Brand new video just released today. I collaborated with animator Mr. Smart to produce this how-to video about Stoicism and coping with anger. Hope you enjoy!
To celebrate the Roman Festival of Saturnalia, you’ll be able to listen to a free audiobook sample of the entire final chapter from my bestselling book on Stoicism, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Don’t miss out, though! This freebie will only be available until the end of December 2019. Just click on the Soundcloud player below to listen…
“Robertson distills the emperor’s philosophy into useful mental habits… displays a sound knowledge of Marcus’ life and thought… presenting a convincing case for the continuing relevance of an archetypal philosopher-king.” ―The Wall Street Journal
On 6th January 2019 there will be a one-day only special offer for Amazon US customers, allowing you to purchase the Kindle edition of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor at a significantly reduced price.
Diogenes Laertius several times mentions a mysterious unnamed old woman associated with Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school.
Of Chrysippus the old woman who sat beside him used to say, according to Diocles, that he wrote 500 lines a day.
The Greek could also mean that the old woman attended to or looked after him. The next sentence reads:
Hecato says that he [Chrysippus] came to the study of philosophy, because the property which he had inherited from his father had been confiscated to the king’s treasury.
Are we perhaps meant to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two sentences that the old woman had the financial means to look after Chrysippus who was left penniless?
She seems also to have observed his output as a writer, and perhaps read his books. The remark attributed to her here seems to refer to Chrysippus’ writing in the past tense, though. Indeed we’re actually told she outlived him, although Chrysippus reputedly made it to seventy three. How much older than him could she have been then? It’s implied by several authors that Chrysippus liked wine and here that he may have died from alcohol consumption:
Chrysippus turned giddy after gulping down a draught of Bacchus; he spared not the Porch nor his country nor his own life, but fared straight to the house of Hades. Another account is that his death was caused by a violent fit of laughter; for after an ass had eaten up his figs, he cried out to the old woman, “Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.” And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died.
We also seem to be told that he addressed some of his philosophical writings to an old woman and sought her opinion on them, as though she were his patron.
He [Chrysippus] appears to have been a very arrogant man. At any rate, of all his many writings he dedicated none to any of the kings. And he was satisfied with one old woman’s judgement, says Demetrius […].
This last remark seems to follow on from the previous sentence, implying that Chrysippus was arrogant because addressed his writings to (presumably) the same the old woman, whereas other authors would often court the approval of powerful rulers.
It’s therefore curious that although many of Chrysippus’ works listed by Diogenes Laertius are explicitly dedicated to someone by name, none of them seem to bear a female name. However, perhaps there’s another clue to her identity. He immediately follows the passage above by mentioning Chrysippus’ sister:
When [King] Ptolemy [IV Philopator of Egypt] wrote to Cleanthes requesting him to come himself or else to send someone to his court, Sphaerus undertook the journey, while Chrysippus declined to go. On the other hand, he sent for his sister’s sons, Aristocreon and Philocrates, and educated them.
This first remark portrays Chrysippus as being arrogant, back when he was a promising student of Cleanthes, for refusing to become an ambassador for Stoicism to the court of King Ptolemy. His fellow Stoic, Sphaerus of Borysthenes, had to go instead. We’re perhaps meant to connect this with the passage above about his arrogant disregard for the patronage of kings and preferring the judgement of the “old woman”.
Could the “old woman” in question, therefore, have been Chrysippus’ sister? We’re told that her sons became students of Chrysippus. We hear nothing more about Philocrates but Aristocreon clearly became a dedicated and enthusiastic follower of Stoicism. Indeed, we know that Chrysippus dedicated dozens of books to his sister’s son:
- Introduction to the Mentiens [the Liar] Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, one book.
- Of the Mentiens Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, six books.
- To those who solve the Mentiens by dissecting it, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
- On the Solution of the Mentiens, addressed to Aristocreon, three books.
- Solutions of the Hypothetical Arguments of Hedylus, addressed to Aristocreon and Apollas, one book.
- Of the Sceptic who denies, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
- Of Dialectic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
- Of Art and the Inartistic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
- Of the Good or Morally Beautiful and Pleasure, addressed to Aristocreon, ten books.
And for all we know he may have dedicated other books to Aristocreon that aren’t mentioned here. There was clearly a very close intellectual bond between Chrysippus and his nephew so it would make sense if Diogenes Laertius had intended to imply that the young man’s mother, Chrysippus’ sister, was the “old woman” who attended to Chrysippus and to whom his works were dedicated, rather than to a king. Indeed, it’s quite possible the works named above could have been written in honour both of Aristocreon and his mother.
The philosopher Plutarch elsewhere mentions in passing that Aristocreon later erected a bronze statue of Chrysippus, upon which he had engraved the verse:
Of uncle Chrysippus Aristocreon this likeness erected;
The knots the Academy tied, the cleaver, Chrysippus, dissected.
These words obviously celebrate Chrysippus’ success as a critic of Plato’s Academy and perhaps relate to the arguments contained in some of the books dedicated to Aristocreon, such as his surprisingly extensive writings on the solution to what’s called in the translation above the “Mentiens Argument”, better known today as the Liar Paradox. When a person says “I lie”, the puzzle is whether he actually lies or not in doing so. If he lies, he speaks truth; if he speaks truth, he lies. Epictetus mentions several times in the Discourses that his students are familiar with Chrysippus’ (now lost) answer to this paradox.
So, cautiously, I’m tempted to speculate as follows… It’s possible Chrysippus’ sister lived in his house and attended to him. Chrysippus was born in the city of Soli in Cilicia, so his sister probably also came from Soli. They probably had the status of foreign residents (metics) in Athens.
Perhaps she attended his lectures. Philosophical discussions in ancient Athens were often held in the gymnasia, which women were strictly prohibited from entering. However, the Stoic school was located in the Stoa Poikile, a public building on the edge of the agora or city-centre, to which women were potentially admitted during the Hellenistic period.
We’re told Chrysippus became a philosopher after his family fortune was seized by a king. However, Chrysippus’ sister may have married into wealth in which case she could have acted as a patron, explaining his controversial preference for the old woman over the patronage of kings such as Ptolemy IV. Chrysippus clearly dedicated many of his works, perhaps those criticizing the Academy and Skeptics, to her son Aristocreon, a dedicated student of Stoicism. If his sister was the “old woman” then presumably he also sought her approval for the teachings expressed in them. Although most of those works appear to be about logic, one of them is also about art and another about ethics, particularly the role of pleasure, which we can assume contained a critique of hedonism dedicated to his nephew.
I’m pleased to announce that my course on the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, is now enrolling, and starts on Sunday 18th February 2018. It only runs once or twice per year, though – so don’t miss out!
The course will teach you how to apply philosophical principles and psychological techniques from Stoic philosophy in your daily life, based on the example of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. It focuses on specific areas where Stoicism can help, including anger, pain and illness, fear, and loss.
Who is this course for? Anyone who’s interested in Stoicism, particularly Marcus Aurelius. If you’re a complete newcomer this course will provide a good introduction to Stoicism. Even if you’ve read a lot of books on Stoicism, though, you’ll still benefit from the resources and exploring a different approach to the subject.
Thanks Donald for your personal perspectives, the anecdotes and breadth of applied experience with Stoicism; the practical and historical perspectives, using Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, were very insightful and valuable also for long-term retention. Lots of thought-provoking material here to read and re-read. Many thanks. The course concept and contents are highly recommended. (I came close to turning this course down – but am greatly relieved now that I registered at the last minute!) – Sachigo
If you have any questions at all about How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
I would definitely recommend this course. It is a great overview of Stoicism. Using Marcus Aurelius as a role model is brilliant!
This is the classic George Long translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in e-book format. It’s the complete unabridged text.
This translation is in the public domain but I wanted to create my own e-book edition so that I can upgrade it over time with notes, a preface, etc., and make it easier to navigate the text. Once you register to download you’ll get the current files but I’ll also be able to notify you when an improved edition is released, which you can also download free of charge.
This mini-course contains download links that you can use to obtain copies of the EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) or PDF versions of the book. This text has been carefully reformatted to make it suitable for e-readers and mobile devices.
These are my rough notes summarizing the discussion of Stoic Ethics in Cicero’s De Finibus. Cicero puts these words in the mouth of his deceased friend, the Stoic republican hero Cato of Utica. It’s very interesting to compare this to the similar discussion in Diogenes Laertius, our other major source for Stoic Ethics. The main text paraphrases De Finibus and my interpolated comments are in [square brackets].
Cato begins by denying that the apparent differences between Stoic Ethics and Platonism are merely terminological. He vigorously rejects the notion that anything except virtue is good, and argues bluntly that recognising other things as good would destroy morality. Cicero responds by saying that this position, that everything except virtue is indifferent, was also held by Pyrrho of Elis and Aristo of Chios. Cato accepts that they were good, brave, just, and temperate men in public life because nature guided them to virtue better than their philosophy could. Moreover, their position differs from the Stoics who claim that although virtue is the only true good, “It is of the essence of virtue that one makes choices among the things that are in accordance with nature.” If, like Aristo or Pyrrho, we make all externals equally indifferent, we make it impossible to select virtuously between them, and therefore virtue becomes inconceivable.
