'What is Stoic Virtue?' by Chris Gill

Marcus Aurelius and Stoic virtue

 by Christopher Gill

Editor’s Note: This is a workshop that Chris Gill ran at Stoicon 2015. The Stoicism Today team is endeavouring to have as much material as possible from Stoicon as possible posted on here, and this is the first piece.

Aim of workshop: Explain Stoic idea of virtue and virtue-happiness relationship, illustrate it by reference to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; consider how Stoic idea relates to modern thinking about morality and how it may be of value to us today.

I begin by explaining what ‘virtue’ means in Stoicism and then by outlining four distinctive features of Stoic thinking about virtue, taken in the context of ancient thinking on virtue. The first distinctive feature is the idea that the virtues form a matched set of qualities (unified or interdependent) central to leading a full human life.

What is ‘virtue’ in Stoicism? Virtue is a form or expertise or skill, knowledge how to live well in every way, a form of knowledge that shapes the whole personality and life. Virtue is analysed in terms of four generic or cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, self-control or moderation, and justice, seen as either four aspects of a single form of knowledge or as interdependent. Why these four qualities? They are seen as ways of mapping the main areas of human experience and expertise – so taken together they make up the qualities essential to leading a full human life. The four are: (wisdom) understanding how to act and feel correctly; (courage) knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); (self-control) knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; (justice) knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection. These generic virtues include many subdivisions. They are aspects of a single expertise or interdependent because the correct exercise of any one virtue depends on possessing and exercising the others too. Each of the virtues bears on our relations to ourselves and to others; although some virtues (e.g. justice) are more obviously self-related than others, their exercise affects what we are in ourselves and how we treat others. This is a fundamental characteristic of Stoic (and indeed most ancient) thinking on virtue, and is particularly important in thinking about the relationship with modern moral thinking, as brought out later.

Describing virtue as a form of ‘knowledge’ may make it sound purely rational or cognitive in a narrow sense. But it is crucial for Stoicism that these forms of knowledge shape the personality as a whole, including emotions and desires. This reflects Stoic thinking about human psychology according to which we function as unified holistic agents; our beliefs and reasoning shape directly how we feel and desire. This is the second distinctive feature of Stoic thinking about virtue that I want to stress here. Stoicism holds that the development of virtue brings with it a radical change in our emotional life, so that we cease to feel what they regard as misguided or ‘bad’ emotions (‘passions’) and come to feel only the ‘good’ emotions. Misguided emotions, such as anger, fear, craving or appetite, are based on what they regard as false ethical judgements, and bring with them intense and disturbing psychophysical effects. Good emotions are based on sound ethical judgements (on the virtues), and are typically calmer as psychophysical experiences. Examples of these emotions are wishing (rather than intense craving), caution (rather than fear) and joy; also, towards other people, good will and affection. So the virtues, as forms of knowledge, carry with them a reshaping of the whole personality at the emotional level too.

The third distinctive feature of Stoic thinking on virtue is the belief that all human beings as such are capable of developing virtue. Developing virtue does not depend on possessing special inborn capacities or a specific social background or intellectual education (as most other ancient philosophies supposed). All human beings as such have ‘the starting-points of virtue’. What supports this claim? Partly, the Stoics think that all human beings have the in-built capacity to form ethical notions such as good and to give these notions content and to do so whatever social context they find themselves in. But also, and most importantly, Stoics stress the key role of development in ethical understanding. No one comes to acquire the virtues just like that; it is the outcome of a process of development – in most cases a life-long process of development, and one that may never be wholly complete. Development is conceived by them as having two interconnected strands: progress in understanding (in coming to understand what it means to have the virtues and how to exercise them) and progress in interpersonal and social relationships (leading us, among other things, to recognise all human beings as our brothers and sisters as fellow ethical agents. So what we all have as human beings is the capacity to set out and make progress on this life-long journey – which is also a journey towards virtue.

The fourth distinctive feature of Stoic thinking about virtue is the idea that having and exercising the virtues constitutes, by itself, the best form of human life; in other words, it confers ‘happiness’ or eudaimonia. Happiness is conceived by them in objective terms (as a certain kind of life – the natural life for human beings to lead). However it is also seen as conferring certain positive subjective experiences  (which is how we tend to conceive ‘happiness’ today); these include the ‘good emotions’ such as joy mentioned earlier. The Stoic view is sometimes put in the form that ‘virtue is the only good’ or (in philosophical language), that virtue is necessary and sufficient for happiness, i.e. all you need to be happy. The main contrasting view (held by some followers of Plato and Aristotle in the period when Stoicism was widely current, i.e. 3rd cent BC to 2nd cent AD) was that happiness depended on a combination of virtue and ‘external goods’ – these taken to include such things as bodily health, material prosperity and the wellbeing of one’s family. The Stoics also regarded ‘external goods’ as having a value which human beings naturally recognised. But they maintained that virtue had a substantively different kind or level of value; and that it was, by itself, sufficient to confer complete human happiness.

The Stoic view on this topic has often been seen as extreme or unrealistic: is it not obviously true that a life containing virtue and ‘external goods’ is better – happier in every sense – than a life containing virtue alone? What can support the Stoic view? A key support for their view is the belief that virtue (alone) provides a reliable and consistent basis for leading the best human life (that is, for happiness), whereas none of the external goods, taken on their own, do so. So virtue, alone, is tied to happiness in a causal way whereas this is not true of any of the external goods. In that sense, virtue has a value of a different kind from the external goods; and that is why the Stoics reject the idea that virtue plus the external goods confers a better human life (a more happy life) than virtue. We need to recall other distinctive features of Stoic thinking about virtue: that it is a form of knowledge or expertise, that this form of expertise shapes the whole personality (conferring the good emotions). We also need to be aware that virtue or the virtues represent the target or limit of human aspiration, not a standardly available quality. The idea that ‘the wise person’ (the ideal person in Stoicism) is happy on the rack of torture thus constitutes an ideal aspiration not an everyday occurrence. (However, I think some striking modern examples as well as ancient ones indicate it is not so far from normal human experience as is sometimes suggested.) So, overall, I think the Stoic view that virtue is the only (reliable and consistent) basis for happiness is a highly defensible one and that it is in fact much more difficult to maintain the opposing (Platonic-Aristotelian) claim than is often recognised.

I now look at some sections of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a private philosophical diary prepared for his own use by a second-century Roman emperor who was also a committed student of Stoicism. The passages chosen are designed both to illustrate the themes I’ve discussed; also to show how Stoic ideas were used in antiquity to provide an ethical framework for life, and so indicate how they can also be used by us today.

If you find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage … turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found … but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue give no room to anything else, since once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good [virtue] anything alien its nature, such as the praise of the many or positions of power, wealth or enjoyment of pleasures. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 3.6, trans. Gill)

Nothing is so effective in creating greatness of mind as being able to examine methodically and truthfully everything that presents itself in life, and always viewing things in such a way as to consider what kind of function this particular thing contributes to what kind of universe and what value it has for the whole universe and for the human beings who are citizens of the highest city, of which other cities are, as it were, mere households; (3) and what this object is that presently makes an impression on me, and what it is composed of and how long in the nature of things it will persist, and what virtue is needed to respond to it, such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness, good faith, simplicity, self-sufficiency, and so on. (3.11, trans. Gill)

At every hour, give your full concentration, as a Roman and a man, to carrying out the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from all other concerns. (2) You will give yourself this if you carry out each act as if it were the last of your life, freed from all randomness and passionate deviation from the rule of reason and from pretence and self-love and dissatisfaction with what has been allotted to you. (3) You see how few things you need to master to be able to live a smoothly flowing and god-fearing life; the gods will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles. (2.5, trans. Gill)

