What the Stoic Emperor Learned from the Athenian Philosopher
What the Stoic Emperor Learned from the Athenian Philosopher
In 175 AD, probably for the first time in his life, in his mid-fifties, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, set foot in Athens. It was in fact a pilgrimage for him. During of the “War of Many Nations” he’d been fighting along the Danube frontier, he had taken a sacred oath that he would travel to Athens, if victorious, and be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. Although these rites ended with initiation at the Temple of Demeter in nearby Eleusis, they began in the centre of Athens, outside the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, the ancient home of Stoic philosophy.
As Marcus stood upon the Stoa Poikile, he would have gazed across the Agora where Socrates once discussed philosophy, and where he was later put on trial, imprisoned, and executed. Beyond the Agora, Marcus would have seen the Temple of Athena known as the Parthenon. At that time a colossal statue of the goddess of wisdom looked down on Athens, from atop the Acropolis. Most of the drama of Socrates’ life had unfolded within the bounds of the Agora, under the gaze of Athena.
It must have been a humbling experience for Marcus to know that he was walking in Socrates’ footsteps. According to the Historia Augusta, the emperor had “ever on his lips” the saying attributed to Socrates in Plato’s Republic that “those states prospered where the philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers.”
The Stoic school appears to have been viewed, at least by some, as a Socratic sect.
Socrates and the Stoics
Socrates was, in a sense, the godfather of Stoicism. The Stoic school appears to have been viewed, at least by some, as a Socratic sect. We’re told that its founder, Zeno of Citium, received a pronouncement from the god Apollo, via his priestess at Delphi, instructing him to “take on the colour of dead men”. He was awakened to the meaning of this cryptic statement when he stumbled across the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia Socratis, which contains a famous speech by Socrates, an exhortation to the life of virtue and philosophy. Henceforth, the Stoics appear to have viewed Socrates as their supreme role model. Centuries later, for instance, we find the great Stoic teacher, Epictetus, repeatedly telling his young students to emulate Socrates, and ask themselves what Socrates would have done in various situations.
Marcus narrowly missed the opportunity to meet Epictetus in person but he probably knew men who had attended his lectures. For example, Marcus’ favourite Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, gifted him a copy of the Discourses of Epictetus, from his own private library — possibly meaning that Marcus read the words of Epictetus before they were known to the public. Marcus quotes Epictetus, throughout the Meditations, more often than he does any other thinker, and it seems clear that he saw himself as a follower of Epictetus’ branch of Stoicism.
There were reputedly eight volumes of the Discourses originally, only half of which survive today. Marcus quotes from the Discourses known to us but he also quotes other sayings of Epictetus, suggesting that he had may have read the missing Discourses. It may even be that some of the passages in the Meditations that we attribute to Marcus are actually quotes or paraphrases from these lost volumes of Epictetus’ teachings.
Socrates in the Meditations
So to what extent does Marcus follow Epictetus’ advice to emulate Socrates? Well, Marcus compares his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, to Socrates, and urges himself: “Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus.” He goes into great detail, twice in the Meditations, listing the traits of Antoninus that he seeks to emulate in his own life. However, the most important quality that the two men had in common, according to Marcus, was their self-control.
And that might be said of [Antoninus] which is recorded of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. — Meditations, 1.17
Marcus adds that, in his eyes, having the strength to abstain from certain pleasures, and the self-discipline to experience pleasure without losing control “is the mark of a man who”, like Socrates and Antoninus, “has a perfect and invincible soul.”
Marcus also cites Socrates as one of his heroes, alongside Heraclitus and Diogenes the Cynic. Socrates, and these other philosophers, Marcus says, are more deserving of our admiration than famous military leaders such as Alexander the Great, Pompey the Great, and Julius Caesar. Philosophers such as Socrates, he says, were familiar with the true nature of things, their form and substance, and unlike Alexander, Pompey, and Caesar, their intellects were not enslaved by passions — whereas these rulers were puppets of their own fear and anger the philosophers were truly free men (Meditations, 8.3).
Elsewhere Marcus lists Socrates alongside Heraclitus, and Pythagoras (here replacing Diogenes), as examples of particularly “noble philosophers” that he greatly admires. Marcus seems to imply that Socrates, along with others, has been unharmed, in a sense, by death and that during life he maintained goodwill toward all men, even those who attacked him, presumably including those who brought him to trial, and had him executed.
As to all these consider that they have long been in the dust. What harm then is this to them… One thing here is worth a great deal, to pass your life in truth and justice, with a benevolent disposition even to liars and unjust men. — Meditations, 6.47
In another passage, Marcus says that Socrates was killed by “lice”, metaphorically, the men who prosecuted him and had him executed for impiety and corrupting the youth. He links this to an argument about accepting our own mortality derived from Plato’s Apology, where Socrates prepares himself to face a death sentence.
You have embarked [on life], you have made the voyage, you have come to shore. Get out. If indeed to another life, there is no want of gods, not even there. But if to a state without sensation, you will cease to be held by pains and pleasures, and to be a slave to the bodily vessel, which is as much inferior as that which serves it is superior: for the one is intelligence and deity, the other is earth and corruption. — Meditations, 3.3
Marcus also singles out as particularly noteworthy this remark about Socrates, which he probably derives from Plato’s Crito.
Socrates used to call the opinions of the many by the name of Lamiae — bugbears to frighten children. — Meditations, 11.23
In Greek tragedy, Queen Lamia was an African ruler who turned into a child-devouring monster, after all of her own children were snatched from her by the jealous goddess Hera. Her name became associated with bogey masks, used to frighten small children. Marcus is referring, like Socrates, to our fear of death, though. The majority of people have opinions about death, and other misfortunes, that terrify them. The wise man looks behind the frightening mask, though, in order to understand the reality underneath.
The Life of Reason
In one place, Marcus reproduces a fragment of Socratic dialogue, which goes roughly as follows:
Socrates: Do you want to have the souls of rational or irrational creatures?
Others: Rational ones.
Socrates: What sort of rational creatures, healthy ones or unhealthy ones?
Socrates: Why then do you not seek for them?
Others: Because we have them.
Socrates: Why then are you fighting and quarreling? — see Meditations, 11.39
This passage does not exist in any surviving Socratic dialogues. It does look typically Socratic, although the argument is much more concise than the ones we typically find in Plato or Xenophon. Socrates, as usual, begins with questions that seem almost silly, rhetorical questions, where the answers appear so obvious they’re not worth asking. Of course, everyone wants to be capable of reasoning, and we would all like to believe that we do so fairly well throughout life.
Socrates usually works more slowly toward a paradoxical conclusion but here it comes quickly. It is our very belief that we are already rational, or wise, that prevents us from making an effort to improve ourselves. The Socratic Method, we’re repeatedly told, was designed as a cure for such intellectual conceit. We have to admit that we’re being irrational before we can become philosophers, in pursuit of reason and wisdom. Everyone wants to be wise but, ironically, nobody bothers trying to become so, because we arrogantly assume that we have enough wisdom already!
In this mini-dialogue, Socrates points to the fact that the unnamed others are bickering with one another. This provides evidence that they’re not actually behaving very rationally. Marcus places a lot of emphasis, throughout the Meditations, on the Stoic teaching that man is by nature both rational and social. He treats anger and hatred as symptoms of underlying irrationality, which we urgently need philosophy to cure.
Marcus keeps reminding himself that as naturally rational beings we should view nothing as better than reason, which he considers divine.
But if nothing appears to be better than the deity [reason] which is planted in you, which has subjected to itself all your appetites, and carefully examines all the impressions, and, as Socrates said, has detached itself from the persuasions of sense, and has submitted itself to the gods, and cares for mankind; if you find everything else smaller and of less value than this, give place to nothing else. — Meditations, 3.6
Stoics must make a continual effort to value reason above all, because there is a tendency to place more value on other things, which appear useful to us in life, such as wealth or reputation. Marcus says that we should place some value on external things but we have to be very careful to distinguish whether they’re “useful” insofar as they serve our goals as rational beings, or our appetites as animals.
Was Socrates a Sage?
The Stoics were careful to avoid putting their role models on a pedestal and turning them into idols, though. They insisted that no man was perfectly wise. Most other schools of Greek philosophy were named after their founders — the Pythagoreans, Platonists, Aristotelians, Epicureans, etc. The Stoics were briefly known as “Zenonians”, after their founder Zeno, but soon dropped this and became known after the Stoa Poikile, the public building where they originally met one another to talk philosophy. Marcus, likewise, continually reminds himself that his heroes are merely mortal — the universe, the river of time, is like a furious torrent, which has swept along and swallowed up countless men like Epictetus and Socrates. (Meditations, 7.9).