[For example, being just means treating other people fairly and with kindness, but we have to place some kind of “selective value” (axia) on different benefits we may seek to bestow on other people (such as wealth or property) in order to exercise the virtue of justice at all. Many modern readers of Stoicism misunderstand this point, view all externals as totally indifferent, and thereby confuse Stoic Ethics with the position Cato is here explicitly rejecting. Incidentally, praising a philosopher while rejecting his philosophy was a common rhetorical device in ancient literature and a good way of steering clear of the ad hominem fallacy – Seneca likewise heaps praise on Epicurus while condemning his philosophy as unethical.]
Cato then begins his systematic account by saying that he’s going to expound “the whole system of Zeno and the Stoics”, although in reality he focuses almost entirely on their Ethics. This account starts with the Stoic claim that all animals are, by nature, self-interested. From birth, animals seek to preserve their own lives and protect their bodies, first and foremost, and other things such as food and shelter insofar as they serve this fundamental goal of survival. Against the hedonists and Epicureans, Cato argues that newborn animals instinctively seek out what is good for them and avoid what is harmful before they ever feel pleasure or pain. [He perhaps means that newborn animals instinctively seek to feed before even having tasted food, etc.] He takes this as evidence that they instinctively value their own survival and fear destruction, but that this also requires a kind of primitive self-awareness of their survival needs and their bodies. Cato describes this survival instinct as a form of “self-love” and the Stoics argue that this is the primary motivation of other animals but also of human infants. [The belief that we can learn something about what humans naturally value by observing the instinctive behaviour of infants is known is the “cradle argument”.]
Cato says that most Stoics do not believe that pleasure should be ranked among the “natural principles”, by which I take him to mean the preferred indifferents. [Does this imply that some Stoics did?] He believes that many problematic consequences would follow for animals and humans if obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain were our primary motivation. He argues instead that animals want first and foremost to preserve the constitution or health of their bodies, and to do so requires a kind of instinctive self-awareness of what’s natural and healthy for them. [For example, a dog instinctively knows that losing an eye or a leg is to be feared and avoided, before it’s even experienced the pain of doing so; animals fear the touch of a flame without having had the experience of being burned – we have an innate sense of what it means to be injured that does not require the sensation of pain. Why is this so important to the Stoics? They want to argue that we are born with an innate preconception of our goal in life, what it means for us to flourish, and that we can be guided by reflecting on this rather than by feelings of pain and pleasure. This preconception of our fundamental goal is presumably clouded by false impressions somehow but can be uncovered through Socratic questioning and philosophical reflection.]
Cato refers to “cognitions”, “graspings” or “perceivings” – the firmly-grasped knowledge of something – as worth attaining in their own right because they contain something that enfolds and embraces the truth. [He seems to imply that the knowledge of truth, or wisdom, is an end in itself, and therefore individual pieces of firmly-grasped knowledge are constituents of that supreme goal, and ends-in-themselves. This is the Stoic phantasia kataleptike or “Objective Representation” and Hadot argues, I think rightly, that the Stoics were particularly concerned to emphasis that to grasp reality objectively in this way our perception of it must be purified of judgements that externals are intrinsically good or bad.] Cato again points to young children and says they instinctively delight in having worked out the truth in some matter, regardless of other motives. Grasping truth is naturally experienced as an end-in-itself. [Cato could have said that reason is an inherently goal-directed process and that to think at all is to implicitly value the goal of grasping the truth – nobody thinks in order to arrive at the wrong answer.] The systematic study of truth, the sciences, are valued for their own sake. Cato reinforces how central this grasping of truth is to Stoic Ethics by saying emphatically that: “As for assenting to what is false, the Stoics hold that of all things that are against nature, this is the most repugnant to us.” [Philosophy means “love of wisdom” and wisdom is the supreme virtue for Stoics; virtue is wisdom applied to our actions, and to our desires and emotions. The goal of life for Stoics can be understood as achieving wisdom and living rationally, grasping the truth objectively, and so this is an end in itself, and other things are valued instrumentally insofar as they help us to arrive at wisdom and live in accord with reason.]
After this slight digression into discussion of the value of knowledge, Cato returns to the primary value of self-preservation for animals and human infants. (In this context, when referring to the “primary” things valued, I believe Cicero can perhaps be read as meaning things naturally desired by us in our infancy and childhood.) He says that the Stoics call “valuable” (as opposed to “good”) anything which is either in accord with nature itself, or brings something about that is. These are the preferred indifferents, in other words, or things having “selective value” (axia). Cato says that the starting point of Stoic Ethics is the observation that things in accord with nature, i.e., things that constitute our physical survival and health, are ends-in-themselves, and contrary things are to be avoided. Following from this definition of what is natural, the initial “appropriate action” (kathekon) or duty is to preserve one’s life and natural constitution, i.e., to protect one’s health and bodily functioning. The next appropriate action is to do what accords with this and to reject its opposite, by which I take it Cato means to pursue what’s of instrumental value in relation to the primary goal of survival.
When such selection between things in life becomes continuous, stable, and in agreement with nature, Cato says the true good first appears. [I take it he means that as we mature and learn to use reason to properly co-ordinate our behaviour in accord with the value of things for self-preservation and health, we begin to glimpse wisdom, which is what the Stoics consider the only true good. What he says here sounds like the old Stoic concept of the goal of life as “living in agreement” or living consistently.]
Cicero says that human infants gradually develop an understanding or “conception” (ennoia) of order among the things that should be done in relation to the things is in accord with nature, such as food, shelter, etc. Over time, we learn that concordance or ordering is more valuable than the “first objects” themselves, the things we instinctively seek. Indeed, this is the location of the supreme good, or virtue. There appears to be a shift from valuing reason as a means to the end of achieving naturally desired things, things that serve our initial goal of self-preservation, to valuing reason as an end in itself. Virtue or wisdom is grounded in what the Stoics call homologia, which Cicero translates as “consistency”. [This appears to be an allusion to Zeno’s original definition of the goal of life as homologoumenos te phusei zen (ὁμολογουμένως τῇ φύσει ζῆν) or living in agreement with nature.]
“Appropriate actions” derive from nature’s “starting points”, according to Cato, which we might take to mean that all of our moral duties are ultimately derived from our natural instincts, particularly our self-preservation instinct. However, he stresses that attaining these things is not our supreme good, as virtue itself is not one of the things we instinctively desire at birth, it comes as a later development. However, virtue is also described as being “in accord with nature”, in a different sense, because it is the goal implicit in our rational nature. [Nature gave us a self-preservation instinct like other animals and it is generally reasonable and appropriate to pursue this in life and so other things such as wealth and property are of value in the service of this, as means to the end of survival. We have a duty to take care of the body we’ve been given, and to live a healthy life. However, the goal of wisdom becomes the priority of the wise man: not merely to live but to live well, in accord with wisdom and virtue. Life (self-preservation) is a preferred indifferent, it only becomes good insofar as we use it wisely. It’s natural and reasonable to prefer life over death insofar as it provides us with an opportunity for living in accord with wisdom.]
At this point, Cato introduces the well-known Stoic analogy of the spear-thrower or archer. He says one must immediately avoid the error of thinking that Stoicism is committed to there being two ultimate goods. [This is interesting because one of the renegade Stoics mentioned by Diogenes Laertius, Herillus of Carthage, fell out with Zeno because he did argue that there were at least two goals in life, although one was “subordinate” and pursued by those who lacked wisdom.] Cato imagines the archer shooting at a target. His true goal is to do everything within his power to shoot the arrow well. Although he aims at the target, once the arrow has flown, it is outside of his control, so the target is merely something he uses to direct his behaviour. The same applies to virtue, it is all we can really do to act virtuously and wisely, and yet to make sense of that we do need external goals to direct our behaviour, nevertheless whether we achieve them or not is partly in the hands of fate, and so not ultimately our moral responsibility or concern. All that matters is that we try our best to move in the right direction, not whether we succeed in hitting the target or not. [This passage obviously recalls the Greek word for sin (hamartia), which literally means “missing the mark”, as in archery.] However, the Stoics might say that even a foolish and vicious person could hit the target by accident, whereas a wise and virtuous person may fail despite doing the best they can, because external forces intervene (like a gust of wind or someone moving the target). People do the right things for the wrong reasons, but that doesn’t make them good. People can do the wrong things for the right reasons, but that doesn’t make them bad. Hitting the target and firing the arrow well are not two competing outcomes but rather they’re extremely closely connected with one another. Nevertheless the distinction is crucial. [If virtue wasn’t the supreme goal, though, we’d be tempted to hit the target by other means, to cheat ourselves, sell out, and sacrifice virtue for the sake of self-preservation, and other external things that have merely selective value.]
