Emerson on Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius

Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear… and that teacher shall restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history. — Emerson, Self-Reliance

The American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the leading figures of the Transcendentalist movement in the mid 19th century. There is some basic theoretical common ground between Stoic philosophy and Emerson’s writings, most notably that Emerson appears to believe that virtue is its own reward, a fundamental doctrine of Stoicism. For instance, he wrote:

The heroic soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough. — Heroism

That “virtue is enough” is something an ancient Stoic could easily have written. For the Stoics, virtue is the only true good and the belief, which they inherited from Socrates, that it is sufficient in itself for the good life is a cornerstone of their distinctive ethical position.

The quote above from Self-Reliance makes it clear that Emerson admires the Stoics. He also says in the same excerpt that Stoicism teaches “that a man is the word made flesh, born to shed healing to the nations, that he should be ashamed of our compassion, and that the moment he acts from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries and customs out of the window, we pity him no more, but thank and revere him.”

Rather than carry out a detailed analysis of the parallels between Emerson’s thought and Stoic philosophy, though, I want to begin by accomplishing the more modest task of summarizing what he explicitly says about them. There are probably more references to the Stoics in his writings than most people realize. Emerson frequently mentions important precursors of Stoicism such as Socrates, Xenophon, and Diogenes the Cynic, as well as Academic philosophers influenced by them such as Cicero and Plutarch. He mentions the Stoics Epictetus and Seneca. However, the one he says most about is Marcus Aurelius, or as he sometimes calls him, using the cognomen of his imperial dynasty, Marcus Antoninus.

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