The new revised version of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, my online course about the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, will be starting on Sunday 18th February.
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
- The Goal of Virtue
- Daily Routine
- Four Stoic Meditations
- 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:
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
Why it’s important to distinguish clearly between stoicism (small s) and Stoicism (capital S).
In 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 conflating stoicism (lower case s) and 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.
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 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.
This 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.
Article describing the Stoic circle of Thrasea and their importance to us in terms of understanding later Roman Stoics such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
[Draft – I haven’t finished this but I’m publishing it to help provide inspiration for a Wikipedia draft article on the Stoic Opposition.]
Thrasea, or Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus, was a Stoic Roman Senator, executed by the Emperor Nero in 66 AD. We know a reasonable amount about the circle of Stoics associated with him because they formed an important political faction opposing the tyrannical rule of emperors they considered tyrannical and autocratic, particularly Nero and later Domitian. For convenience, scholars today refer to them as the Stoic Opposition of the 1st century AD but they also appear to have been inspired by earlier Stoics and other philosophers of the Roman Republic who shared similar political ideals, particularly Cato of Utica and his nephew and son-in-law Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar.
Thrasea and his circle are also of interest because of their importance to the late Roman Stoics whose philosophical writings survive.
Gaius Rubellius Plautus (33 – 62 AD) was a wealthy Roman nobleman and a rival contender for the imperial throne during the reign of Nero, as grandson of the Emperor Tiberius and therefore part of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. As early as 55 AD, Nero’s mother Agrippina was accused of plotting to replace him as emperor with Plautus. His critics claimed that he had become a follower of Stoicism and he was associated with the Stoic opposition to Nero. Indeed, Musonius Rufus accompanied him into exile when he was banished by Nero in 60 AD. In 62 AD, in response to rumours that Plautus’ was plotting a rebellion in the eastern empire, Nero had him beheaded. Later, in 66 AD, Nero had Plautus’ widow, children, and father-in-law executed as well.
Thrasea – TBD
Thrasea, or Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus, came from a wealthy and highly-regarded family. Thrasea was hated and feared by the Emperor Nero. Thrasea was related by marriage to the Stoic poet Persius, who was a member of Seneca’s circle. We don’t know very much about his initial rise to prominence under Nero but he distinguished himself enough to succeed Seneca, in 56 AD, in the temporary post of suffect consul. He earned a reputation for someone prepared to oppose the emperor and to defend the freedom of the senate. By 58 AD, he was openly opposing Nero’s tyrannical behaviour, and the collusion of the senate. Nero had his own mother brutally murdered. Seneca wrote a speech justifying this, which was been read in the senate. All senators were required to respond and pressured into congratulating Nero on this heinous crime. However, Thrasea refused, walking out of the senate in protest, ‘since he could not say what he would, and would not say what he could’, according to Cassius Dio. For the next four years, until 62 AD, Seneca continued to act as Nero’s advisor, while Thrasea began to build the Stoic opposition to his regime. From roughly 63 AD onward, Thrasea refused to attend senate meetings, which was widely seen as a political protest against Nero’s regime.
Thrasea clearly admired Cato of Utica as another Stoic who defended the freedom of the Senate and Republican values. He wrote a famous Life of Cato, which though lost was one of the main sources for Plutarch’s surviving Life of Cato.
When Nero had Thrasea executed the others, including Helvidius and Agrippinus received lesser penalties.
…the infamous Nero, a little before he put Thrasea to death, whom he hated and feared intensely, nevertheless when someone accused him of a bad and unjust decision in court, said: “I wish Thrasea were as good a friend to me as he is a most excellent judge.” (Plutarch, Precepts of Statecraft)
Helvidius Priscus, was the son-in-law of Thrasea, and another highly-regarded member of the Stoic opposition. He was married to Thrasea’s daughter Fannia, who is also portrayed as a Stoic. He lived through the reign of Nero, and was eventually executed by the Emperor Vespasian. Helvidius greatly admired Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius both mention holding him in high regard.
Fannia was the daughter of Thrasea, and wife of Helvidius Priscus. She also seems to have been an important member of the Stoic opposition faction.
Paconius Agrippinus, was another Roman senator and Stoic philosopher, accused alongside Thrasea and sent into exile. He was held in very high regard by Epictetus.
Arulenus Rusticus, c. 35 – 95 AD, another senator and Stoic follower of Thrasea. He was executed by the emperor Domitian for writing a public speech praising Thrasea. He was the ancestor of Junius Rusticus, the main Stoic tutor of Marcus Aurelius, creating a direct link between Marcus and the circle of Thrasea.
In 66 AD, the young Arulenus Rusticus offered to use his tribunal veto to save the life of Thrasea, who was being tried before the Senate on a completely trumped up charge, so that Nero could have him executed. Thrasea refused, saying that this would merely place the life of the tribune in danger without saving him. The implication was that Arulenus was courageously offering to risk his own life, in open defiance of Nero, to buy Thrasea a temporary reprieve.