Cato uses the analogy of being introduced to someone, and coming to value the second person more highly than the one who made the introduction. The starting-points of our natural values lead us, as we develop reason, to perceive the virtue of wisdom, which we come to value more highly as an end-in-itself. [This contrasts with another Stoic metaphor whereby the ruling faculty, the seat of reason, is like a king, who assigns positions to people at court – their importance is conferred by the king but his own importance is absolute precisely because he is the one with the authority to assign rank to everyone else.] The body we have, our limbs and organs, has been designed for a particular way of life – it has particular survival needs. The Stoics say that in the same way nature has designed our mental desires for a particular way of life. [Cicero says horme, impulses toward action – does he mean instincts?] Likewise, reason has been designed to function in a particular way. Just as actors and dancers are assigned specific roles and steps in a production, so too the human being in general is assigned a particular way of living, and particular goals or virtues, in the universe. [We’re born placing instinctive value on self-preservation, including the healthy functioning of our body, e.g., protecting our eyes or limbs from injury, and from that a whole hierarchy of values develops insofar as food, shelter, property, friends, etc., help or hinder our pursuit of health and survival. However, as we develop reason, a radical transformation occurs. Reason allows us to reflect on our instincts and values, and decide whether they’re good or bad. We develop self-awareness, and a capacity for reflection and self-criticism, e.g., through Socratic questioning of our values. The wise man therefore comes to value reason itself as the supreme good in life and self-preservation and other externals continue to be of value insofar as they provide the opportunity to live wisely.]
This is what Cicero calls the goal of being “consistent” and “concordant”. Wisdom is more like acting or dancing than navigation or medicine, because it’s goal is contained within the performance of the art itself, not external to it, although the correct way it is to be performed may be specified by the author of the production. Other arts like acting and dancing differ from wisdom, though, insofar as they are incomplete at any given moment, whereas right actions (katorthomata) “contain all the measures of virtue”, and are perfect in isolation.
Wisdom “embraces magnanimity and justice and judges itself superior to anything that might befall a person”. Magnanimity is greatness of soul, the part of all other virtues that specifically allows us to see external things as inferior or indifferent. Cicero says this is not a feature of other arts. [Other arts seek to achieve externals, in other words. Wisdom, like the Stoic archer, aims primarily to do what is within its power well.]
The final aim (telos) is “to live consistently and harmoniously with nature”. The wise are therefore happy (fulfilled) perfect and blessed lives, with no impediment or obstacle (because they desire nothing external), lacking nothing. The “controlling idea” behind human nature and the Stoic philosophy is therefore “that what is moral is the only good”. [The only good is moral good, or virtue, and the only evil moral evil, or vice. As often the case, living in agreement with nature is closely linked to living in accord with virtue.] Living in accord with nature would mean self-preservation for animals, but for adult humans it means reasoning well, and consistently, about the various things we naturally desire, and prizing wisdom above all, which is synonymous with Stoic virtue.
Cato prefers the “brief and pointed way” the Stoics express what are potentially complex theories. He quotes the following syllogism (from Zeno?):
Whatever is good is praiseworthy.
Whatever is praiseworthy is moral.
Therefore whatever is good is moral.
We might say that everything genuinely good in life deserves praise, everything that deserves praise is virtuous, therefore everything that is genuinely good is virtuous. [That syllogism does not prove that, conversely, everything virtuous or moral is good – nevertheless the Stoics believe these terms are synonymous. This argument seems odd to modern readers because in the ancient world it was generally assumed that what is good (agathon) is healthy or beneficial for us, but not necessarily that it is honourable or morally praiseworthy. What the Stoics were arguing for, we now take for granted. For example, the Epicureans argue that pleasure or ataraxia is supremely good but not that it is virtuous – virtue is merely a means to the end of the good life. Cato actually specifies that it is the first premise (the good is praiseworthy) that most people try to dispute, whereas everyone agrees that what is praiseworthy is moral or honourable. It was an important part of Stoicism that they argued that the goal of life is both healthy (or beneficial) and honourable (or virtuous) – simultaneously good for us and morally good. Compare:
What is healthy (good for us) is praiseworthy.
What is praiseworthy is virtuous.
Therefore what is healthy is virtuous.]
He elaborates on the argument as:
What is good is to be sought.
What is to be sought is pleasing.
What is pleasing is worthy of choice.
What is worthy of choice is commendable.
What is commendable is praiseworthy.
What is praiseworthy is moral.
Therefore what is good is moral.
[What is judged truly good deserves to be sought out in life, and therefore attaining it is praiseworthy; and what we praise in others we must also consider to be honourable or morally right. We have a duty to seek what is genuinely good, and so fulfilling that duty must be praiseworthy and honorable.]
He follows with this syllogism:
A happy (fulfilled) life deserves to be taken pride in.
We can only take pride in a moral life.
So a happy life must be a moral life.
He elaborates that nobody takes pride in an unhappy (happy meaning fulfilled) life, and that someone who is praiseworthy deserves to be proud and to have honour. If a happy life is marked out by morality, he concludes, then morality alone must be called good.
[He who is fulfilled is deserving of pride (praises himself); He who is deserving of pride is moral; therefore he who is fulfilled is moral.]
He adds that to conquer fear of death, and become truly brave, we must judge it to not be an evil, and pain or misfortune not to be an evil – courage depends on these judgements being refuted. Courage is honourable; therefore (he leaps to the conclusion) there is no evil except what is immoral. [Courage requires judging things not to be evil; courage is praiseworthy and honourable; the virtuous must be right; therefore nothing external is bad; but the contrary of courage is bad; so only the contrary of courage, or vice, is bad. Put another way, Cato is simply arguing that we naturally admire those who are courageous precisely because they view death, pain, and other external “catastrophes” as risks worth taking. The courageous person acts as if these are not the most important things in life but instead they place more importance on honour, or doing the right thing. We admire them precisely because they view death and other externals with relative indifference.]
He also tries to argue from the definition of the Sage as someone who takes pride in himself and believes nothing bad can befall him, that what is moral is the only good, and that to live happily (fulfilled) is to live with virtue. [The ideal Sage, the most praiseworthy person, takes pride in himself and views misfortune as indifferent, if he is right then there is no good except his own character, which is praiseworthy and virtuous, therefore virtue is the only true good.]
[The ideal person recognises his own goodness, and takes pride in it, and is therefore simultaneously indifferent to external setbacks or misfortune, he necessarily loves his own magnanimity or aloofness from externals. Magnanimity is therefore praiseworthy, and what is praiseworthy is honourable and a virtue. Virtue is therefore the only true good.]
These arguments actually follow-on from the discussion of self-interest in animals because they revolve around the implications of the Sage’s self-love, which relates to the perception of the supreme good in himself. If he is genuinely self-interested he must be able to perceive the good in himself and he must love it above everything else, so he must regard it as worthy of praise and admiration, but what is praiseworthy is virtue and our duty.
The term “good” can is defined by Stoics in several complementary ways. Cato prefers Diogenes of Babylon’s definition of it as “what is complete by nature.” He also defines what is “beneficial” (ophelema) as movement or rest which originates from what is complete by nature. Although we know the primary things in accord with nature from experience, we have to employ “rational inference” to identify the nature of the supreme good. [In a sense, the good, or virtue, is an abstract concept, which has to be derived from reflection on our experiences and natural values.]
The good, and virtue, are qualitatively different from things of secondary “value” (axia). No matter how much you accumulate things of this secondary “value”, they will not equal or surpass the good.
Cicero suggests that in many cases pathe, or emotional disturbances, could be translated as “illness”, although this would not fit all cases. It’s the root of our word “passion” but also “pathology”. He says the Romans would not call anger or pity “illnesses”, but the Greeks call them pathos. He chooses the term “disturbance”, which makes more sense in terms of the concept of vice.
The passions (“disturbances”) take many forms but are grouped by the Stoics under four categories: sorrow (pain), fear, lust (desire), and pleasure (hedone). (The language here is slightly stronger/more negative than the normal translation from Greek to English.) Cicero notes that hedone can mean bodily or mental pleasures. [Only mental pleasure is a “passion”, bodily pleasure is an “indifferent”.] He says he prefers to speak not of pleasure but of “elation”, meaning “the sensuous delight of the exultant mind”. There is nothing natural about the passions, the wise man is free of them. They are merely beliefs, and “frivolous judgements”.
Cato repeatedly notes that the view that the moral (virtue) is to be sought for its own sake is one shared by the Stoics with many other schools of philosophy. [Except the Epicureans, and two other unnamed schools, who do not include virtue in the definition of the supreme good.]