The first passage conveys very clearly the idea that the virtues (justice, truthfulness and so on) are the only real good, the only proper object of human aspiration; also that, in comparison with virtue, the ‘external goods’ (such as praise of the many, positions of power, wealth and so on) are – relatively – trivial and valueless. The second passage (3.11) shows how this idea (that virtue is on the only good) can form the basis of a strategy for decision-making in specific situations. In any given context, Marcus advises himself to reflect on his situation and consider what virtue is needed to respond effectively to this situation, ‘such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness and so on’. The earlier part of the passage refers to the Stoic idea that the goal of ethical development, on the social side, consists, in part, in coming to view all human beings as fellow-citizens in the universe or fellow-members of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity. So this is another way of saying that practising the social dimension of ethical development, of forming the virtues, as this is possible in each situation, should form part of the framework that should shape our decision-making in each situation. The third passage indicates in another way the significance of the link between virtue and happiness. Marcus urges himself to carry out his specific role in life (as a Roman and a man – and an emperor as he reminds himself elsewhere) in a way that uses this role as a way of expressing the virtues, including their other-related dimension (‘affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice’). To act in this way is to give a single-minded focus to virtuous action (‘to carry out each act as if it were the last of your life … freed from randomness’ and so on. To act in this way is also to achieve happiness, in the sense of leading the best kind of human life (‘the gods will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles – Marcus uses the conventional language of Greco-Roman religion but he has in mind leading the best possible human life – the life according to nature, as Stoics describe it. At the same, this also produces a ‘smoothly flowing life’ (which echoes one of the Stoic definitions of happiness’.

Here are three more short passages which illustrate the virtue-happiness relationship in a different way. These are a few of the many passages in which Marcus encourages himself to anticipate his own death with an attitude of calmness, confidence and acceptance. What justifies this response is partly that death is a natural organic process, and one that should be accepted as such (like birth). But also Marcus can face death in this way because he has at least tried to use his life as a way of expressing the virtues; and the knowledge of oncoming death should not prevent him doing so until he dies – nor should he be frustrated that death will interrupt this process.

… accepting what happens and what is allocated to one as coming from the source from which one came oneself: and above all, waiting for death with a confident mind, since it is nothing but the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed. (2.17.4, trans. Gill)

.. strive to live the life that is your own, that is, your present life, and then you will be able to pass at least the time that is left to you in calm and kindness, and as one who is at peace with the guardian-spirit that dwells within him. (12.3.4, trans. Hard, slightly modified).

“ ‘But my life is not worth living if this action is left undone’. – ‘Then depart with generous feelings in your heart, dying in the same spirit as one who achieves his purpose, and reconciled to what has stood in his way’”. (8.47.5, trans. Hard)

These passages also illustrate that ethical development, seeking to practice the virtues, carries with it a change in emotional register – in this instance, from the misguided emotion of fear or death to the good emotion of acceptance or even a kind of joy at the prospect of death, treated as a natural end to one’s life. So virtue, on this view, yields happiness in a subjective sense, in terms of the feelings and emotions generated, as well as in constituting what is objectively the best human life.

Stoicism was helpful to Marcus, clearly; but how can it help us? Well in principle, in exactly the same way as it was helpful to Marcus, in providing an ethical framework for living our lives and in setting out goals for aspiration that can help to shape our lives as a whole. That is partly why in the on-line ‘Stoic Week’ course this year we have made extensive use of Marcus’ Meditations as a source of passages and as a model of how to use Stoic ideas for life-guidance. It will be interesting to see from the feedback how effective people feel this framework has been for them.

I want to end my presentation by trying to respond to one of the potential problems that modern audiences may have with this kind of material. Although in modern life – and in some academic moral philosophy – we also use the virtue-happiness framework that is standard in ancient ethics, we also have other kinds of moral frameworks that are in some ways more prevalent and familiar.

In modern moral thinking we tend to operate with a contrast between selfish or egoistic and other-benefiting or altruistic motivation. Other-benefiting motivation tends to be defined in terms of doing your duty or performing right actions, or, alternatively, in terms of benefiting other people (sometimes of maximal benefit, ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’). The challenge in modern moral thinking is usually seen as being to counteract selfishness or egoism and to promote altruism or the desire to benefit others. Stoic ideas about virtue (more generally, ancient Greek and Roman ideas) cut across the egoism-altruism distinction; the virtues relate to what we are in ourselves and in relation to others alike. The challenge in Stoicism is rather that of achieving expertise: developing and exercising consistently the kinds of knowledge that make up the virtues. Put differently, the challenge is to form correctly an understanding of what the virtues constitute and trying to live up to that understanding.

How do these two frameworks relate and what advantages does the ancient (or virtue-happiness) framework have for us moderns? First, we need to realise that the ancient (or specifically Stoic) framework does not simply ignore the kind of considerations given more prominence in modern moral thinking. Stoicism also recognises the importance of performing right actions or in doing your duty in a given situation. Stoicism also recognises – indeed gives a special importance to the other-benefiting dimension of ethical life (this is one side of ethical development as they conceive it). Their ideal of treating all human beings as our fellow-citizens or brothers and sisters in humanity stands up well in comparison with modern ideals of benefiting others (in principle as many others as possible), and going beyond the circle of those immediately linked with our lives. However, Stoicism does not present these ideals in terms familiar to us in modern moral terminology, but in terms of virtue, the virtue-happiness relationship and progress towards virtue and happiness.

Does their way of presenting ethics have positive advantages for us – as well as translating ideas we already think are important into other terms? There are several advantages, I think. The virtue-happiness framework makes the question of motivation central to ethics. There is little point in urging people to perform right actions or maximise benefit to others unless they also feel motivated to act according to these principles. The Stoic framework brings out how acting in this way can form part at least of the kind of life that constitutes happiness. The Stoic framework also stresses, more than most modern approaches, the central role of ethical development, and the idea that development is a life-long process not just part of growing up towards adulthood. Also, whereas modern moral thinking tends to focus solely on the other-benefiting dimension of human action, Stoic (and other ancient) frameworks see virtues as covering both self-related and other-related sides of human experience. Put differently, the Stoic framework seeks to ground ethical life in what we are, fundamentally, and not just in what we do in relation to others (though that is seen as a very important dimension of human life). Finally, Stoic (and other ancient) forms of ethics stress the idea that acting well depends on knowledge or expertise, on developing a profound ethical understanding (and one that affects our personality as a whole); and this too is a dimension of ethical life whose importance is not always recognised in modern accounts. So, overall, I think there are a series of ways in which ancient and especially Stoic ethics can be seen as making a positive contribution to modern thinking about ethics as well as providing an alternative framework for life-guidance.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

'Marcus Aurelius: Philosopher Emperor or Philosopher-King?' by Steven Umbro and Tina Forsee

Marcus Aurelius: Philosopher Emperor or Philosopher-King?

By Steven Umbro and Tina Forsee

The man himself. Sourced here.
The man himself. Sourced here.

Editor’s Note: For those readers who wish to know more about Marcus Aurelius the man and emperor, and how well his rule matched his philosophy, comes this article by Steven Umbro and Tina Forsee.

It is very common to hear in both academic circles, as well as more close-knit Stoic circles, Marcus Aurelius (121 –180 CE) being referred to as the philosopher king. This is not an idea that is heavily under contention. Marcus Aurelius was definitely an amazing individual. He was adopted first by the Emperor Hadrian (76 –138 CE) and then later by Antoninus Pius (86 –161 CE). Marcus was educated by the best teachers in rhetoric, poetry, Greek, Latin, and of course, philosophy. The latter is the subject that he prized above all and it is that which had the greatest influence on the young man. The second century Roman historian Cassius Dio (155 –235 CE) said of Marcus that:

‘In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power. To be sure, he could not display many feats of physical prowess; yet he had developed his body from a very weak one to one capable of the greatest endurance…He himself, then, refrained from all offences and did nothing amiss whether voluntarily or involuntarily; but the offences of the others, particularly those of his wife, he tolerated, and neither inquired into them nor punished them. So long as a person did anything good, he would praise him and use him for the service in which he excelled, but to his other conduct he paid no attention; for he declared that it is impossible for one to create such men as one desires to have, and so it is fitting to employ those who are already in existence for whatever service each of them may be able to render to the State. And that his whole conduct was due to no pretense but to real excellence is clear; for although he lived fifty-eight years, ten months, and twenty-two days, of which time he had spent a considerable part as assistant to the first Antoninus [Pius], and had been emperor himself nineteen years and eleven days, yet from first to last he remained the same and did not change in the least. So truly was he a good man and devoid of all pretense.[i]

Marcus is most notably remembered for his surviving text now called The Meditations. It was the emperor’s personal journal, which recounts all of his innermost thoughts. We see in The Meditations that Marcus used his knowledge of Stoic philosophy to modify his behavior; he was literally engaging in what we now know as cognitive-behavioral therapy. The strength and grace of his character gained him both the respect of the upper classes as well as the plebeians.

Marcus’goal was to become the best –most virtuous –person that he was able to become. He saw himself and the world that he lived in –tumultuous as it was –from a cosmic perspective. Seeing that he had a fundamental duty to other human beings, like Socrates, he didn’t see himself as simply the Emperor of Rome, nor a Roman citizen, nor a Latin citizen, but rather a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan in the truest sense.[ii]

Marcus’ Stoicism was unique. Unlike his Stoic predecessors we see how the emperor was able to cope with the incredible difficulties that he was presented with. He was a sickly man, who had to confront constant political intrigue, war on the frontiers and difficult family affairs. In spite of all this he was still able to maintain his emotional control, to govern in an orderly and just manner and of course to cultivate his own virtue. Because of this Dio writes:

However, he did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.[iii]

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of all of Rome, a king to hundreds of thousands of people, as well as a philosopher. He was Rome’s philosopher king for nineteen years. But the question is, was Marcus Aurelius a philosopher king only in the most literal sense, or was he a philosopher-king, as described by Plato in his magnum opus, The Republic? When people call Marcus the Philosopher king it is difficult to discern which of these two types of philosophical monarchs they are referring to. This article will hopefully shed some light on the difference as well as accurately describe Marcus’ philosophic reign.

The Philosopher-King Paradox

One summer day in-between semesters of my junior year of college, I sat in my bedroom quietly reading Plato’s Republic. My walls were still crammed with the Led Zeppelin posters and dusty PA equipment from my high school years. My mother came in, bewildered by the silence. “What are you doing?”she had asked in her thick Korean accent. I told her I was reading, and she smiled in approval. Reading. Studying, even over summer break. Good student. She’d assumed all these years that I must be doing something worthwhile, that I’d become successful.

Unfortunately, that day would shatter her hopes and dreams for me. She made the mistake of asking what I was majoring in. (She’d asked a few times before, but each time I told her, she’d nod her head and smile. She didn’t know the word “philosophy”and I couldn’t figure out a way to explain it to her.) “Philosophy,”I responded yet again. There was that unknowing smile of approval again. This time I made the mistake of pulling out the Korean-English dictionary to show her exactly what “philosophy”meant. When she saw the Korean word my finger pointed to, she exclaimed, “No! No! You can’t do that! Stop it right now! You’re going to be poor for the rest of your life. Are you crazy or something?”

Her reaction was brutally honest—Korean mothers are known for this—but it’s what a lot of people think of philosophers today, though they may not say so.

Things really haven’t changed much in over two thousand years. Aristophanes ridiculed Socrates for having his head in the clouds, and Plato relates the story of Thales falling into a well while preoccupied with stargazing. Even then, philosophers were considered nothing more than a verbose bunch of obscurantists who didn’t know how to tie their own shoelaces. Or, to be less anachronistic, they were obscurantists who didn’t wear shoes, as if to flaunt their poverty and lack of materialistic concern.

When Plato insisted that the only way justice can exist is if a philosopher becomes a king, or vice versa, he was well aware of the public’s negative perception of philosophy.

Philosophy will teach children that it’s okay to beat their parents. Philosophy will teach people that it’s okay to murder because truth is relative. Philosophy will turn its practitioners against traditional religion. Philosophers will make you pay a hefty fee only to teach you how to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger. Philosophy will make you a useless citizen.

Today: Philosophy will teach your college student that God doesn’t exist. (Check out the movie, God’s Not Dead, for evidence of this fear amongst Christians.) Philosophy is completely useless for ordinary people. Philosophy is an education in verbal gymnastics. Philosophy distracts us from acquiring real knowledge.[iv]

The idea of a philosopher king was as repulsive then as it is now.[v] Philosopher kings? What better rhetorical breeding grounds for tyrannical dictators like Hitler and Stalin? Few take the idea seriously. Even amongst many philosophers, the idea is repugnant.

Yet, Plato wasn’t being facetious. Paradoxical, bold, maybe even in-your-face, but not facetious. For him, the practice of philosophy was something quite different from what was being called philosophy in his time. The true philosopher, we must remember, is an ideal. This person must have knowledge of the Good.[vi] In this case there is no fallibility, no human weakness to account for. If such a person were to exist, Plato predicted that no one would acknowledge the philosopher’s expertise. Bringing about a truly just society is nearly impossible.[vii]

The true philosopher is likened to a captain of a ship who is viewed by his crew as a useless stargazer. An apt metaphor which plays off of the story of Thales. Plato handles the metaphor with an intentional equivocation: Navigation of course depends on stargazing, although in the captain’s case there’s presumably no metaphysical inquiries involved. Here, we see stargazing as techne, craftsmanship, a practical art. The captain’s knowledge of the stars is like the doctor’s knowledge of health, or the computer geek’s knowledge of how to get that virus out of your computer. In these cases, we turn to experts for help because we know we don’t know. In the ship metaphor, we the readers see the folly of the crew’s dismissal of the captain’s knowledge.

The point is, Plato’s ideal philosopher king is an expert in statesmanship who actually knows how to bring about justice. If we could know that such a person exists, we’d automatically turn to this philosopher for help. There’s the rub. We don’t know. And how can we? In each case the proof is in the pudding.

When we turn to experts for help, we presume we’ve come to the right person when that virus is out of our computer, when our cars run properly, when our health is restored. We take their expertise on faith, sometimes with recommendations from others, without presuming to have knowledge of these things ourselves. We take a risk much greater than going to a sheisty auto mechanic when we put a philosopher in charge. Plus, we tend not to trust experts, especially not ones in positions of power.[viii]

Herein lies the paradox of the philosopher king: If everyone were experts in justice, we could recognize a philosopher king, but then we wouldn’t need one. Since we’re not experts, how do we know who among us is a philosopher king? Without knowledge of what’s good (in Plato, the Good) we can’t say.

Do philosophers make good rulers? The most we can do is look to the past for an approximation, obliquely.

The Proof is in his Power

Treachery, plague and war; despite all of these Marcus was able to summon the will to hold the delicate balance of power in check and preserve the empire. He maintained what is known as Rome’s Silver Age[ix] and did what he could to make the lives of his citizenry as prosperous and stable as possible. It was said of Marcus’character that “he was austere, but not hardened, modest but not timid and serious, but not grim.”[x] His interactions with people of all strata was described in this way:

Indeed, toward the people he behaved no differently than one behaves under a free state. He was in all ways remarkably moderate, in deterring people from evil and encouraging them to good, generous in rewarding, lenient in pardoning and as such he made the bad good and good very good – even suffering with restraint the criticism of not a few.[xi]

As a Stoic, Marcus had an unwavering sense of duty to those beneath him in the hierarchy; he was a man of service and would do all that was necessary to see his purpose fulfilled. When the Germanic tribes began raiding the northern frontier borders, Marcus, rather then increase taxes on the public to fund the campaign, sold off all his imperial possessions to pay for the endeavour.[xii] He saw such an act not only as a necessary action, but one that was called for by his duty in being in such a position of wealth and power.

When it came to distributing punishment in the judicial system, Marcus’ philosophical discipline also dictated his decisions. The Historia Augusta says of Marcus that:

It was normal for [Marcus] to penalize all crimes with lighter sentences than were generally imposed by the laws, but at times, toward those who were obviously guilty of serious offences he remained unbending… He meticulously observed justice, furthermore, even in this contact with captured foes. He settled countless foreigners on Roman land.[xiii]

The Emperor lived his entire life as a true philosopher, he spoke like a philosopher and he ruled like a philosopher.

For Marcus’ own serenity was so great, that he never changed his expression (either in grief or in joy) being devoted to the Stoic philosophy, which he had learned from the very best teachers and had acquired himself from every source.[xiv]

He was generous, lenient and embodied many modern notions of republicanism, while at the same time sat in the highest seat of imperial power.

A Philosophical Democracy

We value democracy because we have the power to push a tyrant off the throne. Democracy’s realistic in human assessment: there will be as many if not more fraudulent philosopher kings as there are sheisty auto mechanics. Democracy lets us call them out, warn the others, put these impostors in their place. Freedom of speech is a crucial safeguard.

However, a democratic system relies on the assumption that we all know what’s good for us, that the good can be brought about through our collective knowledge. Bad things will happen, but change is always on the horizon. “Change”is something we’ve become enamored with, but this political slogan relies on presumed general discontent and the assumption that change will be for the better.

But are we collectively experts in virtue and justice? If we’re all driving the ship, where is it going?

The winds push in one direction, then another. Education is of utmost importance in a democracy, but education is itself another element battered by the storm of opinions.

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.[xv]

It’s commonly known that America’s founding fathers valued education as essential to representative democracy (what they preferred to call a “Republic.”)

Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. – James Madison[xvi]

A quick internet search will reveal numerous quotes extolling the virtues of educating everyone. What is not always considered is the kind of education they themselves received, what they meant by education. They were expected to already know Greek and Latin before they went to college. What they had to know to pass their entrance exams far surpasses what we expect of college graduates. Their education emphasized the classics and instilled in them a lust for acquiring virtue and wisdom.

Democracy is a word that now has positive connotations, and for good reasons. But education was not meant to be democratized. A philosophical education would teach us at the very minimum how to distinguish empty rhetoric from sound arguments, how to spot informal fallacies. This is necessary when choosing our “captains,”and ought to be included in public education. There is a great deal more that needs to be done at every level for public education, more than many of us even conceive of. We may never experience the ideal justice of the Republic, but for us, power can merge with wisdom in a happy union, at least in approximation. In order for this to take place, we must all set our sights higher.

The Boy who would become a Philosopher

Marcus Aurelius was a true warrior, he did not dance with his life; instead it was a constant boxing match. He did his best to keep his chin up and inspire those around him to become better than they were.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.[xvii]

In his final days we can see how even the army, whom he led into battle in the north, responded when they heard of his illness that would eventually take his life: “The army, when they heard of his illness, cried noisily, for they loved him alone.”[xviii] Even on his deathbed Marcus was unrelenting in his practice of Stoic virtue. Acting with indifference to inevitable demise, he said to the loved ones watching him, “do not cry for me, but think instead of the sickness and death of so many others.”[xix]

The empire lived in synchronicity with Marcus; the empire endured as long and as well as he did. His death marked the end of an era and the beginning of the empire’s fall. Cassius Dio writes of the death of Marcus that, “…our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”[xx]

And now we finally come to the question addressed at the beginning of this article, was Marcus Aurelius Plato’s philosopher-king?

The concept of Plato’s Kallipolis and its ruling philosopher-king is deeply nuanced and embodies many strict notions such as the harmonization of the cardinal virtues of  “wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and morality”[xxi] as well as knowledge of the Good. Marcus may or may not fit the description. Marcus’life and reign would definitely have been a consolation to Plato in that a philosopher can be a king, and that such a ruler could live a philosophical lifestyle, and impart that wisdom on his public administration. Marcus, although perhaps not the philosopher-king of Plato’s Kallipolis, was still a philosopher king in the most literal sense.

Of course the Stoic notion of the Sage and the Platonic notion of the harmonized soul differ, however they both agree that the key to a just society is a ruler who embodies their respective ideas of harmonized virtue. Edward Gibbon in his magnum opus, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, saw the magnificence of the Antonine rule and stated:

“If a man were called upon to fix that period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius. The united reigns of the five emperors of the era are possibly the only period in history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”[xxii]

Marcus may not be Plato’s philosopher-king but he was undoubtedly the philosopher-emperor.

 


[i] Cassius Dio, Hist. Rom. 72. 34-35

[ii] Cosmopolitanism is a fundamental tenet of Stoic philosophical doctrine. Understanding oneself from the cosmic perspective (the perspective from above) affords the individual the knowledge that they are one drop in a large body of people.

[iii] Cassius Dio, Hist. Rom. 72. 36.

[iv]Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.Stephen Hawking. See also; “My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist its, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And Id rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that dont derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, Im moving on, Im leaving you behind.—Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

[v] The term “Philosopher-King”has such negative connotations that it has become a code word for “tyrant.”See Our Philosopher-King Obamaby Victor Davis Hanson.

[vi] Plato doesn’t tell us much about the Good itself, as if he didn’t wish to throw pearls before swine. The Good is discussed in both the cave allegory (Book VI) and the “divided line”(just before the cave allegory, 509d–511e) of the Republic.

[vii] But that doesn’t mean Plato didn’t try for some sort of approximation. In the Seventh Letter, you will find Plato’s account of how he tried to turn Dionysius II, the tyrant of Syracuse, into a philosopher. He failed miserably and barely made out with this life.

[viii] Consider the response to expert opinion in the fiscal crisis of 2012. Jason Stanley wrote an article, Philosopher Kings and Fiscal Cliffs, which addresses this issue.

[ix] The Silver age went on through until the death of Marcus Aurelius as described by Teuffel and Schwabe 1892, p. 192, “The second century was a happy period for the Roman State, the happiest indeed during the whole Empire…But in the world of letters the lassitude and enervation, which told of Rome’s decline, became unmistakeable…its forte is in imitation.”

[x]Historia Augusta, 4, 5.

[xi] Ibid, 12. 1.

[xii] Ibid, 17, 4.

[xiii] Ibid, 24.1.

[xiv] Historia Augusta, 16.3.

[xv] Plato’s Republic, 473d.

[xvi] Madison, Writings 9:103–9

[xvii] Historia Augusta, 2. 6.

[xviii] Ibid, 28. 1

[xix] Ibid

Cassius Dio, Hist. Rom. 72. 36 – This notion of the degeneration of the state is similar to the degeneration of political forms in Plato’s Republic. Plato’s philosophy is that the most pure form of government, the Kallipolis, will eventually degenerate into a timocracy, then into an oligarchy, then democracy and finally a tyranny. Similarly, Marcus represented the most pure form of Roman government, and although the Roman state did not degenerate into the subsequent states that Plato predicted the Kallipolis would, the state, after Marcus’ death, did nonetheless begin to decline and fall.

Plato, Republic 427e

[xx] Gibbon, 1909, p. 78

Addendum

Many of the quotes used to justify the points made in this paper regarding the life, rule and character of Marcus Aurelius were taken from the ancient text known as the Historia Augusta, which is notoriously debated as being unreliable in many parts. Nonetheless, regardless of its validity, many of texts which mention his life, including Cassius Dio coherently match the character that the HA portrays of Marcus Aurelius.


 

Bibliography

Plato, The Republic

Cassius Dio, Historia Romana

Historia Augusta


 

Steven Umbrello is currently a student of philosophy of science and classics at the University of Toronto as well as a Junior Associate at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. He enjoys his time reading philosophy and history as well as writing for his website The Leather Library and Stoically Speaking.

Tina Forsee graduated from Marlboro College with a B.A. in Philosophy and French. Shes working on a novel in which she explores the relationship between reason and belief through contemporary characters loosely based on those in Platos Republic. She blogs about philosophy and fiction at Diotima’s Ladder and contributes to The Leather Library.

