Xenophon records several examples of situations in which Socrates helped his friends to cope with difficulties. He was perceived as having a talent for giving sound practical advice. When someone had a problem that could be resolved by knowledge, he would try to educate them. When they faced practical obstacles he would encourage his friends to help one another in various ways. In this dialogue, Xenophon reports a conversation between Socrates and an otherwise unknown man called Aristarchus about how to deal with refugees (Memorabilia, 2.7). I’ve paraphrased it below, and added a few brief comments for clarification.
The context is perhaps the democrat uprising against the Thirty Tyrants, a pro-Spartan oligarchy that ruled Athens for eight months. Xenophon is believed to have left Athens for good a couple of years after this event. A rebel army led by the naval officer Thrasybulus had captured the port of Piraeus and many democrat exiles rallied there before the final battle that overthrew the oligarchy of the Thirty, and restored democracy in Athens.
One day, Socrates noticed that Aristarchus appeared rather despondent. “You look as though you were weighed down by something, Aristarchus”, he said. “You ought to share the burden with your friends; perhaps we could even help relieve you a little.” Aristarchus explains his problem. He says that since the “civil war” broke out, and many Athenians fled to the nearby port of Piraeus, a large number of female refugees have gathered under his roof. Including his sisters, nieces, and cousins, there are now fourteen women seeking shelter in his household. Aristarchus is in dire straits. His family can get nothing from their farm because the land has been seized by their opponents. They cannot raise any money from other properties they own because he says the city is practically deserted. There are no potential buyers for one’s belongings and it’s impossible even to raise a loan from anyone. He jokes that you’ve a better chance of finding money by searching for it on the streets than by applying for a loan. Aristarchus is clearly in despair and he says it is very painful to “stand by and watch one’s family die by degrees” because in such difficult circumstances he lacks the resources even to feed so many of them.
Having heard this, Socrates asks how another man, called Ceramon, is able not only to provide for his large household, and feed them, but also to make a profit and become rich, at the same time Aristarchus’ family are dying of want. This is typical Socrates: he often begins by questioning whether other people might respond to the same situation differently. Aristarchus says this is because Ceramon’s household is full of slaves whereas his own problem is supporting free people, his relatives. Socrates asks whether Aristarchus views the free people in his own household as superior to the slaves in Ceramon’s. He says that he does. It’s a shame, muses Socrates, drawing attention to a paradox, that Ceramon should actually be prospering because of the size of his household whereas Aristarchus is struggling because of his, despite believing his guests to be better people.
Well, says, Aristarchus, that’s surely because he’s supporting slaves who work for him as craftsmen whereas I’m supporting people who were born and raised in freedom. Socrates responds by asking what it means to be a craftsman or artisan. Aristarchus agrees with his suggestion that it obviously means someone who knows how to make something useful. Now Socrates brainstorms a list of examples… So is hulled barley useful? What about bread? Men and women’s coats, shirts, cloaks, or tunics? Aristarchus agrees that all of these things are very useful.
Well, says Socrates, don’t your guests know how to make any of these things? On the contrary, says Aristarchus, they presumably know how to make all of those. Don’t you know, says Socrates, that from one of these trades alone, hulling barley, Nausicydes supports not only himself and his servants but also a large number of pigs and cattle? He has so much to spare that he often carries out public services for the state as well. And didn’t you hear that Cyrebus maintains a whole household and lives in luxury just by baking bread? Then there’s Demeas of Collytus who makes a living by manufacturing cloaks, Meno who weaves blankets, and most of the Megarians earn their living making tunics.
That’s true, replies a hesitant Aristarchus, but these people all keep foreign slaves to do the work for them. They can force them to do whatever happens to be convenient to support the household but I’m dealing with free people, who are my relatives. Do you really think that just because they’re free born and related to you, exclaims Socrates, that they should do nothing but eat and sleep? What about other free people? Don’t you think that people who work and apply themselves energetically to doing something constructive have a better quality of life and aren’t they more fulfilled than those who do nothing useful? Or do you find that idleness and apathy help people to learn and improve, to gain physical health and fitness, and to prosper in life? Surely these female relatives of yours, asks Socrates, didn’t learn these arts because they regarded them as being of no practical benefit? Surely they learned them intending to practice them seriously in a manner that’s of benefit to themselves and others? So is it more sensible for humans to do no work at all or to occupy themselves useful in such things? And which person has more integrity: one who works or one who frets about how to obtain life’s necessities without working?
As things are right now, he adds, I would imagine that there’s no love lost between you and them. You feel that these women are imposing a great burden on you by seeking refuge in your home and they must be able to see that you’re growing irritated with them. So there’s a real danger that animosity will grow to replace your initial feelings of goodwill toward one another. However, if you encourage them to do work, you will naturally begin to feel more positively about their presence when you see that they’re doing something beneficial for you and they will grow more fond of you when they realize that you’re pleased to have them as your guests. Over time, you’ll feel more and more gratitude toward one another, and your relationship will improve – you’ll become good friends.
Now, of course, if the women in your household were forced into some dishonourable occupation in order to survive they might feel like their lives were not worth living anymore. However, as it stands, the work at which they’re already competent seems to be of the sort considered most respectable and appropriate for a woman. Moreover, people always do better, make faster progress, and take more enjoyment in work they understand well. So don’t hesitate to suggest this solution to them as it’s a course of action that will benefit both you and them. I’m sure they’ll be glad to comply. Aristarchus was convinced. He told Socrates that he thought that sounded like great advice. “Until now,” he said, “I’ve been too anxious to borrow because I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay it back but now I feel that I can justify a loan to get work started.”
Indeed, Xenophon tells us what happened afterwards. As a result of this conversation, he says Aristarchus obtained the capital required to purchase wool for the women. They would start work before breakfast and continue until supper, and became more cheerful as a result of their situation improving. Instead of looking askance at one another the two parties became better friends. The women came to look upon Aristarchus as their guardian, and he came to respect them for helping to support the household. Eventually, he went to visit Socrates and was delighted to tell him how well things had worked out. He jokes that although at first he was worried about putting them to work now the women criticize him for being the only person in the household who’s not weaving.
“You should tell them the story about the dog,” said Socrates. They say that back when animals could talk a sheep said to its shepherd: “I don’t understand. We sheep provide you with wool and lambs and cheese but you give us nothing except grass to eat. The dog gives you nothing but you treat him as if he’s special, and share your own meals with him.” The dog overheard and replied: “Quite right too! I am the one to whom you owe your safety. I protect you from being stolen by men or seized by wolves. If I didn’t keep watch over the flock you wouldn’t even be able to graze in peace for fear of being killed.” When they heard this argument, says Socrates, even the sheep admitted that the dog deserved his privileges. So you should tell the women who are guests in your home that you’re like the dog in that story, guarding them and taking care of them. That should remind them that it’s through your goodwill that they’re able to live and work in safety, and be happy.”
I have a seven year old daughter and since she was born I’ve been interested in how Stoicism relates to parenting. People sometimes ask me if there’s anything “out there” on Stoicism for parents. There are a growing number of resources online so I thought it was time to do a blog post listing some of them in one place, for convenience. Please let me know of any articles or other resources that I’ve missed and I’ll try to add them to this post!
First, though, I thought I’d say a little bit about kids’ books… Poppy is only seven but we discuss philosophy a lot. She loves the Percy Jackson movies and so I’ve told her lots of stories about Greek mythology. There are lots of great kids’ books available. She particularly likes the Early Myths series by Simon Spence. Her favourite Greek legends are about Hercules and she’s heard them hundreds of times!
Talking about Greek myths led to stories about Greek philosophers. Most of the best anecdotes are about Diogenes the Cynic (not all suitable for kids!) and Socrates. There are some great kids books available on Diogenes (Poppy calls him “the Dog”) and Socrates by M.D. Usher. There’s also a great series of books for small children called Little Stoics. Poppy watches Kids YouTube and she told me one day that she wanted to make her own videos. So we started doing some book reviews. She’s done videos on Diogenes by M.D. Usher and the Little Stoics series. We’re hoping to do another soon on M.D. Usher’s Wise Guy, about Socrates.
One of Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues has Socrates talking to his eldest son Lamprocles about his relationship with his mother. I wrote an article analyzing the philosophical content from a Stoic perspective.
One of my favourite Fables from Aesop is The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Did you know that his stories were used by ancient philosophers? It was said that while in prison, awaiting execution, Socrates turned several of Aesop’s Fables into verse. This little story can also help us to understand certain aspects of Stoic philosophy. Seven centuries after Aesop, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was meditating upon:
The country mouse and the town mouse, and the alarm and trepidation of the latter. – Meditations, 11.22
Elsewhere, Marcus also briefly mentions “the scurrying around of frightened little mice”, perhaps also with the same fable in mind, as he goes on to say that we should remember “every man is worth just as much as the things with which he concerns himself” (Meditations, 7.3).
This is my retelling of the fable… A town mouse once visited his cousin in the countryside. The country mouse welcomed his cousin with a simple meal of rustic food: a crust of bread and some dry oats. However, the town mouse laughed at his unsophisticated tastes and peasant fare. Boasting of the luxury and abundance to be found in his townhouse he insists that the country mouse should come back to the city with him for a taste of the good life. Sure enough, they do so and feast like kings upon the finest scraps from the owner’s table, in the house where the town mouse lives hidden. However, suddenly two dogs who hear them scratching around come hurtling into the room barking and send them scurrying for cover, in fear for their little lives.
Once they’ve caught their breath and things have calmed down, the shaken country mouse thanks his cousin for his hospitality but says he’ll be returning to his humble country dwelling right away. He says that although the fare is simple he prefers the safety of his own home to the dangers of the city. The town mouse’s perilous habits aren’t really the good life at all. He’d rather eat like a peasant than risk being eaten by a ravenous dog, thanks very much!
The Roman poet Horace, who was also a student of Stoicism, among other philosophies, discussed this Fable at length (Satires, 2.6). It’s an allegory about simplicity and “moderation in all things”. Sometimes greed brings more trouble than it’s worth. Many people live more contented lives by learning to enjoy what they have rather than desiring what they don’t have, or what’s just beyond their reach.
Do not think of things that are absent as though they were already at hand, but pick out the most pleasant from those that you presently have, and with these before you, reflect on how greatly you would have wished for them if they were not already here. At the same time, however, take good care that you do not fall into the habit of overvaluing them because you are so pleased to have them, so that you would be upset if you no longer had them at some future time. – Meditations, 7.27
The Stoics advised us to bear in mind that focusing on having what we don’t have creates longing, and that can be painful when its unfulfilled. By contrast, fewer people tend to contemplate not having what they do have, which is the prerequisite for gratitude, a much healthier state of mind in many cases, although Marcus warns himself not to become overly-attached to things in this way.