He elaborates that the desire to study the nature and causes of the movements of heavenly bodies, for example, must be seeking knowledge for its own sake, and not merely for some ulterior purpose or pleasure. (Again, knowledge is naturally seen as an end-in-itself, and this leads to wisdom.) We cannot help but contemplate with delight the good deeds of great families, such as those of Maximus and Africanus. [Nature has predisposed us to value the sight of virtue in others, and to praise and admire wise and good men.] Likewise, immorality is naturally despised and shunned. Cato adds that we must condemn immorality in itself otherwise there is nothing to say against those who do it in secret, or under cover of darkness. [A recurring criticism of Epicurus, for whom vice is only shunned because of its risk of painful consequences.] Vices are shunned not only because they are bad in themselves but because of the vicious acts that follow from them. [These are not consequences or outcomes of vice that are judged bad for another reason, but rather acts that “participate” in vice itself.]
Carneades, whom Cicero admires, tirelessly and eloquently argued that there is no difference between the Stoics and the Peripatetics on “the problem of good and evil”, except a terminological one. Cato disagrees strongly. He argues that the Peripatetics treat other things as constitutive of the good life, whereas for Stoics only virtue can be.
The theory that regards (bodily) pain as evil means that the wise and good person cannot be “happy” (=fulfilled) on the rack, which Cato rejects. Cato argues that pain is borne more easily when it’s for the sake of one’s country. [We might say that pain is endured more easily if it’s for the sake of protecting our children, or for undergoing necessary surgery, or as part of physical exercise – the Stoics elsewhere use similar examples.] This proves that the sensation of pain in itself is not unendurable but how we respond to it depends on our value judgements and attitude.
Aristotelians must say that a virtuous act that is painless is more worthwhile seeking than a virtuous act accompanied with pain, but the Stoics deny that the presence of pain or pleasure makes any difference because the value of pain and pleasure are incommensurate with that of virtue.
The Stoics refer to virtue as “ripeness” (eukairia) and this does not increase over time. Right conduct, goodness, consistency, and being in harmony with nature, “do not admit of cumulative enlargement”. [There is perhaps a difficulty for Stoicism here in that we would have to value “indifferent” things such as bodily health more highly than a single act of virtue as it provides a means to allowing us to engage in many acts of virtue in the future – that kind of instrumental value would threaten to undermine their strict division between “indifferent” and “good” things. So many virtuous acts cannot be more valuable than a single one.] “For Stoics a happy life is no more desirable or worth seeking if long than if short.” Cato says that good health may be more valuable the longer it lasts but this analogy with virtue does not hold because the value of virtue is judged not by duration but by “ripeness” (completion?).
A corollary of this view that virtue cannot be increased in value, is that one person cannot be more wise than another. Cato uses the analogy of a man drowning just below the surface of water, or a puppy opening its eyes, to claim that virtue is all-or-nothing. We can get closer to it, but virtue itself is only of (absolute, intrinsic) value when it is complete. Someone who has made progress toward wisdom is as unfulfilled (incomplete) as someone who has made no progress at all.
Diogenes of Babylon says that material wealth is not merely conducive but essential to developing pleasure and good health in life. However, it does not have this value in relation to virtue. It may be conducive to virtue but it is not essential. So if pleasure or health are classed as goods then wealth would also have to be called instrumentally good (which presumably other philosophers denied), but if wisdom is the only good then wealth is not necessarily even instrumentally good. Only what is part of the good is essential to it, i.e., things that are of instrumental value are not essential, because there are always other ways to achieve the same good.
Stoic Ranking of Values. Cato says if nothing (external) is ranked above anything else then life (decision-making) would be thrown into chaos, as it is by Aristo of Chios, who held all externals to be absolutely indifferent. Prudence or wisdom would have no role in choosing between things, or making decisions, because every outcome is equivalent. For the Stoics it is well-established that virtue (or the moral) is the only good and vice the only evil. However, there must also be a ranking of value between external things, or primary natural desires: some positive, some negative, and some totally neutral.
We have good reason to prefer some, but not all, of the things we naturally value from birth: health, well-functioning senses, freedom from pain, honour, wealth, etc. And their opposites are dispreferred. [What does he leave off this list?] Zeno coined the technical terms proegmenon and apoproegmenon for these: preferred and dispreferred. Zeno said that at court nobody speaks of the king as being “preferred” with regard to rank (proegmenon). This term is applied to those who hold office, just below the king in rank: they are “promoted” or “advantageous”, but in a sense clearly subordinate to the king.
We define as “indifferent” (adiaphoron) anything that is of this secondary rank or value, and it has a merely “moderate” value, unlike the good. The analogy is given of the game of knucklebones. Our goal is to throw a knucklebone so it stays upright. One thrown so it happens to land in that position will have some advantage but it doesn’t guarantee that it will remain upright, which is the real goal. [This is an incomplete example. I suspect it’s lifted from a familiar analogy in a previous author who argued that skill in the game of knucklebones is like wisdom in life. As with the archery example, no matter how skillfully the bones are thrown, we might be unlucky. The game combines skill and chance, like life in general. A good player accepts that the outcome is partly down to chance but he still develops his throwing ability (virtue). Someone foolish or a bad player could also just get lucky with a throw. The good player consistently aims well but doesn’t necessarily win.] Likewise, “advantageous” things are relevant to achieving the goal but “do not constitute its essence and nature.”
Goods that are constitutive of the supreme goal are called telika, whereas those that are merely productive of it are called poetika. The only constitutive goods are moral (virtuous) acts. The only productive good is a (wise and good) friend. Wisdom (virtue), though, is both productive and constitutive. Wisdom is “harmonious action”, which makes it constitutive of the good, but it also occasions and produces moral acts, making it productive. [So here he appears to be saying that externals cannot be productive of the good. They do, however, seem to provide an opportunity for it to be exercised, e.g., we need to be alive (have life) to exercise justice, courage, moderation, and other virtues. These are perhaps two different types of instrumental value. Wise friends and teachers actually produce wisdom and virtue in us, whereas physical health and life merely provide the opportunity for us to develop and exercise virtue. Presumably the Stoics would concede that we need a minimum of physical health (to be alive) to be virtuous and that good teachers and role models are helpful in learning virtue. However, these are still externals, and not actually constituents of virtue in itself – they’re means to an end and not the end itself.]
Some things are advantageous in their own right, and others instrumentally so, and a third class are both advantageous themselves and instrumentally so. Things that are advantageous or disadvantageous might be “a certain quality of countenance and expression, a certain bearing, a certain way of moving”. [It’s unclear whether these are advantageous in their own right or can be either advantageous or disadvantageous.] Money is advantageous instrumentally. [It does not constitute virtue and is not directly helpful in relation to it, but can potentially bring about other things that are helpful relative to virtue.] Well-functioning senses, good health, etc., are both advantageous in themselves and instrumentally so. [Basically this is our supreme primary goal: good health and functioning?]
Chrysippus and Diogenes said that good reputation (eudoxia) is not worth lifting a finger for, aside from whatever instrumental benefits it may have. Later Roman authors found this harder to accept, and argued that even if our posthumous reputation (being honoured by friends and descendants, etc.) has no instrumental value to us, we should still value it as an end-in-itself. They were partly encouraged to adopt this position based on criticisms from the Skeptic Carneades.
“Appropriate actions” (specific duties) are neither good nor evil, but we should engage in them. An appropriate action is defined as any action of which a reasonable explanation can be given. They may be between virtue and vice, neither good nor bad, but nevertheless of some value. We all love ourselves (are self-interested) so the wise and foolish both engage in appropriate actions, although the wise do so for different reasons, and virtuously.
“It is the appropriate action to live when most of what one has is in accord with nature.” [Perhaps implying physical health, strength, and functioning eyesight, limbs, etc.] When the opposite is the case and most of what one has is against nature, then it is appropriate to depart life. [To commit suicide by euthanasia?] That means that it is sometimes appropriate for the wise person to depart from life, though happy (virtuous and fulfilled), and appropriate for the fool to live on, though wretched (vicious and unfulfilled).
The primary objects of nature (health, etc.) are “the subject and material of wisdom”, although the Stoic concepts of “good and bad” develop later, from reflection on the way these selections are being made. “The Stoics hold that living happily – that is living in harmony with nature – is a matter of timeliness (ripeness).” [Doing what is opportune.] He then says that the wise person is to relinquish life when it is opportune.
Social Oikeiosis. The Stoics consider it important to emphasise that a parent’s love for their children arises naturally. From this starting point, all human society is derived. The constitution of the human body makes it clear that we are designed to procreate, and it therefore seems natural that we should not be indifferent to our offspring. [But animals who procreate sometimes are!] Our instinct to love our offspring is as natural as our aversion to pain. [But the Stoics say our aversion to pain is not our natural instinct, but merely supervenes on it.] This is the basis of the bond between all humans, and that we should not see any other human as a stranger to us. We are fitted by nature to be social beings, like ants or bees.
