Marble Bust, photographed by Pierre- Selim
“The quality or behavior of a person who accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion.” -Merriam Webster
Lets shed some light on the philosophy of stoicism and one of it’s greatest proponents, the ancient Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, whose published meditations and thoughts offered his perspective on the matter. I’ll analyze some of his main points and offer a few contrary arguments as we lightly discuss some of the more relevant elements listed therein:
When I read the Thoughts of Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, (121-180 AD) I am immediately impressed by his use of nature and consideration of the natural; equally, his distinct opposition towards pleasure. These points stands out as a major under-pinning to his credo of, ‘stoicism’. It would seem that he moved or strived for a life free from distraction and the perturbations that come with the territory of being a human in his high station. Aurelius tell us that, “(the)…soul is dyed by thoughts.”(P.28 Book V) He is inferring to his meditation that to be swayed from your primary focus is to create unbalance and superfluity within yourself. “…to be vexed at anything which happens is a separation of ourselves from nature.” (P.9 Book II) He goes on to explain his position on matters such as pleasure, honor, death and simple, effective living.
Foremost, I partially disagree with stoicism to the extent that, by it’s adherence of extracting oneself from pleasure, one can live a more powerful and meaningful existence; pleasure should not be wholly demonized. An indulgence in the arts can provide a fundamental brick of ones life in and of itself. See for instance a great artist who has no other medium to communicate to society other than by the medium of paint; his traditional faculties of communication are wanting. By indulging in art, his ability to perform social acts are improved. Even Marcus Aurelius explains how in life there are but two most important fundamentals: “…a pious disposition and social acts.” (P. 36 Book VI) The artist who indulges in pleasure is providing a social act, in and of his power allotted to his own station. However, I concur with the Emperor willingly to, “…let thy principles be brief and fundamental.” (P.17 Book IV) Furthermore, “…expecting nothing, fear nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word.” (P.14 Book III) This is the stuff of an honorable life well-spent that mingles fluidly with the definition of stoicism.
I maintain most of his meditations to be honorable and rather timeless in the scope of humankind, despite his admonition that we are all to die and be forgotten, sooner rather than later. “…Short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this only continued by a succession of poor human beings who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less him who died long ago.” (P.13 Book III) On the contrary, I believe a mans work is his eternal echo and gift to the descendants of man; it is parceled from generation to generation depending on its quality and strengthened by the bond of time. It is true that the whole scope of human existence is small but Marcus Aurelius’s view on this subject seems to want to step aside and let come what may. Aurelius explains, “For it is in our power, as I said, to get out of the way, and have no suspicion nor hatred.” (P.35 Book VI)
Stoicism is simple and uncomplicated: keep calm, maintain composure, use the power of rationality and abstain from pleasure. However, I’ve neither known nor have read of an uncomplicated human even in the most pious and socially benevolent. Chaos and confusion plays a rule in human life insomuch that methinks, it is a mans appointment to struggle. How difficult must this stoicism be to follow when it presents itself so unnaturally to a human? I digress. The thoughts of Aurelius may or may not agree but he’d understand that nature orchestrates something tumultuous, something foreign and wild while reason, like a heart-beat attempts a steady percussion to match. “Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice, and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts.” (P.7 Book II)
Aurelius tell us that we are born to die and our nature is unpreventable and by careful management we can stride proudly into graves as gracefully as any dead and dusty hero. “Show these qualities then which are altogether in thy power, sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with thy portion and with few things benevolence, frankness and no love of superfluity…” (P.25 Book V) This he believed, will make even the most fearful mortal have the conviction stand to nature and her allotment despite any injury or mutilation that befall.
He evinced a calm and poise as he would describe a river that by nature knows no limitations or time but it has a focus and ultimately achieves its end. “For substance is like a river in a continual flow…” (P. 29 Book V) Like atoms in the universe who fill a role, though obscure and a minutia, so too are men who are all afforded a class of soul-nobility if they so choose. “…man’s duty to comfort himself, and to wait for the natural dissolution, and not to be vexed at the delay…” (P.27 Book V)
To be unsettled is useless. He believed that being irrational was to be a wild animal with no sense, though he considers all humans as animals; some are given awareness which divides them from the heard. “One thing here is worth a great deal, to pass thy life in truth and justice with a benevolent disposition even to liars and unjust men.” (P.39 Book VI)
Emperor Marcus Aurelius was schooled by teachers like Diognetus with Grecian discipline, Rusticus who planted in him a mistrust in sophists, and a strength of discipline, Sextus, a benevolent disposition, Alexander the Grammarian, to not find fault in the solecistic* speech of others, and many other great minds that did not implicitly teach Stoicism.** The combined result of his education and experiences afforded him the vantage point of a stoic mind that emphasized nature, rationality, the forbearance of emotion and the refusal of pleasure. For what it is worth and what has been mentioned, wether we agree or not, his thoughts and meditation put this leader in good stead with his peers and countrymen. That much is true. In later history books, he is considered the last of the 5 great Emperors of the Roman Empire because he won the cooperation of the senate a feat which the previous generations of Caesars failed to achieve.
Poison and Panacea by J. Foley
The rogue Shepard,
He in tall towers,
Hath led his lambs,
To wolves of avarice,
To ravenous, bloodied wolves,
Intent on rending soul from self,
Arm yourself well against,
Their tearing teeth,
Indulge in art,
And things that ought not matter,
Bait cannot tempt,
Those free from want.
“Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.”
–Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus
- Aurelius, Marcus. The Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Trans. George Long. Ed. Edwin Ginn. Boston: Ginn, 1893. Kindle.
- “Stoicism.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 15 May 2014
*Solecism is a mistake in speech, a blunder or a deviation from the normal.
**See the opening pages of, The Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius for a list of his teachers and their contributions.