Emerson on Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius and American Transcendentalism

Marcus Aurelius and American Transcendentalism

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.

Emerson on the Stoics

Character, is the essay in which Emerson perhaps says most about the Stoics. There he argues that although they influenced many later authors, “with every repeater something of the creative force is lost”, and so we should “go back to each original moralist”, including the Stoics, in order to read such wisdom from those who “speak originally”.

However, Emerson believed that Stoicism expressed a kind of perennial wisdom such that when the mind attains enlightenment by its own means,

It converses with truths that have always been spoken in the world, and becomes conscious of a closer sympathy with Zeno [the founder of Stoicism] and Arrian [who wrote down the Discourses of Epictetus] than with persons in the house. — The Over-Soul

Emerson’s admiration for the Stoics is clear across many of his writings. He typically lists the Stoics alongside other great moralists, from Moses to Buddha, such as in the following passage:

In strictness, the vital refinements are the moral and intellectual steps. The appearance of the Hebrew Moses, of the Indian Buddha; in Greece, of the Seven Wise Masters, of the acute and upright Socrates, and of the stoic Zeno; in Judaea, the advent of Jesus, and, in modern Christendom, of the realists Huss, Savonarola and Luther, — are casual facts which carry forward races to new convictions and elevate the rule of life. — Civilization

For the sake of readability and brevity, I’ve omitted these lists from some of the quotes in this article, allowing us to focus more clearly on what Emerson is saying about the Stoics, although he’s often speaking more generally at the same time.

How much more are men than nations! the wise and good souls, the stoics in Greece and Rome, Socrates in Athens… than the foolish and sensual millions around them! so that, wherever a true man appears, everything usually reckoned great dwarfs itself; he is the only great event, and it is easy to lift him into a mythological personage. — Progress of Culture

In Society and Solitude, he lists the “The Sentences of Epictetus” and of Marcus Antoninus, i.e., The Encheiridion and The Meditations, respectively, as books that “acquired a semi-canonical authority in the world, as expressing the highest sentiment and hope of nations”. It’s perhaps telling that Emerson likes to refer to the Stoics as moral aphorists rather than systematizers of a complete philosophical worldview.

In an article titled The Sovereignty of Ethics, Emerson poses the question “How is the new generation to be edified?” He replies that “A new Socrates, or Zeno”, the founder of Stoicism, may be born into the modern world “and bring asceticism, duty, and magnanimity into vogue again.”

It is true that Stoicism, always attractive to the intellectual and cultivated, has now no temples, no academy, no commanding Zeno or [Marcus Aurelius] Antoninus. It accuses us that it has none… — The Sovereignty of Ethics

Emerson says that the ethics of Stoicism has not been formulated into concrete “scientific scriptures to become its Vulgate for millions” because it inspires us in the form of “joyful sparkles”, recorded for their beauty and the delight they give us; their priceless good to mankind is that “they charm and uplift, not that they are imposed.”

[Stoicism] has not yet its first hymn. But, that every line and word may be coals of true fire, ages must roll, ere these casual wide-falling cinders can be gathered into broad and steady altar-flame. — The Sovereignty of Ethics

Emerson on Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

Emerson holds Marcus Aurelius in especially high regard, such as in his essay titled Character, where he refers to “ a certain secular progress of opinion”, which makes the life and wisdom of ancient authors accessible to everyone, such that “Socrates and Marcus Aurelius are allowed to be saints”. Emerson says that his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, an exceptionally well-read woman, was known to him as a fan of Marcus Antoninus. Perhaps it was to her that he owed his own interest in Marcus’ book, The Meditations.

In Culture, Emerson is apparently arguing that great men must be willing to be disliked by some.

He who aims high, must dread an easy home and popular manners.” Heaven sometimes hedges a rare character about with ungainliness and odium, as the burr that protects the fruit. If there is any great and good thing in store for you, it will not come at the first or the second call, nor in the shape of fashion, ease, and city drawing-rooms. Popularity is for dolls. “Steep and craggy,” said Porphyry, “is the path of the gods.”

However, this leads him immediately into the example of Marcus Aurelius:

Open your Marcus [Aurelius] Antoninus. In the opinion of the ancients, he was the great man who scorned to shine, and who contested the frowns of fortune. They preferred the noble vessel too late for the tide, contending with winds and waves, dismantled and unrigged, to her companion borne into harbor with colors flying and guns firing. There is none of the social goods that may not be purchased too dear, and mere amiableness must not take rank with high aims and self-subsistency. — Culture

In Character, Emerson claims that morality consists precisely in the direction of the will toward universal ends whereas vice focuses on securing our private ends. “He is moral, — we say it with Marcus Aurelius and with Kant, — whose aim or motive may become a universal rule, binding on all intelligent beings”, whereas the sacrifice of public good to a private interest is always the stamp of vice.

All the virtues are special directions of this motive; justice is the application of this good of the whole to the affairs of each one; courage is contempt of danger in the determination to see this good of the whole enacted; love is delight in the preference of that benefit redounding to another over the securing of our own share; humility is a sentiment of our insignificance when the benefit of the universe is considered. – Character

In the same essay, Emerson makes the intriguing claim that the “Maxims of Antoninus”, The Meditations, like The Upanishads, do not invade one’s freedom in the form of an external command, like the Bible does, but merely offer moral suggestions. He says this is “the secret of the mischievous result that, in every period of intellectual expansion, the Church ceases to draw into its clergy those who best belong there, the largest and freest minds”, and they find themselves coldly received and out of place whenever they do join the clergy. Whereas with the Stoics:

This charm in the Pagan moralists, of suggestion, the charm of poetry, of mere truth, (easily disengaged from their historical accidents which nobody wishes to force on us,) the New Testament loses by its connection with a church. — Character

In Character, Emerson also says that sufficiency of character leads us to ask, with Marcus Aurelius, “What matter by whom the good is done?”, in an expression of humility. He quotes this passage again in Greatness, in order to argue that a great man cares more about real learning than about the appearance of learning.