The Stoics see the universe as a single city shared by humans and gods. From this it follows that we should value the common good more than our own. In the same way that the laws of a city value the welfare of all above the individual, the wise value the welfare of all above their own. [Cicero talks about Stoic conceptions of natural law in On Laws.] We praise those who risk their lives in battle for their country, and those who make wills to take care of their children after their death. Nobody would choose to live in isolation regardless of the pleasures they may have available. [Compare Cicero’s On Friendship, which portrays the Stoic Laelius the Wise.] We are naturally inclined to help as many people as possible, especially by passing on our wisdom, through speech and writing. We are as much inclined toward teaching, or passing on our knowledge, as we are to learning.
Stoics call Zeus: “Greatest”, “Highest”, “Saviour”, “Shelter”, “Defender”. That’s because human existence depends on the care or love of Zeus. However, it would be hypocritical to praise Zeus for loving humanity, like a father, but not to have parental love ourselves. If we did not live in societies there would be no opportunity for the Stoic virtues of justice or benevolence. [Being part of a society is of instrumental value, a preffered indifferent, as it is a requirement of exercising the social virtues such as justice.] Although there is a code of law binding humans, there is none between humans and other animals. Chrysippus said that humans and gods were created for their own sake but that everything else, including other animals, were created for our sake, so we can use them with impunity.
It is natural for the wise man to “want to take part in the business of government, and, in living by nature, to take a spouse and to wish to have children.” Not even sexual passion, so long as it is pure, is considered to be incompatible with being wise. “Some Stoics say that the Cynics’ philosophy and way of life is suitable for the wise person, should circumstances arise conducive to its practice. But others rule this out altogether.”
Friendship. Friends are “helpful” because they are (the only thing) productive of the good and fulfilment, but they should nevertheless be loved for their own sake. [Problematic: If friends are good insofar as they are productive of virtue and the supreme good in us, then how can we avoid loving them as instrumentally good rather than as ends in themselves?] Stoics disagree as to whether the interests of a friend are treated as equal to one’s own or not. There can be absolutely no justice or friendship where these are treated as of instrumental value, rather than ends in themselves. [Which constitutes a criticism of Epicureanism. Friends have a special status in Stoic ethics – they are not constitutive of our good but they are productive of it, and so they appear to rank above even the things “indifferent” but “advantageous” in themselves.]
To the virtues of justice (benevolence, Oiekeiosis, friendship, etc.) they add those of physics and logic. Logic is a virtue because it protects what we have learned, and removes rashness and ignorance [or error]. Cicero says it stops us assenting to what is false or “being deceived by the captiousness [confusing, entangling nature] of probability”. [He appears to mean rashly taking uncertain but probable things as if they were certain – externals are the domain of uncertainty but the Stoics believe we can grasp the nature of the good (virtue) with certainty.]
Physics is a virtue because “the starting point for anyone who is to live in accordance with nature is the universe as a whole and its governance.” We cannot make a correct judgement about what is good or evil without knowledge of the life of the gods, and whole system of nature, and how human nature is in harmony with the universe. We need to understand physics to grasp the meaning of the ancient maxims: “respect the right moment”, “follow god”, “know oneself”, “do nothing to excess”. Only physics can reveal the role of nature in justice and friendship. We must study nature also to understand the virtue of piety toward the gods.
The Stoic wise man is the true king and the richest of men. He who knows how to use all things, owns all things. He will also be the only truly beautiful person. Whereas Solon said you can judge no man happy until after he is dead, the Stoics totally reject this view and argue that someone can be happy in the moment.
This is a first draft. I’ve not supplied detailed references because I’m writing it off the top of my head just to get it out there. Please correct any errors. I’ll check it later and add references, etc. So apologies for any typos or whatever!
One of the most commonly asked questions on my Facebook group for Stoicism is why Marcus Aurelius, one of the good emperors, would have allowed Commodus, who turned out to be a terrible emperor, to succeed him. Sometimes people are just puzzled by this. Sometimes they criticize Marcus for failing in his duty either to bring up a better son or appoint a better heir. Sometimes they’ve seen the Hollywood movie Gladiator (2000), which focuses on the character of Commodus as a bad emperor, and ask questions about its historical accuracy. It’s a question that interests me because I run a course about the relationship between Marcus Aurelius’ life and his Stoic philosophy called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, and I’ve just finished writing a book on the same subject.
Marcus and Commodus in Gladiator
Let me start by briefly recapping what happens in Gladiator because those images seem to influence a lot of these discussions… In the first act, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is depicted as Caesar, the heir to the Roman empire, with his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), on the northern frontier, during the Second Marcomannic War. A frail and elderly Marcus tells Commodus that he has changed his mind about appointing him emperor and that one of his generals, Maximus (Russell Crowe), will serve as an interim ruler managing Rome’s transition back to a republic.
MARCUS: Are you ready to do your duty for Rome?
COMMODUS [with a slight smile on his face]: Yes, father.
MARCUS: You will not be Emperor.
COMMODUS [the smile quickly vanishes leaving in its place painful bewilderment]: Which wiser, older man is to take my place?
MARCUS: My powers will pass to Maximus to hold in trust until the Senate is ready to rule once more. Rome is to be a Republic again.
Commodus then strangles his father, makes himself emperor anyway, and tries to have Maximus murdered, setting up the plot for the rest of the film.
There’s also a Netflix docuseries about Commodus called Roman Empire: Reign of Blood (2016), which approaches the subject from a slightly more historical perspective. Several academics appear as talking heads, discussing Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and dramatized sections are interspersed depicting the events of his life. The experts are fairly reliable but the dramatized segments are a little hit and miss in their depiction, inevitably, as they have to make things exciting for the viewer and where there’s some uncertainty or conflict in the ancient sources they sometimes pick the most sensational story to tell.
Some Key Facts
This is a slightly complicated story. However, I find it helps to begin just by stating a few important historical facts, which I believe are partly obscured by the portrayal of events in Gladiator, although even people who have never seen that movie are often mistaken on these points.
- At the time Commodus was appointed heir, Marcus was still ruling alongside his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus, who was nine years younger, and much fitter than the notoriously frail and sickly Marcus, so presumably Lucius was expected to be Marcus’ immediate successor.
- Marcus and Lucius together appointed Commodus Caesar, official heir to the throne, along with his younger brother, Marcus Annius Verus, on 12th October 166, when Commodus was a child aged five years old. Presumably at this time the most likely scenario would have been that when Marcus died, Commodus would serve alongside Lucius Verus as his junior co-emperor.
- Commodus had already been ruling as Emperor for about three years before Marcus died. Marcus had his son acclaimed Imperator on 27th November 176 AD and later, in the summer of 177 AD, he was granted the title Augustus, making him co-emperor with Marcus.
So whereas Commodus is portrayed as Caesar in the movie Gladiator, waiting to succeed Marcus, who then refuses to let him take the throne, in reality Commodus had already been emperor for about three years before Marcus died. Incidentally, although there were rumours that Commodus had Marcus assassinated, which Cassius Dio repeats, he also says that when Marcus was dying he took the precaution of having his son taken under armed guard so that he couldn’t be accused of his murder.
[Marcus Aurelius] passed away on the seventeenth of March, not as a result of the disease from which he still suffered, but by the act of his physicians, as I have been plainly told, who wished to do Commodus a favour. When now he was at the point of death, he commended his son to the protection of the soldiers (for he did not wish his death to appear to be due to Commodus) […] (Cassius Dio)
Marcus was nearly sixty and apparently dying of the plague, so it hardly seems necessary for Commodus to have gone to the trouble of ordering his physicians to assassinate him, although it’s possible.
Hadrian’s Succession Plan
Now let’s get a little deeper into the complexities… Imperial succession arrangements were often complicated and mysterious. To understand Commodus we have to go right back to his great-grandfather, by adoption, the emperor Hadrian. Hadrian was childless. Toward the end of his life his behaviour was becoming erratic. He surprised everyone by choosing a man called Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor. Hadrian granted him the imperial title Caesar, starting a tradition that the heir to the throne would take that title in advance. However, the man died suddenly about a year later, forcing Hadrian to come up with another candidate.
He then adopted a man called Aurelius Antoninus and appointed him Caesar on condition that Antoninus would in turn adopt a young boy called Marcus Annius Verus and make him his own successor. The boy Marcus took Antoninus’ family name and became forever known as Marcus Aurelius. So there was a plan that stretched decades into the future. However, these arrangements could easily be overturned by events. The man Hadrian had originally appointed Caesar had a young son, also called Lucius. The Senate were terrified of the possibility of civil war caused by rival factions fighting over claims to the throne. When Hadrian died he was hated by the Senate for spying on and executing his enemies at Rome. He’d also left them with the problem of what to do about the boy Lucius.