This gratitude is one form of the rational joy in life that Stoics considered to be healthy and a characteristic of the wise man. Epictetus likewise advised his students to cultivate it by imagining that life is a banquet or festival they’ve been invited to, which will only last a short time. Rather than grumble that it will soon be over, or find fault, they should cheerfully make the most of the opportunity.
This is the text of a ten-minute talk I gave about Socrates to an audience of people who were mostly new to philosophy…
My daughter, Poppy, is six years old. She loves Greek mythology. She’s Nova Scotia’s leading expert on Hercules and she loves Wonder Woman – an Amazonian princess created by Zeus. Poppy also loves Greek philosophy.
While we were walking round town, or on the bus, she used to constantly pull my sleeve saying “Daddy, tell me stories!” I don’t read fiction; I’ve only read about four novels in my entire life. So the only stories I knew were about Greek philosophy. And this is one of them…
A long, long, time ago, almost two and a half thousand years ago, a very wise man lived in the city of Athens. His name was Socrates and some people say he was the wisest man who ever lived. He said he was just a “philosopher”, though. That word means someone who loves wisdom but isn’t wise yet himself. Philosophers are always seeking wisdom, like children, they’re always asking questions…
But Socrates wasn’t always a philosopher. His father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason and sculptor who helped to build a famous temple called the Parthenon, high up on a hill in Athens, in a place called the Acropolis. When he was a young boy, his father taught Socrates how to cut stone to make buildings and beautiful statues. That’s what he did for a living for many years and he became really good at it. Some people say he made a famous statue of three beautiful goddesses called The Three Graces, which stood at the entrance to the Acropolis.
Socrates tried really hard to make his statues perfect. He wanted them to physically embody wisdom and virtue. He thought that would be the most beautiful and inspiring thing anyone could possibly create. He tried and tried but he was never happy with the results. He always felt something was missing. So he went to the older and more experienced sculptors, seeking their advice. He was disappointed, though.
They made very beautiful statues depicting virtues like wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline However they couldn’t really explain what these qualities were or where to learn them. Socrates said they had become like blocks of stone themselves: blockheads, lacking wisdom and self-awareness. He realised they were looking too much at the outside, at statues, rather than looking deep inside themselves. They were experts at creating the appearance of virtue but they didn’t really embody it in their own lives.
Then Socrates had a great idea. He did something that I’ve seen many therapy clients do over the years, and it often dramatically improves their lives… He quit his job. He put down his tools and from that day forward he stopped sculpting stone and began sculpting himself instead, his own mind, his character, trying to develop wisdom and virtue. He wanted to make himself beautiful rather than making beautiful statues. Everyone thought this was hilarious because Socrates was not very beautiful to look at. He had a big round belly and a snub-nose and his student Plato said he looked like a satyr, which is a cross between a man and a goat! [Actually, a man and a horse in ancient Greece.] It’s not a compliment. Socrates laughed back at them, though, and said that true beauty comes from within, from our character. He liked to say that if there was a beauty contest between him and the people laughing at him then he should be the winner because his character was much more beautiful than theirs. His friends weren’t convinced; they weren’t sure if he was joking or serious.
Anyway he gave up being a sculptor and instead of doing his father’s job he decided to switch to doing his mother’s job instead. Now, Socrates’ mother was a midwife. But instead of helping pregnant women give birth to their babies… he wanted to become a midwife for wisdom… to help men and women alike to give birth to the ideas inside them, so that they could share them with other people, talk about them, and try to learn the truth about them. We call that “Socratic questioning”.
Socrates helped people to give birth to their ideas by asking them lots of really difficult questions about what it means to be wise and good. He asked soldiers “What does it really mean to be brave?”, he asked politicians “What is justice?”, and he asked teachers “What is the essence of wisdom?” He asked lots of questions but he always pretended he didn’t know the answers. That’s called Socratic irony – the word “irony” actually means feigned ignorance. He used to say “I know only that I know nothing”, pleading ignorance, although he was much wiser than the people to whom he was talking. If you ask Poppy, she’ll explain that’s the secret of Socrates’ wisdom. He used to ask lots of questions, and then he’d listen really carefully to the answers people gave. That’s how he became the wisest man in history.
However, sometimes when you ask too many difficult questions to powerful and important people they get upset. That’s what happened to Socrates. He rocked the boat and they came after him. Two men called Anytus and Meletus [and perhaps a third called Lycon] put together a trumped up charge of impiety and corrupting the youth. Socrates was found guilty and executed, forced to drink hemlock. But nearly two and a half thousand years later, we still remember the things he said…
Once, Socrates asked his friends “what is justice?” and it led to a really long and really famous conversation, which was described in Plato’s book The Republic. One of Socrates’ companions said justice is helping your friends and harming your enemies. Even in ancient Greece that was a popular idea – it’s the worldview of Donald Trump and countless other politicians, good guys versus bad guys. It makes sense. Help your friends; harm your enemies… Socrates said that was wrong, though. He said justice consists in helping your friends and helping your enemies. Everyone thought he was crazy.
So this was his argument… Wisdom is the most important thing in life. It’s much more valuable than material possessions. Why? Well, for example, wealth is only as good as the use we make of it. In the hands of a fool, money is used foolishly. In the hands of a wise man, money can be used wisely. So wealth is neither good nor bad in itself, what matters is the use we make of it. And to help someone is to do them good. So Socrates argued that if we really wanted to help people we would educate them and lead them toward wisdom rather than just giving them money, or other external things. And if our enemies genuinely become wise then they’ll cease to be our enemies and become our friends instead. So justice should consist in helping, or educating, both our friends and our enemies. Maybe that seems idealistic but I agree with Socrates.
So this is my take home message… It may surprise you, but the main lesson I learned from Socrates was forgiveness. We blame people when we don’t understand them. To understand all is to forgive all. And so the closer we get to wisdom, I believe, the more forgiving we become. Socrates even forgave Anytus and Meletus the two men who had him executed. Indeed, he said something truly remarkable at his trial: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but they cannot harm me.” That’s how firmly he believed that the most important thing in life is our moral character, the one thing that nobody can ever take away from you unless you let them. So I hope that now you all know as much about Socratic wisdom as Poppy does.
This is a short story that I used to explain Stoicism to my five year old daughter, Poppy.
The story of Stoic philosophy begins with a shipwreck. The ancient Phoenicians made their fortune by trading a famous purple dye extracted from the murex sea snail. It’s called Tyrian or Royal Purple. It was used to dye the robes of kings but making it was one of the worst jobs in the world. Many thousands of decaying shellfish had to be labouriously dissected by hand just to extract a few grams of this incredibly valuable dye.
One day a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium, from the island of Cyprus, was transporting his cargo of this dye across the Mediterranean when he was caught in a storm. The ship sank but he survived, washed ashore at a port near Athens. He watched helpless on the beach as his precious cargo, his entire fortune, dissolved into the ocean. His fortune came from and now returned to the sea.
Zeno was absolutely distraught. He’d lost everything and was left wandering the streets of Athens, a foreign city, in rags. The legend says he travelled to the famous Delphic Oracle pleading for guidance from the god Apollo.
The Oracle said Zeno was to dye himself with the colour, not of dead shellfish, but of dead men. Zeno trudged back to Athens and sat down at a bookseller’s stall, feeling completely lost. He had no idea what this could possibly mean. He picked up and started reading a book at random. It was written by a famous Athenian general called Xenophon.
The bookseller told him that Xenophon, the author, was once walking through a dark alleyway in Athens when a figure in the shadows held out a wooden staff and blocked his way. The mysterious stranger said “Excuse me, but can you tell me where someone should go if they want to buy some goods?” Xenophon was puzzled but replied, “Of course, we’re right beside the agora, one of the finest marketplaces in the world, you can buy clothes, jewellery, food, whatever your heart desires, just around the corner.” The stranger laughed and said “Thank you. But one more question, can you tell me where someone would go if they want to become a good person?”
Xenophon was completely thrown – he had no idea how to answer. So the stranger stepped out of the shadows and introduced himself… as Socrates. He said: “Well you should come with me then. Together we’ll try to discover how someone can learn to become a good person. That’s surely far more important than knowing where to obtain other sorts of goods.” From that day onward, Xenophon became one of Socrates’ closest friends and one of his most distinguished students. Many years later, after Socrates was executed, Xenophon wrote down some of the most profound things he remembered him saying. That book was called The Memorabilia of Socrates, and the shipwrecked Zeno now found himself reading it.
So what did it say? Well, the majority of people believe there are lots of good things and lots of bad things in the world, all different sorts of things. But Socrates said… they were all wrong. He said that there’s only one good thing and it’s inside us not outside us. He called it both sophia meaning “wisdom” and also arete meaning “excellence of character”. Indeed, the word “philosopher” just means “someone who loves wisdom”. So people asked Socrates why someone who loved wisdom would hang around in the agora of all places, the bustling market. He liked to answer paradoxically: he said it was so he could constantly remind himself how many different things there were that he did not need in life. And he used to recite to himself the lines from a comedy:
The purple robe and silver’s shine
More fits an actor’s need than mine.
As Zeno was reading these tales about Socrates he suddenly realised what the Oracle meant when she said he had to dye himself with the colour of dead men. His destiny was to study the lives and opinions of philosophers like Socrates, from previous generations, and permanently colour his mind with their teachings.
Zeno put down the parchment, jumped up, and asked the bookseller: “Where can I find a man like this today?” And he replied, “Talk to that guy over there!” Because by chance the famous Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes was walking right past them. Zeno trained with Crates and other Socratic philosophers for the next twenty years. He flourished and became famous as a philosopher himself. So he used to say: “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune”. Eventually he founded his own school on a public porch in Athens called the Stoa Poikile, near the agora where Socrates used to teach. And his followers became known as the Stoics or Philosophers of the Porch.
So having started with the first famous Stoic let’s conclude by mentioning the last, who lived nearly five hundred years later. He was one of the most powerful men in European history, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus also mentions the purple Phoenician dye, which Zeno had lost in his shipwreck. He liked to say that even his own imperial purple robes were nothing more than sheep’s wool dyed in putrid shellfish gore. These external things are really nothing, he said, compared to the goal of wisdom. And what matters in life is not how we colour our clothing, but how we colour our minds.
Note: This piece is intended as biographical fiction, although it is very closely based on the available information concerning Marcus Aurelius’ life. Nevertheless, in some cases, I’ve taken rumours literally or added minor details. The letters, speeches, and aphorisms (from The Meditations) of Marcus Aurelius are also close to the original sources but I’ve paraphrased them slightly for the sake of readability.