Say with Antoninus, “If the picture is good, who cares who made it? What matters it by whom the good is done, by yourself or an other?” If it is the truth, what matters who said it? If it was right, what signifies who did it? — Greatness

In the final analysis, though, although Emerson shares some fundamental beliefs in common with the Stoics, he tends to refer to them in a somewhat haphazard way. That’s his style, of course, but it makes it more difficult to compare his philosophy with theirs.

For example, in one place he quotes Marcus on the lack of affection found among the elite:

Marcus Antoninus says, that Fronto told him, “that the so-called high-born are for the most part heartless;” whilst nothing is so indicative of deepest culture as a tender consideration of the ignorant. — Considerations by the Way

Elsewhere he employs a saying from Marcus concerning belief in the gods:

The weight of the Universe is pressed down on the shoulders of each moral agent to hold him to his task. The only path of escape known in all the worlds of God is performance. You must do your work, before you shall be released. And as far as it is a question of fact respecting the government of the Universe, Marcus Antoninus summed the whole in a word, “It is pleasant to die, if there be gods; and sad to live, if there be none.” — Worship

In another essay, he quotes Marcus’ views on the relationship between morality and aesthetics:

All high beauty has a moral element in it, and I find the antique sculpture as ethical as Marcus Antoninus: and the beauty ever in proportion to the depth of thought. Gross and obscure natures, however decorated, seem impure shambles; but character gives splendor to youth, and awe to wrinkled skin and gray hairs. An adorer of truth we cannot choose but obey, and the woman who has shared with us the moral sentiment, — her locks must appear to us sublime. — Beauty

Emerson is more interested, in other words, in mining the Stoic literature for memorable sayings than in studying their main ideas or comparing them to his own. Perhaps that’s just like saying that he engages with them more as a poet than as a philosopher.

Emerson On Seneca

Emerson also says some interesting things about the Stoic philosopher Seneca in his essay on Plutarch.

Plutarch is genial, with an endless interest in all human and divine things; Seneca, a professional philosopher, a writer of sentences, and, though he keep a sublime path, is less interesting, because less humane; and when we have shut his book, we forget to open it again. There is a certain violence in his opinions, and want of sweetness. He lacks the sympathy of Plutarch. He is tiresome through perpetual didactics. He is not happily living. — Plutarch

Emerson does admire Seneca’s worldliness, in a sense, though.

Seneca was still more a man of the world than Plutarch; and, by his conversation with the Court of Nero, and his own skill, like Voltaire’s, of living with men of business and emulating their address in affairs by great accumulation of his own property, learned to temper his philosophy with facts. He ventured far, — apparently too far, — for so keen a conscience as he inly had. Yet we owe to that wonderful moralist illustrious maxims ; as if the scarlet vices of the times of Nero had the natural effect of driving virtue to its loftiest antagonisms. — Plutarch

Emerson quotes another author who refers to Seneca as a “pagan Christian” who would be good reading for “our Christian pagans”. Emerson himself goes on to describe Seneca as “Buddhist in his cold abstract virtue, with a certain impassibility beyond humanity.”

Emerson quotes Seneca as having called pity “that fault of narrow souls.” However, he contrasts that remark with Seneca’s saying “God divided man into men, that they might help each other” and “The good man differs from God in nothing but duration.” Like many commentators on Seneca, Emerson senses a contradiction between his life and morals: “His thoughts are excellent, if only be had the right to say them.”


Emerson perhaps didn’t embrace Stoicism more completely because he believed the perennial wisdom it contains can be found everywhere and is sometimes better exemplified in other sources.

Nature is upheld by antagonism. Passions, resistance, danger, are educators. We acquire the strength we have overcome. Without war, no soldier; without enemies, no hero. The sun were insipid, if the universe were not opaque. And the glory of character is in affronting the horrors of depravity, to draw thence new nobilities of power: as Art lives and thrills in new use and combining of contrasts, and mining into the dark evermore for blacker pits of night. What would painter do, or what would poet or saint, but for crucifixions and hells? And evermore in the world is this marvellous balance of beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats. Not Antoninus, but a poor washer-woman said, “The more trouble, the more lion; that’s my principle.” — Considerations by the Way

One thing certainly lacking in Emerson, which he nevertheless admires is the Stoic praise of “laconic” (concise, like a Spartan) speech.

Spartans, stoics, heroes, saints and gods use a short and positive speech. They are never off their centres. — The Superlative

However, Emerson’s flamboyant turn of phrase sometimes lends powerful expression to Stoic ideas. For instance, one of the major themes of his writings is, of course, self-reliance and he finds himself repeatedly turning to the Stoics when describing this ideal.

But what does the scholar represent? The organ of ideas, the subtle force which creates Nature and men and states; consoler, upholder, imparting pulses of light and shocks of electricity, guidance and courage. So let his habits be formed, and all his economies heroic; no spoiled child, no drone, no epicure, but a stoic, formidable, athletic, knowing how to be poor, loving labor, and not flogging his youthful wit with tobacco and wine; treasuring his youth. I wish the youth to be an armed and complete man; no helpless angel to be slapped in the face, but a man dipped in the Styx of human experience, and made invulnerable so, — self-helping. — The Man of Letters

Like the Stoic, and unlike the epicure, the ideal scholar, and indeed the ideal man in general, is both self-reliant and self-helping.

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