Marcus and Lucius as Co-Emperors
When the Emperor Antoninus died, Marcus Aurelius was acclaimed emperor but he insisted that the Senate recognize Lucius as his co-emperor. Lucius then took Marcus’ family name and became the Emperor Lucius Verus. Lucius was also betrothed to Marcus’ young daughter, Lucilla, making him Marcus’ son-in-law as well as his adoptive brother. (I know, it’s confusing but bear with me…) This was the first time that Rome had been ruled by two emperors jointly. It was probably considered necessary to unite the empire and prevent instability caused by the mess Hadrian had left by creating two rival dynasties with a claim on the throne.
The histories make it clear that although on paper they were (virtually) equals, Marcus was effectively the senior party and Lucius obeyed him like a provincial governor or a lieutenant in the army. I won’t go too much into Lucius’ character except to say he was quite the opposite of Marcus and whereas Marcus was a workaholic who spent his youth tirelessly studying and gaining experience of Roman law and government, Lucius was very idle and clearly came nowhere near Marcus’ level of competence and experience as a ruler. The one thing Marcus lacked was any military experience. As far as we know Lucius didn’t have any either but he was young, handsome, obsessed with sports, and probably quite popular, so it seems his role was envisaged as having more to do with the military. When the two emperors were acclaimed, indeed, it was Lucius who was sent to deliver a speech to the soldiers, and not long after, when the Parthian War broke out, Marcus sent Lucius to Syria to oversee the campaign.
We’ve no direct confirmation of this but it stands to reason that at this point in time it would have been assumed that Lucius would outlive Marcus and effectively become his successor. Lucius was nine years younger than Marcus and much fitter and healthier than him. He was also married to Marcus’ daughter, and it was said Marcus treated him more like a son than a brother. He may also have been a bad emperor but it seems that Marcus felt it was necessary, for some reason, to appoint him. Presumably because it was feared that a rival dynasty would split the empire, which in turn would leave it vulnerable to invasion, as we’ll see.
Lucius didn’t really distinguish himself during the Parthian War. He reputedly spent his time partying far away from the action and let his generals do all the work for him. One in particular, Avidius Cassius, became a rising star, and we’ll be returning to his part in the story later. However, Lucius returned to Rome and celebrated his victory. Unfortunately, the Roman legions returning to their garrisons across Europe brought back a disease, probably a strain of smallpox, which became known as the Antonine Plague. This pestilence ravaged the empire throughout the rest of Marcus’ reign and well into the reign of Commodus. We’re told bodies were carried out of Rome by the cartload. It’s been estimated that five million people across the empire may have died as a result of this plague. The Antonine Plague is an important character in this story because the histories tell us that by taking the lives of so many people it disrupted society in many ways. Those to whom family fortunes were bequeathed died prematurely. Experienced senators, military officers, and government officials died prematurely and had to be replaced – there was a high turnover of staff in important positions. We can see this affected the imperial succession also.
The Marcomannic Wars
Shortly after Lucius returned, a huge coalition army of barbarian tribes from the north, led by King Ballomar of the Marcomanni, invaded the northern provinces of the Roman Empire. They proceeded across the Alps, Rome’s natural defensive barrier, and rampaged through Italy, finally besieging the Italian city of Aquileia. This time both Marcus and Lucius took command of the military response and left Rome together to drive the barbarian horde out of Italy and liberate the northern province of Pannonia. War in the north would occupy Marcus for most of the rest of his reign and it would also cost the lives of many Romans, including men in senior positions. The city of Rome itself was thrown into total panic by the news that a barbarian army had penetrated Italy, because they feared Rome would be sacked.
Ballomar had seized the opportunity when Rome was weak. Beleaguered troops were still on their way back to their garrisons in the north from the Parthian War far to the east. The legions had also been devastated by the plague, which thrived in the conditions found in army camps. It was at this time that Marcus and Lucius agreed to appoint Marcus’ two sons, Commodus and Marcus Annius Verus, as two Caesars. This was undoubtedly done in response to the panic at Rome. Although his own succession had been planned by Hadrian far in advance, Marcus himself wasn’t appointed Caesar by Antoninus until he was eighteen. It was clearly assumed that both Marcus and Lucius might die suddenly and that it was better to have a successor in place than leave Rome in chaos. The death rate among children due to the plague would have been particularly high. That may be one reason why two boys were appointed Caesar but it’s also likely that Marcus planned for the brothers to rule jointly one day, as he and Lucius had done.
People often comment online that the Roman emperors typically adopted their successors and Marcus should have done likewise. The precedent for this was set when Julius Caesar adopted Octavian who went on to become Augustus, the first Roman emperor. However, the Roman emperors who adopted heirs normally did so because they had no suitable natural heirs of their own. For example, Hadrian adopted Antoninus and Antoninus adopted Marcus because they had no sons available to succeed them. The Roman people actually believed very strongly in natural succession, just like most barbarian peoples did. An emperor who had a natural heir, like Marcus, and chose to bypass him to adopt an heir, would risk creating a rival dynasty and dividing the empire. As rivals to the throne were often murdered, adopting a successor would also mean placing his own son’s life in very serious jeopardy. (On the other hand, as we’ll see, Marcus possibly did consider adopting an interim successor, Pompeianus, who would perhaps have become emperor if Marcus died while Commodus was still a boy, subsequently appointing Commodus his co-emperor, to rule jointly, when he reached a suitable age.)
Roman emperors were habitually family members, and even the adoptions came from a network of close kin; Nerva’s adoption of Trajan was the only known case where family connections did not play a part. The reasons for keeping the throne ‘in the family’ were partly financial. Since imperial wealth subdivided into the private property of the emperor (fiscus) and the funds in the public treasury (aerarium), and thus this wealth was in turn at least partly linked to the imperial family rather than the ‘job’ of emperor, it was extremely hard for a reigning emperor to exclude a son from the succession without at the same time disinheriting him. Finally, there were prudential reasons. Meritocracy was all very well, but a meritocratic appointment to the purple would risk almost certain rebellion from the excluded kin of the late emperor. To appoint an emperor on mere talent and ability, then, was to hand him a poisoned chalice. When an emperor finally did exclude his own son (in 306), the result was eighteen years of civil war. Septimius Severus was being ruthlessly pragmatic in his recommendation. Once Commodus survived infancy, Marcus was faced with a stark choice: he either had to make him his heir or kill him. (McLynn, Marcus Aurelius)
The fact that Marcus’ two sons were appointed Caesar did perhaps create a slight anomaly because the most likely scenario would be that Lucius would have outlived Marcus, as we’ve seen. There would be two Caesars but only one position open, in that case, for a co-emperor. So presumably it was envisaged that Commodus would serve as junior co-emperor to Lucius Verus and later, after the death of Lucius, Marcus Annius Verus would join his brother and rule alongside him. Also, Lucius was childless but if he’d had a son surely it would have created another conflict over succession. (Rome would have potentially been ruled by an emperor who had a natural heir but had already appointed two sons of his deceased brother as his heirs.) In any case, I would suggest that the Senate urged Marcus and Lucius to appoint these children Caesars before leaving for war because they felt it was necessary for the stability of the empire.
Death of Lucius and Marcus Annius Verus
Shortly after these wars began on the northern front, two deaths shook the empire and upset these plans. The young Caesar Marcus Annius Verus died during an operation on a tumour. Marcus lost about seven children altogether, including several sons. He was getting old now and Commodus, still a child, was his only surviving son. Shortly after this, the emperor Lucius Verus suddenly dropped dead, possibly another victim of the plague. There were, as always, rumours that Marcus had him assassinated but most scholars dismiss this as typical court gossip. Nevertheless, there was a faction on the Senate who opposed Marcus’ ongoing campaign in the north and they possibly propagated these and other rumours against him.
Around this time, Marcus also lost his main Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, who was back at Rome serving as urban prefect. So he must have felt increasingly isolated. I believe there are signs in The Meditations and in the histories that Marcus was greatly affected by the loss of his children and struggled to cope emotionally by leaning more heavily on his Stoic training. (Did he perhaps begin writing The Meditations partly as a way of coping with the loss of his tutors and family members?) I think the whole empire was worried that Commodus wouldn’t survive, during the plague when many children died. And I think we can see hints that Marcus was affected by this climate and also concerned about the possible loss of his only surviving son, especially now that Lucius was gone. All eyes were suddenly on Commodus, though still a child.
The children of Roman nobles were usually raised by nurses who were slaves and possibly their mothers took some part in their care but often they had little contact with their fathers until they became older. On the other hand, Marcus’ private letters to Fronto reveal him to be an incredibly affectionate man and a loving parent. He describes his children as his little chicks in a nest. (These displays of familial affection seem perhaps a little out of character for a Roman of this period.) Nevertheless, for most of Commodus’ youth Marcus was extremely busy. With no military experience whatsoever, after the death of Lucius Verus, Marcus was suddenly and unexpectedly left in command of the largest army ever massed on a northern frontier, numbering an estimated 140,000 men, including legions, auxiliary units, naval units on the Danube, etc. Marcus was mostly stationed at the front line, in Pannonia (modern Austria), several weeks’ travel away from Rome. It seems his family sometimes visited him but generally we have to assume he was just far to busy fighting a massive campaign and running the empire in a time of great turmoil, far away from Rome, to have had much time to participate in his son’s upbringing. Nevertheless, we’re told Marcus took great care to provide the best possible tutors for his son, presumably men of good character and wisdom.
