Today we learn Stoicism mainly from books but the ancient Stoics believed that books were of secondary importance, and that they needed to study the characters of exceptional people to really learn Stoic virtue.
In the first book of The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius goes into great detail about the examples of virtue he was lucky enough to obtain from the character and actions of his family and personal tutors, particularly the men who taught him philosophy – mostly other Stoics such as his main Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus.
However, he actually has far more to say about the virtues of his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, than any of the other people he acknowledges. We have no reason to believe that Antoninus Pius was a Stoic but Marcus does make some interesting observations about him in relation to philosophy. For example, Marcus says Antoninus had a “high appreciation of all true philosophers without an upbraiding of the others, and at the same time without any undue subservience to them” and he goes on to say that most of all, he had a “readiness to acknowledge without jealousy the claims of those who were endowed with any special gift”, including knowledge of ethics, “and to give them active support that each might gain the honour to which his individual eminence entitled him”. It seems likely, therefore, that Antoninus approved of and supported Marcus’ most beloved Stoic tutors, such as Apollonius of Chalcedon, Junius Rusticus, and Claudius Maximus. We know Antoninus sent for Apollonius to be one of Marcus’ first tutors in philosophy.
He apparently “gave no thought to his food, or to the texture and colour of his clothes”, somewhat like Cynics and Stoics. Marcus says he was free from any superstition regarding the gods. Religious hokum and superstition is something the Cynics, and to some extent Stoics, were particularly known for attacking.
However, Marcus especially notes Antoninus’ “take it or leave it” attitude to external things.
The example that he gave of utilising without pride, and at the same time without any apology, all the lavish gifts of Fortune that contribute towards the comfort of life, so as to enjoy them when present as a matter of course, and, when absent, not to miss them.
This is so important that he seems to repeat it a few paragraphs later, comparing it to the legendary self-mastery of Socrates. He says that Antoninus considered everything calmly (with ataraxia) and methodically, and that:
One might apply to him what is told of Socrates, that he was able to abstain from or enjoy those things that many are not strong enough to refrain from and to o much inclined to enjoy. But to have the strength to persist in the one case and to be abstemious in the other is characteristic of a man who has a perfect and indomitable soul, as was seen in the case of Maximus.
Presumably, Marcus is here comparing Antoninus to one of his favourite Stoic tutors, Claudius Maximus, whom he praises for “self-mastery” and “cheerfulness in sickness as well as in all other circumstances”.
Marcus also thanked the gods:
That I was subordinated to a ruler and a father capable of ridding me of all conceit, and of bringing me to recognise that it is possible to live in a Court and yet do without bodyguards and gorgeous garments and linkmen and statues and the like pomp; and that it is in such a man’s power to reduce himself very nearly to the condition of a private individual and yet not on this account to be more paltry or more remiss in dealing with what the interests of the state require to be done in imperial fashion.
We know from the histories that on his deathbed, Antoninus gave the tribune of the night-watch the password of the day as aequanimitas (equanimity) before lapsing into sleep, and dying peacefully. As was often the case, this final phrase was taken as symbolic of his reign.
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