The Three-Petalled Rose: The Synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism and Stoicism

The Three-Petalled Rose, by Ronald W. Pies examines the common threads that unite three, great spiritual traditions–Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism, and in doing so aims to provide a framework for achieving a fulfilled and ethically responsible life. The book aims to help the reader take the spiritual “nutrients” from these three ancient traditions and transform them into a life of beauty, order, and purpose. No scholarly expertise or special knowledge of religion is required to understand this book, nor need the reader believe in a “supreme being” or owe allegiance to a particular religion. All that’s needed is an open mind and a sincere desire to create an awakened and flourishing life.

41vUS091laL

Izzy’s Ingratitude

 Excerpted from The Three-Petalled Rose, by Ronald W. Pies

To his friends and acquaintances, Izzy was a man who “had it all.” Raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, Izzy, age 52, had long ago abandoned Judaism and become, as he put it, “A full-fledged hedonist.” Married, with two college-age children, and in good health, Izzy was a very successful hospital administrator. He had managed not only to run several area hospitals very efficiently, but also to accumulate a sizeable “nest egg.” He and his family lived in a beautiful, 8-room, lakeside house, in a comfortable suburb of New York City. Izzy’s wife, Rebecca, was a well-respected college professor, and both children were enrolled in prestigious, Ivy-league schools. Izzy managed to radiate a confident optimism that led nearly everyone to assume he was a very happy man—but the truth was entirely different.

As Izzy confided to his old college roommate, Hal, “I feel like I’ve gotten the short end of the stick, for all the work I’ve done. I mean, sure, I have a nice house, a good wife, great kids. But so what? Where is it getting me? I had the brains to go to medical school, but I wound up doing this damn administration crap! People at work are nice enough, but do they ever invite Rebecca and me to dinner, or out to a movie? No—it’s all just business to them! And as for vacation, Hal, forget about it! The last one we took was two years ago, for exactly one week in Bermuda. I have people working under me who spend their whole summer in the Hamptons, or on the Cape! And Rebecca, she’s a good wife, but she’s not exactly what you’d call passionate, you know? I mean, I’m lucky to talk her into sex maybe once a week, at most.” Although Izzy and Rebecca got along reasonably well, their marriage was marked by frequent arguments. Rebecca was not strictly observant in the Jewish faith, but she did like to keep active in her local synagogue, which offered a variety of social and educational activities. Izzy, however, refused to accompany her, arguing that, “Those people just want your time and money. All they care about is showing off.”

Izzy and Rebecca had inherited several hundred thousand dollars from Izzy’s parents, both of whom had died within the past five years, but Izzy had nothing good to say about his mother or father. “Sure!” he commented to Rebecca, “They left us a lot of money, but while they were alive, what did they do for us? All I ever got from my parents was criticism!”

As Rebecca confided to a close female friend, “Nothing is ever good enough with Izzy.   We go out to a nice restaurant for a good time, and what does he do? He complains to the waiter! The roast beef is too stringy, the potatoes aren’t hot enough, the service is too slow! We go to a movie, and he’s ready to leave half-way through, because he thinks the movie is “stupid.” He says he’s proud of my accomplishments as a professor, but then he complains I’m spending too much time with my research. And does he ever have a good word to say about the kids? Here they are, both at Ivy League colleges, and Izzy says they’re “wasting his hard earned money.” Why? Because Joel is majoring in English Literature, and Laura is studying music theory. No matter how good things are, with Izzy, it’s like there’s always something wrong with it. Thank God, the doctor says Izzy is in good health, but he’s always kvetching about how he can’t play racquetball the way he used to when he was 30!”

The Buddhist Perspective

In the discourse known as the Mangala Sutta, the Buddha declares gratitude (in Pali, katannuta) to be one of the highest blessings—one that plays a key role in Buddhist ethics. Thus, in Verse 8, we read, “Reverence, humility, contentment, bearing gratitude and opportune hearing of the Dhamma; this is Blessing Supreme.” [Nalanda Institute; http://nalanda.org.my/e-library/mangalasutta/verse8.php]

Phillip Moffit—a former publishing executive who became an ordained vipassana (insight) meditation teacher—has many wise things to say about gratitude, and he merits a lengthy quotation:

            “The Buddha taught that every human birth is precious and worthy of gratitude. In one of his well-known analogies, he said that receiving a human birth is [rarer] than the chance that a blind turtle floating in the ocean would stick its head through a small hoop. He would often instruct a monk to take his ground cloth into the forest, sit at the base of a tree, and begin “gladdening the heart” by reflecting on the series of fortunate circumstances that had given the monk the motivation and ability to seek freedom through understanding the dharma.

            Practicing mindfulness of gratitude consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected to life and the realization that there is a larger context in which your personal story is unfolding. Being relieved of the endless wants and worries of your life’s drama, even temporarily, is liberating. Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joyHaving access to the joy and wonderment of life is the antidote to feelings of scarcity and loss. It allows you to meet life’s difficulties with an open heart. The understanding you gain from practicing gratitude frees you from being lost or identified with either the negative or the positive aspects of life, letting you simply meet life in each moment as it rises. (Phillip Moffitt http://www.lifebalanceinstitute.com/dharmawisdom/articles/selfless-gratitude-0)

            Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the abbot of San Diego County’s Metta Forest Monastery, makes an important distinction in discussing gratitude. There is, on the one hand, “appreciation of a general sort”—for example, the way we might appreciate our warm, cozy house in the winter. On the other hand, there is “gratitude in particular”, which the Buddha always linked with our response to kindness. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it,

            “You feel indebted to the people who helped you because you sense how easily they might have denied that help, and how difficult your life might have been if that’s what they had chosen to do. Your parents, for instance, didn’t have to raise you, or arrange for someone else to raise you; they could have aborted you or left you to die. So the fact that you’re alive to read this means that somebody chose, again and again, to help you when you were helpless. Sensing that element of choice is what creates your sense of debt.” http://shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=19864

            In Pali, the word for “grateful”—kataññu—literally means “to have a sense of what was done”—as in, acts of kindness that were done in our behalf (Davids & Steeds, 1993). Thanissaro Bhikkhu teaches that those who have shown us kindness are owed not merely appreciation, but a debt of gratitude. For example, “…the way to repay a teacher’s compassion and sympathy in teaching you is to apply yourself to learning your lessons well.” Similarly, it is not enough merely to “appreciate” that your parents taught you to be a kind person—you must repay the debt of gratitude to your parents by being kind to others. (http://shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=19856).

            Now, in contrast to katannuta (gratitude), we have akatannuta or ingratitude. The Buddhist monk, the Venerable Nyanadassana, defines akatannuta as “…not knowing or recognizing what has been done…for one’s benefit.” So why do some develop this negative attitude? Nyanadassana opines that,

            “There are many reasons but the four most important ones why ingratitude arises are: 1. failure to recognize a benefit as a benefit; 2.taking benefits for granted; 3. egotism; [and] 4. forgetfulness. There are some people who do not regard life itself as a benefit. Hence, they don’t feel grateful to their parents for bringing them into the world…similarly, there are people who don’t regard knowledge or education or culture as benefits. So they do not feel grateful towards their teachers…They may even feel resentful…This attitude is, of course, very widespread in society today. People tend to think that everything is due to them.” http://www.buddhistelibrary.org/library/view.php?adpath=360)

            We see these forms of ingratitude in nearly everything Izzy complains about, including his total lack of appreciation for his parents (and the largesse they left him); his resentment toward those he sees as “better off” than he; and his strong sense of entitlement. In many ways, Izzy fits the description of the proverbial person “…who was born on third base and believes he must have hit a triple!” And because Izzy seems incapable of appreciating all that he has, and all that has been given to him, he has also denied himself “access to the joy and wonderment of life.”

The Stoic Perspective  

One of our opening epigrams is from Epicurus: “Any man who does not think that what he has is more than ample is an unhappy man, even if he is master of the whole world.” This teaching has obvious application to our unfortunate friend, Izzy, whose nearly total lack of gratitude has indeed left him a very “unhappy man” indeed.

            Epicurus was actually not a Stoic in the strict sense; rather, he was the founder of a competing school of philosophy, contemporaneous with the Stoics. Epicureanism and Stoicism had many beliefs in common, but held different attitudes toward our participation in the larger community. Whitney J. Oates, in contrasting Stoicism with Epicureanism, tells us that, “The two systems are alike in that they attempt to give men peace and inner calm.” But whereas Epicureanism recommended “…a retirement into the garden, in order to gain that peace,” the Stoics maintained “…that the peace must be found in the midst of the world’s confusions for, after all, all men are brothers.” (The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, Modern Library edition, p. xxiv.) In this sense, the Stoics have something in common with Judaism’s Hasidim, who believe that one can worship God in everyday life, even amidst the hurly-burly of the market place.

            Notwithstanding these differences, the quote from Epicurus–“Any man who does not think that what he has is more than ample is an unhappy man…”—is quintessentially Stoic in spirit. Indeed, gratitude is one of the most important values in Stoic philosophy, though it is often given short shrift in discussions of Stoicism.

            We see the importance of gratitude when Marcus Aurelius begins his Meditations with a litany of “thank you” notes. Marcus thanks everybody from his paternal grandfather to the gods! For example:

Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt to know from my grandfather Verus…Manliness without ostentation I learnt from what I have heard and remember of my father…My mother set me an example of piety and generosity…”

            As Farquharson puts it, these notes of thanks comprise “…a personal acknowledgment of lessons learned and good gifts received from the men and women who seemed…to have had the most influence on his life…” (op cit. p. 95).

            In this respect, Marcus Aurelius is a kind of “anti-Izzy!”

            Similarly, Seneca tells us, “It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.” He writes these words in a letter (CXXIII) to his younger friend, Lucilius, having returned home after a long and tiring journey. Seneca notes that, “…I’m in bed, recovering from my fatigue, and making the best of [the] slowness on the part of the cook…” adding, “…whatever kind of meal is on the way is going to beat an inaugural banquet for enjoyment.” Seneca here demonstrates that our sense of fulfillment and satisfaction is largely a matter of our perspective; and that we can indeed be grateful even when life is not providing us with banquets. (Of course, few of us are fortunate enough to have our own cook!). In another letter, Seneca quotes a fragment attributed to the moralist, Publilius Syrus (1st century BCE): “The poor lack much, the greedy everything.” This maxim may serve as a synopsis of the Stoic view of gratitude, as well as a sad commentary on people like Izzy.

            We have already discussed some of Cicero’s writings on “old age”, and our epigram (“No deprivation is any trouble if you do not miss what you have lost”) is drawn from Cicero’s essay titled, “The Pleasures of Old Age.” There, Cicero sets out to discredit the notion that the elderly are less capable of enjoyment than the young. (Here we think of Izzy’s petulant complaint that he can no longer play racquetball the way he did when he was 20 years younger!). Cicero concedes that when it comes to sexual pleasure, old age is at a disadvantage; e.g., “…let us admit that youth exceeds age in its enjoyment of this particular kind of pleasure.” But then Cicero quickly shifts perspective to see a deeper kind of pleasure in old age. He writes,

            “When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarrelling, and all the other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself—and is well off. There is supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon….surely the satisfactions of the mind are greater than all the rest!” (“On Old Age” in Selected Works)

            Indeed, for the Stoics, we might summarize the “flourishing life” in this way: We live best when we strive to gather knowledge; live in harmony with Nature; act in an ethical manner; and experience gratitude for whatever blessings life has given us.

Synthesis and Commentary

Mark Twain once quipped that, “A self-made man is about as likely as a self-laid egg.” Indeed, as Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin and Rabbi Seymour J. Cohen have noted, “Gratitude to God is an acknowledgment that no one is self-made.” (p. 15, italics added).

The French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville, in his excellent book, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, has this to say about gratitude:

“What gratitude teaches us…is that there is also such a thing as joyful humility, or humble joy, humble because it knows it is not its own cause…and, knowing this, rejoices all the more…” (op cit, p. 135).

Gratitude, indeed, may be the deepest wisdom. As Epicurus puts it, “The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears…” While we won’t condemn Izzy as a “fool”—after all, as Albert Ellis would remind us, labeling someone in that way does injustice to the person’s humanity and potential for change— many of Izzy’s ideas and attitudes are certainly foolish. For example, Izzy’s grumbling that he hasn’t had a vacation in two years would strike many hard-working, or unemployed, Americans as laughable self-pity! The Buddhist sages would call Izzy’s gripe a form of upadana—a “grasping onto things” (Ajahn Chah, Living Dhamma, p. 36). The Stoics would regard it as weak-kneed, self-indulgence. The Rabbis of the Talmud would simply be mystified (as in, “What is this vacation thing?”), while our modern rabbis would call it “kvetching”, plain and simple!

Perhaps, as Epicurus’ saying suggests, there is an underlying fear in Izzy’s litany of complaints. In our previous chapter, we discussed the fear of death, and how it may be repressed, denied, or acted out through various defensive maneuvers—as we saw with Daniel’s mid-life affair (Chapter 7). Constant complaining about what one lacks may also serve a defensive function—it fends off anxiety about one’s own mortality, and focuses one’s ire and energy on “those other people”, who have “everything.” In Izzy’s case, complaining also fends off the question, “Why is it that I can’t seem to find real happiness?” by laying the blame on “those other people” such as Izzy’s parents. Ironically, the cause of Izzy’s inability to find happiness is…Izzy! The medieval philosopher, Solomon ibn Gabirol, sums up Izzy’s predicament very succinctly: “[He] who seeks more than he needs, hinders himself from enjoying what he has.” And there are few more effective ways of avoiding constructive action than complaining about our many woes…

About the authorRonald W. Pies MD is Professor of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY. He also teaches psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston. Dr. Pies is the author, most recently, of The Three-Petalled Rose (iUniverse); Psychiatry on the Edge (Nova Publishing), and the novel, The Director of Minor Tragedies (iUniverse). Dr. Pies lives outside Boston with his wife, Nancy.

Stoicism Today: Book Review by Marko Pavliha

Stoicism Today: Book Review

Marko Pavliha

Stoicism Today Cover

I have been increasingly interested in ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese and Indian wisdom since high school but it was not before approximately two years ago upon reading the Jules Evans’ fantastic book Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations when I rediscovered the Stoicism and started studying it again, as well as applying, well, doing my almost best to applying it to my everyday problems. I took an active part in the Stoic Week 2013 and was invited by Patrick Ussher, a very promising and enthusiastic PhD student at the University of Exeter who works on Stoic ethical development, to write a piece for his blog. I chose the topic on Stoicism and Global Ethic for Better Life and also promoted the Stoic ideas across my own country Slovenia (e.g. Filozofija za lepše življenje, Delo, November 22, 2013, p. 5).

Indeed, the contributions in the first volume Stoicism Today have been selected from the aforementioned blog which had almost 4000,000 hits in its first 18 months. The book has been edited by Patrick and has been written by 31 contributors from UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Norway, Germany and Australia.

This fantastic book is composed of eight parts: (i) Stoic Theory, (ii) Adapting Stoicism for the Modern Day, (iii) Stoic Advice, (iv) Life Stories, (v) Stoicism for Parents & Teachers, (vi) Stoicism & Psychotherapy, (vii) Stoicism & Mindfulness and (viii) Stoic Literature and Stoicism in Modern Culture. As succinctly explained in the Foreword by Stephen J. Costello, the book:

reflects and represents a wide-ranging cornucopia of topics and themes, from Stoic ethics and emotions to fatherhood, feelings and Viktor Frankel, from Stoic mayors and mindfulness to practical philosophy, parenting, psychotherapy and prisons, from Star Trek and Socrates to Stoic lawyers, literature and living in general. As such, there is something in this eclectic compilation for everyone.”

Quite true, I fully agree, it is a very useful and interesting handbook which should be reread day after day, just like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Epictetus’ Discourses. John Sellars explains to the beginners that Stoicism was one of the four principal schools of philosophy in ancient Athens, alongside Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, where it flourished for some 250 years cherishing four central ideas: (i) Value – the only thing that is truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason, (ii) emotions – they are the project of our judgements, so we should change the latter to change the emotions), (iii) nature – we must live in harmony with Nature and Cosmos and (iv) control – there are some things we have control over and others we do not. The Stoicism proved especially popular among the famous Romans, i.e. the statesman and lawyer Seneca, the ex-slave Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. As a lawyer, just like Paul Bryson, I am also trying to cultivate the four qualities suggested by Zeno – wisdom, courage, temperance and justice – although I am not very good at it, but to use the words from Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, ”at least I’m trying.”

According to Stoicism, as correctly interpreted by Patrick Ussher, egoism cannot lead to happiness because we are social beings, the citizens of the world. This is, for instance, also proved convincingly and scientifically by Adam Grant in his bestselling book on altruism Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Penguin Books, New York, 2013). We are not born just for ourselves, once upon a time said Cicero quoting Plato, but also for our families, friends and our homeland. Or in Seneca’s words: Alteri vivas oportet, si vis tibi vivere.

One of the unfortunate misconceptions is that Stoics are unemotional like robots but the truth is quite the opposite, namely the virtue of the Stoic ”consists in his ability to endure painful feelings and rise above them, with magnanimity while continuing to maintain his relationships and interaction with the world” (Donald Robertson). With the Stoic philosophy we can control our emotions because it is the art of not panicking or apatheia in Greek (Ryan Holiday). This is described perfectly by Chris Hadfield in his An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Macmillan, London, 2013) where he uses the prima facie paradoxical expression ”the power of negative thinking,” how to prepare for difficult situations with simulations, as ”fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen.” We should be prepared not to act like a puppet on a string, allowing ourselves to be jerked around by irrational emotions (Kevin Kennedy). The struggle against passion is indeed the greatest of all struggles.

Can we adopt Stoicism for the modern day? Robertson suggests the basic three-stage philosophical routine, i.e. the morning preparation, the Stoic mindfulness (prosoche) throughout the day and the night-time review. He reminds us of the beautiful Serenity Prayer which we might want to memorise or write down and contemplate each day:

Give me the Serenity to accept

the things I cannot change,

the Courage to change the things I can,

and the Wisdom to know the difference.

Corey Anton explains how the Stoicism can also help us accepting death. To those who are not biased and narrow minded I recommend a shocking book by Eben Alexander Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012) which has been, of course, criticised, for example by Sam Harris in his Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014).

Amongst the most touching life stories are the catastrophic and at the same time optimistic and positive experiences by Helen Rudd who suffered a traumatic brain injury and Sam Sullivan who broke his spine in a skiing accident an lost the use of his arms, legs and body (he was even a Mayor of Vancouver, Canada, from 2005 to 2005!). They are both living examples of unbelievable power of will, love of life and endurance, proving ”that Stoicism is all about making the most of your resources” (Rudd).

Stoicism is useful for parenting (Matt Van Natta), coping with toddlers (Chris Lowe), for a better fatherhood (Jan Frederik-Braseth) and teaching (Michael Burton, Jules Evans). Moreover, it has been proved in practice that psychotherapy (for example, positive psychology, logotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy) can become more complete and wiser if it incorporates ideas from Stoicism (Tim LeBon, Stephen J. Costello, James Davinport). To paraphrase Lou Marinoff: ”The Stoics, not Prozac!

Last but not least, the Stoic mindfulness appears to be more than the Buddhist state of mind, as it is ”about being aware of how to act well or ethically in the present, and not so much about the primacy of the experience of the present itself” (Patrick Ussher). However, both can serve the same purpose as it is shown lucidly by various writers in the wonderful book edited by Melvin McLeod, Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place (Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2006).

To conclude, I very much recommend the splendid book Stoicism Today to everyone, looking forward to a Stoic Week 2014 and Volume II. Congratulations to Patrick Ussher and the rest of the Stoicism Today team and the authors, and many happy returns!

About the author:

Marko Pavliha is professor of law, author and co-author of 27 books and numerous articles, as well as the former Minister of Transport and Vice-President of the Parliament of the Republic of Slovenia (2004 – 2008).

The Stoicism Today book is available for free on Kindle until Friday midnight of Stoic Week.

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The Last Stoic by Morgan Wade, Part Three

The Last Stoic by Morgan Wade is a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Half of the story’s narrative occurs in the time and place of the ancient Roman Empire; the other half occurs in the present-day United States. The parallels between the two eras are so strong that the narrative continues uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter. This excerpt alternates back to ancient times.  Marcus is wrongfully held in a Guantanamo-like prison camp far removed from civilization and prying eyes.  He has been interrogated and tortured and feels like he can’t endure another day.  In this chapter he first meets Sextus Condianus, a fellow prisoner who reminds him of his own grandfather.  Sextus is able to recite The Meditations from memory and by his example he demonstrates to Marcus the real power of Stoicism. 

The Last Stoic: Extract Three

_The Last Stoic - Front Cover

The cage door was opened.  Marcus ducked his head and folded himself in.  He sat on the sparse pile of straw and sawdust and held his head in his hands.  A cockroach scampered over his bare foot and up his calf until he swatted it away and into the debris, where it remained, teetering on the enameled hemisphere of its shell, upside down, the filaments of its half dozen legs cycling frantically.

“Chin up.”

It was a wheezy, anemic voice.  Marcus raised an eye through splayed fingers.  The ancient prisoner with the nimbus of white hair, the one who replaced Sebastianus, was still there.  He looked back from the adjacent cage with a toothless smile.

“Having a hard time of it?”

Marcus buried his head further into his hands.

“Where are you from?”

“Britannia,” Marcus mumbled into his knees.

“A ha!  Which town?”

“Verulamium.”

“A delightful place!”

Marcus lifted his head slightly.  “You know it?”

“I’ve been there several times.  Do they still put on shows at that wonderful theatre?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I remember it well,” said the old man, the equatorial sun glinting off his weepy eyes.  “It’s unique you know, the only theatre in Britannia, perhaps in all of Gaul, with a prominent stage for drama.”

“People come from miles around just for the theatre.”

“And who could blame them.”

            “Where are you from?”

            “Rome.”

            “How long have you been here.”

            “I’m not sure.  Two years, perhaps.”

            Marcus blanched.

“Before that, they had me at a camp in Pannonia.  For five years or so.”

            “Vae!  Five years! How have you survived?”

            “I haven’t sought out death.”

            “Yes, but why haven’t they executed you.  Like the others.”

            “I suppose they think I still have something to offer, some information, some secret that makes them afraid.”

            Marcus took a moment to study the man again, to reappraise.  He sat motionless in the adjacent cage with a gummy, generous smile on his weathered face, thin enough to be translucent.  He looked like he might expire at any moment.  But here he was in one of the cramped cages, cross-legged and calm, stewing as they all were in the relentless heat, amid the filth, the roaches, and the dung.  He appears, Marcus thought, to be happy.

He’s mad.

The man neither drooled nor twitched.  He didn’t jabber.  He wasn’t pitching his own faeces around the cage.  Sebastianus, with all of his rocking and chanting and shrieking could have been reasonably judged to be mad.  But this old man?  He gave the opposite impression.  A light emanated from his clear blue eyes, watery and twinkling under the harsh, white rays of midday, that indicated a concentrated, distilled power.  Marcus looked again.  What if he’s lying?  Maybe he’s working for the magistrate, infiltrating, tricking me into incriminating myself.   Wouldn’t the furtive spy be more plausible than the jolly seven year prisoner? 

            “Who are you really?” Marcus asked, finally.

The old man chuckled amiably.  “I already told you.  Sextus Condianus.”

Marcus shook his head resolutely.

“I’ve heard the story of Sextus Condianus.  He was older than my grandfather.”