Pertinax and Pompeianus
The plague and war took the lives of many men whose positions had to be filled, so it created the opportunity to promote new men. Marcus caused some controversy by promoting individuals of humble stock, based on merit. One of them, Pertinax, was the son of a freedman who rose to become one of Marcus’ two right-hand men during the Marcomannic Wars. Later, he would succeed Commodus and,this son of a former slave would, albeit briefly, become emperor. The other was Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, a Syrian of humble origins who had distinguished himself during the Parthian War. He was close friends with Pertinax and rose to become Marcus’ most senior general on the northern frontier.
Marcus betrothed Pompeianus to his daughter, Lucilla, the widow of Lucius Verus. She was one of the most powerful women in Rome, being titled Augusta, empress, from her marriage to Lucius, and also a daughter of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. By marrying her, Pompeianus was brought into Marcus’ dynasty. It was rumoured that Marcus asked Pompeianus to become Caesar, presumably as an interim ruler while Commodus matured and gained experience. However, for some mysterious reason he refused. Indeed, it’s said Pompeianus was invited to become emperor three times altogether and refused each time. (Marcus invited him to become Caesar, Pertinax asked him to accede to the throne after Commodus was assassinated and Julianus who succeeded Pertinax asked him to become joint emperor with him.)
Pompeianus was probably almost as powerful as Avidius Cassius, another Syrian general. However, Cassius was of extremely noble birth and “born to rule” so I would suspect he possibly resented the fact that his rival was a countryman from the lower ranks of society. We can’t know for sure but I wonder whether Pompeianus refused the invitation to become Marcus’ successor because he was concerned it would incite Cassius to declare civil war. We’re told Pompeianus later lost his eyesight, which was a common consequence of the plague, due to the pustules spreading onto the eyes. It may be that in later life he felt he wasn’t physically up to the task of ruling and it’s a sign of the esteem in which he was held, perhaps, that he was twice invited to rule despite being almost blind. The Aurelian Column which depicts Marcus’ campaign on the northern frontier shows him with Pompeianus by his side. Incidentally, Russell Crowe’s character the general named Maximus in Gladiator appears to be loosely based on Pompeianus.
The Civil War of Avidius Cassius
Then something else happened that sheds considerable light on the status of Commodus. Marcus was notoriously sickly. During the winter of 174/175 AD he seems to have become extremely ill and rumours of his death spread across the empire like wildfire. This led to Avidius Cassius being acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion, far away in the east. Marcus survived, however, and this led to a civil war. Cassius was a notoriously strict and brutal military commander. He’d climbed rapidly to power following the Parthian War and after quelling a huge uprising in Egypt, he was now effectively governor-general over the whole of the eastern empire. It’s said that after the death of Lucius Verus, six years earlier, he began plotting against Marcus. By this point he was probably the second most powerful man in the empire next to Marcus himself. The prefect of Egypt gave him his support as did most of the eastern provinces, and a number of senators.
So we can probably assume that for many years, Marcus was aware that Cassius presented a potential threat and he was cautious about a situation like this arising. Although Commodus turned out to be a bad emperor, his character at this point was probably unknown to Marcus. However, Cassius was known to be a brutal man and Marcus and the Senate perhaps feared the possibility that he would claim the throne and become a tyrannical ruler. Although we often have ambiguous historical information about the motives of these individuals, we can once again see very clearly what actions Marcus took in response to this crisis.
He immediately had Commodus brought from Rome to the military camp in Pannonia. Commodus happened to be fifteen years old now so Marcus had him take the toga virilis, signifying that he had become an adult Roman citizen. It seems clear that Marcus wanted to protect Commodus from danger, to build support for him among the northern legions, and to put him in a position to assume power so that there was less uncertainty over the succession. From this point on, Commodus remained in his father’s company. So we could argue that Marcus now had time to mentor his son and study his character. However, it’s far too late now for Marcus to change course. He couldn’t strip Commodus of the title Caesar, granted to him ten years earlier. If he wanted to stop Commodus becoming his successor his only real option would be to have him assassinated, which would be against his Stoic Ethics. Even if he’d stripped Commodus of the title Caesar, he would have created a situation where he remained in the wings as a potential rival to any successor, around whom opposing factions could rally, splitting the empire in another civil war.
Marcus and Commodus as Co-Emperors
Marcus successfully put down the civil war and Cassius was beheaded by his own officers. As noted above, Commodus was then rapidly promoted to the rank of co-emperor. Some of the histories suggest that Marcus now began to realize that Commodus was going to be a bad emperor. However, we’re also told that he wasn’t so much a bad person as a weak or gullible one. He was easily swayed by hangers-on.
This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature. And this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died, leaving him many guardians, among whom were numbered the best men of the senate. But their suggestions and counsels Commodus rejected, and after making a truce with the barbarians he rushed to Rome; for he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city. (Cassius Dio)
In particular, Marcus asked his son-in-law and most trusted general, Pompeianus, to take responsibility for Commodus after his death and keep him out of trouble. After Marcus died, with Commodus now as sole emperor, it’s said that he immediately sought to abandon the northern campaign by paying huge bribes to the barbarian kings, so that he could return to Rome. We’re told Pompeianus was the only one brave enough to confront the new emperor and challenge his behaviour, arguing that he must remain with the army and finish the campaign.
So there was allegedly a sort of tug-of-war between Pompeianus and Commodus’ friends. After a few weeks, his friends won and Commodus abandoned the legions to return to Rome. There wasn’t much that Pompeianus could do to stop him. In one fell swoop, he’d lost all credibility with the army. An emperor normally requires the support of the legions or the Senate or the people of Rome. I think Commodus was now forced to become a populist in order to secure his position. Without the support of the legions or the Senate he turned himself into a sort of celebrity, fighting in the arena, throwing extravagant spectacles for the people and building a mythology around himself. He even had statues erected portraying himself as the Greek hero (and deity) Hercules, bearing his distinctive club and lion-skin headdress.
Was Marcus to Blame?
I’ll let others decide to what extent Marcus was to “blame” for Commodus. To me it seems that Marcus and the Senate were struggling to prevent civil war from dividing the empire because they knew that in its weakened state Rome would potentially be overrun by barbarian invaders if rival factions started fighting over the throne. I think they also planned for joint rule as a safety measure against a bad or tyrannical emperor taking control of Rome but the Marcomannic Wars and the Antonine Plague created turmoil that interfered with these plans. I also think Marcus tried to surround Commodus with advisors and to put him in the care of Pompeianus as a safety measure but that was negated when Commodus simply fled from the front leaving Pompeianus and others behind, and surrounding himself with individuals at Rome who further corrupted him. I think he found himself in a situation where he felt it was necessary to become a celebrity rather than a genuine ruler, something Marcus would have warned him against, and that inevitably led him further and further astray.
The Stoics would say that we can’t hold parents responsible for their children. Even Socrates had wayward sons and students. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. One of the very early philosophers admired by the Stoics was Stilpo, of the Megarian School, a teacher of Zeno of Citium. He had a notoriously dissolute daughter, apparently. People used to hold that against him but Stilpo replied, I think with some justification, “Her behaviour can no more brings dishonour upon me than mine can bring honour upon her.” I think it’s worth contemplating how that saying might relate to Marcus and Commodus.
For more information on Stoicism see my latest book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
The Stoics often refer to the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. (Or if you prefer: wisdom, morality, courage, and moderation.)
We don’t know where this classification originated. It appears to go back as far as Plato or Socrates, although probably even further. This was a very ancient, conventional schema for understanding virtue. The Stoics don’t appear to have assumed it was the only or the best way to conceptualize the virtues. They often prefer to think of virtue, from a slightly different perspective, as living in harmony with Nature at three different levels. In some ways these models overlap.
However, the cardinal virtues have remained popular as a way of interpreting ancient philosophical ethics throughout the ages. One of my hesitations about introducing newcomers to Stoicism through this model is that the Greek words are difficult to translate into modern English and the meanings were probably also somewhat stretched by the Stoics to fit their philosophy. It’s a slightly ill-fitting classification, although it’s simple and appealing, so we shouldn’t get to hung up on taking it literally, as if these words provide the only way to describe virtue.
