time as the View from Above or cosmic perspective.  This is obviously related to cosmology and Physics but the Stoics employed it to rise above their fears and desires and achieve apatheia or freedom from unhealthy passions and attachment to external things.

andreia (fortitude/courage)

The state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; military confidence; knowledge of the facts of warfare; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; the state which stands on guard over correct thinking in dangerous situations; force which counterbalances danger; force of fortitude in respect of virtue; calm in the soul about what correct thinking takes to be frightening or encouraging things; the preservation of fearless beliefs about the terrors and experiences of warfare; the state which cleaves to the law.

This is one of the simpler virtues.  It clearly means courage, although the Stoics also extend it to include endurance of pain and discomfort more generally.  It’s the opposite of the vice of “cowardice”.  It appears to form a pair with the virtue of moderation.  Both refer to the master of passions: moderation to desires and courage to fears.  Hence, they probably correlate also with Epictetus’ famous slogan: endure and renounce.  The virtue of courage allows us to endure fear and the virtue of moderation to renounce unhealthy desires.

As Seneca observed, paradoxically, these virtues cannot exist without at least some trace of fear and desire for us to master, and the Stoics insist that even the perfect Sage requires moderation and courage because he is still subject to the first movements of passion or “proto-passions” (propatheiai).  Seneca explains this in detail in On Anger and elsewhere but it’s also very vividly described by Epictetus, as recounted by Aulus Gellius’ story of the Stoic teacher caught in a storm at sea.

Stobaeus says the Stoics defined courage as knowledge of what is terrible, what is not terrible, and what is neither or “standing firm”, i.e., endurance guided by wisdom.  Diogenes Laertius says they divided courage primarily into constancy/determination (aparallaxia) and tension/vigour (eutonia).  This final virtue may correspond, alongside courage, with Stoic Physics, as described above, and also with Epictetus’ applied Discipline of Fear and Desire.

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Hi everyone,

Well, people keep telling me I should set up a Patreon page so I finally got round to doing that today and here’s the link…

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If you want to support my work on Stoicism and CBT, Patreon provides a convenient way of doing that.  I regularly get “tips” from people who have benefitted from my work, particularly the free resources I create online.  They range from one dollar to hundreds of dollars – people contribute what they’re able and I’m very grateful for everyone’s support.

At the moment, I’m busy putting the finishing touches to my forthcoming book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.  Then I’ll be doing revised second editions of Build your Resilience (2012) and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013) for Hodder.  (Believe it or not I don’t get paid for the revisions – turns out non-fiction writing isn’t as lucrative as people assume unless you’ve got a bestseller under your belt.)

I’m also creating a revised version of my flagship course, also called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which will be out soon.  In the meantime, I’ve just released a bunch of free mini-courses and downloads that you might be interested in, including the Stoic Therapy Toolkit (PDF) that people kept asking for.

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So check out my new Patreon page if you’re interested.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing more updates and resources there as well.

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Free Download of New Stoic Therapy Toolkit (PDF)

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I’m very pleased to announce that after months in preparation my new Stoic Therapy Toolkit has been published.  This is a five-page summary of core Stoic psychological practices.  People have been asking me for something like this since I started writing about Stoicism and teaching workshops on it about twenty years ago.

If you’re completely new to Stoicism, it’s a good place to start. However, we can’t compress the whole philosophy into a few pages, it’s just a summary, so you will need to read the Stoics to gain a more complete understanding of their concepts and techniques.

Very useful summary, I will carry it in my work bag! – Camelia Vasilov

Excellent! Thank you for your tireless work in making this valuable philosophy so accessible in our busy world. – Deborah L Gariepy

This printable PDF document will give you a good overview of Stoicism, and a reminder of daily practices. Many people contributed to the wording and Rocio de Torres, our graphic designer, has given it a new look.  So we’re confident you’ll appreciate the end result and find it valuable as a guide to living like a Stoic.  I’d love to know what you think.  People have already started leaving feedback online.

Thanks, looks beautiful. Can’t spare a tip but bought one of your books. 🙂 – Vince

Thank you! Clear, concise, practical and actionable. No matter how busy or preoccupied one is (or has to be) during the day, store this kit in your memory, incorporate these quick contemplations, and the tools will adapt to any occasion! – Gaelle1947

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Goal of Virtue
  3. Daily Routine
  4. Four Stoic Meditations
  5. Therapy of the Passions

You can download your free copy today from my e-learning site by clicking the button below or following this link:

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Aesop’s Fable of the town mouse and the country mouse in Marcus Aurelius, as an allegory for Stoicism.

