Seneca: On the Creation of Earthquakes, starring John Malkovich, will be released in Germany on 23rd March 2023.
Donald Robertson is the author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: the Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius; Verissimus, a graphic novel about Marcus Aurelius; and a forthcoming prose biography of Marcus Aurelius for Yale University Press.
Donald also wrote a biography of Seneca for the Capstone Classics edition of his Moral Letters.
Below you can read three sample web comics about the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius that I created with award-winning illustrator Zé Nuno Fraga. Each one links a passage in the Meditations with one of Aesop’s Fables. (Marcus mentions the Town Mouse fable in the Meditations.)
Dionysius “the Renegade” (or “Deserter”), of Heraclea (c. 330 – c. 250 BC) was a heterodox , or maverick, Stoic and presumably initially a student of Zeno, the founder of the school. You can read a short chapter about his life and thought in Diogenes Laertius. Before becoming a Stoic he studied philosophy under the physicist Heraclides of Heraclea, the Megarian philosopher Alexinus of Elis, who we know was critical of Zeno of Citium, and Menedemus, founder of the Eretrian school of philosophy, who appears to have studied under Stilpo and the Megarian school. This tells us Dionysius was an experienced and eclectic student of philosophy before becoming a follower of Zeno, although he also apparently shared with Zeno a background in the Megarian philosophical tradition. We know he also studied poetry and literature and sought to imitate the great Stoic-influenced poet Aratus.
However, we’re told Dionysius broke away from Stoicism after suffering a painful bout of ophthalmia, inflammation of the eyes. He declared that pleasure (hedone) was the true goal (telos) of life and not an “indifferent” as Zeno claimed. His story shows that although Zeno was in a sense a highly eclectic philosopher, and Stoicism apparently tolerated some internal disagreement and debate, belief in the “indifference” of pain was considered an essential doctrine. Once someone rejected that view it no longer made sense for them to call themselves a “Stoic”. This was in part because the doctrine of the indifference of pain was considered so central to Stoicism. However, it was probably also because by arguing that “pleasure” is the true goal of life Dionysius effectively drew closer to the position held by rival schools of philosophy, such as the Cyrenaics and possibly the Epicureans. Dionysius’ story suggests that, like Epicurus, he defined “pleasure” in part as the absence of physical pain.
Indeed, we’re told that Dionysius did leave the Stoa to join the Cyrenaic school following his change of heart. In his chapter on the life of Zeno, Diogenes Laertius says that:
When Dionysius the Renegade asked [Zeno], “Why am I the only pupil you do not correct?” the reply was, “Because I mistrust you.”
This perhaps implies a haughty attitude on the part of Dionysius, who might be taken to be suggesting that his views were above criticism, whereas Zeno’s response takes him down a peg, by suggesting that he is actually beneath criticism.
Diogenes Laertius also includes the following brief reference to Dionysius in a list of Zeno’s most important famous students:
Dionysius, who became a renegade to the doctrine of pleasure, for owing to the severity of his ophthalmia he had no longer the nerve to call pain a thing indifferent: his native place was Heraclea.
We know little more about Dionysius. He wrote two books on freedom from passions (apatheia), two on training exercises (askesis), and four on pleasure (hedone), among others. However, Diogenes Laertius also wrote in his account of Heraclides, the natural philosopher, and former teacher of Dionysius:
Moreover, Dionysius, called the Renegade, or as some say Spentharus [the Spark], wrote a tragedy called Parthenopaeus, and forged the name of Sophocles to it. And Heraclides was so much deceived that he took some passages out of one of his works, and cited them as the words of Sophocles; and Dionysius, when he perceived it, gave him notice of the real truth; and as he would not believe it, and denied it, he sent him word to examine the first letters of the first verses of the book, and they formed the name of Panculus, who was a friend of Dionysius. And as Heraclides still refused to believe it, and said that it was possible that such a thing might happen by chance, Dionysius sent him back word once more, “You will find this passage too:
An aged monkey is not easily caught;
He’s caught indeed, but only after a time.”
And he added, “Heraclides knows nothing of letters, and has no shame.”
Porcia Catonis was the daughter of Cato of Utica, Cato the Younger, the great Stoic hero of the Roman republic. We know little about her except a few anecdotes of dubious historical authenticity. However, she appears to be portrayed as a female Stoic, dedicated to philosophy, following in the footsteps of her renowned father.
She lived in the first century BC, several generations before the Roman Stoics of the Imperial period, whose works survive today: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. She was a contemporary of Cicero and the Stoic Posidonius of Rhodes. She was the wife of Brutus, a Roman politician and philosopher also influenced by Stoicism, who was to be the leading assassin of the tyrant Julius Caesar. Brutus’ mother was the half-sister of Cato the Younger, making him both Brutus’ uncle and later his father-in-law, via his marriage to Porcia.
At the end of his Life of Cato, Plutarch wrote:
Nor was the daughter of Cato inferior to the rest of her family, for sober-living and greatness of spirit. She was married to Brutus, who killed Caesar; was acquainted with the conspiracy, and ended her life as became one of her birth and virtue.
Plutarch’s Life of Brutus contains the following story:
Porcia, being addicted to philosophy, a great lover of her husband, and full of an understanding courage, resolved not to inquire into Brutus’s secrets before she had made this trial of herself. She turned all her attendants out of her chamber, and taking a little knife, such as they use to cut nails with, she gave herself a deep gash in the thigh; upon which followed a great flow of blood, and soon after, violent pains and a shivering fever, occasioned by the wound.
Now when Brutus was extremely anxious and afflicted for her, she, in the height of all her pain, spoke thus to him: “I, Brutus, being the daughter of Cato, was given to you in marriage, not like a concubine, to partake only in the common intercourse of bed and board, but to bear a part in all your good and all your evil fortunes; and for your part, as regards your care for me, I find no reason to complain; but from me, what evidence of my love, what satisfaction can you receive, if I may not share with you in bearing your hidden griefs, nor to be admitted to any of your counsels that require secrecy and trust? I know very well that women seem to be of too weak a nature to be trusted with secrets; but certainly, Brutus, a virtuous birth and education, and the company of the good and honourable, are of some force to the forming our manners; and I can boast that I am the daughter of Cato, and the wife of Brutus, in which two titles though before I put less confidence, yet now I have tried myself, and find that I can bid defiance to pain.”
Which words having spoken, she showed him her wound, and related to him the trial that she had made of her constancy; at which he being astonished, lifted up his hands to heaven, and begged the assistance of the gods in his enterprise, that he might show himself a husband worthy of such a wife as Porcia. So then he comforted his wife.
According to one story, when she later heard of Brutus’ death, Porcia committed suicide by swallowing hot coals. Although other accounts contradict this, it became a well-known story and inspired several authors, most notably Shakespeare.
Porcia was sometimes referred to as Portia in Elizabethan English literature. Shakespeare portrays her in the play Julius Caesar and in The Merchant of Venice he wrote:
In Belmont is a lady richly left; And she is fair, and, fairer than that word, Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes I did receive fair speechless messages: Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia.
Elen’s short book focuses on the practical psychological (or “spiritual”) exercises employed in ancient Stoicism, drawing mainly upon the seminal work of the French scholar Pierre Hadot. She succeeds eminently in providing a very clear and concise account of a great many Stoic exercises. These are described in such a way as to allow the average reader to make use of them. However, those more familiar with Stoicism will undoubtedly find much of value within these pages.
The central part of Stoic Spiritual Exercises contains a superb description to a variety of Stoic techniques, including premeditation, physical definition, contemplation of impermanence, self-expansion, the view from above, action with reservation, and others. It concludes with a section attempting to reconstruct a Stoic meditation based on the account of a Christian spiritual practice influenced by Stoicism, and drawing on analogies with Buddhist meditation.
According to the account preserved by Stobaeus, Zeno and the other Stoics said that the wise and virtuous “have an affinity to composing books, which can help those who encounter their writings”. Elen’s book will undoubtedly be of tremendous help to those who encounter the writings of the ancient Stoics and wish to benefit from the Stoic art of living in their own daily lives.