People often wrangle over the definitions of Greek philosophical terms, which can lead to some rather speculative translations. Believe it or not, though, we actually have a Greek philosophical dictionary that survives from the time of Plato. It’s called Definitions, and is believed to have probably been written by one of Plato’s followers at the Academy. So these are not Stoic definitions of the virtues but knowing how Platonists defined them certainly helps us a lot. For instance, this is how the Academy defined the word “virtue” itself:
aretê (virtue/excellence). The best disposition; the state of a mortal creature which is in itself praiseworthy; the state on account of which its possessor is said to be good; the just observance of the laws; the disposition on account of which he who is so disposed is said to be perfectly excellent; the state which produces faithfulness to law.
It’s also worth mentioning the notoriously tricky eudaimonia, which is conventionally rendered as “happiness”, although most scholars agree that’s a misleading translation. Its meaning is closer to the archaic sense of the word “happiness”, which was the opposite of hapless, wretched or unfortunate. A better translation would be “fulfillment” or “flourishing”, as you can see from the Academic definition.
eudaimonia (happiness/fulfilment). The good composed of all goods; an ability which suffices for living well; perfection in respect of virtue; resources sufficient for a living creature.
This will be a slightly more scholarly blog post than some. I’ve listed the four cardinal virtues below with the definitions from the Academy and also some notes on what the early Stoic fragments say in Diogenes Laertius, Stobaeus, etc. I’ve not referenced everything extensively here, though, for the sake of brevity. (It’s just a quick blog post.) You’ll find most of this information in the Stoic fragments from Diogenes Laertius and Stobaeus, though, and in Pierre Hadot’s Inner Citadel and A.A. Long’s Epictetus.
The Cardinal Virtues
phronêsis (prudence/practical wisdom)
The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.
In a sense, all of the virtues can be understood as wisdom applied to our actions, or moral wisdom. Prudence is the most important and most general of the Stoic virtues because it refers, as here, to the firmly-grasped knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent in life. In other words, understanding the most important things in life or grasping the value of things rationally. It’s opposite is the vice of ignorance. Most crucially for Stoics it means firmly grasping the nature of the good: understanding that virtue or wisdom itself is the only true good, and living accordingly. Prudence is therefore closely related to the very meaning of the word “philosophy”: love of wisdom.
However, it can also refer to our ability to discern the value (axia) of different external things rationally, i.e., distinguishing wisely between different “preferred indifferents”. (A point discussed in detail by the Stoic Cato of Utica in Cicero’s De Finibus.) Marcus refers to this as acting and responding to things “in accord with value”. Stobaeus likewise says the early Stoics defined it as knowing the nature of the good and bad, understanding indifferent things, and knowing what would be “appropriate action” under different circumstances. Diogenes Laertius says that Chrysippus and others sub-divided prudence into good counsel (euboulia) and understanding (sunesis). That’s intriguing because it links prudence to Stoic Rhetoric, and the ability to communicate the truth appropriately to other people, honestly but tactfully, such as the way Marcus described his wise Stoic teachers expressing their doctrines. It’s also clear that the Stoics believed the wise man is able to offer himself good counsel.
The Stoics divided their curriculum into three: Logic, Ethics, and Physics. They may have linked Prudence with the topic of Stoic Logic, which encompassed epistemology and psychology, and appears related to the practices that Epictetus called the Discipline of Assent.
The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.
This is perhaps the most problematic translation. Our modern word “justice” seems too formal or narrow for what the Stoics meant. The Stoics don’t just mean what’s just in the legal sense but what would be moral in our dealings with others more generally. For instance, they take it to encompass a mother’s attitude toward her children or our sense of piety toward the gods. In the past it was therefore often translated more broadly as “righteousness”, or some modern authors simply refer to it as social virtue or morality. Its opposing vice occurs when we are unjust or do wrong by another person morally.
We’re told that it was composed mainly of the subordinate virtues of kindness and fairness. So although it may not be apparent from the word “justice” this is a much broader concept of social virtue, which encompasses the numerous references to kindness, benevolence, or goodwill toward others found in Stoic writings, particularly throughout The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Indeed, Marcus actually says that justice is the most important of the virtues.
You can view justice largely as moral wisdom applied to our actions, particularly in relation to other people individually or society as a whole. Stobaeus says that it is the knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person or fair “distributions”, i.e., in relation to preferred indifferents (external things). Diogenes Laertius says the Stoics divided justice mainly into impartiality (isotês) and kindness/courtesy (eugnômosunê). It may have correlated with the Stoic topic of Ethics, including politics, and what Epictetus calls the applied Discipline of Action (or Impulse to Act, referring to our voluntary intentions).
Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.
This is also a slightly difficult term in some ways. It refers to moderation or self-discipline/self-control but also to self-awareness or being self-possessed. We could even view it as closely related to what many people today mean by “mindfulness”. It’s the opposite of the vice called “wantonness” or “licentiousness”. The many references to appropriate feelings of “shame” in Epictetus are related to this virtue and we could view it as (very) loosely related to the Christian idea of moral conscience. Stobaeus says that it entails knowledge of “what is to be chosen, avoided, and neither” in the domain of “impulses”, i.e., it guides our intentions to act on certain desires. Diogenes Laertius says the Stoics defined moderation mainly as good self-discipline (eutaxia) and propriety/decorum (kosmistês).
Surprisingly, some academics, most notably Pierre Hadot, view this and fortitude as being the virtues corresponding with the topic of Stoic Physics and Epictetus’ applied Discipline of Fear and Desire, which we could also call the Stoic Therapy of the Passions. That’s easier to understand when we observe many of the Stoic exercises related to Physics and cosmology. By viewing events in a detached manner, like a natural philosopher or a physician, the Stoics aimed to achieve an “Objective Representation” of them, suspending any judgements of good or bad, and therefore eliminating fear and desire. Think of the modern notion of scientific detachment and objectivity. Likewise, Hadot refers to the Stoic practice of imagining the whole of space and time as the View from Above or cosmic perspective. This is obviously related to cosmology and Physics but the Stoics employed it to rise above their fears and desires and achieve apatheia or freedom from unhealthy passions and attachment to external things.
The state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; military confidence; knowledge of the facts of warfare; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; the state which stands on guard over correct thinking in dangerous situations; force which counterbalances danger; force of fortitude in respect of virtue; calm in the soul about what correct thinking takes to be frightening or encouraging things; the preservation of fearless beliefs about the terrors and experiences of warfare; the state which cleaves to the law.
This is one of the simpler virtues. It clearly means courage, although the Stoics also extend it to include endurance of pain and discomfort more generally. It’s the opposite of the vice of “cowardice”. It appears to form a pair with the virtue of moderation. Both refer to the master of passions: moderation to desires and courage to fears. Hence, they probably correlate also with Epictetus’ famous slogan: endure and renounce. The virtue of courage allows us to endure fear and the virtue of moderation to renounce unhealthy desires.
As Seneca observed, paradoxically, these virtues cannot exist without at least some trace of fear and desire for us to master, and the Stoics insist that even the perfect Sage requires moderation and courage because he is still subject to the first movements of passion or “proto-passions” (propatheiai). Seneca explains this in detail in On Anger and elsewhere but it’s also very vividly described by Epictetus, as recounted by Aulus Gellius’ story of the Stoic teacher caught in a storm at sea.
Stobaeus says the Stoics defined courage as knowledge of what is terrible, what is not terrible, and what is neither or “standing firm”, i.e., endurance guided by wisdom. Diogenes Laertius says they divided courage primarily into constancy/determination (aparallaxia) and tension/vigour (eutonia). This final virtue may correspond, alongside courage, with Stoic Physics, as described above, and also with Epictetus’ applied Discipline of Fear and Desire.
The new revised version of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, my online course about the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, will be starting on Sunday 18th February.
I’m very pleased to announce that after months in preparation my new Stoic Therapy Toolkit has been published. This is a five-page summary of core Stoic psychological practices. People have been asking me for something like this since I started writing about Stoicism and teaching workshops on it about twenty years ago.
If you’re completely new to Stoicism, it’s a good place to start. However, we can’t compress the whole philosophy into a few pages, it’s just a summary, so you will need to read the Stoics to gain a more complete understanding of their concepts and techniques.
Very useful summary, I will carry it in my work bag! – Camelia Vasilov
Excellent! Thank you for your tireless work in making this valuable philosophy so accessible in our busy world. – Deborah L Gariepy
This printable PDF document will give you a good overview of Stoicism, and a reminder of daily practices. Many people contributed to the wording and Rocio de Torres, our graphic designer, has given it a new look. So we’re confident you’ll appreciate the end result and find it valuable as a guide to living like a Stoic. I’d love to know what you think. People have already started leaving feedback online.
Thanks, looks beautiful. Can’t spare a tip but bought one of your books. 🙂 – Vince
Thank you! Clear, concise, practical and actionable. No matter how busy or preoccupied one is (or has to be) during the day, store this kit in your memory, incorporate these quick contemplations, and the tools will adapt to any occasion! – Gaelle1947
- The Goal of Virtue
- Daily Routine
- Four Stoic Meditations
- Therapy of the Passions
You can download your free copy today from my e-learning site by clicking the button below or following this link: