Free Crash Course in Stoicism

Below is the transcript of the main video from my Crash Course in Stoicism.

You can watch the video online at my e-learning site by following the link below, where you will find a quiz, Stoic quotes, reading list, and lots of other resources for people new to the subject who want to learn more about Stoicism.

Click the button below or this link to access the rest of the free course:

This is both fun and beneficial. Can we put it in every congressman’s mailbox?tpetrocci

Thank you for this course. It really piqued my interest in Stoicism and provides great resources for learning more.Paul LaFleur

This is a great introduction to Stoicism by Donald Robertson. I recommend reading his books Stoicism and The Art of Happiness and The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Both of these books have helped me develop Stoicism as a philosophy for a better way of living and have inspired me to study CBT as a career path.Mark Husher

Thank you Donald for this free course which is a short but very comprehensive introduction to Stoicism. Familiarising myself with The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and focusing on meaningful passages was the start of my Stoic journey a few years ago. Having experience of your SMRT course on two previous occasions I can highly recommend them.Alison McCone

I found this course an interesting and easy to understand introduction to the study of Stoicism. It has given me a taste to learn more. Thanks.Colin Conway

Amazing! I always wondered what Stoicism was all about. This is a crash course! Thanks a lot, Donald! Stay blessed.Nuruddin Abjani

Transcript of Video

Hello and welcome. My name is Donald Robertson and this is my five-minute introduction to Stoic philosophy. I first became interested in Stoicism myself in 1996, after doing my philosophy degree. Later, as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, I found it helpful to incorporate Stoicism into my work with clients. In 2005, I published an article on Stoicism in a British counseling journal. Then a book called The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, comparing all the psychological strategies found in ancient Stoicism to ones used in modern psychotherapy. I also wrote a self-help book called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, explaining in plain English how ancient Stoicism can be applied to modern living. In the video you’re watching I’m going to try to explain who the Stoics were, what Stoicism is, and to describe two of Stoicism’s most beneficial psychological exercises.

Where does Stoicism come from?

Today the word “stoicism” (with a small s) denotes a personality trait that involves remaining calm in the face of adversity, or having a stiff upper lip. That’s not the same thing as capital S “Stoicism”, the ancient Greek school of philosophy, which teaches a whole way of life and set of ethical values. Stoicism was founded at Athens, in 301 BC, by a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium, who was influenced mainly by Socrates and the Cynic philosophers. The early Stoics wrote over a thousand books but only fragments survive today. Interest in Stoicism later spread from Greece to Rome. Most of the writings we have come from three Stoics who lived under the Roman Empire: Seneca, who was speechwriter to Emperor Nero; Epictetus, a freed slave who became a famous teacher; and Marcus Aurelius, one of the good emperors. After his death we hear virtually nothing more about Stoicism; Christianity gradually eclipsed pagan philosophy. However, the ancient Stoic school was therefore active for nearly 500 years.

What is Stoicism?

The central doctrine of Stoicism is that the goal of life is virtue, and that virtue is the only true good. “Virtue” is the conventional translation of the Greek arete, which actually means “excellence of character”. The Stoics argued that, understood correctly, what’s healthy or in our self-interest as rational beings coincides perfectly with what’s honourable or genuinely praiseworthy. They also expressed the goal as “living in agreement with nature”, by fulfilling our natural potential, much as a seed does by growing into a tree and bearing fruit. For Stoics, virtue applies to three main areas of life. 1. Our own mind: as animals with the capacity for reason, we should try to fulfil our potential by living rationally and wisely. 2. Other people: as social beings, who naturally care about each other, we should try to live in harmony with other people, in a way that’s conducive to the common welfare of mankind. And 3. The Universe: as citizens of the vast cosmos, we should live in harmony with Nature, calmly accepting the external events that befall us and responding to them wisely.

The Handbook of Epictetus contains a simplified guide, to living in accord with Stoic philosophy. It opens with the words: “Some things are up to us and other things are not.” This mindfulness of our sphere of control is the cornerstone of Stoic resilience. It’s often compared to the famous Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference.” Another well-known quote from the Handbook has long been taught to clients at the beginning of cognitive therapy: “It’s not events that upset us, but our judgements about events.”

What do Stoics do?

The Stoics also used many contemplative exercises. One involves picturing events from high overhead, like the gods atop Mount Olympus. Modern scholars call it “The View From Above.” This helps people to see distressing events as temporary or to place them within a broader context, in a way that can moderate strong emotions. For the Stoics this is also a more realistic perspective because it’s more complete. Psychologists know that when people are anxious their field of attention automatically narrows down. We focus on perceived threats, taking things out of their wider context, and that tends to amplify our feelings. When we pause and encourage ourselves to look at the bigger picture, in terms of both time and space, it can help us remain more composed.

The Stoics also advised us frequently to imagine the worst things that could happen in life as if they were already happening, to practice mentally preparing for them. Therapists today call this “De-catastrophising”. The ancient Stoics would imagine poverty, famine, exile, and plague befalling them. Every day they’d rehearse ways of coping with them, responding with courage, self-discipline, and wisdom. Psychological research has now shown that the modern fad for “positive thinking” can easily turn into an unhealthy form of avoidance. Cognitive therapists therefore encourage clients to visualize upsetting events, and practice building resilience through emotional fire-drills. Negative is the new positive. Or rather it can be healthy to confront negative thoughts patiently, in the right way.

Conclusion

To sum up, what I think appeals most to people about Stoicism is the fact that it provides a guide to life that’s rational, and based on philosophical reasoning rather than one resting on faith or tradition. It’s down-to-earth philosophy, for the man or woman in the street. And it gives us a powerful toolbox of psychological techniques, which are similar to ones now proven to be effective by modern research in psychology. People are also drawn to the beauty of the writings. Indeed, Seneca is one of the finest writers of antiquity; it’s almost as if we could read a cognitive therapy or self-help book that was written by Shakespeare. For example, Seneca once said: “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” So what next? Well, I’ve put some extra bonus resources on the following pages to help you learn more about Stoicism… I hope you find them helpful, and please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions…

Webinar: Marcus Aurelius on Anger

This is a Facebook Live webinar I did on Stoicism and Anger, based on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  The audio is good (remember to turn up the volume) but a bit out of synch with the video so I’ve published the transcript of the main section below…

So let’s dive right into the topic of anger… The Stoics were very interested in anger. We actually have an entire book by Seneca called On Anger. However, I’m going to be talking today about what another famous Stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, has to say about managing anger. We know Marcus himself initially struggled with angry feelings, because he tells us so. He was worried at times that he’d lose his temper with those close to him and maybe even do something he regretted. He probably knew the notorious anecdote about his adoptive grandfather Hadrian, who lost his temper with a slave and stabbed the man in the eye with a metal stylus used for writing. Later, when Hadrian had calmed down and come to his senses, he felt deeply ashamed and asked the slave what he could do to make amends. The man said all he really wanted was his eye back. Of course, even the Emperor Hadrian couldn’t fix that. The Stoics believed that anger is essentially a form of temporary madness. And they were right about that, in a sense. We know today that anger tends to distort and bias our thinking, which explains why we often do things when angry that we regret later – anger literally makes us stupid. And sometimes what we do in anger can’t be undone, it can often cause lasting damage, as in the story about Hadrian. Marcus, by contrast, was renowned for his composure in the face of provocation. We hear several anecdotes about him keeping his cool under pressure, where other people would have been furious. And we never hear of him actually losing his temper, although he tells us he wasn’t just calm by nature, he had to work on it, through years of rigorous training, with the guidance of his Stoic tutors.

Marcus GraffitiNow, I should emphasise that the Stoics have a whole system of psychological training. So they would approach anger using a variety of techniques and we can only touch on a few of those today. Stoic therapy of the passions is about overcoming pathological or unhealthy passions, including anger, which Stoics interpreted as the desire to harm others. For instance, Stoics would train themselves to carefully monitor their feelings, catching anger early before it has a chance to escalate, so they could easily nip it in the bud. Marcus like other Stoic students had a mentor, in this case Junius Rusticus. He probably underwent this training under the close personal supervision of Rusticus whose job it was to observe his character and actions, and gently point out his errors. The Stoic teacher Epictetus told his students that when they spot a passion like anger they should challenge their underlying thinking, asking themselves whether it’s about something that’s actually up to them or something not up to them.

The Stoics believed that external things, things not under our direct control, are neither good nor bad in themselves. So we should address our own initial impressions saying “You are just an impression (of something being bad) and not really the thing you represent” – “You are just a thought and not the thing itself.” Values like that don’t really exist in things, we just project them onto things. However, Epictetus also says that if a passion is very strong we may find it difficult to challenge our thinking until we’ve recovered our composure, so we should postpone doing anything until we’ve calmed down and can think clearly and rationally about the problem. That’s a well-known ancient strategy for dealing with anger. Today therapists do similar things for anger management, and we might call it a “time out” or “postponement” strategy in modern CBT. So the Stoics trained themselves very rigorously in these and many other psychological skills for coping with anger. Today we’re going to look at just some of the additional cognitive or thinking strategies described by Marcus Aurelius.

Overcoming anger is actually one of the main themes that runs throughout The Meditations. The very first sentence of the book opens with Marcus reflecting on the example his natural grandfather Annius Verus provided. Verus was someone who seemed to be totally free from anger, in stark contrast to his adoptive grandfather, Hadrian, who was a slave to his own temper. There’s one passage in particular about anger that I want to look at, though. Marcus lists ten gifts from Apollo, or from Apollo and his nine Muses. Apollo was the god of healing so it’s appropriate that Marcus would dedicate these psychological remedies to him. So what are they? Well Marcus says that when we begin to grow angry we should do one or more of the following things:

  1. Remember that you were meant to live in harmony with other people – that’s the goal of life
  2. Think of their character as a whole, particularly their flaws, their ignorance and how they are misled by their own value judgements
  3. Either what they do is right or wrong. If it’s right, you should accept it and learn from it. If it’s wrong, however, then it’s surely not intentional, as nobody is willingly deceived or deprived of the truth, according to Socrates. (Epictetus tells his students to say: “It seemed so to him.”)
  4. Pause to recognize your own flaws – you’re no different from the people you’re angry with: none of us are perfect
  5. Remember you can’t read their mind, and people often do the wrong thing for the right reason, and vice versa – you can’t be sure of their motives
  6. Remember that all things are transient, including both yourself and the other person
  7. Realize that you’re not harmed by their actions but only by your own value judgements, and it’s those that are making you angry
  8. Remember that anger hurts us more than the things we’re angry about do
  9. Ask yourself what virtue, resource, or ability Nature has given you to respond to the other person – Stoics call the virtue of “kindness” an antidote or remedy for anger because anger wishes harm on others whereas kindness, or goodwill, wishes them well
  10. To expect bad men never to do bad things, is both naive and foolish – it’s feigned surprise, we should be more prepared than that

Marcus actually returns to the topic of anger many times throughout The Meditations and gives several shorter lists of techniques, so in addition to this nice overview of ten gifts from Apollo, Marcus basically tells us which ones are his favourites and his various remarks help to clarify what he means. So let’s just briefly recap the five strategies we’re going to talk about and then go into them in more detail.

The two he seems to place most emphasis on here and elsewhere are the first one and the last one:

  • We’re naturally social creatures and flourish when we try to live in harmony
  • The misdeeds of others are as inevitable as the seasons and the wise man is never surprised by foolish or vicious people’s actions because he anticipates them.

However, three others are also particularly emphasized by him.

  • That it’s not other people’s actions that upset us but our judgements about them, which comes mainly from Epictetus.
  • That everything is transient and when we remember this and look at the bigger picture we typically feel less attachment and distress, an idea derived from Heraclitus.
  • That our anger is itself a vice and does us more harm than the external things we’re angry about.

So let’s look at those one at a time in more depth…

1. We’re naturally social creatures

The Stoics believed that the distinguishing feature of human beings is that they’re language using, self-conscious, thinking beings. They’re rational in the sense of having the capacity for reason. They believed that to reason at all is to wish to reason well, and that we therefore have a duty to make good use of our capacity for thinking rationally. When we reason well we become wise, and so that’s basically the goal of Stoicism. The other virtues consist in wisdom applied to our actions, or to our fears and desires. So we’re capable of reason, we have a duty to reason well and become wise. But the Stoics also argued that human beings are inherently social creatures, like ants or bees. We’re inclined by nature to form bonds of natural affection with our partners and offspring, our families, and also with our circle of friends – we care about these people. We’re also naturally inclined to form communities and to want to live with other human beings in villages, towns and cities. (At least that’s generally true.) The Stoics therefore argue that man is by nature both rational and social. We should cultivate reason so that we become wise but we should also cultivate social virtues like justice, fairness, and kindness to others, so that we’re better able to live in harmony with other people. Even if we encounter vicious or foolish people, or people who act like our enemies, there are good and bad ways of dealing with them. The Stoics thought we should try to educate our enemies and turn them into our friends wherever possible, or learn to tolerate them insofar as that’s appropriate, rather than becoming frustrated with them and alienated from them. That doesn’t mean the Stoics were pushovers, Marcus presided as a judge and sentenced people for their crimes, but he was generally perceived as doing so after very careful consideration of each case, and to lean toward more lenient penalties where appropriate. He didn’t get angry with people, though. (Likewise, as military commander, he exiled enemy leaders, for instance, rather than executing them – but he also fought tenaciously against them.)

So, in a nutshell, Marcus repeatedly tells himself to remember that humans are naturally social and that nature intended us to work together rather than to be in conflict. So he’s reminding himself that he sees it as his duty to try to live with other people, without becoming angry toward them, which he sees as unnecessary and unhelpful. He wants to avoid being alienated from others, by learning to forgive them or at least tolerate them, while nevertheless asserting himself and opposing their behaviour, where necessary.

In 175 AD, Marcus was faced with a civil war when his most powerful general in the eastern empire, Avidius Cassius, had himself acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion. The Senate’s knee-jerk reaction was to declare Cassius public enemy and seize his property and that of his family. This threw the whole of Rome into total panic because people feared Cassius would retaliate by marching on the city of Rome and sacking it. Marcus was several weeks away, fighting a major war on the northern frontier, but when he heard the news he shocked everyone by announcing that he was prepared to forgive Cassius and the others involved. Ironically, that probably led to Cassius’ death because he refused to stand down but his legions no longer had any motive to fight, knowing that they were facing a superior force, so they beheaded Cassius and surrendered to Marcus. Marcus was as good as his word and actually protected Cassius’ family from persecution following the end of the rebellion. He considered it his duty to try to understand his enemies and defuse conflicts where possible, and that worked out pretty well for him in practice. So remember that we’re naturally social creatures, not antisocial.

2. Bad people inevitably do bad things

Although Marcus begins by emphasising that we’re naturally social creatures, paradoxically, he also emphasises that the majority of people inevitably act in antisocial ways. The Stoics believed that by granting us the ability to reason, nature has given us the potential to become wise, but nevertheless we’re all fools, the wise man is as rare as the Ethiopian Phoenix. Like most of Marcus’ strategies for coping with anger, this is a special application of a general Stoic principle. The Stoics astutely observed that when people are upset they tend to say things like “I can’t believe you’re doing this” or “I can’t believe this is happening”, as if they’re shocked or surprised. However, they shouldn’t be. We all know what sorts of things happen in life. We all know that other people often do foolish or selfish things. So why should we act surprised when these things happen. Acting surprised exaggerates our feelings – it makes us more angry – and it’s kind of phoney if you think about it. The Stoic wise man says “I saw this coming” or at least “I should have seen this coming – it’s no surprise.” Shit happens. That’s life. When someone else’s house is burgled we think: “These things happen sometimes.”

When I worked in central London, I saw pickpockets every single day. They used to stand facing the barriers in the underground station at Oxford Circus. When someone used their ticket to open the barrier, they’d watch them take out their wallet or purse and put it back again. If they put their wallet in an outside pocket they’d follow them upstairs. Then when they were crossing the street in the crowds, at the traffic lights, someone would bump into them – they’d turn round and go “Hey, watch where you’re going!” While they were distracted doing that, an accomplice, walking on their other side, would be picking their pocket. So I was more careful but I told myself I was bound to get my wallet stolen eventually. I had my mobile phone stolen once and my wallet twice, in about ten or fifteen years of working there. When it happened, though, I was able to say “Oh well, I knew it would happen eventually.” There’s no point being angry about it. That’s life. These things happen. To pretend otherwise would just be a form of self-deception, playing dumb. But people deceive themselves in this way all the time in order to amplify their anger. The Stoic wise man tries to view life rationally and that means accepting that all people are flawed, and selfish, to some extent, so it’s inevitable that sometimes they’ll lie, steal, cheat, betray, etc. It would be foolish to think otherwise. So Stoics are ready for these things when they happen – they’re prepared for them emotionally and refuse to act surprised. That’s just what it means to view life realistically, as far as they’re concerned. So remember that bad people inevitably do bad things.

3. It’s our own judgements that upset us

Again, this is a general Stoic principle. Epictetus famously said that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things. That quote has been taught to many thousands of clients at the beginning of cognitive therapy, following Albert Ellis. So it’s become almost a cliche in modern psychotherapy. However, here Marcus applies it specifically to anger. Anger is the desire to harm others, according to the Stoics, typically because we believe they’ve somehow harmed or threatened to harm us. But Marcus says that it’s all in our minds, ultimately. Other people can’t harm us as much as we can harm ourselves. They can insult us, but we don’t have to take offense. They can steal from us, but we don’t have to be shocked or dismayed at the loss. They can lie to us, but we don’t have to trust them in the first place, or be surprised when they let us down. Thrasea used to quote a saying attributed to Socrates, which he modified slightly: “The tyrant Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” He can destroy my body but he can’t degrade my character, unless I allow him to, which is the most important thing to a Stoic.

The real harm comes from our own judgment that we’ve been harmed, ironically. We’re upset, at least to some extent, because we choose to be upset. Now the Stoic position is actually much more nuanced than this slogan implies. They recognize that we all have natural automatic, reflex-like reactions to external events. So we’re bound to feel upset and angered if someone punches us in the face, that’s just natural. However, the difference between the fool and the wise man, is that the fool continues to be angry about it whereas the wise man steps back from his initial impressions, his feelings of anger, and questions them, telling himself that the thing he’s angry about only seems bad because of his value judgements and not because it’s intrinsically bad. “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”, as Hamlet says. We’re naturally predisposed to take offence or be angry about certain things but as the Stoics put it, we don’t need to then give our assent to those initial impressions and go along with our angry reaction. We can pause and rethink our response. Remember that it’s our own judgement that upsets us.

4. Everything is transient

The previous strategy is very much associated with Epictetus whereas this one seems very aligned with the thought of the presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, who said that you can’t step into the same river twice because new waters are constantly flowing in. His philosophy was summed up as “everything flows”, nothing lasts forever, everything is continually changing around us. Nothing remains the same. Marcus very frequently makes use of this strategy in The Meditations, contemplating the transience of material things but also his own mortality and that of the other people who offend him. When we view the bigger picture in this way, and realize that things are transient, we tend to feel less upset and less attached to them. Once again, though, anger tends to do the opposite and amplify itself by focusing on the most upsetting part of a situation, narrowing our attention, concentrating itself, and ignoring the bigger picture. When we think about the span of events – beginning, middle, and end – and their place within the bigger picture of our lives, and the history of life on earth, then our feelings are diluted and weakened. Things seem more trivial and less worth getting upset about. But that’s the truth. The totality is reality.

When we focus on events in isolation we’re committing a lie of omission, taking them out of context. That’s the very nature of anger, though. We do it every day. It’s selective. It focuses on isolated events or aspects of a situation, or of a person’s character, as opposed to the whole picture. There’s a famous Stoic technique called The View From Above that encourages us to imagine events within the totality of space and time. However, Marcus is here just referring to one aspect of that: the realization that things don’t last forever. This too shall pass, as the saying goes. Likewise, cognitive therapists often ask clients “What next?”, “And then what?” over and over, to encourage them to get beyond the worst part of an upsetting event and think also about how it will de-escalate and things will inevitably move on, eventually. That tends to make us less upset but, once again, it’s just the truth – it’s just being honest with ourselves, and looking at things more objectively and in a more complete manner. Anger is selective attention, which ignores the transience of events. Marcus even reminds himself that one day he will be dead, and long forgotten, as will the person with whom he’s angry, so there’s no point dwelling on it and aggravating himself further. Remember that everything is transient.

5. Anger does us more harm than good

Anger is temporary madness. It skews our thinking and makes us stupid. Seneca actually began his therapy for anger by drawing attention to the ugliness of anger, how unnatural it looks when someone grimaces, scowls, their temples throb, and their face turns purple. How their voice becomes ugly and it’s very unpleasant to listen to an angry person speaking because their voice grates. Anger makes monsters of us, they might say. It harms our thinking and our character more than the very things we’re angry with ever could. Other people’s vices are their problem, not ours, ultimately. However, when we get angry, we’re committing a vice ourselves, and then it becomes our problem because we make it so.

If every morning someone told me I was an idiot, would that in itself do me any harm as long as I learn to view them with indifference? Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words will never harm me, right? But if I go along with my first impression that I’ve been insulted or harmed in some way, and get angrier and angrier, how much harm will I be doing to myself? Anger does us more harm than the thing we’re angry about. It makes our soul shrink. Marcus says that people think anger is a show of strength, but they’re wrong. Anger is every bit as much a form of weakness as weeping and cowering in self-pity. Marcus says true strength consists in overcoming our anger, and employing the antidote to it, by having the courage to treat other people with kindness and understanding, even when they appear to be our enemies. Marcus says that’s what he admires: the strength to forgive others and exhibit goodwill toward them unconditionally, rather than being angry with them.

Now, I should say that the Aristotelians had a different view. They believed that moderate anger could be healthy and it could motivate us to do certain important things in life. The Stoics dispute this, though. They argued that anger isn’t just a feeling, it’s also a value judgement that underlies the feeling. The judgement is that something intrinsically bad has happened but the Stoics argue that’s an error, it’s a mistaken judgement because the badness is merely projected onto things by us – it doesn’t really exist independently of our minds. So all anger is fundamentally misguided in that respect – it places too much value on things outside of our control. Moreover, the Stoics point out that anger distorts our thinking, as we’ve seen, so love and reason are much healthier attitudes that better motivate us to make sound decisions in life. The Stoic soldier doesn’t fight because he hates the enemy, and wants to destroy them, but because he loves his family and his country, and wants to protect them – and those are two very different things. So remember that anger does us more harm than good.

Conclusion

So those are just five of the ten gifts from Apollo that Marcus described, and just one small part of the Stoic therapy of the passions. Let me recap them briefly:

  1. We’re naturally social creatures
  2. Bad people inevitably do bad things
  3. It’s our own judgements that upset us
  4. Everything is transient
  5. Anger does us more harm than goodSo I hope you’ve found that helpful, please post your comments and questions and I’ll try to respond to them in the thread as soon as we’ve finished.

The Metaphor of the Sun in Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Fire MemeWhen 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.

 

Stoic Politics and the Republic of Zeno

Mock up of books by StoicsZeno’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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The emphasis is on a community founded on philosophical principles and constituted for the common good, rather than that of an elite.
  4. One lifestyle is held common to all, in some sense.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. Likewise, no distinction is made between men and women.  Saying that all people have equal rights therefore appears to be implied 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.  (Like modern spectator sports perhaps.)
  6. 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

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

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. The reference to men and women wearing the same dress resembles Plutarch’s remark about clothing somehow being held in common.
  6. 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.

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.

Philodemus

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.

Marcus Aurelius

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)

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)

Free Download: E-book on the Stoic Philosophy of Eulogium of Marcus Aurelius

Free e-book on the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

Time-limited: You can download the e-book in EPUB or Kindle (MOBI) format free of charge until Wednesday 22nd 12pm Eastern Time.

Eulogium on Marcus AureliusThe French poet and literary critic Antoine Léonard Thomas wrote the Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius in the 18th century and it was translated into English by David Bailie Warden in 1808, who dedicated it to Thomas Jefferson, “the Marcus Aurelius of the United States”.

The book is part historical fiction, part biography, part philosophy. It opens with a fictional scene in which the aged Stoic philosopher, Apollonius of Chalcedon delivers a eulogy over the coffin of Marcus Aurelius, upon its arrival at Rome for his state funeral.

“Marcus Aurelius, after a reign of 20 years, died at Vienna. He was then preparing to make war against the Germans. His body was carried to Rome, where it was received in the midst of tears and public sorrow. The Senate, in mourning, preceded the funeral chariot, which was accompanied by the people and the army. The son of Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor Commodus, followed the chariot. The procession was slow and silent. Suddenly an old man advanced in the crowd. His stature was tall, his air venerable, all knew him. It was Apollonius, the Stoic philosopher, esteemed at Rome, and more respected for his talents than for his great age. He had all the rigid virtues of his sect, and, moreover, he had been the instructor and the friend of Marcus Aurelius. He stopped near the coffin, looked sadly at it, and suddenly raising his voice…”

The rest of the book consists of a biographical account of Marcus’ life expounded by Apollonius and a summary of his philosophy. The biographical details are almost entirely derived from the historical sources and Thomas provides a compelling account of Marcus’ evolution as a philosopher and his version of Stoicism. Apollonius was a real philosopher, a childhood tutor of Marcus Aurelius, about whom little is known.

This text has been carefully edited and proofread to make it more accessible to modern readers. I have also included a short foreword explaining more about Apollonius and his role in Marcus’ education.

They never said to him, ‘Love the unfortunate’, but they relieved, before him, those who were so. No one said to him, ‘Be worthy of friends’; he saw one of his teachers sacrifice his fortune to an oppressed friend. I saw a warrior, who, to give him a lesson of courage, showed him his bosom all covered with wounds. In the same way they spoke to him of mildness, magnanimity, justice, and firmness. I myself had the glory of being associated with these illustrious instructors. Called to Rome from the extremity of Greece, and charged with his education, I was ordered to the palace. If he had been no more than a simple citizen, I would have gone there, but I conceived that the first lesson I owed a Prince was that of dependence and equality. I remained until he came to me. Pardon me, Marcus Aurelius! I thought then that you were only a common prince. I soon knew you, and whilst you asked for lessons, I often instructed myself.


Here the philosopher paused for a moment. The innumerable crowd of citizens who listened to him pressed near him, eager to hear. To this great impulse, a profound silence ensued. Alone between the people and the philosopher, the new emperor was uneasy and pensive. One hand of Apollonius leaned on the tomb, the other held a paper, traced with the pen of Marcus Aurelius. He resumed his discourse, and read as follows.

Did Stoicism Condemn Slavery?

Some notes on passages in the Stoic literature that appear to question, or possibly even condemn as vicious, the practice of slave-owning.

Massimo Pigliucci recently wrote an excellent article on Stoicism and slavery.  He was responding to a message, which said “I know that Epictetus was a slave and embraced Stoicism, but I find it difficult as an African-American to embrace this philosophy which is quite silent about slavery.”  Massimo mentioned in passing that “no Stoic questioned the very institution of slavery”.  This article looks at what the Stoics said about slave-owning.  There are some passages which suggest that Stoics may actually have questioned the institution of slavery or even stated that slave-owning was wrong.

First of all, it’s worth noting that many people feel that the ancient Stoics should have viewed slavery negatively.  Why?  Well, consideration for others as our equals or fellow-citizens in the cosmos, ethical cosmopolitanism, is central to Stoic Ethics.  The Stoics were also firm believers in the concept of natural law and they agreed that no man is a slave by nature.  Some ancients believed, by contrast, that slavery was the natural state of certain races.  The view that some men are “natural slaves” is usually attributed to Aristotle and the Stoics are taken to be opposing him by rejecting this notion.   For instance, Chrysippus defined a slave as a “hired-hand for life”, a man-made condition not a natural one.

However, there are only a few passages where the question of slave-ownership is addressed explicitly.  There are also a handful of historical details and a few pieces of textual evidence, which can potentially be viewed as revealing Stoic attitudes toward slavery.   Nevertheless, I noticed recently that Diogenes Laertius, one of our main sources for early Stoic fragments, does appear to state that the founders of Stoicism condemned slave-owning as morally wrong.  Massimo extended his article above to acknowledge this passage in Diogenes “where he seems to suggest (second part) that the Stoics actually directly condemned slavery”.  In his summary of early Stoic Ethical doctrines, Diogenes writes of the Stoic wise man:

They declare that he alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same;  though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination [subjugation], and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being lordship [slave-ownership]; and this too is evil.  (7.121-122)

I also checked my interpretation of this passage with John Sellars and Christopher Gill, two of my colleagues on the Modern Stoicism team.  Chris is emeritus professor of Ancient Thought at Exeter university and an authority on Stoicism, having published several academic books on the subject, including an analysis and commentary on the first half of The Meditations.  He agreed that “the passage does appear to say that slave-ownership is bad (not just the extended [metaphorical] forms of slavery normally discussed by Stoics)”, although it’s surprising to see an ancient author expressing this view.  On the other hand, John Sellars, an academic  philosopher and author of Stoicism and The Art of Living, pointed out that we might potentially expect the Stoics to “attack slavery in general as something unjust, especially given their cosmopolitan ambitions”.

Diogenes is mainly quoting sayings from Zeno and Chrysippus in this section, although he also refers to Apollodorus of Seleucia, a student of Diogenes of Babylon who wrote an important handbook on Stoic Ethics, around 150 BC.  He’s almost certainly referring to Zeno and Chrysippus here as “they”, probably based on summaries of their core teachings in Apollodorus and later authors, such as Arius Didymus.

Here are a couple of interesting references to that passage…  In his Histoire des théories et des idées morales dans l’antiquité (1879), Jacques François Denis cites the passage above from Diogenes Laertius and interprets it as follows:

There is, says Zeno, such slavery that comes from conquest, and another that comes from a purchase: to one and to the other corresponds the right of the master, and this right is bad. (p. 346)

The American author Robert G. Ingersoll, famous for being an early proponent of agnosticism, cites Denis’ comment on the same passage, remarking:

I read Zeno, the man who said, centuries before our Christ was born, that man could not own his fellow-man.  “No matter whether you claim a slave by purchase or capture, the title is bad.  They who claim to own their fellow-men, look down into the pit and forget the justice that should rule the world.”  (Why I am an Agnostic)

The first sentence is a paraphrase of the passage in Diogenes Laertius, although the second appears to be derived from the Epictetus passage  quoted below (Discourses, 1.13).

As Denis and Ingersoll observed, the passage in Diogenes Laertius is most likely derived from a saying of Zeno, or possibly Chrysippus.  Crucially, as they both note, it identifies two ordinary meanings of “slavery”: capture and purchase.  In addition, though, it also distinguishes these from the special technical sense in which the word is used in the Stoic paradoxes, to refer to inner freedom.  So actually the passage in Diogenes distinguishes three senses of the word “slavery”:

  1. The sense in which the majority of people (bad men) are enslaved to their passions and externals, in contrast to the inner freedom of the ideal Stoic Sage
  2. The forced subjugation (ὑπόταξις) of one person to another, e.g., capture and enslavement by pirates or brigands or by enemies in war
  3. The legal possession of a slave as property, i.e., through purchase, which entails their capture and forced subjugation (or that of one of their ancestors)

The passage above goes on to say that the correlate of such enslavement (items 2 and 3) is despoteia (δεσποτεία) which most definitely means slave-ownership in the Greek original, although translated into English here more vaguely as “lordship”.  He then adds in “and this too is evil” (phaule, φαύλη), which means wretched, base, immoral, etc., a term used as a synonym for vice in Stoic Ethics.  Indeed, throughout the chapter, Diogenes employs this same term very frequently (about eighteen times) as a synonym for vice.  I don’t think there can be any question that he means slave-ownership is morally wrong.

As we’ll see below, when comparing this passage with the discussion of slavery in another Stoic text, by Dio Chrysostom, Zeno (or possibly Chrysippus) appears to have argued that slaves are either purchased or captured; capturing slaves is theft, and unjust, because no man is born a natural slave; but purchased slaves must either have been captured in the past or are descendants of those who have been captured; therefore all enslavement is unjust, because it’s a form of robbery, or the theft of a man from his natural state.  Ingersoll and Denis both read this passage in the same way.

Some people boldly claim that it was unheard of to question the institution or practice of slavery in the ancient world.  They’re demonstrably mistaken about this, though.  The Sophist Alcidamas, among others, had early on stated that “nature has made nobody a slave”.  By contrast, others, such as Aristotle, argued that some people are slaves by nature.  He wrote that:

[…] those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast—and they are in this state if their work is the use of the body, and if this is the best that can come from them—are slaves by nature. For them it is better to be ruled in accordance with this sort of rule, if such is the case for the other things mentioned. (Politics, 1)

The Stoics, probably adopting arguments forwarded by much earlier authors, categorically rejected the notion that any human being is naturally born to be a slave.   (With the possible exception of the Middle Stoic, Posidonius, who embraced elements of Aristotelianism and appears to have reintroduced the notion of natural slavery.)  Zeno argued that all men should ideally live together as though in a common herd.  Chrysippus’ definition of a slave as a “hired-hand for life”, a social contract based solely on their purchase, is usually interpreted as an explicit rejection of the Aristotelian theory that some people are slaves by nature.

However, the injustice of capturing and enslaving someone who is naturally free-born is perceived as infecting and undermining the whole institution of slavery, as we’ll see.  (Some authors believe that Antisthenes’ book Of Freedom and Slavery may have contained similar arguments, which potentially influenced the Cynic-Stoic tradition.)

Zeno of Citium

Zeno’s Republic, arguably the founding text of Stoicism, was a scathing critique of Plato’s book of the same name.  In it Zeno argued in favour of an ideal political state in which all men and women would be equal, living like brothers and sisters in a single community.  This is very clearly a rejection of Aristotle’s notion of natural slavery.

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. (Plutarch, On the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander)

This very clearly states that the political goal or ideal of Stoicism was a republic in which all men and women are equal and live as though members of a single community or family, by implication therefore slavery must have been abolished.  It seems self-evident that the institution of slavery would directly contradict this ideal of social equality.

Some people have taken the following anecdote from Diogenes Laertius to imply that Zeno owned a slave:

We are told that he was once chastising a slave for stealing, and when the latter pleaded that it was his fate to steal, “Yes, and to be beaten too,” said Zeno. (7.23)

However, this passage makes a point of saying “a slave” not “his slave” – there’s nothing in it to suggest that Zeno was the owner of the slave in question, they were probably someone else’s slave.  At least according to one account, Zeno lost his fortune at sea and subsequently lived like a beggar, as follower of the Cynic Crates, and he continued in a similar austere lifestyle after founding the Stoic school.  If he had no property, he’s unlikely to have owned slaves.  The Cynic way of life is generally taken to involve renunciation of wealth, and by implication slaves.  According to tradition, the true Cynic only owns what he can fit in his satchel – which would presumably have insufficient room for a slave!

Moreover, Zeno was a metic or foreign resident of Athens, not an Athenian citizen.  As such he had few rights, and his status was somewhat between that of a slave and a citizen.  Technically, Foreign residents could own slaves, by law, but they could not own property.  So unable to own his own home, Zeno appears later in life to have lived as the household guest of his student Persaeus.  Without property at Athens, though, it seems unlikely that Zeno would have owned slaves.  Indeed, Seneca says that it was well-known in his time that Zeno had no slaves:

It is well known that Homer had one slave, that Plato had three, and that Zeno, who first taught the stern and masculine doctrine of the Stoics, had none: yet could anyone say that they lived wretchedly without himself being thought a most pitiable wretch by all men? (Consolation to Helvia, 12)

There is another interesting anecdote in Diogenes Laertius, incidentally, in which Zeno appears to rebuke another man for beating his slave:

Once when he saw the slave of one of his acquaintance marked with weals, “I see,” said he, “the imprints of your anger.” (7.23)

As we’ve seen, Zeno introduced the convention that all those who are not virtuous are called “slaves”, in a technical sense.  The Stoics believed that only the ideal Sage is truly virtuous and neither Zeno nor the other founders of the school claimed to be perfect.  So this effectively means that all men are “slaves” to their passions, through attachment to externals.  In the Discourses of Epictetus, for this reason, we can see him repeatedly addressing his students, collectively, as slaves.

Elsewhere, Diogenes Laertius says the early Stoics distinguished between evils insofar as they were means or ends.  Among evils ends, things that are inherently evil, he clearly lists “slavery” and “every vicious action”.  Thus slavery is an intrinsically bad activity which participates in a vicious attitude of mind.  However, in this instance, he does appear to be referring to “slavery” in the sense of the Stoic paradoxes, i.e., the inner state of enslavement to our passions.

Zeno’s most famous book, The Republic, articulated his Utopian vision of the ideal Stoic Republic, “as though in a dream”, as Plutarch put it.  It’s sometimes seen as the founding text of Stoicism.  It’s also reputedly his most Cynic-influenced text.  He describes the Stoic ideal as being a republic in which all citizens are equal, both men and women.  There are no law courts, and all property is held in common. According to Plutarch, Zeno had taught the Stoics that “we should look upon all people in general to be our fellow-countryfolk and citizens, observing one manner of living and one kind of order, like a flock feeding together with equal right in one common pasture.”

Now in the few fragments that survive there’s nothing explicitly referring to the role of slaves in relation to Zeno’s Republic.  However, it seems to stand to reason that if everyone is equal, like brothers and sisters (one flock or herd), and each has equal rights then there can be no slaves.  Also, as slaves are property, if all property is held in common then there could arguably be no slaves.  (And without law courts, it would also be impossible to administer laws governing slave-ownership.)  So it does seem impossible that slaves could have been envisaged as forming part of the ideal Stoic Republic.  Of course, that’s an ideal and not advice for real world politics.  Nevertheless, it is supposed to denote what Zeno considered to be a good society, and the social goal of Stoicism.

Seneca

In Letter 31, Seneca makes it clear that the human soul is equally divine whether it exists in a Roman knight or a slave:

What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in a human body? A soul like this may descend into a Roman knight just as well as into a freedman’s son or a slave. For what is a Roman knight, or a freedmen’s son, or a slave? They are mere titles, born of ambition or of wrong.

So, once again, you’d think that, in principle, would lead him to conclude that slavery is immoral.  Seneca wrote a Letter to Lucilius entitled On Master and Slave (Letter 47).  In it he emphasised that for Stoics slaves are first and foremost our fellow-humans.

“They are slaves,” people declare.  Nay, rather they are men.  “Slaves!”  No, comrades.  “Slaves!”  No, they are unpretentious friends.  “Slaves!”  No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike.

Seneca owned slaves himself.  However, his writings were arguably aligned more with the Middle Stoa.  As we’ve seen, some Middle Stoics, influenced by Aristotelianism, may have reintroduced the notion of natural slavery.  Stoics who were more aligned with Cynicism, like Musonius, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius, though, are likely to have questioned the concept of natural slavery, or rejected it outright, and to have been more influenced by the early Stoicism of Zeno’s Republic.

Even Seneca condemns cruelty toward slaves in this letter but doesn’t go so far as to condemn the institution of slavery.  He does, however, repeatedly emphasis that slaves should be treated with respect, as fellow-human beings, and not as inferiors.

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave.

At one point he even seems to acknowledge that he’s skirting around the more fundamental ethical and political questions about slavery.

I do not wish to involve myself in too large a question, and to discuss the treatment of slaves, towards whom we Romans are excessively haughty, cruel, and insulting. But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

It’s tempting to read this as expressing Seneca’s awareness of a tension between Stoic ethics and the prevailing norms of Roman society.  He realizes that Stoic ethics teaches us to treat all humans, even slaves, as our equals, as fellow-citizens of the cosmos.  However, he doesn’t want to rock the boat too much by questioning the whole institution of slavery.  At least, that’s one way of reading his comments on the subject.

Epictetus

Epictetus, of course, was originally a slave himself, but gained his freedom later in life.  In fact his name just means “acquired” and seems to have been a nickname of sorts, denoting the fact he was the property of another man.  In one of the shorter Discourses, Epictetus directly addresses slave-ownership.  In response to a question about acting acceptably to the gods, Epictetus refers to a slave-owner becoming furious because his slave brought him water that was tepid and not warm enough.

Slave yourself, will you not bear with your own brother, who has Zeus for his progenitor, and is like a son from the same seeds and of the same descent from above? But if you have been put in any such higher place, will you immediately make yourself a tyrant? Will you not remember who you are, and whom you rule? that they are kinsmen, that they are brethren by nature, that they are the offspring of Zeus?—But I have purchased them, and they have not purchased me. Do you see in what direction you are looking, that it is towards the earth, towards the pit, that it is towards these wretched laws of dead men? but towards the laws of the gods you are not looking.  (1.13)

Here Epictetus reminds his wealthy students that even their slaves should be viewed as brothers as they are all children of Zeus.  The role of Zeus as father of mankind is a common theme in Stoicism, and the wise man is directed to emulate Zeus by viewing the rest of mankind as his brothers and sisters, without discrimination.  If you have been put in the position of ownership over another man you must nevertheless remember that he is your kinsman, in the eyes of Zeus.  In response to a student objecting “but I have purchased them”, quite astoundingly, Epictetus refers to the Roman laws governing slave ownership as “these wretched laws of dead men”, i.e., mortals, and scolds his students for appealing to them rather than giving precedence to the eternal laws of Nature or Zeus.  Calling the laws governing slave-ownership “wretched”, clearly implies a criticism of the legal institution of slavery, although Epictetus doesn’t really elaborate further on this point.

Incidentally, Epictetus’ teacher, Musonius Rufus, had said that slaves are entitled to disobey masters who instruct them to engage in immoral actions (Lecture 16).  He also said that like Diogenes the Cynic, who was enslaved, a slave may not only be the equal of but actually more virtuous than his master (Lecture 9).

Dio Chrysostom

Perhaps our clearest articulation of the Stoic position actually comes from Dio Chrysostom.  Dio wasn’t a fully-fledged Stoic but rather an eclectic philosopher and orator, influenced both by Stoicism and Cynicism.  He was student of the great Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus, friends with the Stoic Euphrates of Tyre, and probably also an acquaintance of Epictetus.  Marcus Aurelius appears to mention both Dio and Euphrates favourably in The Meditations.

Dio provides one of our most explicit Stoic-influenced condemnations of slavery in his fourteenth and fifteenth orations On Slavery and Freedom: Discourses I and II.  He starts off his initial Discourse by forwarding typical arguments in favour of the Stoic paradox that only the wise man is truly free and the majority of us are slaves because of our ignorance.  This is the special Stoic technical use of the word “slavery”, and refers to our inner state.  As Dio notes, this paradox means that even the great king of Persia, Xerxes, may have been a slave inwardly, to his ignorance and passions, despite his external power; and even someone who appears outwardly enslaved, such as Diogenes the Cynic, might nevertheless be inwardly regal and free, if he possesses virtue and wisdom.  (These arguments and the terminology used by Dio are clearly Stoic in nature and acknowledged as such by modern commentators.)

However, in the second Discourse, Dio proceeds to discuss the ordinary sense of the word “slavery”, i.e., the forced subjugation or legal possession of one person by another.  He argues that all slaves are either captured or are the descendants of those who have been captured.  In the same way that a person can possess land, property, or livestock for a long time but nevertheless unjustly,  says Dio, to capture men in war or by brigandage is “to have gained possession also of human beings unjustly”.  Slaves can also be purchased, inherited, or born into the household as the children of other slaves but all these depend on this earliest method of acquiring slaves by capture, which Dio says “has no validity at all” and constitutes “unjust servitude”.

Those individuals who were initially compelled by force into a life of servitude should not even be termed “slaves”.  Therefore all slavery is “unjust” insofar as it depends, ultimately, on the capture of individuals who were born free.

If, then, this original mode of acquiring slaves, from which all other modes derive their existence, be destitute of justice, none of them can consequently be deemed just; nor can a single individual either be a slave in reality, or be truly and substantially discriminated by such an appellation. (15.26)

Dio repeatedly denies that being captured can legitimately make someone who is free-born into a slave and asserts that this means their descendants cannot be slaves either.  Note that the distinction he employs in this oration between inner slavery, slavery by capture, and slavery by purchase, appears to reflect the distinction made by the Stoics, according to Diogenes Laertius, in the passage cited above, which Denis and Ingersoll plausibly attributed to Zeno.  It seems certain that Dio Chrysostom and Diogenes Laertius are both ultimately drawing upon the same Stoic source in making this distinction and the two texts shed some light on each other.

The presence of the passage in Diogenes also appears to confirm the conclusion of modern scholars that these orations of Dio are thoroughly Stoic in nature.  Likewise, Dio’s discourses confirm that the Stoics meant phaulos (bad or wretched) to mean unjust or morally wrong.  They also clarify that the Stoics are talking about the distinction between slaves who are captured and subjugated by force, usually during warfare but also by bandits or pirates, and slaves who are legally purchased.  Their point is that both practices are unjust, and immoral, because the purchase of a slave depends on the fact that they or their ancestors were at some point captured by force, or stolen from their natural state.

Marcus Aurelius

As we’ve seen, the Stoics believed in the ideal of ethical cosmopolitanism.  All humans, in fact all beings that possess reason, are equally citizens of the same cosmos.  This doctrine is arguably incompatible with slavery, as for cosmopolitans everyone is a citizen, and citizens are not slaves.  Moreover, no man is naturally born to be enslaved.  This theme is particularly prominent in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, where it’s closely associated with his pantheistic view of Nature.

Marcus’ therefore expressed his political vision as a state with a mixed constitution for which the freedom of its subjects is its highest priority:

[…] 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 (1.14)

Sometimes people object that although Marcus was emperor he didn’t abolish slavery.  That seems very obviously to be an unrealistic expectation, though.  The position of Roman emperor was far too precarious for that sort of radical social upheaval.  The Roman economy completely depended on slave labour.  Moreover, when foreign enemies were defeated, tens of thousands were normally captured.  Often the only realistic option was to keep them as slaves.  If they were returned to their lands, they would simply regroup and attack again.  So the Romans could plausibly argue that enslavement was a more ethical option than mass executions, or genocide, of enemy tribes.

However, Marcus did try to resettle thousands of Germanic tribesman within Italy.  This wasn’t entirely successful as some were involved later in uprisings.  He also caused widespread unrest at Rome by granting thousands of slaves their freedom in exchange for joining the legions during the crisis of the initial Marcomannic invasion, when the armies were severely depleted by the Antonine Plague.

Moreover, as his biographers have observed, Marcus consistently appears to have taken legal steps to improve the rights of slaves in relation to manumission, or obtaining their freedom.  It’s true that these were very gradual changes but Marcus himself states that he has to be satisfied with small steps in the right direction politically.  In case there’s any doubt about the delicate balance of power during his reign, it’s worth noting that Marcus actually faced a full-scale civil war in 175 AD, reputedly triggered in part because of unrest over the leniency of his attitudes.  The uprising was put down very quickly but it proves that Marcus couldn’t just do what he liked politically, he faced an opposition faction in the senate and potential usurpers waiting in the wings.

Marcus wrote that he was inspired by learning about Stoic Republicans like Cato of Utica and Thrasea and that he aspired to the political ideal 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” (1.14).  This is a remarkable passage.  It sounds reminiscent in some ways of Zeno’s Republic, which was written almost 500 years earlier.  It also seems difficult, obviously, to reconcile the institution of slavery with the ideal of a state that makes its highest priority the freedom of its subjects.

Moreover, in The Meditations, Marcus also wrote:

A spider is proud when it has caught a fly, and one man when he has caught a little hare, another a little fish in his net, another boars, another bears, and another some Sarmatians. Now if you look into their judgements, are these not simply brigands? (10.10)

This is a remarkable passage.  Marcus is referring to the capture and subjugation of enemy Sarmatian soldiers during the Marcomannic Wars, mainly by his own Roman officers.  These captives would have been ransomed or sold into slavery.  The eminent French scholar Pierre Hadot comments on this passage:

The war in which Marcus defended the borders of the empire was, for him, like a hunt for Sarmatian slaves, not unlike a spider’s hunt for flies. (Philosophy as a Way of Life, p. 185)

Marcus compares the capture of barbarian slaves to catching fish in a net, hunting boar, and so on, but then astoundingly he concludes that the character of a person who takes pride in doing this is no better than that of a brigand or robber.  In other words, perhaps in an allusion to the Stoic doctrine mentioned in Diogenes Laertius and Dio Chrysostom, he appears to be saying that capturing enemy soldiers is a form of theft, robbing them from their natural state of freedom.  He doesn’t go on to say, as the early Stoics did, that this vitiates the institution of slavery insofar as all legally purchased slaves must have been at one time captured, or are the descendants of those who have been.

This passage is also strikingly similar to the Stoic argument against slavery forwarded by Dio Chrysostom.  Some philosophers believed certain individuals, even certain races, were naturally born to be slaves.  The Stoics categorically rejected this notion.  Marcus here clearly rejects the idea that the Sarmatians are natural slaves.  As they’re freeborn, capturing them is simply unjust, or akin to robbery.  In other words, this passage is clearly a rejection of the assumption that so-called barbarian races are “fair game” for enslavement.

Indeed, Marcus appears to have caused some unrest at Rome by offering many slaves, including gladiators, their freedom in exchange for joining the legions.

And since the pestilence [the Antonine Plague] was still raging at this time, he […] trained slaves for military service — just as had been done in the Punic war — whom he called Volunteers, after the example of the Volones.  He armed gladiators [likewise slaves] also, calling them the Compliant, and turned even the bandits of Dalmatia and Dardania into soldiers. (Historia Augusta)

Marcus’ Legislative Measures

Paul Barron Watson’s excellent biography of Marcus Aurelius contains a very detailed account of the specific legislative changes that Marcus enacted in order to improve the rights of slaves. It’s about twelve pages long. I’ll quote some key passages at length below but you’ll have to consult the original for the numerous examples he cites regarding specific pieces of legislation. He opens with the conclusion:

The broad and charitable attitude which men were beginning to take with reference to the rights and duties of the various portions of society can be due only to the principles of Stoicism, which were forcing themselves upon the minds of men […] In no way was this breadth of purpose more marked than in the laws which Marcus passed in aid of slaves. […]

In addition, therefore, to the feelings of benevolence which actuated Marcus Aurelius in relieving this down-trodden class of society, he was induced by political reasons to enact measures to avert the impending danger [of slave revolts]. How to augment the relatively small free population and how to alleviate the distress of the slaves and freedmen, were problems which Marcus kept continually before him. He strove to make real that idea which he speaks of in his Thoughts [i.e., The Meditations] — the idea of a “polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity admin istered 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.”

It was a difficult task that lay before the Emperor. Revolutions sometimes take place in politics — in law, never. The boast of law is that it is founded on justice; and the principles of justice remain eternally the same. The principles of political parties may be overthrown by the weight of numbers or the power of wealth ; in law, whatever alterations are accomplished are effected by force of argument alone. To convince the Roman people that a person taken in war is not the property of the captor was more than any one emperor could accomplish. Marcus Aurelius did a noble work-in promulgating this doctrine ; but its final adoption could only be effected by the reasoning of ages. As a first step towards the abolition of slavery Marcus introduced a practice which was, in fact, almost a logical consequence of his immediate predecessors’ beneficent laws. [Hadrian had introduced basic rights for slaves by declaring that a master could not kill their slave without just cause.]

Marcus Aurelius was quick to perceive the advantage which had thus been gained ; and he at once followed it up by an enactment, framed as a privilege to the master, but in reality a decided benefit to the slave. By this new law the master was empowered to bring an action in the courts for every injury suffered at the hands of his slave.1 Thus the masters were encouraged to lay all their grievances before the tribunals instead of taking the punishment of their slaves into their own hands, as they had done hitherto. It was one step more towards placing both upon the same footing. If the masters could be induced to rely on the courts to award them justice for all injuries from their slaves, it would follow almost as a corollary that the slaves might look to the courts for protection from the injustice of their masters. It is always the oppressed that gain when law is substituted in the place of despotism. A secondary purpose which Marcus had in encouraging masters to lay their grievances before the courts was to do away with a brutal custom known as the quaestio, or torture. This had long been the ordinary way of inducing a slave to confess any crime which he had committed, and also of compelling him to furnish evidence against his fellows. It was a method which failed chiefly in the uncertainty of its result. […]

Even Marcus Aurelius seems to have aimed rather at substituting a more just method of obtaining evidence than at abolishing entirely the older form of procedure. To his cred it, however, it should be said that he urged strongly the propriety of resorting to this method only as a last resource, and even then of using as little violence as possible. Indeed, the compilers of the Digest have preserved a letter in which Marcus recommends that a slave who, under torture, had confessed a crime of which he turned out afterwards to be innocent, should be set at liberty, in recompense for the indignity he had suffered.’

Another humane law, by which Marcus re-strained the cruelty of masters, provided that if a slave should be sold, otherwise than after judgment in the courts, for the purpose of being pitted against beasts in the arena, both the seller and the buyer should be punished.’ As long, however, as the masters were just and kind towards their slaves, the Emperor felt that the slaves were, in return, bound to obey their masters. He therefore published an open letter, in which he proclaimed it to be the duty of all governors, magistrates, and police soldiers to aid masters in their search for fugitive slaves. When found, the runaways were to be returned to their mas ters, and whoever aided in concealing them was to be pun ished.’ Indeed, Marcus went further ; and made it lawful for the search to be conducted upon the estates of the emperor as well as upon those of senator or peasant.’

It was not only, however, with a view towards relieving the condition of those in actual slavery that Marcus worked, he sought, also, to render enfranchisement more easy. [Watson recounts several specific legislative changes made by Marcus to increase the rights of slaves to manumission; for example:] In cases where a slave was sold or given away, to be manumitted at the death of the recipient, Marcus insisted, with the utmost imperativeness, that the manumission must be performed. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way.’

The condition, too, of slaves who had already received their liberty, Marcus attempted to alleviate. [Again, several legal examples are provided.] In all doubtful cases with regard to slaves and freedmen Marcus preferred to fail on the side of charity rather than to encourage cruelty; and we hear of some in stances where he even went so far as to allow a freedman to be chosen as tutor to his infant patron. One law more we must notice before leaving the subject of slavery. It is set forth in a rescript of Marcus Aurelius, and reflects clearly the benevolent principles which actuated the Emperor in all his public life. The aim of the law was to prevent masters who had stipulated with their slaves that they should be freed if they performed such and such services before a certain time, from evading their contract.

Marcus adds to this final rescript: “for principles of humanity demand that a money consideration shall never stand in the way of a person’s freedom”. (86-97)

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