Reading books where the characters discuss Stoic Philosophy
Reading books where the characters discuss Stoic Philosophy
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil. — Steinbeck, East of Eden
One of the most commonly asked questions about Stoicism is whether there are any novels dealing with this philosophy. The question often gets quite varied responses, including lots of references to poker-faced or unemotional characters. There’s a big difference between Batman, though, or Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name”, on the one hand, and Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, on the other. All over the Internet, people tend to confuse “stoicism” (lowercase), the unemotional personality trait or coping style, with “Stoicism” (capitalized), the ancient Greek philosophy — two quite different things.
Fortunately, there are a handful of interesting novels, in which characters explicitly discuss Stoicism…
What if you are not looking for cold-blooded stoic characters, though, but for works of fiction that contain some genuine Stoic philosophy? Fortunately, there are a handful of interesting novels whose characters explicitly discuss Stoicism. These books vary enormously in style and content and will probably appeal to different types of readers. However, they can all contribute something of value to our appreciation of ancient Stoic philosophy.
A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
Wolfe’s mammoth second novel, published in 1998, is hands-down the best example of a work of fiction featuring discussion of Stoic philosophy prominently in the story. It’s a sprawling story of intersecting lives, with characters from radically different strata of society, which takes place mainly in 1980s Atlanta, Georgia.
Stoicism doesn’t really emerge until about halfway through. However, if you persevere, you’ll be rewarded. The philosophy becomes central to the story of two of the main characters. One, called Conrad Hensley, who discovers the Discourses of Epictetus while in prison, is asked if he considers himself a Stoic and replies:
“I’m just reading about it”, said Conrad, “but I wish that there was someone around today, somebody you could go to, the way students went to Epictetus. Today people think of Stoics — like, you know, like they’re people who grit their teeth and tolerate pain and suffering. But that’s not it at all. What they are is, they’re serene and confident in the face of anything you can throw at them. If you say to a Stoic, ‘Look, you do what I tell you or I’ll kill you’, he’ll look you in the eye and say, ‘You do what you have to do, and I’ll do what I have to do — and, by the way, when did I ever tell you I was immortal?’” — Wolfe, A Man in Full
For students of Stoicism, the shortcoming of Wolfe’s book is that it deals with Stoicism mainly from a literary perspective, to flesh out characters and advance the story, rather than to describe self-improvement strategies. Nevertheless, it’s a great book and, although quite long, most people will find it pretty enjoyable to read.
The Epictetus Club by Jeff Traylor
Subtitled Lessons from the Walls, this book was published in 2004. It was written by a prison counselor, who based the characters on real-life inmates who actually took part in his Stoicism workshops. It’s set in the old Ohio Penitentiary, and follows the story of a group of inmates who meet weekly for a group called “The Epictetus Club”, led by a lifer known as Zeno.
I had been thinking about what Zeno said at our last meeting — that people were not upset by things themselves, but by what they told themselves about those things. At first I had my doubts. But I was also open to considering it, so I decided to pay attention to my thoughts the next time I was worried, upset or angry. It didn’t take long to find my first opportunity. — Traylor, The Epictetus Club
Though very different from A Man in Full, it makes an interesting companion piece as both books happen to portray the Stoicism of Epictetus being adopted and put into practice by prison inmates. Although The Epictetus Club is also a work of fiction, it leans more toward the self-help genre, by trying to give the reader practical guidance to take away, and a more rounded introduction to Stoicism.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck is on record, several times, as having mentioned the personal meaning the writings of Marcus Aurelius had for him. Old Testament themes permeate his 1952 novel, East of Eden, but Steinbeck also portrays one of the main characters reading the Meditations.
[Lee] lifted the breadbox and took out a tiny volume bound in leather, and the gold tooling was almost completely worn away — The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in English translation. Lee wiped his steel-rimmed spectacles on a dish towel. He opened the book and leafed through. And he smiled to himself, consciously searching for reassurance. He read slowly, moving his lips over the words. “Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.” — Steinbeck, East of Eden
Scholars of literature have argued that themes found in Steinbeck’s book such as staying true to oneself, not becoming like one’s enemies, and not being overwhelmed by fear of death, were inspired by the Stoic philosophy of the Meditations.
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
The Belgian-born writer Marguerite Yourcenar laboured over this magnificent work of historical fiction for many years before it was finally published in French, as Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951). Her attention to detail is so exceptional that many people take this as an accurate portrayal of Hadrian. Nevertheless, it is a work of fiction, albeit one carefully grounded in historical evidence. The “novel” actually consists of a series of letters which the author imagines being written from the Emperor Hadrian to his adoptive grandson, the teenage Marcus Aurelius. The thoughts it contains are beautifully articulated.
I hoped to discover the hinge where our will meets and moves with destiny, and where discipline strengthens, instead of restraining, our nature. Understand clearly that here is no question of harsh Stoic will, which you value too high, nor of some mere abstract choice or refusal, which grossly affronts the condition of our universe, this solid whole, compounded as it is of objects and bodies. No, I have dreamed of a more secret acquiescence, or of a more supple response. Life was to me a horse to whose motion one yields, but only after having trained the animal to the utmost. — Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
Although this book contains many reflections on Hadrian’s attitude toward life and love, it says little about Greek philosophy, including Stoicism. Nevertheless, it is extremely valuable to those interested in the life of Marcus Aurelius because it very vividly portrays one of the characters whose influence shaped his childhood years.
One caveat: the character of Hadrian, perhaps unsurprisingly, casts himself in a much more favourable light, in these letters, than Roman history would justify. Yourcenar systematically glosses over or dismisses every major criticism of Hadrian, one by one — giving his legacy something of a whitewash. Hadrian was, after all, vilified by the senate after his death as a political tyrant. Sadly, although Marcus Aurelius was the intended recipient of Hadrian’s fictional letters, we never get to read his fictional replies. Perhaps because, in reality, Marcus seems to have been left with a negative impression of Hadrian, and would probably have disagreed with many of the musings attributed to his predecessor in these letters.
The Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius by Antoine Léonard Thomas
This is the oldest book on the list. It was written in 1775 by Antoine Léonard Thomas, a French poet and literary critic, and translated into English by David Bailie Warden in 1808. The English edition was dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, “the Marcus Aurelius of the United States”. The Eulogium takes the form of a fictional funeral speech, which the author imagines being delivered by the Stoic Apollonius of Chalcedon, in 180 AD, over the recently-deceased body of his former student, the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
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… — Léonard Thomas, Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius
Apollonius was also a real historical figure, although the words attributed to him here are not his own but largely paraphrased from the Meditations, and the surviving Roman histories of Marcus Aurelius’ rule.
As this is an 18th century text, its period style may not be to everyone’s taste today, although it’s relatively short and easy to read. It actually gives quite a good introduction to the life of Marcus Aurelius, and some aspects of his thought. The Eulogium makes an interesting companion piece to Memoirs of Hadrian. Both are works of historical fiction set in 2nd century Rome, one portraying Hadrian’s reflections on life, the other portraying those of Marcus Aurelius, through the mouthpiece of his Stoic teacher.
Several ancient works of fiction survive today, which contain Stoic themes. Perhaps the most notable are the many surviving tragedies of Seneca the Younger, who was, of course, a famous Stoic philosopher himself.
Happy is he whoever knows how to bear the estate of slave or king and can match his countenance with either lot. For he who bears his ills with even soul has robbed misfortune of its strength and heaviness. — Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus
The Pharsalia of Lucan, Seneca’s nephew, is an epic poem, about the civil war of Julius Caesar, which focuses toward the end on Caesar’s opponent, the Stoic hero, Cato of Utica. Many centuries later, this story was retold in Joseph Addison’s Cato, a Tragedy (1712). This play was much beloved by George Washington, who reputedly had it performed for the Continental Army camped at Valley Forge, to raise their morale.
Not all the pomp and majesty of Rome
Can raise her senate more than Cato’s presence.
His virtues render our assembly awful,
They strike with something like religious fear,
And make even Caesar tremble at the head
Of armies flush’d with conquest. — Addison, Cato, a Tragedy
We can also find some references to Stoicism in modern cinema. There is of course, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), in the first act of which Richard Harris portrays Marcus Aurelius. The movie only contains two or three fleeting references to Stoicism. Its sequel, Gladiator 2, has already been written, though, and greenlit by Paramount Studios. It will tell the story of Marcus’ grandson, which possibly means there could be a few more references to Stoicism.
Acts of Vengeance (2017) starring Antonio Banderas, is a budget revenge movie, in which the lead character stumbles across a copy of the Meditations. Quotes from the book are interspersed throughout the movie, although the philosophical themes aren’t very well integrated with the action, except perhaps in relation to the final twist in the ending. Finally, The Creation of Earthquakes starring John Malkovich, is a forthcoming black comedy, which tells the story of the troubled relationship between Emperor Nero and the Stoic philosopher, Seneca.
It was partly because I couldn’t find many good stories about Stoicism that I decided to write our forthcoming graphic novel, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Verissimus tells the story of Marcus Aurelius’ childhood education in Stoicism and his subsequent career as Roman emperor, drawing extensively on the surviving Roman histories and other evidence. It carefully interweaves Stoic concepts from the Meditations with action scenes and relationships drama, linking his inner philosophical journey with the outward events of his life, including several epic battles which shaped Roman history.
In ancient Greece and Rome, philosophy was taught in lectures and through dialogues and essays. However, a much wider audience learned about it through popular plays, and stories, about famous philosophers, such as the anecdotes about Diogenes the Cynic, many of which are believed to derive from satires. All of the stories we’ve looked at in this article help to bring Stoicism, and its historical context, to life for modern readers. They can put a human face on what can seem at first like a somewhat inhuman and austere philosophy, making it more accessible, I hope, to a greater number of people.