He goes further and reminds himself that he cannot know for certain that other men are not superior in character to Socrates. All he has are some stories about the words and deeds of a man, Socrates, who died over five centuries earlier.
For it is not enough that Socrates died a more noble death, and disputed more skillfully with the Sophists, and passed the night in the cold with more endurance, and that when he was bid to arrest Leon of Salamis, he considered it more noble to refuse, and that he walked in a swaggering way in the streets — though as to this fact one may have great doubts if it was true. — Meditations, 7.66
These are well-known anecdotes about the life of Socrates, which Marcus could have found in Plato’s Symposium, Apology, and Phaedo. He recognizes that these stories cannot be taken at face value. Nevertheless, he finds inspiration in them.
The inner character of Socrates is more important to Marcus than his outward behavior although it cannot be known for certain. He asks himself whether Socrates was, as he seemed to have been…
Content with being just toward men and pious toward the gods in his actions
Neither frustrated by other men’s villainy
Nor going along with them, gullibly, and enslaved by their ignorance
Not experiencing as strange or intolerable any events that befell him
Nor allowing his intellect to be swayed by physical sensations, such as pleasure or pain — see Meditations, 7.66
I think Marcus means, paradoxically, that we should spend time trying to analyze the character of Socrates, even though we can never know for certain what he was like.
Anecdotes about Socrates
Marcus mentions another popular anecdote about Socrates:
Consider what a man Socrates was when he dressed himself in a skin, after Xanthippe had taken his cloak and gone out, and what Socrates said to his friends who were ashamed of him and drew back from him when they saw him dressed thus. — Meditations, 11.28
Socrates, famously, only had one cloak, so the implication is that he was left with nothing to wear except an animal pelt, which probably shocked Athenians as it would seem like something a foreign barbarian might wear.
Xanthippe, Socrates’ young wife, became known as a shrew, although by some accounts Socrates praised her both as a mother and a wife. She reputedly had a quick temper. Respectable Greek women, at this time, seldom left the house except at allotted times. This story is not in the surviving Platonic dialogues but it is perhaps linked to an anecdote reported by Diogenes Laertius, who says that Xanthippe tore the cloak from Socrates’ back, out in public, in the Agora. When onlookers urged Socrates to strike her in punishment, the philosopher refused to do so because he said he would merely be providing a spectacle for their entertainment. The gist of both stories is probably that Socrates was unperturbed by something others found shocking and insulting. He merely shrugged it off as a harmless tantrum and went on his way.
Of course, it’s tempting to compare this to what we know about Marcus Aurelius’ wife Faustina, whose gossips claimed was unfaithful to him, and a source of much trouble. We’re told satires were performed at Rome that ridiculed her infidelity and portrayed Marcus as a cuckold. Yet in private, Marcus praises her affection and loyalty, so these rumors may have been unfounded or exaggerated. Marcus took inspiration from Socrates as someone who could turn a blind eye to other people’s opinions about his wife’s behavior, perhaps because he was convinced the criticisms of her character were unfounded.
Another anecdote, of uncertain origin, but similar to one reported in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, is mentioned by Marcus:
Socrates excused himself to Perdiccas for not going to him, saying, “It is because I would not perish by the worst of all ends”; that is, I would not receive a favor and then be unable to return it. — Meditations, 11.25
The point of this tale seems to be a familiar Greek piece of wisdom about avoiding indebting yourself to others. We have to be careful about accepting favors because although the benefits may seem appealing, we often sacrifice our freedom in doing so.
There are many other passages where Marcus appears to draw on ideas that ultimately derive from earlier writings about Socrates. One of the most striking is in Meditations 11.18, where Marcus refers to contemplation of Socrates’ famous paradox that no man does evil willingly, as a remedy for anger. However, as we’ve seen, there are enough instances where Marcus mentions Socrates by name to discuss in one article, and plenty of indirect references left to discuss another time.
The artwork in this article comes from our graphic novel Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, which contains many references to the influence of Socrates upon the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.