The Emperor Marcus Aurelius sits alone in his quarters at the break of dawn, watching the sunrise outside. He closes his eyes in quiet contemplation and repeats the following Stoic maxims to himself in preparation for the day ahead:
Today you shall meet with meddling, ingratitude, insolence, treachery, slander, and selfishness – all due to their ignorance concerning the difference between what is good and bad. On the other hand, count yourself lucky enough to have long perceived the genuine nature of good as being honourable and beautiful and the nature of evil as shameful. You have also perceived the true nature of your enemy: that he is your brother, not in the physical sense but as a fellow citizen of the cosmos, sharing reason and the potential for wisdom and virtue. And because you perceive this, nothing can injure you, because nobody can drag you into their wrongdoing. Neither can you be angry with your brother or frustrated with him, because you were born to work together, like a pair of hands or feet, or the upper and lower rows of a man’s teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and frustration and dislike are forms of obstruction also, are they not?
Slowly and patiently, he pictures the day ahead in his mind’s eye. He thinks of the tasks he has to accomplish today. He imagines the faces of the people he will meet, roughly in the sequence he expects he will be meeting them. He anticipates setbacks, and the worst possible scenarios he may face with certain individuals. He thinks of those present, and the actions of others relayed to him by messengers. He keeps one simple question at the fore of his mind: “What would it mean to respond to this with wisdom and virtue?” What special virtues are called for by each situation: patience, self-discipline, tactfulness, perseverance?
He reminds himself that a true philosopher will not be angry with those who seek to oppose him. Why not? Because he knows that none of us are born wise, and so we inevitably encounter those who are far from wisdom, as surely as the changing seasons. No sane man is angry with nature. To the Stoic, nothing should come as a surprise, and nothing shocks him – everything is determined by the Nature of the universe. Even fools are not surprised when trees do not bear fruit in winter. There are good men and bad men in the world. A true philosopher knows that we must therefore expect to meet foolish or bad men, and for their actions to accord with their character. The wise man is not an enemy but an educator of the unwise. He goes forth each day thinking to himself: “I will meet many men today who are greedy, ungrateful, ambitious, etc.” And he will aspire to view would-be enemies as benevolently as a physician does his patients. The emperor repeats these or similar words to himself every morning. This daily premeditation of adversity forms part of what the Stoics call the Discipline of Fear and Desire, the Therapy of the Passions. This is how he prepares for life.
Cassius in Egypt
May, 175 AD. A very nervous courier hands over a letter to Gaius Avidius Cassius, commander of the Egyptian legion. It contains only one word: emanes, “You’re mad” – you’ve lost your mind. We don’t know how Cassius responded. He was renowned for his severity and temper. A mercurial character, he was sometimes stern sometimes merciful, although overall he developed a reputation for strictness and cruelty. Soldiers say that one of his favourite punishments was to chain men together in groups of ten and have them cast into the sea or into rivers to drown. He had crucified many criminals. Darker rumours circulated that he once had dozens of the enemy bound to a single 180-foot wooden pole, which was set on fire so that he could watch them burn alive. Even by the standards of the Roman army that was considered brutality. He was renowned among his own troops as a strict disciplinarian, sometimes to the point of savagery. He cut off the hands of deserters, or broke their legs and hips, leaving them crippled, because he believed that letting them live in misery was more effective as a warning to other men than killing them outright. He was also a hero to the people and, next to the emperor, the second most powerful man in the Roman Empire.
In his youth, Cassius was made a legatus or general in the legions along the Danube, watching over the empire’s Sarmatian foes. He earned his reputation for severity when the following incident happened among the troops under his command there. A small band of Roman auxiliaries led by some centurions stumbled across a group of three thousand Sarmatians, who had camped by the Danube, carelessly exposing their position. The centurions seized the opportunity, caught the enemy off guard, and massacred them. They returned to camp laden with the spoils of their fortuitous victory, expecting to be praised and perhaps even rewarded, but they were in for a shock. Cassius was furious because they acted without the knowledge or approval of their tribunes, the senior officers in a legion. “For all you knew, that could have been an ambush,” Cassius roared, “and if you fools had all been captured, the rest of these barbarians’ may have ceased to live in terror of us!” The Roman legions were outnumbered and depended on the psychological advantage that came from their intimidating reputation. So to make an example of these soldiers, he had them crucified as if they were common slaves, which must have horrified the rest of his camp.
Perhaps as a result of this incident, and despite his already fearsome reputation, Cassius’ men mutinied against him. His response was legendary. He stripped off his armour and, like some kind of madman, strode out of his tent dressed only in a wrestler’s loincloth challenging his men to attack and kill him if any of them were brave enough to add murder to the charge of insubordination. The soldiers who had been complaining were cowed into silence when they saw how fearless and intent their general had become. News of this incident greatly strengthened discipline among the Roman legions and struck fear into the hearts of the enemy, who sought a peace deal with the emperor not long afterwards.
The authority he commanded over his troops was second to none. It made him indispensable to Rome and influential with the emperor, who placed great trust in him. They had long been good friends, although some rumours say that behind his back, Cassius called Marcus a philosophical old-woman and resented aspects of his rule. However, Marcus was known for saying “It is impossible to make men exactly as one would wish them to be; we must use them such as they are.” His forgiving nature stood in stark contrast to Cassius’ severity. Nevertheless, he placed his trust in Cassius, as a great general, despite their opposing characters.
Cassius was put in command of the legions in the Roman province of Syria because it was feared they had become too soft, something symbolised by accusations they had started bathing in hot water like civilians. It was believed that Cassius would restore discipline, which he did, gaining prominence during the Parthian War between 161 and 166 AD, under the command of the then co-emperor, Lucius Verus, adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius. While Lucius remained in camp safely co-ordinating supplies, Cassius, leading the troops in the field, rose to become his second in command. Toward the end of the wars, Cassius burned down and sacked the ancient city of Seleucia, but his soldiers then contracted the Antonine Plague, which some perhaps saw as a kind of divine punishment. However, on returning home, with the spoils of the campaign, he was rewarded by being elevated to the Senate. The legions also brought the plague – possibly smallpox – back home from Parthia. The empire never fully recovered; five million deaths were due to this hideous disease and for a time the army was significantly hampered by the epidemic. Cassius, however, was later made imperial legate, a governor appointed by the emperor himself rather than the Senate, with supreme command over the province of Syria. When, in 169 AD, Lucius Verus died from symptoms of food poisoning, or possibly the plague, the loss of one of the two co-emperors probably left something of a power vacuum, especially in the east.
In 172 AD, while Marcus, the lone surviving emperor, was occupied with the Marcomanni war on the northern frontier, a sudden crisis meant Cassius had to be granted imperium, the military authority of an emperor himself, throughout the whole of the eastern empire. A people called the Bucoli or “Herdsmen”, led by the priest Isidorus, triggered a general revolt against the Roman authorities, perhaps enraged by increases in Roman taxes required to fund Marcus’ war in the north. The story goes that a handful of these men disguised themselves in women’s clothing and approached a Roman centurion, pretending that they were going to give him gold as ransom for their husbands. They attacked the centurion, however, and captured and sacrificed another officer, swearing an oath over his entrails before ritually devouring them. The revolt spread across Egypt. These mysterious Egyptian tribesmen rapidly gained strength from a groundswell of popular support and even defeated the Romans in a pitched battle. They almost captured the Egyptian capital itself, Alexandria, but Cassius was sent with his troops from Syria to reinforce the Egyptian legion garrisoned there. The tribal warriors he faced were so numerous, nevertheless, that instead of attacking them he chose to bide his time, instigating quarrels among them until he was finally able to divide and conquer. His victory in Egypt made him a hero throughout the empire, especially in the eastern provinces and at Rome. He was also left with exceptional powers throughout the eastern empire.
These events led him to this point. Now Cassius is aged forty five. Although he is Syrian by birth he grew up in Alexandria, the capital of Roman Egypt, where his father, Gaius Avidius Heliodorus, a Roman politician, orator, and Epicurean philosopher, served as prefect. He taught his son that the goal of life is to attain a state of untroubled peace of mind and contentment. However, Cassius had come to think that peace of mind is all good and well, for philosophers, but without power your fortune ultimately depends on the whims of other men. Cassius is finally back home, in supreme military command not only of Alexandria, but the rest of the eastern provinces. His mother was a princess of Judea, descended on her mother’s side from Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and on her father’s side from Herod the Great. She was also descended from a Roman client-king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Commagene, making Cassius a member of the Seleucid imperial dynasty. He was born to rule and extremely popular because of his royal descent, his victories in the Parthian Wars, and celebrated defeat of the Bucoli. Since the co-emperor Lucius Verus died Cassius has been steadily climbing the ladder. Now has the virtual authority of an emperor in the eastern empire – there’s nowhere left to climb.
The one-word missive he now holds in his hands came from one of Rome’s most distinguished men of letters, a scholar of Greek philosophy and literature called Herodes Atticus, a friend and childhood tutor of the sole surviving emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus happens to be all that now stands between Cassius and the imperial throne itself.
Marcus in Pannonia
At the other side of the Roman Empire, in his base camp, the Roman legionary fort of Carnuntum by the river Danube in the province of Pannonia, Marcus greets an army despatch rider. The messenger is exhausted, having journeyed through the night to the gates of the fortress, where he was met by the guards of the Legio XIV Gemina garrison. When the soldiers heard what he was carrying, they rushed him straight to the Emperor’s praetorium, his residence and office in the camp. It took nearly three weeks to get the news here, from the east of the Empire via Rome. Nevertheless, Marcus tells the messenger to take a moment, and get his breath back before speaking. Marcus’ generals and members of his personal entourage gather around him, restlessly waiting for the message. They don’t know the details yet but it’s obviously bad news from Rome. Eventually, he speaks. What he says is so remarkable that he seems scarcely to believe it himself: “My lord Caesar… Avidius Cassius has betrayed you… the Egyptian legion have acclaimed him Emperor!”
The courier has with him a letter from the Senate, confirming the news: On May 3rd 175 AD, Avidius Cassius was acclaimed Emperor of Rome by the Egyptian legion under his command in Alexandria, Legio II Traiana Fortis. “My lord, they’re telling everyone that you’re dead”, he explains. The news of Cassius’ sedition came from Publius Martius Verus, a distinguished Roman general who served as governor of the eastern province of Cappadocia. Support for the rebellion came from Cassius’ own legions in Syria and Egypt, and has started to spread throughout the Eastern Empire. The support of the current Prefect of Egypt, Calvisius Statianus, has given his claim an important seal of approval. The Roman province of Judea now acclaims him as emperor as well. Cassius is an accomplished military strategist with seven legions under his command. He also controls Egypt, the breadbasket of the empire – Rome depends on Egypt for its supply of grain. Crucially, however, Verus’ alarming news comes with the reassurance that he and his own three legions in Cappadocia have declared their loyalty in favour of Marcus. Nevertheless, the threat is extremely serious.
Marcus has been very sick, close to death indeed. Aged 54, perceived as frail and in poor health, his condition has long been the subject of gossip back in Rome. He has severe pains in his stomach and chest. It is said he can only eat during the daytime with the aid of theriac, the traditional cure-all favoured by emperors, prescribed to Marcus by his personal physician Galen. Faustina, his wife and the daughter of his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, had travelled south, back to Rome, several months earlier. Rumours say that frightened by the possibility of his imminent demise, she urged Cassius to stake his claim to the throne. The emperor’s son, Commodus, is only thirteen years old. He is doubtless aware that if his father dies or the throne is usurped while he is still too young to succeed him, his life will be placed in grave peril. Faustina’s plan was said to be that by pre-empting Marcus’ death, Cassius may outmanoeuvre other pretenders to the throne, such as Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, and perhaps even safeguard the succession of her son by marrying her. Others said that Cassius acted on his own initiative, deliberately circulating bogus rumours of Marcus’ death to seize power and declaring Marcus deified to quell accusations of opportunism. Perhaps the most likely explanation was that he’d simply acted in error, not treasonously but genuinely deceived by false intelligence that declared the emperor dead or nearly so. That seems to be what Marcus assumes has happened. Once the Senate declared him hostis publicus, a public enemy, and seized his assets, however, he apparently felt the situation had spiralled out of control. Cassius couldn’t back down, and found himself on the brink of fighting a civil war.
Whatever Cassius’ motives were, this has to be treated as an emergency. Marcus’ illness has remitted, at least for now, and he wastes no time in responding to the sedition. He looks over the faces of his generals. They already know that he must prepare to abandon the northern frontier and lead an army south with great haste. Cassius’ legions will soon march against the capital of the empire, if he wishes to secure his claim to the imperial throne. This realisation has thrown the city of Rome into a state of total panic. To make matters worse, it has given Marcus’ opponents on the Senate an opportunity to sabotage his costly Marcomanni campaign. The emperor faced civil unrest when he announced that to push back the barbarian hordes he would have to take emergency measures, conscripting slaves and gladiators into the army and raising taxes throughout the provinces. That made him temporarily unpopular in the east, where the public resent funding a war on the other side of the empire – in Egypt and Syria the Marcomanni and their allies seem like someone else’s problem. The family of his deceased co-emperor, Lucius Verus, and their allies, have formed a kind of anti-war faction, stoking the fires of discontent over his lengthy absence in the north.
Not long after the Parthian wars of Lucius Verus had ended in the east, the Marcomannic wars began in the north. From 168 AD onward, Marcus became personally involved in the northern campaign. He commands twelve legions, about 100,000 men in total, the largest army ever massed on the frontier of the Roman empire. Despite his complete lack of any military training or experience, the men under Marcus’ command have come to love and admire him. Soldiers tell stories about him: how in June of 174 AD his prayers once sent a mighty thunderbolt from the heavens to destroy a siege engine being used by the Sarmatians, as if he’d summoned the fury of Jupiter himself. A month later he drew down a sudden torrential rain to quench the thirst of his soldiers, a detachment of the Thundering Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) led by his general Publius Helvius Pertinax. Their drinking water was gone and they were hemmed in and outnumbered by the Quadi. The story goes that his men were so thirsty that as they fought off the barbarians they gulped down rainwater mixed with the blood streaming from their own wounds. The Quadi charge was allegedly broken by hailstorms and lightning strikes, throwing them into disarray. In honour of these and other victories, the army acclaimed Marcus imperator for the seventh time. The troops also love and admire his wife, Faustina. During the Quadi campaign, the men nicknamed her Matrem Castrorum, “Mother of the Camp”. She came to war with them, accompanying Marcus, travelling with them and raising their morale. Conditions on the northern frontier could be harsh, though. The winters in Carnuntum were particularly brutal. One day the centurions were interrogating a barbarian youth they’d captured. They couldn’t break him with threats. Marcus noticed how badly the boy was shivering as they stood outside in the snow together. He said, “Lord, if you will only give me a coat, I’ll answer you.” The centurions laughed out loud but Marcus knew that if the tribes wanted to migrate south into Roman provinces badly enough he could bargain with the offer of resettling them in more hospitable regions.
After hours of heated discussion, the emperor finally retires to his private quarters. His generals want to keep discussing what action to take, through the night. However, that can wait. They will have weeks to talk. He gives orders that he is to be left alone with his meditations for the rest of the evening. Sitting in silence, he gradually withdraws into his own mind, focusing on the incipient disturbance he feels: anger, frustration. These are emotional reflex-reactions, the Stoics call propatheiai, or proto-passions. Thoughts rush into his mind unbidden: memories of conversations, unanswered questions, fear, worry… Some say he had long dreamt of founding the Roman provinces of Marcomanni and Sarmatia, and was close to doing so until Cassius’ revolt. In any case, that will now have to be put on hold until order has been restored. He imagines his enemies in Rome, who oppose the northern campaign, rubbing their hands with glee at this predicament, and hastening their plots against him. Another anxious thought suddenly occurs: Commodus will have to be summoned from Rome, for his own protection – it’s not safe for him there now. Faustina has only recently returned to Rome – but she would never betray him like this. So many thoughts, so many questions…
For a while, Marcus merely observes his harried mind from a distance, trying to refrain from being swept along by the impressions passing though his awareness… trying not to agree with them, or perpetuate them any further… He observes the subtle changes in his own body with the detachment of a natural philosopher: his hands want to clench, his shoulders tense, his brow furrowed, he notices his heart beating faster than normal, as his temperature literally rises. It feels like half the empire want him dead. Maybe his death is drawing closer, his body is failing him. Finally, he arrives at a conclusion about what to do with his feelings. The Stoic teacher Epictetus said everything has two handles. For now, this is the handle he will have to use to pick up the crisis, in order to regain his composure. He quickly writes down a summary of his guidance to himself:
If you require a crude kind of comfort to reach your heart, perhaps you can best be reconciled to death by remembering from what you are going to be removed, and the morals of those with whom your soul will no longer be associated. For it is never right to feel offended by people but it is your duty to care for them and to bear with them gently. And yet remember that your departure will be from people who do not have the same moral principles as you do. For this, if anything, is the one and only thing that could draw us back and attach us to life: to be permitted to live with friends who share our values. But now that you see how much trouble arises from conflict between those who live in this world, you can say: “Come quick, O death, lest perchance I, too, should forget myself.” [Meditations, 9.3]
This is indeed crude medicine. When feelings are overwhelming, Stoics bide their time, waiting for them to abate naturally before trying to reason with themselves. The Stoic Athenodorus, advisor to the first emperor, Augustus, once taught him to respond to rising feelings of anger by slowly reciting the Greek alphabet, to gain time for his feelings to abate before doing anything else. Marcus is buying himself time to deal with the underlying cause of his anger. He sets the worry aside in this way, and tries to sleep, although the pain in his stomach, as always, is threatening to keep him awake.
At daybreak, Marcus immediately sends the despatch rider on his way with letters for the Senate, his ally Verus in Cappadocia, and most importantly for Cassius in Egypt. His message is clear: the emperor confirms that he is alive, in good health, and is returning to Rome. Now he must make rapid arrangements for peace in the north so that he will be free to march south, restore order, and quell rumours with his presence. However, it would be premature to address his troops about the incident until he knows for certain that civil war is unavoidable. He also doesn’t want the barbarians getting wind of the crisis back home.
In private, he continues to meditate on his reaction to the news. The hardest thing to deal with is the uncertainty of the situation. If only he knew more about what was happening. It’s hard not to worry and think the worst when there are so many unanswered questions. However, he needs to regain his focus because much work will have to be done here before he is free to abandon the northern frontier. So narrowing his attention, he focuses upon the very core of his being: the seat of reason, his ruling faculty. He seeks to identify the value judgements responsible for the feelings of anger and frustration persisting within him. Sometimes he catches himself dwelling on the impression that he has been harmed by the rebellion, and he wants to harm Cassius and the other conspirators. He pauses for a moment then writes the following reminder to himself:
If they did the wrong thing then that’s bad for them. But for all you know they did nothing wrong. (Meditations, 9.38)
Nothing can truly harm me, by damaging my character, except my own value judgements. Cassius has harmed himself, not me. Marcus repeats the phrase Epictetus taught his students to use in situations like this: “It seemed right to him.” He has to assume at some level that Cassius believed he was doing the right thing. He acts out of ignorance of what is genuinely right and wrong for no man does wrong knowingly. Of course, it’s precisely this philosophical attitude that Cassius resents in Marcus because to him forgiveness is merely a sign of weakness.
Marcus Announces the Civil War
Several weeks pass. By now, news must have reached Cassius that Marcus is still alive but there has been no word of him standing down. Rumour and unrest are starting to spread around the camp. The time has come for the emperor to address his men, and announce that they will be marching south to defend Rome and engage Cassius’ legions. At least he can assure them, based on the letter he received, that Martius Verus, the highly-regarded commander of the legions in Cappadocia, is on their side. Cassius’ rebellion clearly lacks unanimous support among the eastern provinces.
Fellow soldiers, it is not to give way to bitter resentment or to complain that I have now come before you. What would be the point of being angry with God, to whom all things are possible. Still, perhaps it is necessary for those who unjustly experience misfortune to lament over the actions of others, and that is now my case. For it is surely a dreadful thing for us to be engaged in war after war. Surely it is remarkable that we are now involved in a civil war. And surely it seems beyond terrible and beyond remarkable that there is no loyalty to be found among these men, and that I have been conspired against by one whom I held most dear. Although I had done no wrong and nothing amiss, I have been forced into a conflict against my will. For what virtue can be considered safe, what friendship can any longer be deemed secure, seeing that this has befallen me? Has not trust utterly perished, and optimism perished with it? Indeed, I would have considered it a small thing had the danger been to me alone — for assuredly I was not born to be immortal. However, now there has been a secession, or rather a rebellion, in the state and civil war touches us all alike. And had it been possible I would gladly have invited Cassius here to argue the matter at issue out before you or before the Senate. I would willingly have yielded the supreme power to him without a struggle if that seemed expedient for the common good. For it is only in the public interest that I continue to incur toil and danger, and have spent so much time here beyond the bounds of Italy, old man as I now am and ailing, unable to take food without pain, or sleep without care.
However, since Cassius would never agree to meet me for this purpose — for how could he trust me after having shown himself so untrustworthy toward me? — you, my fellow soldiers, ought to be of good cheer. For Cilicians and Syrians and Jews and Egyptians have never been a match for you, and never will, no, not though they numbered many thousands more than you whereas now it is many thousands less. Nor need even Cassius himself be held of any great account regarding the present crisis, however much he may seem to be a great commander and credited with many successful campaigns. For an eagle at the head of daws makes no formidable foe, nor a lion at the head of fawns, and as for the Arabian war and the great Parthian war, it was you not Cassius who brought them to a successful conclusion. Moreover, even if he has won distinction by his Parthian campaigns, you have Martius Verus on your side, who has won no fewer but far more victories, and acquired greater territory than he. However, perhaps even now, learning that I am alive, Cassius has repented of his actions. For surely it was only because he believed me dead that he acted thus. Nevertheless, if he still persists in this course, even when he learns that we are indeed marching against him, he will doubtless think better of it both from dread of you and out of respect for me.
Let me tell you the whole truth. There is only one thing I fear, fellow-soldiers: that either he should take his own life, being too ashamed to come into our presence, or that another should slay him on learning that I coming and have already set out against him. For then I should be deprived of a great prize both of war and of victory, a prize such as no human being has ever yet obtained. And what is this prize? To forgive a man who has done wrong, to be still a friend to one who has trodden friendship underfoot, to continue being faithful to one who has broken faith. What I say may perhaps seem incredible to you, but you must not doubt it. For surely all goodness has not yet entirely perished from among men, but there is still in us a remnant of the ancient virtue. However, if anyone should disbelieve it, that merely strengthens my desire, in order that men may see accomplished with their own eyes what no one would believe could come to pass. For this would be the one profit I could gain from my present troubles, if I were able to bring the matter to an honourable conclusion, and show all the world that there is a right way to deal even with civil war.
After reciting these words to the soldiers, he sends a written copy of the speech to the Senate. He tries to avoid criticising Cassius too much. Although they are now at war, and despite rumours that he criticised him behind his back, Cassius has never in the past said or written anything in open criticism of Marcus.
Marcus and his legions must march for almost a month to reach Rome. En route he has plenty of opportunity to contemplate what is happening. Now that his initial feelings of anger and frustration have finally abated he rehearses his Stoic doctrines more carefully and systematically. He still faces uncertainty over Cassius’ motives, so he anticipates every possibility he can imagine.
When you’re offended with someone’s immoral behaviour, ask yourself immediately whether it’s possible that no immoral men exist in the world? No, it’s not possible. So don’t demand what’s impossible. The man who troubles you is another one of those shameless people who necessarily exist in the world. Let the same considerations be present to your mind in the case of crooked and untrustworthy men, and of everyone who does wrong in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible in general these sort of men should not exist, you will grow disposed to be more kindly toward every one of them as an individual. [Meditations, 9.42]
Marcus pauses and contemplates the cold logic of his reasoning. There are both good and bad people in the world, it would be naive to say otherwise. So isn’t it dishonest, in a sense, to act surprised when you happen to run across a bad man, who does bad things? Shouldn’t you expect that to happen frequently in life? The wise man anticipates all things, at least in broad strokes. He might not know who or when, but he knows as surely as he knows winter is coming, that sooner or later someone will probably betray him.
It’s also useful, when the occasion arises, to recall immediately the virtues nature has given men to counteract to every wrongful act. She has given us mildness as an antidote against the stupid man, and other powers against other kinds of men. And in all cases it is possible for you to set the man who is gone astray right by teaching him because every man who errs misses his object and has gone astray. [Meditations, 9.42]
As a student of Stoicism, Marcus was taught to confront himself with this question: What virtue, what possible quality or ability, has nature given you that’s best designed to deal with this problem? That’s why it was useful to learn by heart the many names of virtues. To go through that mental list and consider how a prudent man would respond, or how justice would have us respond. The cardinal virtue of Stoicism in relation to the social sphere is called dikaiosune. “Justice” makes it sound formal, “righteousness” maybe too pompous, “morality” perhaps a bit too vague – but it’s something between those ideas. The Stoics divided “justice” into two main subordinate virtues: benevolence and fairness. The virtue Marcus settled on as most relevant here was benevolence, kindness, which in the hands of an emperor we call clemency. Now he’s given a name to the virtue the situation demands, it seems a little easier to imagine something other than anger and vengeance, to picture another way of responding, a more rational way forward. We help others most by educating them, according to Socrates. Wisdom is the greatest good, therefore we should help others to move closer toward wisdom. Marcus believes his duty is to set Cassius and the others back on the right path, if possible, and to set an example of virtue through his own clemency toward them.
Anyway, how have you been injured? You’ll find that none of the people with whom you’re irritated have done anything by which your character could be made worse. That which is bad for you and harmful has its foundation within you only. And what harm is done or what is there to be surprised at if a man who has not been instructed acts like an uninstructed man? Consider whether you shouldn’t rather blame yourself, because you didn’t expect a man like this to err in this way. For you had the means, through reason, to suppose that he would likely commit this error, and yet you have somehow forgotten this and are amazed that he has. [Meditations, 9.42]
He recalls the closing words of Epictetus’ Handbook: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” Did Socrates really say that? Those were two of the men who brought him to trial. What he meant was that even though they have him cast in prison, and executed, nobody can harm his character, and that’s all that matters, ultimately. If anything, Marcus reasons, he should blame himself for not having seen this coming. Cassius and the others should be educated, somehow, if possible that would be a more philosophical solution than having them exiled or executed.
All of these doctrines were of some benefit. However, the one he finally settles upon as most in keeping with the situation is this: nobody can frustrate us unless we allow them to. If we naively assume that they are going to keep treating us with gratitude, and foolishly place great importance on them doing so, although it is beyond our direct control, we’re obviously making ourselves vulnerable to emotional distress, such as anger.
But most of all when you blame someone for being faithless or ungrateful, take a look at yourself. For the fault is obviously your own, whether you trusted someone of that character would keep his promise or whether you neither conferred your kindness unconditionally nor so as to have received all reward from the very act itself. For what more do you want when you have done a man a service? Are you not content that you’ve done something true to your nature; do you seek to be paid back for it as well? That would be just like the eye demanding a reward for seeing, or the feet for walking. For these limbs and organs are formed for a particular purpose, and by working according to their nature obtain what is their own reward. Likewise, man is formed by nature for acts of kindness and so when he has done anything benevolent or in any other way beneficial to the common interest of mankind he has acted in accord with his nature and he thereby gets what’s his own reward. [Meditations, 9.42]
Marcus talks himself through this. When you handed such power to Cassius, making him virtually a dictator over the eastern empire, did you expect his gratitude? You should have known better. You set yourself up by assuming that he would be so grateful he would never do anything to displease you. It’s your duty according to Stoicism to act virtuously without expecting anything in return.
The March South & Cassius’ Death
Over time, with daily meditations of this kind, Marcus has regained his famous composure. And his perspective has shifted, his habitual thoughts returning back to the wisdom he rehearses each morning. Reason tells him that setbacks like this are to be expected – it would be foolish and naive for a sovereign to act surprised at the appearance of a would-be usurper. Now he has to reconcile acceptance with action.
However, the Senate’s message made it clear that Rome has been thrown into complete panic by the news of Cassius’ sedition and the threat of civil war is real. The people were now terrified that Cassius would invade Rome in Marcus’ absence and sack the whole city in revenge. The Quadi had sued for peace and Marcus was left pursuing the Iazynges when Cassius rebelled. To leave the north, he has been forced to agree a hurried truce with the Iazyges, on terms that he is reluctant to accept. The barbarian leaders rushed to offer their services in putting down Cassius’ rebellion but Marcus refused their help because he felt enemy nations should not be allowed to know about the troubles arising between Romans. To do so would risk undermining their fear and respect for the Roman army, which he knew was crucial in maintaining order.
One of Marcus’ finest generals on the northern frontier, Marcus Valerius Maximianus, has already been sent ahead with twenty-thousand men, to engage with Cassius’ legions in Syria preemptively and stall any movement toward Rome. Marcus has also sent the distinguished military commander Vettius Sabinianus with a detachment from Pannonia to secure the city of Rome against any possible advance by Cassius and also to quell unrest caused by Marcus’ political enemies. The news was that Cassius was preparing to instigate a civil war, now that he realised the Senate would not recognise his acclamation as Emperor.
Cassius was in a strong position at the beginning. However, support for his rebellion has failed to spread. With the exception of a few dissenters, Marcus has the support of the Roman Senate. In the east, the provinces of Cappadocia and Bithynia both remain loyal to Marcus. The Egyptian Prefect, Calvisius Statianus joined the revolt and Cassius retains command over seven legions: three in Syria, two in Roman Judaea, one in Arabia and one in Egypt. However, this is a fraction, maybe less than a third, of the legions who remain under Marcus’ supreme command, throughout the rest of the empire. Moreover, Marcus’ own northern legions are battle-hardened and highly-disciplined veterans, whereas the legions of the east are perceived as relatively soft.
Now, precisely three months and six days, after Cassius was acclaimed emperor, another despatch rider arrives at Marcus’ camp, while his army is on the move southward. “My lord Caesar,” the messenger announces, “general Cassius lies dead, slain by his own legion.” While he was walking, Cassius encountered a centurion called Antonius who charged toward him on horseback and stabbed him in the neck. Cassius was badly wounded but still alive, and nearly escaped with his life, but a cavalry officer (decurion) finished him off. Together the men cut off Cassius’ head and have set off with it to meet with Marcus.
The revolt ended suddenly when the Egyptian and Syrian legions under Cassius’ command learned that Marcus himself was leading the legions of the Danube against them to suppress the revolt. Realising that they were hopelessly outnumbered and lacking the will to fight, the Egyptian legion convinced one of their centurions to assassinate Cassius. Now, several days have passed, and Antonius and his companion have arrived with grisly evidence of the usurper’s demise. Marcus orders them turned away, refusing to look at the severed head of his former friend. His instructions are that it should be buried instead. Although his troops are euphoric, Marcus does not celebrate. Maccianus, an ally of Cassius, who was placed in charge of Alexandria, was also killed by the army, as was his prefect of the guard. By forgiving the legion, Marcus had inadvertently signed Cassius’ death warrant. The Egyptian and Syrian legions had no more reason to fight the larger and far superior army approaching them from the north. The only thing between them and their pardon was Cassius, who refused to stand down. So his officers said, “If you’re so eager to die here, be our guest”, and removed his head from his body at the first opportunity.
Marcus was recognised as sole emperor again, throughout the Empire, by July 175 AD. He did not take severe measures against Cassius’ loved ones, who survived him. He only executed a few of those involved in the plot, men who had committed other crimes. As agreed, he did not punish the legionaries under Cassius’ command either but sent them back to their usual role, keeping watch over the Parthian Empire. He prohibited the Senate from severely punishing those involved in plotting the rebellion. He asked that no Senators be executed during his reign, that those Senators who had been exiled should return. He pardoned the cities who had sided with Cassius, even Antioch which had been one of Cassius’ greatest supporters and critical of Marcus’ rule. However, he did end their games, public meetings and assemblies, and released a stern proclamation against them. At first, Marcus refused to visit Antioch or Cyrrhus, the home of Cassius, when he visited Syria, although later he did agree to visit the former city. However, he treated Alexandria with greater clemency, perhaps because the garrison there were the ones who actually brought an end to the rebellion.
We’re told Marcus wrote a letter to the “Conscript Fathers” of the Senate, pleading with them to act with clemency toward those involved in Cassius’ rebellion. He asks that no Senator be punished, no man of noble birth executed, that the exiled should return, and goods returned to those from whom they had been seized. Accomplices of Cassius among the senatorial and equestrian orders were to be protected from any type of punishment or harm. “Would that I could recall the condemned also from the Shades”, he says. The children of Cassius were to be pardoned, along with his son-in-law and wife, because they had done no wrong. Marcus ordered that they were to live on under his protection, free to travel as they please, and Cassius’ wealth divided fairly between them. He wanted to be able to say that only those slain during the rebellion had died as a result. There were to be no witch-hunts or acts of revenge afterwards.
Mercy toward those Senators who had supported Cassius was probably wise in any case, as Marcus doubtless wanted to restore peace quickly in Rome, so that he could return to the northern frontier. First, though, he found it necessary to tour the eastern provinces to help restore order there, in the wake of the crisis. Indeed, his popularity in the eastern empire grew as a result. Marcus also passed a law that no senator could become governor in the province where he had been born, to try to prevent provincial rulers becoming overly-powerful. He reputedly ordered all of Cassius’ correspondence to be burned, however, which gave rise to rumours that there was something to hide, such as a plot between Cassius and Faustina.
Indeed, Faustina died in winter 175 AD or spring 176 AD, within half a year of the revolt being suppressed. There were rumours she committed suicide because of her association with Avidius Cassius. She was held in high regard by Marcus, however, and deified after her death. She remained an immensely popular figure after her death, despite the rumours surrounding her life. Shortly after Faustina’s death, in January 177 AD, Commodus was appointed a consul and co-emperor with Marcus, aged fifteen. By law, consuls normally needed to be 33 years old. Perhaps Marcus rushed things to try to secure Commodus’ position as his heir. However, after Marcus’ death in 180 AD, and against his orders for clemency, Commodus had the descendants of Cassius sought out and burned alive as traitors.
We can assume that even after the death of Cassius, each morning, Marcus continued his daily Stoic practice. Mentally-rehearsing hypothetical encounters with meddling, ungrateful, insolent, treacherous, slandering, and selfish people, just as he had done for many years before Cassius’ betrayed him. Perhaps, looking back on events, he also repeated to himself the Stoic maxim: “It seemed right to him.”
NB: This is a children’s story, or rather biographical fiction based on the ancient accounts of Marcus’ reign and other evidence, including The Meditations. I wrote it for my five-year old daughter, Poppy. It’s a simplification of a much more detailed account I’d written for adults.
The Philosopher King
Long, long ago – over two thousand years ago – there was a famous philosopher named Socrates. Socrates was extremely wise, perhaps the wisest man who ever lived. He used to talk a lot to people about the difference between a good person and a bad person. Once he said that kings are powerful and philosophers are wise, so the world would be better if all kings became philosophers, because then they would be both powerful and wise. Most kings are not philosophers, though. In fact, there had never really been a king who was a philosopher. After Socrates died, over five hundred years passed before a philosopher finally became a king. His name was Marcus Aurelius and he was the emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in the world. An emperor is like a king but even more important. He rules over not one but many different countries. Marcus Aurelius ruled over a vast empire that stretched from England through Europe into the north of Africa and the Middle East. (Not Scotland, though!)
When Marcus was just a young boy, the emperor Hadrian asked his successor, Antoninus Pius, to adopt him, so that he could be next in line to the throne. On the day he was adopted, young Marcus had a strange dream in which his shoulders and arms were made of ivory. When someone asked him if they could lift a heavy weight he discovered they were much stronger than before. A wise man told him the dream meant he was destined to be a great leader and to say beautiful things. Antoninus gathered together the best teachers for Marcus from around the world. He learned lots of different things but the subject he loved most was philosophy, or how to become wise. When he was twelve years old he started to wear the traditional grey cloak of a philosopher and trained himself in toughness by doing things like sleeping on a mat on the ground instead of in a normal bed. He carried on studying for the rest of his life. In fact, he was still going to philosophy lessons when he was an old man. When people asked him why he spent so much time studying philosophy, Marcus used to quote Socrates’ saying: The people will only be happy when philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers.
When Antoninus died, Marcus became the new emperor of Rome but he wanted to share the job with his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus. (We say “adoptive” because neither of the boys were born the sons of the emperor Antoninus Pius but he chose them both to become his sons, and took them into his family.) Marcus said he didn’t want to become emperor unless his little brother, Lucius, was emperor too. So for the first time ever Rome had two co-emperors. Marcus was older, though, and had more experience in government, so he was really the one in charge. Marcus was very serious and worked hard. Lucius was almost the opposite of his brother. He was very lazy and he liked to play games and throw fancy parties instead of working, but Marcus loved him anyway because he was his little brother and he treated him in some ways like a son.
The Parthian Wars & the Plague
To keep him busy and out of trouble, Marcus sent Lucius to lead a war that had started far to the east in a land called Parthia. Lucius couldn’t be bothered fighting, though, so he just based himself in the city of Antioch, where he played dice all night long, watched gladiatorial fights and chariot races, and held notorious banquets where he drank and feasted until he passed out at the table. They say while his generals and their legions were risking their lives on the battlefield of Parthia, Lucius was out hunting in the countryside or touring the seaside towns with groups of musicians and his good-for-nothing friends. Some say Marcus was actually the one planning how to fight the war, from back in Rome, even though Lucius was based in a city closer to the fighting. Lucius took charge of organizing all the food and supplies and avoided doing anything dangerous because he wasn’t very brave. He let his generals do all the fighting for him while he took the glory. The war raged on for five years and one of Lucius’ generals in particular, named Avidius Cassius, fought and won many battles with his legions. As he defeated more enemies he was given powers, until he was nearly as powerful as Lucius, who remained safely back in the city, far from all the action. One day, Cassius sacked an ancient town named Seleucia, with whom the Romans had agreed peace. Despite the fact that Seleucia had welcomed the Roman soldiers as friends, Cassius ordered them to steal everything they could and destroy everything else that was left behind. People said the gods were angry with Cassius and gave his soldiers a terrible disease, called the plague. When Lucius and Cassius came back home from Parthia to Rome they were both treated as war heroes, even though Cassius had done all the fighting. The Roman people were overjoyed. But without realising it, the soldiers had also brought back something very bad indeed from Parthia. They brought back the disease called the Antonine Plague, or smallpox.
The plague spread through the whole Roman empire, for fifteen long years. The Roman people were very sad and very worried. They say maybe a third of the population died. People with the disease would become very sick, they’d get a fever, their throat would hurt, their stomach would hurt, and their skin would become very sore and lumpy. It was horrible to see. Everyone prayed to the gods to save them and doctors tried everything they could think of to help. But back then they didn’t really understand what was going on, or how the plague worked, so even the best doctors in the empire couldn’t help much. Maybe five million people died as a result. Marcus Aurelius was friends with a very famous doctor named Galen who studied the plague and tried to find a cure to protect the emperors.
The Marcomanni Wars
While the disease was spreading, more and more soldiers were dying, and so the army became much weaker. Then, at the worst possible time, another disaster happened. Not long after the wars to the east, in Parthia, had ended, millions of barbarian tribesman called the Quadi and Marcomanni started to invade Rome from the other side of the empire, far to the north. They broke through into Roman towns and stole everything. People were very afraid of going to war in the north because the barbarians were so many, and the Roman armies were suffering from the plague. Lucius wanted to stay home and rest but Marcus said it was an emergency and they both needed to lead the Roman army north to drive back the invaders. Because the army was so weak, Marcus did something that shocked the people. He took slaves and gladiators into the army to help replace the soldiers who’d died from plague. And he sold many treasures from his imperial palace to raise money that was used to help pay the soldiers wages.
Marcus and Lucius put on their army cloaks and rode north to war. At first, they struggled to defeat the barbarians who numbered many more than the Romans. But gradually, as they learned more about their enemies and about the country they were in, the Romans started to win more battles. However, yet another disaster struck. Marcus wanted Lucius to stay in the north but finally gave in to his demands and allowed him to go back home. While travelling back to Rome, though, Lucius fell sick with the plague. The best doctors in the empire tried but they couldn’t save him and he died. Lucius’ family were angry and said he should never have left Rome but it was too late. Many other noblemen died in battle on the northern frontier, and Marcus built statues to them. Some Romans started to feel that between the plague and the wars, too many people had died.
Marcus was very sad about the loss of his brother but he continued the war in the north. Even though he’d never led an army before, and never trained as a soldier, Marcus was very wise and became a great general. The army loved and admired him. His soldiers all thought the gods were helping Marcus because of a miracle some of them claimed they’d seen. One day, one of Marcus’ best generals and his soldiers were surrounded and outnumbered by warriors of the Quadi barbarian tribe. It was the middle of summer and the Roman soldiers had no water, they were feeling very weak and thirsty because of the heat. They say Marcus prayed for them and something incredible happened. Suddenly storm clouds appeared in the sky overhead and it started raining very heavily. The soldiers caught the rain in their helmets and drank as they carried on fighting. They all cheered because of the miracle and started to fight back more bravely. As the barbarians charged at them on horseback, thunder sounded and lightning struck them. Fire and water came down from the skies and helped the Romans defeat their enemy. After this famous victory, the soldiers all celebrated Marcus as their supreme commander and told stories about how he brought them good luck.
During one of their most famous battles, the Romans chased the Sarmatians across the frozen river Danube. The barbarians assumed they would have a great advantage against the Romans on the ice because they were used to it, so they turned to fight, but they were in for a shock. The Romans had been training hard through the winter. When the Sarmatians surrounded them on the icy surface, the Romans packed themselves in a tight formation, placed their shields on the ice, and put one foot on top so that they could stand more firmly. Then as the barbarians charged, they grabbed the reins of their horses and pulled them to the ground, so they slipped on the ice and fell. The Romans were victorious because they’d carefully studied how to fight in these surroundings and practised tricks that would help their soldiers defeat the local tribes.
The Rebellion of Avidius Cassius
However, while Marcus was far away, busy fighting in the north, the people in the eastern empire felt neglected and were growing restless. They hadn’t seen Marcus for a long time, and Lucius was dead now. Millions of people had died of the plague and many more of their men were sent to fight with Marcus in the distant north and most of them were slain in battle and never returned home. Things were becoming expensive because taxes had increased to pay for Marcus’ war against the Marcomanni, people had to give more money to the emperor and they didn’t like that. One day, a mysterious Egyptian tribe called the Herdsmen said “We’ve had enough.” They tricked and killed two Roman officers and declared war on the Romans in Egypt. More and more people joined their revolution until the Roman Prefect or ruler of Egypt became worried. This was a big problem because most of the grain used to make bread came from Egypt, so the Romans called it the breadbasket of their empire. Marcus decided it was an emergency and told Cassius to march his legions to Egypt and stop the Herdsmen. However, to do that he had to make Cassius even more powerful, so he granted him imperium throughout the east, which meant people had to obey him as if he were the emperor. Cassius led the Roman armies into Egypt but there were so many of the Herdsmen he didn’t fight them in a pitched battle. Instead, he slowly tricked them into arguing with each other, until they fell out, and then he beat them, something we call a “divide and conquer” strategy. People said Cassius had saved Rome and they thought he was very clever. So he became an even bigger hero, and was left with supreme command throughout the eastern part of the empire.
Now since the co-emperor Lucius had died, Cassius had gradually become so powerful, that he started to feel like he should be an emperor himself. Indeed, some people even say that when Lucius was alive he tried to warn Marcus that he’d heard Cassius wanted to overthrow him. Marcus said that he shouldn’t worry because whatever will be will be, and that they couldn’t judge Cassius based on rumours anyway. He told Lucius to remember their adoptive father the emperor Antoninus, who used to say “No one ever kills his successor”. However, Marcus had been very sick for many years, with pains in his chest and stomach. He found it hard to eat and at night he struggled to sleep because he was so ill. Some people say that because of his illness, Marcus’ wife, Faustina, worried that he was about to die. They say she told their friend Cassius that if Marcus was dying he was to get the army to acclaim him emperor instead, as quickly as possible, before any of their enemies could seize the role. Perhaps Faustina even planned to marry Cassius if Marcus died, to protect their son Commodus, and make sure he could become emperor one day. Nobody knows for sure, but some people say that was Faustina and Cassius’ plan. Somehow, one day, Cassius heard news that Marcus was really sick and was probably dying so the Egyptian army quickly acclaimed Cassius the new emperor. But he’d made a terrible mistake. Marcus had indeed been very ill, weeks ago, but he’d recovered and now he was better.
When the Senate, the government in Rome, found out, they were angry. This was a huge rebellion. They immediately declared Cassius a public enemy and took away all the money and land that belonged to him and his family. The people in Rome panicked because they thought Cassius would be so angry that now he’d march the Egyptian army into their city and destroy everything. When the people within a country fight one another, that’s called a civil war. Everyone was worried that now there were two emperors, they would have to fight over control of Rome, and there would be a huge civil war. Marcus was so far away it would have taken several weeks for the news to reach him. When he found out he thought his friend Cassius must have made a terrible mistake and would change his mind and give up, so he waited for news, but Cassius didn’t back down or surrender, instead he gathered his armies and prepared for war. Some of Lucius’ family and other politicians in Rome also opposed Marcus’ war in the north because it was so expensive and the lives of so many Roman soldiers had been lost. So some politicians in Rome did take sides with Cassius but there weren’t very many of them. Most Romans remained loyal to Marcus, as their true emperor.
Everyone was shocked at what Cassius had done. They thought Marcus would be shocked too and really angry. But for his whole life Marcus had been preparing to respond philosophically to things like this. Every morning he would meditate and patiently tell himself “Today you will meet ingratitude, treachery, lies, and selfish people…” He planned how to deal calmly with even the most difficult situation, and never to be surprised by anything. He’d learned that from the ancient philosophers he studied as a young man. Finally, he was just about to win his wars in the north, after years and years of fighting. However, instead, he would have to quickly pack up and march his armies all the way across the empire to fight a new war against his own friend. Fortunately, Marcus was very organised and hard working. He sent one of his generals ahead with a small army to reach Cassius first and block his path to Rome. He sent another general to Rome where he was to calm everyone down and stop the panic. Marcus himself took time to agree peace with the local tribes and prepare a much larger army, containing some of the toughest and most experienced soldiers. When they were ready he started the long march southeast to defeat Cassius.
Marcus Prepares for Civil War
Before they left, as soon as he realised Cassius wasn’t going to back down, Marcus gave a speech to his soldiers. He told them that he wasn’t angry or upset. Everyone was amazed how calm he was. He always tried to see things from both sides. He wanted to understand other people’s motives, what was important to them, and what they were thinking. When someone did something that seemed bad, he’d learned from the philosophers to pause and say to himself: “It must have seemed right to him.” So he said he wanted everyone to forgive Cassius and his friends, and let them live in peace if they would surrender. Marcus said nobody in Rome was to hurt any of Cassius’ supporters and that ones that had been exiled, or sent away, were to be invited to come back home. The soldiers were surprised he was being so gentle but that was what he’d learned from philosophy. Marcus’ response was very different from the politicians’ in Rome; whereas he remained calm and offered to pardon Cassius, the Senate were angry, panicked, and wanted to punish everyone involved in the rebellion.
The army led by Marcus began marching toward Cassius’ stronghold in Syria to fight the main battle of the civil war. Something surprising happened, though, before they could reach the enemy. Cassius’ legions heard that Marcus wanted to forgive them all but their commander, Cassius, still refused to give up. The soldiers knew that Marcus had a much bigger and much stronger army, and they were afraid they were going to lose. So they decided to get rid of Cassius themselves. Two of their officers charged at him on their horses when he wasn’t expecting it, caught him by surprise, and chopped his head off. They took Cassius’ head to Marcus but he said he didn’t want to look at it and told them to bury it instead. He was sad that his friend had been killed because he said it was all a big mistake and he wanted to pardon him. Marcus had won the war, but he refused to celebrate. He said he wanted to make sure that nobody else was killed, and he asked the Senate to give back all of Cassius’ money to his children, to let them go wherever they want to go, and to protect them from harm.
Marcus travelled around all the different countries in the east of the empire and helped to calm them down and restore peace. The people said he was a hero because they were terrified that there was going to be a civil war but he’d managed to stop it without any fighting by saying that he was going to forgive everyone involved. He was loved by all the eastern provinces and they say that many of the people there started to study philosophy because of their admiration for Marcus.
The year is 167 AD, the Pax Romana, the state of political peace and stability that once united the Roman Empire, is beginning to crumble. For years, the empire has been ravaged by a mysterious plague brought back from Persia by exhausted Roman troops. With the Roman army devastated, continual barbarian incursions have taken their toll on the northern frontiers. Finally, the combined forces of the Germanic Quadi and Marcomanni tribes smash through provincial Roman defences, cross the Danube, and descend upon Italy laying siege to the Roman city of Aquileia. A state of emergency ensues; the Marcomanni war begins.
The emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, a highly disciplined Stoic philosopher and accomplished military leader, mobilises his surviving legionnaires and marches them northward to drive back the invading hordes. Struggling to find troops and finance the war, Marcus takes radical crisis measures that send shockwaves through Roman society. First he auctions off his own imperial treasures to raise emergency funds for the war effort. Then he closes the amphitheatres and conscripts the gladiators into his army.
Nevertheless, the Roman army remains vastly outnumbered and the campaign they reluctantly embarked upon has proven to be long and arduous. It is now deep midwinter, and after years of bitter fighting, they are encamped upon the southern banks of the river Danube, having cut a bloody path into the deeply-forested heart of Germania. Their beleaguered forces clash with tens of thousands of tribal warriors across the icy surface of the frozen river in a battle that will decide the fate of Rome, and shape the future of European civilisation…
Late at night, in his battle tent, Marcus kneels before the miniature silver statuettes of his private shrine and patiently enumerates the virtues of his gods and ancestors, vowing to imitate their best qualities in his own life. He prays to bring his own daemon, the divine spark within him,into harmony with universal Nature, and the Fate determined for him. Following his Stoic principles he prays to Zeus, not for victory in battle, but for the gods to grant him the strength to act with wisdom and integrity, like the ideal Sage.
Like Scipio Africanus the Younger, the famous general who razed Carthage and secured Roman dominance, Marcus trains his mind using an ancient cosmological meditation in order to compose his perspective before battle. He pictures the battlefield from an elevated, Olympian point of view in order to imagine himself entering the mind of Zeus. Looking down upon the battle lines from high above, he imagines what it feels like to see things as a god. He contemplates the world itself, the vastness of time and space, the transience of material objects, and the unity and interdependence of all things. In so doing, he reminds himself of his own mortality, whispering beneath his breath the words of the famous Roman maxim: memento mori —“remember thou must die.” Withdrawing into deeper contemplation, he murmurs the slogan of the great slave-philosopher Epictetus whose teachings he has committed to memory, “endure and renounce.” With these words he reaffirms his vow to renounce materialistic and egotistic cravings and to secretly forego the fear of pain and death.
Finally, Marcus takes out his personal meditation journal and slowly records, in a few words, the philosophical idea that’s been circulating through his mind all day long:
Plato has a fine saying, that he who would discourse of man should survey, as from some high watchtower, the things of earth.
He finishes writing, closes his eyes, and sits back in his chair. His attention turns within: to his breathing and the sensations of tension throughout his body, which he patiently begins willing himself to relax away… He retreats within, relaxes, and then does nothing for a while… he waits… he watches the thoughts that pass through his mind, with studied indifference…
Then he slowly shifts his attention… He imagines looking at his body from the outside… at his facial expression… his posture… his clothing… He pauses for a few moments to adjust to this new perspective… Then he imagines floating serenely upward… looking down at his body still before him in the chair, eyes closed… He imagines the tent around him disappearing as his mind, his spirit, floats upward, high above his body… He looks down on the camp around him… He sees himself, in his mind’s eye, and he now sees the tents and soldiers around him…
Floating higher and higher… his perspective widens to take in the whole area, the clearing, and the surrounding forests… He thinks of the animals, the birds, the fish in the rivers… He thinks of the paths through the woods… the villages nearby… and the people who live there… going about their lives… interacting with each other, influencing each other, encountering each other in different ways… Floating higher, people become as small as ants below… He patiently talks himself through the images and ideas as he contemplates them… He’s done this a hundred times before…
Rising up into the clouds, you see the whole of the surrounding region beneath you… You see both towns and countryside, forests, rivers… where one country ends and another begins… and gradually the coastline comes into view as your perspective becomes more and more expansive… You float gently up above the clouds, above the rain, and through the upper atmosphere of our world… So high that you eventually rise beyond the sphere of the planet itself, and into the region of the stars… You look toward our world below and see it suspended in space before you… silently turning… majestic and beautiful…
You see the whole world… the blue of the great oceans… and the brown and green of the continents… You see the white of the polar ice caps, north and south… You see the grey wisps of cloud that pass silently across the surface of the earth… Though you can no longer see yourself, you know that you are down there far below, and that your life is important, and what you make of your life is important… Your change in perspective changes your view of things… your values and priorities become more aligned with reality and with nature as a whole…
You contemplate all the countless living beings upon the earth. The millions who live today… You remember that your life is one among many, one person among the total population of the world… You think of the rich diversity of human life… The many languages spoken by people of different races, in different countries… people of all different ages… newborn infants, elderly people, people in the prime of life… You think of the enormous variety of human experiences… some people right now are unhappy, some people are happy… and you realise how richly varied the tapestry of human life before you seems…
And yet as you gaze upon the planet you are also aware of its position within the rest of the universe… a tiny speck of dust, adrift in immeasurable vastness… Merely a tiny grain of sand by comparison with the endless tracts of cosmic space…
You think about the present moment below and see it within the broader context of your life as a whole… You think of your lifespan as a whole, in its totality… You think of your own life as one moment in the enormous lifespan of mankind… Hundreds of generations have lived and died before you… many more will live and die in the future, long after you yourself are gone… Civilisations too have a lifespan; you think of the many great cities which have arisen and been destroyed throughout the ages… and your own civilisation as one in a series… perhaps in the future to be followed by new cities, peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life…
You think of the lifespan of humanity itself… Just one of countless species living upon the planet… the race of mankind arising many thousands of years ago… long after animal life had appeared… You contemplate history just as if it were a great book, a million lines long… the life of the entire human race just a single sentence somewhere within that book… just one sentence…
And yet you think of the lifespan of the planet itself… Countless years older than mankind… the life of the planet too has a beginning, middle, and end… Formed unimaginably long ago… one day in the distant future its destiny is to be swallowed up fire… You think of the great lifespan of the universe itself… the almost incomprehensible vastness of universal time… starting immeasurable aeons ago… Perhaps one day, at the end of time, this whole universe will implode upon itself and disappear once again…
Contemplating the vast lifespan of the universe, remember that the present moment is but the briefest of instants… the mere blink of an eye… the turn of a screw… a fleeting second in the mighty river of cosmic time… Yet the “here and now” is important… standing as the centre point of all human experience… Here and now you find yourself at the centre of living time… Though your body may be small in the grand scheme of things, your imagination, the human imagination, is as big as the universe… bigger than the universe… enveloping everything that can be conceived… From the cosmic point of view, your body seems small, but your imagination seems utterly vast…
You contemplate all things, past, present and future… You see your life within the bigger picture… the total context of cosmic time and space… You see yourself as an integral part of something much bigger, of cosmic Nature itself… Just as the organs and limbs of your own body work together to form a greater unity, a living being, so your body as a whole is like a tiny part in the organism of the universe…
As your consciousness expands, and your mind stretches out to reach and touch the vastness of eternity… Things change greatly in perspective… and shifts occur in their relative importance… Trivial things seem trivial to you… Indifferent things seem indifferent… The significance of your own attitude toward life becomes more apparent… you remember that life is what you make of it… You learn to put things in perspective, and focus on your true values and priorities in life… You embrace and follow nature… your own true nature as a rational, truth-seeking human being… and the one great Nature of the universe as a whole…
He takes time to contemplate things from this perspective. Then he guides himself, with his words, back down to earth… toward the real world, and the present moment… toward Germania… toward the tent in which his body remains seated, comfortably, in repose…
His mind slowly returns to his body… back behind his eyes… his awareness runs through his body… his arms and legs… reaching out to his fingers and his toes… He feels the chair beneath him once again… and his feet resting on the floor… He takes a deep breath and begins to slowly open his eyes… moving his fingers, his toes, and starting to shift a little in his chair… he opens his eyes and looks at the things before him…
He stands up slowly, and takes a step forward. His mind still feels enlarged, somehow lighter and more free than before. He feels prepared. He knows that he has work to do tomorrow that will require great patience, presence of mind, and equanimity, and he puts his trust in philosophy, once again, to guide him.
Let me tell you a story… Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, in ancient Greece, there was a very famous philosopher called Diogenes the Dog. Diogenes went about naked, slept on the streets, and begged for scraps of food. So the children used to make fun of him and they pointed at him shouting “You’re just a dirty dog!” If a crowd of people made fun of me and called me a dirty dog, I might cry, but Diogenes didn’t let things like that upset him. Nothing bothered him. My mother used to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Diogenes wasn’t hurt by words, even when people called him a nasty dog. He just laughed and said “You know what, you’re right, I am a dog… I’m the dog of Zeus!” Now, the god Hades had a pet dog, called Cerberus, whose job it was to guard all the dead people, the ghosts, in the Underworld. But Diogenes said he was the guard dog of Zeus, Hades’ brother, the god of the living. And his job was to guard over living people, and show them when they were doing wrong. He would bark at them like a dog, when he saw them doing silly things or misbehaving. Some people were scared of him but other people really loved him, and followed him around, hoping to learn from him and become wise.
Let me tell you three things about dogs… Number one: dogs love people who are nice to them and give them food; they lick their hands, rub up against their legs, and follow them around. Number two: dogs bark at people who have food but won’t share it with them. And number three: they sometimes get angry and bite people who upset them by trying to steal their food. (You have to be careful if you want to take a bone away from a dog.)
Diogenes said he was like a dog but instead of food he only wanted one thing: wisdom. If people had wisdom and gave it to him, he’d be their best friend for life, and follow them around. If they had wisdom but didn’t share it, he’d bark at them until they did. And if they didn’t have wisdom but were foolish and wanted to do bad things, he’d bite them, or hit them with his stick!
One day, Diogenes was captured by a gang of pirates. They chained him up, threw him on their ship, and sailed away with him. They wanted to sell him as a slave, which is a person that belongs to someone else like a pet, or like an animal that’s made to work for them. (People aren’t allowed to have slaves anymore because it’s wrong, but a long time ago there were lots of slaves.)
Diogenes wasn’t bothered. When they tried to sell him, he just rolled around on the floor laughing. A rich man was looking at him and Diogenes said “You look like you need a good boss, to tell you what to do!” So the man bought him, and instead of being his slave, Diogenes became his boss, and his teacher. The man and his sons followed Diogenes around and learned a lot of wisdom from him.
Now Dogs will eat almost anything and people say one day Diogenes ate an octopus that upset his tummy, because it hadn’t been cooked properly. That’s how he died. When he was gone, though, everyone missed him, and the people in his home town built a pillar with a statue of a white dog on top so they would always remember him and so their children would also learn about Diogenes the philosopher, the dog of Zeus.
[This is a draft of a story I wrote for my three-year old daughter, Poppy, because she keeps asking me to tell her more about Socrates.]
You are a sculptor, Socrates, and have made statues of our governors faultless in beauty. – Plato’s Republic, Book 7
Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, almost two and a half thousand years ago, a very wise man lived in the city of Athens. His name was Socrates and some people say he was the wisest man who ever lived. He said he was just a “philosopher”, though, which means someone who loves wisdom but isn’t wise yet himself. So philosophers are always looking for wisdom.
Socrates’ daddy was a stonemason and sculptor called Sophroniscus, who helped to build a famous temple called the Parthenon, high up on a hill in Athens, in a place called the Acropolis. A stonemason is a man who cuts stone and a sculptor is a man who makes beautiful statues. When he was young, Socrates learned how to cut stone and make statues, just like his daddy. That’s what he did for a living and he became very good at it. Some people say he made a famous sculpture, a statue, of three beautiful goddesses called The Three Graces, which stood at the entrance to the Acropolis.
Socrates tried very hard to make statues that were perfect. He wanted to show everyone what a totally wise and good person might look like. He believed that wisdom and goodness were beautiful but he wasn’t really happy with the statues he created. He felt something was missing. So he spoke to the other stonemasons because he wanted to learn from them but he found that although they made statues of people who were good, they couldn’t really explain to him what goodness was or how to learn about it. He said they had become like blocks of stone themselves because they lacked wisdom. They were looking outside at the statues too much rather than looking inside themselves.
Then Socrates had an idea. He put down his tools and from that day forward he stopped making statues. He said he was amazed that the sculptors who tried so hard to make blocks of stone into statues of perfectly wise and good people didn’t know how to become wise or good people themselves. So he decided to stop sculpting stone and to begin sculpting himself, his own mind, his character, and to become wise and good. He was going to make himself beautiful rather than making beautiful statues. Everyone thought this was funny because Socrates was not very beautiful to look at. He had a big round belly and a snub-nose and his friend Plato said he looked like a satyr, which is a cross between a man and a goat! Socrates laughed back at them, though, and said that true beauty comes from within, from our character. He liked to joke that if there was a beauty contest between him and the people laughing at him then he would be the winner because he was more beautiful inside.
So he gave up being a stonemason and a sculptor and instead of doing his daddy’s job he decided to switch to doing his mummy’s job instead. Socrates’ mummy was a midwife. When a lady has a baby inside her tummy, a midwife is another lady who helps her give birth, so the baby can come out of her tummy and ride around in its pram. Socrates said he had become a midwife just like his mummy but he didn’t help ladies with babies in their tummies to give birth to them… He helped people, men and women, with ideas inside them to give birth to those ideas, so they could share them with other people, talk about them, and try to learn the truth about them.
Socrates helped people to give birth to ideas by asking them lots of really difficult questions about what it means to be wise and good. He asked soldiers “What does it really mean to be brave?”, he asked leaders and politicians “What is justice?”, and he asked teachers “What is wisdom?” Socrates said that if you can learn what it means to be a good person you’ll become wise and live a good life. He always pretended he didn’t know the answers. Some people say, though, that by patiently asking lots of difficult questions, helping other people to give birth to ideas, and listening carefully to what they said, Socrates became wise himself and he lived a good life. People still remember him today, even though he died a very long time ago.