Herennius Senecio, who died in 93 AD, was another member of the Stoic opposition to Domitian, who wrote a book praising Helvidius Priscus.
He was accused by Celer of, among other things, being a friend and sympathizer of Plautus, and inciting rebellion against Nero in Asia.
Publius Egnatius Celer was a Stoic teacher, who taught and then was paid off to make false accusations against Barea Soranus. He was later accused by Musonius Rufus. He was perceived as someone who assumed the role of a philosopher, but was vicious at heart.
Place was then given to the witnesses, and the appearance among them of Publius Egnatius [Celer] provoked as much indignation as the cruelty of the prosecution had excited pity. A client of [Barea] Soranus, and now hired to ruin his friend, he professed the dignified character of a Stoic, and had trained himself in demeanour and language to exhibit an ideal of virtue. In his heart, however, treacherous and cunning, he concealed greed and sensuality. As soon as money had brought these vices to light, he became an example, warning us to beware just as much of those who under the guise of virtuous tastes are false and deceitful in friendship, as of men wholly entangled in falsehoods and stained with every infamy. (Tac. Ann. 16.32)
Epictetus is believed to be referring to Celer, as a hypocrite, when he warns his students not to say one thing in their Stoic school and do another outside it, in the courts or the senate:
Thus a friend is overpowered by the testimony of a philosopher: thus a philosopher becomes a parasite; thus he lets himself for hire for money: thus in the senate a man does not say what he thinks; in private (in the school) he proclaims his opinions. (Discourses, 4.1)
The Roman knight, Gaius Musonius Rufus, was said to the most important philosopher at Rome during his lifetime. He was a contemporary of Thrasea, with links to his circle. He is best known today as the teacher of Epictetus, and the texts of several of his lectures, and some isolated sayings attributed to him, survive.
Musonius was sent into exile by Nero along with Rubellius Plautus in 60 AD. He returned to Rome two years later but was exiled a second time by Nero in 65 AD as part of his purge following the Pisonian Conspiracy. He was again able to return to Rome in 68 AD under the Emperor Galba. The Emperor Vespasian banished philosophers from Rome in 71 AD but this time Musonius was allowed to remain, as he was held in such exceptionally high regard. However, in 75 AD he was eventually exiled by Vespasian, returning after his death in 79 AD. The date of his death is unknown, although it must have been at some point between this and 101 AD.
Epictetus refers to Helvidius, when discussing “How a man on every occasion can maintain his proper character” by acting in accord with reason, and viewing pain and pleasure as indifferent.
Priscus Helvidius also saw this, and acted conformably. For when [the Emperor] Vespasian sent and commanded him not to go into the senate, he replied, “It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the senate, but so long as I am, I must go in.” Well, go in then, says the emperor, but say nothing. Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent. But I must ask your opinion. And I must say what I think right. But if you do, I shall put you to death. When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow.
What good then did Priscus do, who was only a single person? And what good does the purple do for the toga? Why, what else than this, that it is conspicuous in the toga as purple, and is displayed also as a fine example to all other things? But in such circumstances another would have replied to Caesar who forbade him to enter the senate, I thank you for sparing me. But such a man Vespasian would not even have forbidden to enter the senate, for he knew that he would either sit there like an earthen vessel, or, if he spoke, he would say what Caesar wished, and add even more. (Discourses, 1.2)
Epictetus also praises Paconius Agrippinus for showing a typical Stoic attitude toward justice.
When Agrippinus was governor, he used to try to persuade the persons whom he sentenced that it was proper for them to be sentenced. “For,” he would say, “it is not as an enemy or as a brigand that I record my vote against them, but as curator and guardian; just as also the physician encourages the man upon whom he is operating, and persuades him to submit to the operation.” (Epictetus, fr. 22)
Epictetus also describes Agrippinus’ use of what sounds like a standard Stoic consolation technique, except that it’s applied to his own problems.
For this reason it is right to praise Agrippinus, because, although he was a man of the very highest worth, he never praised himself, but used to blush even if someone else praised him. His character was such, said Epictetus, that when any hardship befell him he would compose a eulogy upon it; on fever, if he had a fever; on disrepute; on exile, if he went into exile. And once, he said, when Agrippinus was preparing to take lunch, a man brought him word that Nero ordered him into exile; “Very well,” said he, “we shall take our lunch in Aricia.” (Epictetus, fr. 21)
The town of Aricia was apparently the first stop outside of Rome, for those travelling south and east. Epictetus likewise concludes the first of his Discourses, ‘On what is under our control and what is not’, with the following anecdote:
Wherefore, what was it that Agrippinus used to remark? “I am not standing in my own way.” Word was brought him,
“Your case is being tried in the Senate.”
“Good luck betide! But it is the fifth hour now” (he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then a cold bath at that hour); “let us be off and take our exercise.”
After he had finished his exercise someone came and told him,
“You have been condemned.”
“To exile,” says he, “or to death?”
“What about my property?”