Town MouseOne of my favourite Fables from Aesop is The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.   Did you know that his stories were used by ancient philosophers?  It was said that while in prison, awaiting execution, Socrates turned several of Aesop’s Fables into verse.  This little story can also help us to understand certain aspects of Stoic philosophy.  Seven centuries after Aesop, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was meditating upon:

The country mouse and the town mouse, and the alarm and trepidation of the latter. – Meditations, 11.22

This is my retelling of the fable…  A town mouse once visited his cousin in the countryside.  The country mouse welcomed his cousin with a simple meal of rustic food: a crust of bread and some dry oats.  However, the town mouse laughed at his unsophisticated tastes and peasant fare.  Boasting of the luxury and abundance to be found in his townhouse he insists that the country mouse should come back to the city with him for a taste of the good life.  Sure enough, they do so and feast like kings upon the finest scraps from the owner’s table, in the house where the town mouse lives hidden.  However, suddenly two dogs who hear them scratching around come hurtling into the room barking and send them scurrying for cover, in fear for their little lives.

Once they’ve caught their breath and things have calmed down, the shaken country mouse thanks his cousin for his hospitality but says he’ll be returning to his humble country dwelling right away.  He says that although the fare is simple he prefers the safety of his own home to the dangers of the city.  The town mouse’s perilous habits aren’t really the good life at all.  He’d rather eat like a peasant than risk being eaten by a ravenous dog, thanks very much!

The Roman poet Horace, who was also a student of Stoicism, among other philosophies, discussed this Fable at length (Satires, 2.6).  It’s an allegory about simplicity and “moderation in all things”.  Sometimes greed brings more trouble than it’s worth.  Many people live more contented lives by learning to enjoy what they have rather than desiring what they don’t have, or what’s just beyond their reach.

Do not think of things that are absent as though they were already at hand, but pick out the most pleasant from those that you presently have, and with these before you, reflect on how greatly you would have wished for them if they were not already here.  At the same time, however, take good care that you do not fall into the habit of overvaluing them because you are so pleased to have them, so that you would be upset if you no longer had them at some future time. – Meditations, 7.27

The Stoics advised us to bear in mind that focusing on having what we don’t have creates longing, and that can be painful when its unfulfilled.  By contrast, fewer people tend to contemplate not having what they do have, which is the prerequisite for gratitude, a much healthier state of mind in many cases, although Marcus warns himself not to become overly-attached to things in this way.

This gratitude is one form of the rational joy in life that Stoics considered to be healthy and a characteristic of the wise man.   Epictetus likewise advised his students to cultivate it by imagining that life is a banquet or festival they’ve been invited to, which will only last a short time.  Rather than grumble that it will soon be over, or find fault, they should cheerfully make the most of the opportunity.

Free Mini-Course on Stoicism

Donald! This is a wonderful and wonderfully compact introduction to Stoic philosophy… Thank you for making this available to people free of charge. I will be recommending this to friends of mine who are curious to see what this is all about. – Ronald William Brady

If you’re interested in learning more about Stoicism, check out my my free Crash Course in Stoicism.  I specifically designed it for newcomers to the subject.  It will  teach you everything you need to know to get started learning about Stoic philosophy, in less then ten minutes.  I’ve tried to answer the most common questions people ask.  Update: Over, 2,800 people have already enrolled on this course so far. Just click the button below…

Enlightening, lucid, to the point and life affirming. – Lorne Stormont Darling

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You’ll also find my current blog posts here and an archive of the old ones.

Warm regards,

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What’s the difference between stoicism and Stoicism?

Why it’s important to distinguish clearly between stoicism (small s) and Stoicism (capital S).

stoic not Stoic memeIn my experience as moderator of a large discussion forum on the topic of Stoic philosophy, some of the most common misconceptions are due simply to people confusing stoicism (lower case s) with Stoicism (upper case S).  When I’ve posted the question “What’s the difference between stoicism and Stoicism?” the most common response is some variation of: One is capitalized and the other isn’t. 

stoic Stoic screenshot

This isn’t a trivial distinction, though, because the two words have come to mean quite different things.  As Socrates pointed out, we have to agree on the correct definition of key terms to have a rational conversation about most subjects.  Likewise, when people conflate stoicism with Stoicism, from what I’ve seen over the years, they inevitably end up confusing themselves and other people.

For example, like most dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes between two separate definitions:

1 The endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.

2 An ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.

Definition 1 is lower-case stoicism.  It’s the modern-day concept of personality trait, which people typically equate with having a “stiff upper lip” or the advice to “suck it up”, and so on.

Definition 2 is upper-case Stoicism, an entire school of Greek philosophy that subsequently flourished throughout the Roman empire, and lasted for about five centuries.  It’s this form of Stoicism, Stoic philosophy, that we’re talking about when we talk about Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, and the use of Stoicism for modern-day personal development, etc.

NB: I’ve noticed several people remark that stoic is an adjective and Stoic a noun.  That’s incorrect.  According to the OED and most other English dictionaries both words can serve either as an adjective or noun.

Of course, the notion of a stoic personality trait is historically derived from the impression people have of ancient Stoic philosophy.  However, it’s only very loosely related and in some important ways actually runs quite contrary to what Stoicism teaches, as we’ll see.  They’re definitely not the same thing, nor is stoicism necessarily a part of Stoicism.  Failing to distinguish between them has therefore caused a lot of confusion about Stoic philosophy to spread on the Internet.

Apples Oranges Comparison
On the Internet people often get into arguments asserting that two things are the same because they potentially share some qualities in common: “apples and oranges are basically same thing aren’t they because they’re both fruits that grow on trees?”

This mix up between stoicism and Stoicism isn’t unusual.  Many Greek philosophical terms have been caricatured over the centuries and so we normally distinguish between the modern term and original meaning by capitalizing the latter, because it’s a proper noun.  For example,

  • epicurean is not the same as Epicurean
    The former usually implies a gourmand or someone who enjoys fine eating whereas the latter is a whole school of philosophy named after its founder Epicurus, who actually recommended fairly austere habits of eating and drinking
  • a cynic is not the same as a Cynic
    The former usually implies someone who is distrustful of others and assumes the worst of them whereas the latter is a school of Greek philosophy that teaches us, among other things, to be indifferent to the opinions and actions of other people
  • a skeptic is not the same as a Skeptic
    The former often denotes someone who doubts the truth of accepted opinions whereas the latter was an ancient philosophical movement that advised its followers to suspend judgement one way or the other
  • an academic is not the same as an Academic
    The former usually means someone who is engaged in scholarly pursuits whereas the latter denotes the school of philosophy founded at Athens by Plato
  • A sophist is different from a Sophist
    The former means someone who reasons fallaciously or manipulatively whereas the latter was a professional teacher of rhetoric and philosophy.
  • And so on…

Some of these words have come to mean a vague trait that can at times be used in ways that relate accurately to at least some aspect the philosophy from which they’re derived.  For instance, the ancient Academics were typically known for being quite academic, in the modern sense, or scholarly, but there’s much more to the philosophy than that.  Likewise, often the Sophists were accused by philosophers of specious reasoning or what we now call sophistry but a few were held in high regard such as Prodicus, a good friend of Socrates.  Some of these other terms, particularly epicurean are very misleading caricatures of what the philosophy actually taught, and often be used in ways that have the potential to become very misleading if we’re trying to talk about the philosophy.  So it’s actually extremely important to capitalize and distinguish between the common noun, epicureanism, and the proper noun Epicureanism.  But people also have to understand the distinction.

When it comes to mixing up the words Stoicism and stoicism, there are several problems.  Firstly, people often just equate it with mental toughness and so it’s not unusual for them to argue that people they revere as tough or self-disciplined are Stoic role models.  The UFC fighter Conor McGregor is a typical example people choose but there are many similar conversations on the Internet.  Now, it’s fair to say he may be someone tough and self-disciplined but he’s obviously very far removed from figures like Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, who were held up as examples of Stoicism in the ancient world.  He’s probably a better embodiment of stoicism than Stoicism.  He arguably doesn’t embody the Stoic virtues of wisdom and justice, or natural affection toward others and ethical cosmopolitanism, in quite the way that Marcus Aurelius does.  But there are nevertheless a surprising number of people on the Internet who confuse the two things in this way: tough guys as Stoics – something the ancient Stoics would have been completely puzzled by as they viewed competitive sports as vanity and a distraction from the lifelong pursuit of moral excellence and philosophical wisdom.  (The Stoics believed in moderate exercise, engaged in for the health of the body and the development of character, but it shouldn’t normally be our main pursuit in life and the competitive aspect would appear petty and absurd to them.)

The word stoic also implies to many people some kind of suppression or concealment of unpleasant feelings: the stiff upper-lip notion.  Boys don’t cry, etc.  That’s particularly problematic, though, because it’s well-known from large volumes of modern research in the field of psychotherapy that the suppression of negative feelings can be quite harmful.  I don’t have space here to elaborate in great detail on the reasons for that, unfortunately, but it’s taken for granted by most modern evidence-based psychotherapists that emotional suppression is typically unhealthy.  To touch on just one small aspect: the more strongly people judge unpleasant thoughts and feelings to be bad, harmful, or undesirable the more attention they will automatically allocate to them.

In extreme cases, people can end up torturing themselves with doomed attempts to suppress distressing automatic thoughts, as in some forms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  Likewise, people who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder typically view symptoms of their nerves or anxiety as embarrassing and humiliating and strongly desire to conceal shaking hands or suppress their negative thoughts and anxious feelings while speaking to others.  However, that usually backfires by increasing their self-consciousness, making their behaviour feel more stilted and awkward, and amplifying their anxious feelings.  By contrast, as the Stoics knew, people who don’t care if they look or feel anxious, and accept their own nervous sensations with indifference, are likely to fare much better.

People often think that being stoic means trying to suppress natural feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety, and to hide the fact they’re feeling tearful or shaking, etc.   That typically means they’re judging these things as “bad” or harmful in some sense – judging the feelings negatively.  The ancient Stoics, by contrast, make a clear distinction between automatic feelings (proto-passions, propatheiai) and full-blown unhealthy passions, which are under voluntary control.  The Stoics advise us to accept our initial automatic feelings with total indifference, as being natural and inevitable, and to be indifferent toward other people seeing evidence of them.  The clearest illustration of this comes from a famous anecdote in Aulus Gellius where he describes a Stoic’s anxiety during a dangerous storm at sea.  Stoics do cry, and shake, and grow pale.  They don’t view this negatively or care much about it.  What they do care about is what happens next: how they voluntarily respond to these feelings.

When people talk about being stoic they often mean trying to suppress automatic emotional reactions, therefore, which they view as negative.  A Stoic philosopher would view the same feelings with detached indifference, though, as neither good nor bad – he would accept them as natural and inevitable, and beyond his direct control.  The word stoic is often just used as a synonym for unemotional and that’s definitely not what Stoicism teaches –the ancient Stoics repeatedly emphasized that their ideal was not to be like statues or men with hearts of stone.  Rather than trying to suppress feelings or sensations, which would entail judging an indifferent to be bad or harmful, the Stoics tried to modify the underlying value judgement.  That approach happens to be more in accord with the way modern cognitive therapists approach emotional change and it’s very different from what people mean by “keeping a stiff upper lip”.

Another observation that seems to help is this…  When people conflate stoicism and Stoicism they’re typically ignoring the entire social dimension of Stoic Ethics.  When they say that someone is a stoic they don’t usually have in mind that they believe justice, fairness, and kindness are cardinal virtues in life, that we should cultivate the bond of natural affection that exists between us and other human beings, and treat them as equals, as part of a brotherhood of man, viewing all people as our fellow-citizens in a single cosmic city.  (The word cosmopolitan is another whose meaning has been corrupted over the centuries – it means a citizen of the whole cosmos who treats others as her fellow-citizens.)  I’ve found that framing the question like this often serves to highlight the difference: “What’s the difference between being stoic about the welfare of others and being Stoic about the welfare of others?”

There’s also the matter of healthy emotions in Stoicism.  For many people stoicism seems to have some connotation of being unemotional or at least it sounds a little odd to their ears to say that stoics could be particularly cheerful and affectionate.  However, the Stoic philosophers had a whole system of classification for healthy emotions: their goal was not simply to be emotionally empty but rather to experience healthy feelings of joy, cheerfulness, affection, and so on, which naturally supervene upon virtue.  I notice that when people conflate stoicism and Stoicism they find this baffling and sometimes even joke about how Stoics having feelings is a sort of contradiction in terms, something inconceivable to them.  However, healthy emotions play a central role in Stoicism and, for instance, Marcus Aurelius refers very frequently to feelings of joy or cheerfulness and affection toward others.

People sometimes continue to equate stoicism and Stoicism even after reading popular Stoic texts like The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  That’s actually quite puzzling and can only come from a very superficial reading.  Marcus actually talks about the social virtues on virtually every page of The Meditations, it’s his main preoccupation, unsurprisingly, as emperor of Rome.  Nevertheless, people sometimes still manage to come away with the total misconception that being a Stoic meant being tough-minded and totally uncaring about others.  I find that when that’s pointed out and they go back and take a second look at the text, though, the depth of their misunderstanding usually becomes very apparent to them.  It should be clear as crystal that Marcus believes that to be a Stoic we must aim to live in harmony with others.   To turn our back on them or rage against them is viewed by him as a cancerous form of alienation, completely at odds with Stoic Ethics.   The Stoic wise man is kind to others and wants to help them.  We know Marcus wanted his reign to be remembered above all as exemplifying the virtue of Beneficence toward others. People seldom have that aspiration in mind when they talk about being Stoic, and confuse it with being stoic, though.