“It has not been confiscated.”
“Well then, let us go to Aricia and take our lunch there.”
This is what it means to have rehearsed the lessons one ought to rehearse, to have set desire and aversion free from every hindrance and made them proof against chance. I must die. If forthwith, I die; and if a little later, I will take lunch now, since the hour for lunch has come, and afterwards I will die at the appointed time. How? As becomes the man who is giving back that which was another’s. (Discourses, 1.1.28-30)
Epictetus also tells a story about Agrippinus giving advice to another Roman politician, who was undecided about whether to contribute to a festival in honour of Nero, by performing some part in a tragedy. (Possibly Gessius Florus, the notoriously unpopular procurator of Judea.)
Wherefore, when Florus was debating whether he should enter Nero’s festival, so as to make some personal contribution to it Agrippinus said to him, “Enter.” And when Florus asked, “Why do you not enter yourself?” he replied, “I? why, I do not even raise the question.” For when a man once stoops to the consideration of such questions, I mean to estimating the value of externals, and calculates them one by one, he comes very close to those who have forgotten their proper character.
Come, what is this you ask me? “Is death or life preferable?” I answer, life. “Pain or pleasure?” I answer, pleasure. “But unless I take a part in the tragedy I shall be beheaded.” Go, then, and take a part, but I will not take a part. “Why not?” Because you regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment. What follows, then? This, that you ought to take thought how you may resemble all other men, precisely as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads. But I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. Why, then, do you say to me, “Be like the majority of people?” And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red? (Discourses, 1.2.12-13)
Epictetus’ Handbook concludes with the saying attributed to Socrates: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but they cannot harm me.” However, according to Cassius Dio, Thrasea was well known for paraphrasing this as: “Nero can kill me but he cannot harm me.” Knowing this, young Stoics reading the Handbook perhaps took its final sentence as a subtle nod to Thrasea.
Junius Rusticus – TBD
Junius Rusticus was a Stoic philosopher who became the main tutor of the young Marcus Aurelius. He was a direct descendant of Arulenus Rusticus, a prominent member of the Stoic Opposition.
Marcus appears to be familiar with and an admirer of Thrasea and his circle. He must have read Epictetus’ comments about them in The Discourses, but he had presumably also heard stories about them in person from his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus. However, in The Meditations, he says of the Aristotelian philosopher Severus, from whom he learned love of truth and justice,
…that through him I came to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and to conceive the idea of a balanced constitution, and of government founded on equity and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all things the freedom of the subject. (Meditations, 1.14)
He appears to be referring to Thrasea and his associate Helvidius, opponents of Nero, alongside the great Stoic hero of the civil war, Cato of Utica, and his Stoic-influenced nephew Brutus, who was one of the assassins of Julius Caesar. The Dio he had in mind was possibly Dio Chrysostom, a contemporary of Epictetus who also studied under Musonius Rufus and combined Stoicism, Cynicism, Platonism and an interest in rhetoric.
Elsewhere, by contrast, Nero is mentioned as a tyrant.
Marcus’ Latin tutor, Fronto, despised Seneca and several time writes of him in a dismissive or sarcastic way in their correspondence, e.g.,
There are certainly some acute and weighty sayings in his books but little pieces of silver are sometimes found in sewers; and is that a reason for us to undertake the cleaning of the sewers?
We don’t know if or how Marcus responded to these criticisms but it doesn’t appear that they openly argued over this, so he may either have agreed or said nothing.
When Marcus Aurelius lay dying he turned to the guard of the night watch and said, cryptically, “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.” We can only speculate as to the meaning he intended. For instance, it may have sounded to Romans as if he were alluding to the mystery religion of Mithraism or some other solar cult. However, it’s fair to say, though, that consistent with his approach throughout The Meditations, he appears to be portraying death as a process both natural and inevitable, just like the setting of the sun.
As I reflected on the meaning of this remark, it struck me that there are several passages in The Meditations which refer to the mind of the wise man using the metaphor of sunlight and, apparently related to these, several additional references to the mind as a lamp or blazing fire, casting light on the objects of the world. Indeed, according to their Physics, the Stoics believed that the intellect of man was composed of a subtle fiery substance, pneuma or spirit, the same substance from which the sun, the stars, and the other gods are made. The human mind, indeed, is a divine spark, a fragment of the Logos or cosmic fire that constitutes the Mind of Zeus.
Marcus continually reminds himself that the human mind has a duty to fulfil its own true nature, to become rational and wise, and not to be distracted or swayed from its path, something he likes to compare to the simplicity and purity with which the sun and stars shine forth in the sky. He says the sun does not undertake the work of the rain but fulfills its own nature. Each particular star is different from the others and yet they are all working together toward the same end (6.43). We should strive to do the same by cultivating the divine spark within us, fulfilling our human potential for wisdom and virtue. Everything in nature has come into being for a purpose. According to Marcus, the Sun himself would say, ‘I was born to perform a function’, and so would the rest of the gods (8.19). So it’s likewise our duty to know what our own true purpose is in life, something we try to discover through philosophy, the love of wisdom.
Marcus likes to refer to the stars as natural models of purity and simplicity. We should meditate, he says, on the the stars above as though accompanying them on their course through the night sky because thoughts such as these purify us from the defilements of our earthly existence (7.47). Even though the stars are separate and distinct they also form a natural unity together in the constellations of the night sky (9.9).
Marcus particularly attributes this idea of contemplating the orderliness and purity of the stars to the Pythagoreans, about whom Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had long ago written a book.
The Pythagoreans used to say that, first thing in the morning, we should look up at the sky, to remind ourselves of beings who forever accomplish their work according to the same laws and in an unvarying fashion, and to remind ourselves too of their orderliness, purity, and nakedness; for nothing veils a star. (11.27)
The Pythagoreans believed that the stars and other heavenly bodies were divine. (They appear to move all by themselves, which to many ancient thinkers was a sign of life.) For Stoics they were gods but also merely fragmentary aspects of a greater divine Nature, or Zeus.
The Mind as the Sun
However, the nature of sunlight in particular becomes an important metaphor for the Stoic concept of mind throughout The Meditations. Marcus repeatedly stresses to himself that the light of the sun pours down in every direction and yet it is not exhausted. Its beams of light are merely an extension of its being. Sunlight is something very familiar to us. We see its beams entering a darkened room through a narrow window. It stretches out in a straight line and comes to rest on any solid body that intercepts it, cutting it off from whatever lies beyond. Sunlight appears to our eyes to rest exactly where its rays fall, without being deflected by its objects, like the wind, or being absorbed by them like water. It touches upon things lightly and illuminates them, without being contaminated by them. The pouring forth and spreading abroad of our mind should follow a similar pattern, extending itself without being exhausted or diminished. It should, like sunlight, not land with the force of a violent blow on the obstacles that it encounters nor dissipate, but steadily illuminate the objects before it. For what doesn’t welcome the light condemns itself to darkness (8.57).
Put very simply, I think Marcus would say today that we should think of our judgements, particularly our value judgements, as beams of light shining forth from our mind onto objects in the world. Values don’t exist in the world, we project them onto things. For the Stoics it’s therefore important to be aware of this and suspend these judgements or make them only lightly. Marcus consistently refers to this as the purification of the mind from being blended with externals, or its separation from things that belong to the world, or to the body.
From a more metaphysical perspective, Marcus reminds himself that sunlight is, in a sense, a single thing even though it is obstructed by walls, and mountains, and countless other obstacles. Likewise, for Stoic Physics, there is one common substance, though divided into countless individual bodies. There is one mind, even though it appears to be divided among countless creatures, each with its own characteristics. Material objects are senseless and have no affinity of this kind. But mind alone is naturally social, it tends towards what is akin to it and forms friendships and communities with others, and apparent divisions are overcome by the sense of common fellowship (12.30).
Likewise, he elsewhere says that one animal soul is distributed among irrational creatures, and one rational soul has been divided among rational creatures; just as there is one earth for all things formed from earth, and there is one light by which we all see and one air from which we all breathe (9.8). Fire tends to rise toward the heavens, with which it has an affinity, consuming whatever kindling is thrown upon it. So likewise, the mind naturally strives with even greater eagerness towards what is akin to itself, through the grasping of philosophical truths (9.9). The mind naturally loves virtue, and as social beings we aspire to make friends and form communities with other human beings, who share our capacity for reason. This is the bond of natural affection that Stoics believe exists between all rational beings, and which it’s our duty to cultivate into a sense of being at one with the rest of mankind, viewing them as our brothers and sisters, and fellow citizens of the cosmic city.
Virtue as Sunlight or a Blazing Fire
Marcus also likes to describe virtue as a light blazing forth. A good, straightforward, and kindly person, he says, reveals these qualities in his eyes, they shine forth unmistakably in his gaze (11.15). In the mind of one who has been chastened and thoroughly purified, perhaps by Stoic mentoring and therapy, there nothing he says which would not bear examination or which hides away from the light (3.8).
Hence, there is nothing more wholesome and delightful, he says, than the sight of virtue shining forth in the characters of those around us. So we should be sure to keep these images ever at hand (6.48). Indeed, virtue is just like the light of a lamp which shines forth until it is extinguished, light extends itself afar without losing its radiance. In the same way, the cardinal virtues of truth, justice and self-control should shine forth without being exhausted (12.15).
Moreover, the mind of the wise man is like a blazing fire. All things human are mere smoke and nothingness, they continually change and then are gone forever. Don’t be troubled about them, Marcus says, but view life as a training ground for reason to examine things truthfully and objectively. The mind is naturally capable of assimilating the truth about everything that befalls you just as a robust stomach assimilates every kind of food and a blazing fire turns whatever you cast into it into flame and light (10.31).
The preconceptions Nature planted within our souls are like sparks of wisdom, which need to be given fuel and fanned into a blazing fire. Hence, Marcus says the sparks of his Stoic principles need to be constantly fanned into new flames, such as that things that lie outside our intellect have no hold whatever over us. Once you renew these principles, which once you knew, then you will cease to be troubled, he says (7.2).
People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore, in the hills –a theme he returns to several times. You can retreat into yourself wherever you are and remember your Stoic principles, though. When your mind is in harmony with nature, it adapts itself readily to whatever befalls it. It’s not attached to any specific thing but rather prefers whatever is reasonable, and with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind. If it encounters an obstacle, it simply converts that into more material for the exercise of reason and virtue, much like a fire when it masters the things that fall into it. Piling up too much wood often extinguishes a little flame, but a blazing fire engulfs it all in an instant, and consumes it, making its flames burn even higher (4.1).
The Empedoclean Sphere
Marcus also makes very similar remarks about the mystical “sphere” of the presocratic philosopher Empdocles, who was closely associated with the Pythagoreans. This sphere represents the divine in perfect harmony but the mind of the wise man possesses similar qualities.
For if, supported on thy steadfast mind, thou wilt contemplate these things with good intent and faultless care, then shalt thou have all these things in abundance throughout thy life, and thou shalt gain many others from them. For these things grow of themselves into thy heart, where is each man’s true nature. But if thou strivest after things of another kind, as it is the way with men that ten thousand sorry matters blunt their careful thoughts, soon will these things desert thee when the time comes round; for they long to return once more to their own kind; for know that all things have wisdom and a share of thought. (Fr. 110)
Marcus likewise says that we have a body and feelings that our ours to take care of but only our intellect is truly our own. You will live a pure and unrestricted life if you will let go of everything that falls outside your own true nature, doing what is just, desiring what befalls you, and speaking the truth. If, that is, you will purify your ruling centre from everything external that becomes attached to it from the body, and everything in the past or future. Make yourself, in Empedocles’ words, as Marcus puts it, “a well-rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it”, striving to live only the life that belongs to you here and now, then you will live out the rest of your days with peace and kindness, at peace with the divine spark within you (12.3).
Marcus appears to refer to this image of the Empedoclean sphere three times altogether. Elsewhere, he notes that neither fire, nor steel, nor a tyrant, nor abuse, can affect the mind in any way when it has become a ‘well-rounded sphere’, and it is capable of always remaining so (8.41).
Finally, he says that the sphere of the soul remains true to its natural form when neither stretching itself out towards anything outside itself nor contracting itself inwards, and when it is neither dispersed abroad nor shrinks back into itself, but shines forth with a steady light by which it sees the truth of all things and the truth within itself (11.12). Here, the image of the Empedoclean sphere appears to merge with that of the sun shining its pure light onto objects without being defiled by them.
The poet Horace, in Satires (2.7), employs the same image of the perfect sphere in relation to Stoicism. He describes a speech delivered to him during the festival of Saturnalia by his own slave, Davus, who had learned Stoicism from a servant of the (perhaps fictional) Stoic philosopher and poet Crispinus.
Who then is free? The wise man who is master of himself,
who remains undaunted in the face of poverty, chains and death,
who stubbornly defies his passions and despises positions of power,
a man complete in himself, smooth and round, who prevents
extraneous elements clinging to his polished surface, who is such
that when Fortune attacks him she maims only herself.
Zeno’s Republic was one of the earliest works written by the founder of Stoicism. It was well-known in the ancient world and seems to have been frequently quoted down to the time of the last famous Stoic, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, nearly five hundred years later. However, it was probably known in later centuries mainly through quotations in doxographies and commentaries. The work has long been lost and is known to us now only through a handful of fragments. For the curious, Malcolm Schofield’s The Stoic Idea of the City is a detailed scholarly analysis of the fragments relevant to reconstructing the contents of Zeno’s Republic.
The Republic was a response to Plato’s magnum opus of the same name. However, having studied in the Platonic Academy under later teachers, Zeno apparently engaged in a fairly serious critique of Plato’s philosophy in general, and his Republic in particular. We can potentially better understand some of the fragments from Zeno’s Republic by bearing in mind that it was largely written in opposition to Plato’s views, and using that knowledge to help guide our interpretation.
I’m going to begin with a summary of its key features and then provide the relevant fragments with some commentary. From the admittedly slender evidence, it appears we can say of Zeno’s Republic:
- It was a highly-regarded work, down to the time of Plutarch and perhaps even to Marcus Aurelius, and well-known, at least through excerpts.
- It said we should ideally look upon all other human beings as our fellow-citizens, having equal rights, apparently an early reference to Stoic cosmopolitanism.
- The emphasis is on a community founded on philosophical principles and constituted for the common good, rather than that of an elite.
- One lifestyle is held common to all, in some sense.
- Men and women, of all races, dress alike, presumably in the traditional garb of a Cynic or Stoic philosopher: a single coarse wool cloak wrapped around the body.
- Women are held in common and adultery is apparently not condemned, any laws against it being abolished, so that sexual relationships are not restricted by marriage.
- Temples are abolished because Zeus is omnipresent throughout the whole of nature and gods do not inhabit buildings constructed by men.
We might also infer, or speculate, based on the fragments, as follows:
- The Republic appears to imply that the distinction between citizens and resident foreigners should be abolished. (Zeno who was Phoenician by birth died a resident foreigner in Athens, not a citizen.)
- As all humans in the ideal Stoic republic are viewed as fellow-citizens with equal rights, like a common family or herd, it seems to imply that the institution of slavery must have been abolished.
- Likewise, no distinction is made between men and women. Saying that all people have equal rights therefore appears to imply that women would have equal rights to men. His student and successor, Cleanthes wrote a book entitled On the thesis that virtue is the same in men and women. From two surviving lectures by the Roman Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus, we can see that Stoics taught men and women should both be taught philosophy as both sexes are capable of attaining wisdom and virtue.
- The absence of law courts suggests that legal trials are considered unnecessary because all citizens are assumed to be wise and virtuous; courts are only required for the vicious. (It’s a Utopia.)
- Ancient Greek gymnasia were mainly used to train athletes for public games. The absence of gymnasia suggests either that athletes would obtain exercise in other ways or perhaps that public sports and games are abolished. The later Stoics, particularly Marcus Aurelius, do appear to look down on athletic games is a low form of entertainment for the masses. (They might view modern spectator sports the same way perhaps – passively watching sport for entertainment as opposed to actively doing sport for exercise or self-improvement.)
- Gymnasia were also used by sophists and philosophers for the education of young men. We’re told that Zeno was critical of the Greek education system. So the abolition of gymnasia may be part of his critique of traditional education in general. The Academy of Plato, which Zeno had attended, and Lyceum of Aristotle were located in the grounds of gymnasia. So this may also imply the abolition of such schools. Would the alternative somehow resemble the Stoa Poikile, which consisted of a more open venue for philosophical debate close to where Socrates had lectured in the agora?
According to Athenaeus of Naucratis:
Pontianus said that Zeno of Citium thought that Love was the God of Friendship and Liberty and the author of concord among people, but nothing else. Hence, he says in his Republic, that “Love is a God, who cooperates in securing the safety of the city.” (Deipnosophistae)
From this we can infer that friendship and liberty were the important values of Zeno’s ideal Stoic republic and that it was designed to promote concord or harmony between its citizens, whose goal must presumably have been to live in agreement with Nature and in accord with wisdom and justice toward one another. From the other authors below, we have slightly more detailed information.
Plutarch is one of our main sources for information about Zeno’s Republic. Plutarch makes it clear that Zeno’s Republic was written as if it were a dream, i.e., a Utopian vision of an ideal society rather than a roadmap for practical political change. He writes:
Moreover, the much-admired Republic of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, may be summed up in this one main principle: that all the inhabitants of this world of ours should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities, but that we should consider all men to be of one community and one polity, and that we should have a common life and an order common to us all, even as a herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field. This Zeno wrote, giving shape to a dream or, as it were, shadowy picture of a well-ordered and philosophic commonwealth. (On the fortune or the virtue of Alexander)
However, he then goes on to make the bizarre claim that it was Alexander the Great who had come closest to realizing this ideal in practice. Alexander had died and his empire fragmented when Zeno was an adolescent boy. Now, it’s possible that Zeno may have made some such allusion in his own writings perhaps looking back upon the reign of Alexander and romanticizing it somewhat, although it sounds like this is Plutarch’s crude attempt to link Stoicism to the subject of the text.
What he actually tries to say is that Alexander ignored the advice of his tutor Aristotle to treat himself as the leader of the Greeks, and to view them as his kin, and to treat other people as if he was their master, viewing them as inferior, like plants or animals. Instead, Alexander viewed all men, Greek or barbarian, as his kin as long as they shared his values and he saw himself as unifying the whole world.
He bade them all consider as their fatherland the whole inhabited earth, as their stronghold and protection his camp, as akin to them all good men, and as foreigners only the wicked; they should not distinguish between Grecian and foreigner by Grecian cloak and targe, or scimitar and jacket; but the distinguishing mark of the Grecian should be seen in virtue, and that of the foreigner in iniquity; clothing and food, marriage and manner of life they should regard as common to all, being blended into one by ties of blood and children.
This passage may reflect language or ideas found in the Republic, although the analogy with the empire of Alexander the Great, seems strained. The latter remarks appear to reinforce the notion that the whole earth is regarded as one fatherland, or city, i.e., that the Republic endorsed ethical cosmopolitanism. Also, that individuals are to be regarded as foreign not on the basis of their race but on the basis of being vicious or not sharing the same values as the Stoic citizens. It’s not clear what Plutarch means here by clothing and food, marriage and manner of life being common to all.
The allusion to a herd of animals feeding in a common pasture is intriguing because the later Stoics sometimes refer to the metaphor of the wise man as a bull protecting his herd, or kin, against predatory lions. So it’s tempting to wonder if this metaphor also goes back to Zeno’s Republic.
Diogenes Laertius quotes from a critic of Stoicism called Cassius the Skeptic, so these remarks have to be interpreted cautiously:
Some, indeed, among whom is Cassius the Skeptic, attack Zeno on many accounts, saying first of all that he denounced the general system of education in vogue at the time, as useless, which he did in the beginning of his Republic. And in the second place, that he used to call all who were not virtuous, adversaries, and enemies, and slaves, and unfriendly to one another, parents to their children, brethren to brethren. and kinsmen to kinsmen; and again, that in his Republic, he speaks of the virtuous as the only citizens, and friends, and relations, and free men, so that in the doctrine of the Stoic, even parents and their children are enemies; for they are not wise. Also, that he lays down the principle of the community of women in his Republic, and … teaches that neither temples nor courts of law, nor gymnasia, ought to be erected in a city; moreover, that he writes thus about money: that he does not think that people ought to coin money either for purposes of trade, or of travelling. Besides all this, he enjoins men and women to wear the same dress, and to leave no part of their person completely covered.
If we attempt to offer a defence of Zeno in response to this hostile account we might say:
- The general system of Greek education he’s alluding to was probably training in rhetoric, which Stoics thought should be replaced by philosophy and probably some sort of physical training and self-discipline, perhaps modelled very loosely on the Spartan agoge.
- The Stoics do typically call the unwise slaves but they include themselves in this category because nobody is perfect, and they would probably say that we’re all hostile to one another to some extent, until we achieve wisdom.
- The remark about the principle of the community of women may be related to Plutarch’s remark about marriage being somehow held in common. The further remark below suggests that it means that among the wise, sexual relations are not to be restricted by marriage. In other words, it seems clear that the condemnation of adultery and any laws against it are abolished in Zeno’s Republic.
- The remark about temples is fleshed out by Lucan in the Pharsalia where Cato of Utica is portrayed explaining that for Stoics Zeus is omnipresent throughout Nature and therefore temples are unnecessary – gods do not inhabit buildings constructed by men.
- The reference to men and women wearing the same dress resembles Plutarch’s remark about clothing somehow being held in common.
- It’s not clear what leaving no part of their person completely covered means but Zeno and the Cynics were known for wearing only a single coarse wool cloak, wrapped around the body, with no undershirt, and often leaving the shoulders bare, so this may simply be a reference to men and women both wearing the traditional philosopher’s cloak, and philosophers often also walked barefoot.
To this he later adds:
They say too, that the wise man will love those young men, who by their outward appearance, show a natural aptitude for virtue; and this opinion is advanced by Zeno, in his Republic. And they also teach that women ought to be in common among the wise, so that whoever meets with any one may enjoy her, and this doctrine is maintained by Zeno in his Republic, and by Chrysippus in his treatise on the Republic […] and then, they say, we shall love all boys equally after the manner of fathers, and all suspicion on the ground of undue familiarity will be removed.
From what Diogenes Laertius and others say, it appears Zeno’s Republic shared some common ground with the political views attributed to Diogenes the Cynic, to whom a Republic was also attributed.
He maintained that all things are the property of the wise, and employed such arguments as those cited above. All things belong to the gods. The gods are friends to the wise, and friends share all property in common; therefore all things are the property of the wise. Again as to law: that it is impossible for society to exist without law; for without a city no benefit can be derived from that which is civilized. But the city is civilized, and there is no advantage in law without a city; therefore law is something civilized. He would ridicule good birth and fame and all such distinctions, calling them showy ornaments of vice. The only true commonwealth was, he said, that which is as wide as the universe. He advocated community of wives, recognizing no other marriage than a union of the man who persuades with the woman who consents. And for this reason he thought sons too should be held in common.
And he saw no impropriety either in stealing anything from a temple or in eating the flesh of any animal; nor even anything impious in touching human flesh, this, he said, being clear from the custom of some foreign nations. Moreover, according to right reason, as he put it, all elements are contained in all things and pervade everything: since not only is meat a constituent of bread, but bread of vegetables ; and all other bodies also, by means of certain invisible passages and particles, find their way in and unite with all substances in the form of vapour.
These Cynic teachings may possibly shed light on the meaning of the doctrines attributed to Zeno’s Republic.
The Epicurean Philodemus is also clearly hostile to the Cynic-Stoic tradition and he may be drawing on similar sources to Diogenes Laertius.
Cleanthes in his book On the Way to Dress mentions it [the Republic] with praise as a work of Diogenes, and gives a general account of its contents, with further discussion of some particular points; and Chrysippos in his work On the State and Law makes mention of it…. In his work On the State, while talking about the uselessness of weapons, he says that such a view was also stated by Diogenes, which is something that he could only have written about in his Republic. In the treatise Things which should not be chosen for their own sake, Chrysippos states that Diogenes laid down in his state that knucklebones should serve as legal currency. This is to be found in the work of which we are talking and also in the first book of the treatise Against those who have a different idea of practical reason. In his work On the life in accordance with reason he also makes mention of [Diogenes’ Republic], together with the many impieties contained in it, to which he gives his approval; and he frequently mentions the work and its contents with praise in the fourth book of his treatise On the beautiful and pleasure. And in the third book of his work on justice he speaks of cannibalism as a teaching…. Diogenes himself in his Atreus, Oedipus, and Philiscos acknowledges as his own teachings most of the foul and impious ideas that are to be found in the Republic. Antipater in his work Against the Philosophical Schools mentions Zeno’s Republic and the doctrines that Diogenes expounds in his Republic, expressing amazement at their impassibility. And some say that the Republic is not by the Sinopean but by someone else…We must now go on to summarize the noble thoughts of these people, expending as little time as possible in describing their opinions. It pleases these holy people, then, to assume the lives of dogs, to speak shamelessly and without restraint to everyone without distinction, to masturbate in public, to wear a doubled cloak, to abuse young men whether they love them or not, and whether or not the young men willingly surrender themselves or have to be forced … boys are held in common by all… they have sexual relations with their own sisters and mothers and other close relatives, and with their brothers and sons. To achieve sexual gratification, there is nothing that they will abstain from, not even the use of violence. The women make advances to men, and seek to persuade them in every way to have intercourse with them, and if they fail in their efforts, offer themselves in the market-place to anyone whatever. Everyone misbehaves with everyone else, husbands have intercourse with their maidservants, wives abandon their husbands to go off with those who better please them. The women wear the same clothing as men and take part in the same activities, differing from them in no way at all.
The final sentence is interesting in light of other evidence that suggests the Stoics taught that virtue is the same in men and women, and that they should wear the same attire.
In the first book of The Meditations, Marcus gives thanks that he learned to love his family, truth, and justice from the Aristotelian Claudius Severus. He learned from him the concept of a republic in which the same law applies to all, administered with equal rights and freedom of speech, where the sovereign’s primary value is the freedom of his subjects. Marcus never mentions Zeno by name and we’ve no idea to what extent his vision of the ideal “republic” would resemble the Republic of Zeno but his comments are striking and worth mentioning in this context.
From my “brother” [Claudius] Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain. (Meditations, 1.14)
It may seem odd to modern readers that Marcus refers to a republic with “kingly government” that makes the freedom and equality of citizens its priority. We’re told by Diogenes Laertius that the Stoics advocated government with a mixed constitution, which is perhaps what Marcus envisaged, i.e., a combination of direct democracy, rule by elected officials and senators, and the appointment of an emperor who lived as close as possible to the style of a private citizen. His role would be to serve the people and collaborate with the senate, like Antoninus and Marcus, rather than operating like a dictator, as emperors like Nero and later Commodus did. (The Roman emperor was traditionally acclaimed by the legions and approved by the senate, often under duress; it’s not clear how they would be fairly appointed in a more free and equal republic.)
Surprisingly, from an Aristotelian, Marcus learned of the Stoic opposition to Nero, two of the leading figures being Thrasea and Helvidius. (Notably Marcus mentions these famous Stoics but not Seneca, whose collaboration with Nero they criticized.) The other figures he has in mind are thought to be as follows… Cato of Utica, the famous Stoic who opposed Julius Caesar, and tried unsuccessfully to prevent him turning the Roman Republic into a dictatorship. Brutus, his nephew, influenced by Stoicism and Platonism, who was the leading assassin of Caesar. And the Dio he mentions is most likely Dio Chrysostom, a student of Epictetus, who opposed the Emperor Domitian, and was influenced by a mixture of Cynicism, Platonism, and Stoicism. The overall theme is one of political opposition by philosophers against the tyrannical Roman emperors Nero and Domitian, and the dictator Julius Caesar.
The following come from the Historia Augusta and describe Marcus’ rule in terms that echo his remarks about freedom in The Meditations.
And now, after they had assumed the imperial power, the two emperors [Marcus and Lucius] acted in so democratic a manner that no one missed the lenient ways of [Antononius] Pius; for though Marullus, a writer of farces of the time, irritated them by his jests, he yet went unpunished. (Historia Augusta)
We’re told that in terms of his relationship with the Senate, he would say:
It is juster that I should yield to the counsel of such a number of such friends than that such a number of such friends should yield to my wishes, who am but one.
Like Antoninus before him, he presented himself as ruling collaboratively with the Senate and even respecting their authority. By contrast, autocratic emperors like Nero and Commodus chose to sideline the Senate.
The following is particularly striking when compared to Marcus’ remarks above:
Toward the people he [Marcus] acted just as one acts in a free state. He was at all times exceedingly reasonable both in restraining men from evil and in urging them to good, generous in rewarding and quick to forgive, thus making bad men good, and good men very good, and he even bore with unruffled temper the insolence of not a few. (Historia Augusta)