“Look at me Marcus.”

“Yes, you’re old enough.  But Sextus has been caught and executed, publicly.”

“Six times.”

Marcus paused.  “If you’re Sextus Condianus, why do they keep you here?  Why aren’t you in Rome, on public display?  Why haven’t they executed you properly?”

“I don’t know the mind of the emperor.”

“How have you survived?  You’re…, with respect, you’re a very old man.  I was ready,” Marcus gestured toward the smoker, “I was prepared to take my own life.  I’ve been here only eleven days.”

“Nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear.”

Marcus stared.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing happens to anybody which…”

“I heard you!”  Marcus winced at the flash behind his eyes.

“I beg your pardon.”

“Is that supposed to be amusing?  I’ve been beaten, dehydrated, drowned, roasted, starved, and sleep-deprived until I’m suicidal.  A platitude?  That’s not amusing at all.  Clearly you haven’t been here for two years.  Jupiter!” Marcus spat across his cage at the old man, as a way of punctuating his speech.  “Is it a trifle what I’ve endured?  It’s an insult.  It’s absurd.”

“My apologies, young lad.  I meant no offence.”

Marcus turned away.

“I assure you the statement is not empty; there is much power in it.”

Sextus Condianus tilted his head to the side, ready to snooze, drifting almost immediately.  Marcus’ anger soon faded, replaced with ever-present fatigue.  He lay his head against the bars and slept uncomfortably but deeply, dreaming of home.  Sleep was brief.  Soldiers returned to fetch Marcus to the magistrate.  He cast a resentful eye at the dozy old prisoner lounging as though on a mattress of down and crisp linen.

Fool!  It must be some comfort to be mad in a place like this. 

About the author:

Headshot

Morgan Wade’s first novel, The Last Stoic, was edited by award-winning novelist Helen Humphreys (author of best-selling works such as The Reinvention of Love and Coventry).  The Last Stoic made the 2012 ReLit Awards long list.  Morgan’s short stories and poems have been published in Canadian literary journals and anthologies, including, The New Quarterly and The Nashwaak Review. He attended the Humber School of Writing where he worked and studied under novelist Michael Helm.  Morgan lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

The Last Stoic can be ordered online from Amazon: www.amazon.co.uk
More information:  http://laststoic.morganwade.ca

Full Synopsis:

The Last Stoic is a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Half of the story’s narrative occurs in the time and place of the ancient Roman Empire; the other half occurs in the present-day United States. The parallels between the two eras are so strong that the narrative continues uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter.

Marcus, a young man from a northern provincial border town, journeys deep into the heart of the empire and witnesses first-hand the excesses that can lead to ruin, both personal and political. His story offers an ancient commentary on the preoccupations of our own turbulent times. Shortly after his arrival, the empire is thrown into a panic by an unprecedented barbarian attack on the capital. Suspicion and paranoia abound. A young Roman/American runaway named Patrick, disillusioned with his own life and the state of his country, becomes convinced that Marcus is a dangerous traitor. Culminating in a public accusation made by Patrick, Marcus is wrongfully imprisoned, exiled and tortured as an enemy of the state. In prison, he confronts the many contradictions he has found in his adopted home, and in himself. 

Throughout the story, in both eras, the writings of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (The Meditations) insinuate themselves unexpectedly into Marcus’ life. In prison, he is saved by a chance meeting with Sextus Condianus, the “last Stoic” of the title, a cell-mate who is able to fully recite Aurelius’ words and impart their wisdom. Ultimately, it is this unanticipated and unbidden instruction that gives the young man the strength he requires to survive. It becomes evident that the words of the venerable Stoic emperor have as much relevance to our own era as they did to his.

The Last Stoic by Morgan Wade, Part Two

The Last Stoic by Morgan Wade is a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Half of the story’s narrative occurs in the time and place of the ancient Roman Empire; the other half occurs in the present-day United States. The parallels between the two eras are so strong that the narrative continues uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter. This second excerpt is taken from a chapter set in modern times.  The protagonist, Marcus, has gone missing from the border town in which he worked.  His family arrive from the North to look for him.  Their search leads to the angry and disillusioned Patrick, a young man who has information about Marcus and who may have been instrumental in his disappearance.

The Last Stoic: Extract Two

_The Last Stoic - Front Cover

“What is that?” Patrick asked, gesturing toward Vincent’s book.

“It is a copy of The Meditations.

Patrick looked back blankly.

“The writings of Marcus Aurelius.  I gave it to my grandson as a goodbye gift, but in his haste he forgot it.  I brought it down with me to give to him when we meet again.  I thought I might lend it to you, his friend, until he gets back.”

Vincent handed him the book.  Patrick chose not to remind the old man again that he and Mark were just acquaintances.

“It’s a book of observances.  Almost two thousand years old.  It has been indispensable to me.  I like to open it at random, let the pages fall where they may, and read the first paragraph I see.  It never disappoints.”

Patrick held the book, appraising it with his hands.

“Go ahead,” Vincent said, “Try it!”

Patrick looked at Vincent for a moment and then let the book fall open.  He read the first sentence of the first paragraph that met his eyes.  In all you do or say or think, recollect that at any time the power of withdrawal from life is in your own hands.

“Let me try again,” he said.

He closed the book and let it fall open again.  Once more he started reading from the paragraph where his gaze landed.

“Read it out loud,” Vincent urged.

Very soon you will be dead,” Patrick said.  He considered closing the book and handing it back immediately, but Vincent looked on with expectation and interest.  He felt compelled to continue.  “But even yet you are not single-minded, nor above disquiet; not yet unapprehensive of harm from without; not yet charitable to all men, nor persuaded that to do justly is the only wisdom.”

“Ah!” Vincent exclaimed.  “Marvellous.  I tell you, that book has a way of summing it all up and wrapping it in a bow.  It’s funny how it always seems so pertinent.”

Patrick closed the book again and sat staring at the old man a few feet away in the confined sitting room of his tiny living space.  Vincent looked frail and weathered, but there was resilience underneath, like heartwood behind the bark.  The man has lost his grandson, who obviously means a good deal to him, and yet he is still able to be friendly and generous to someone he has never met.

“I suppose I should go,” Vincent said suddenly, rising from his chair.  “Please, borrow it until Mark returns.  I think you will find it most useful. ”

“Don’t go,” Patrick said suddenly, surprising both himself and his guest.  Vincent, already halfway to the door, stopped and turned.

“I’m sorry son,” he said, “I need to rejoin my daughter-in-law, she is probably worried by my absence and, given everything, she is already beside herself.  We need to continue the search.  Perhaps we’ll meet again soon.”

Vincent moved toward the door.

“Stop,” Patrick said, this time with more force.  “I know something about Mark’s disappearance.”

Vincent dropped his hand from the door knob.

“Come back in,” Patrick said, “stay a while.  Tell me more about your uncle in New Ravenna.  My great-uncle.  I could make you some lunch.”

“Please Patrick,” he said, “tell me what you know.”

The two men stared hard at each other.

“He was taken away,” Patrick said at last, “by some men.  CIA.”

Vincent’s face darkened.  “Where?”

“From the rally, the president’s public address.  They arrested Mark and one of his friends.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

Vincent was motionless.  He held Patrick’s gaze.

“I think they suspected an assassination attempt,” Patrick continued, “at least that’s what I thought I heard one of them say.  I happened to be nearby.”

Vincent swiveled and strode toward the door.

“Where are you going?” Patrick asked.

“I need to make some phone calls.”

“Stop!”

Vincent looked back to see Patrick standing in the kitchen holding a pistol at his side.

“Stay,” he said, waving the gun.

Vincent smiled.

“He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation,” he said, pleasantly, “or fears new sensations.  In reality, you will either feel nothing at all and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any new sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life.”

There was no hint of anger or exasperation in his face.

“I’d prefer if you didn’t shoot me Patrick.  I have many things to do.  But I’m not afraid and I must leave now.”

Patrick raised the gun.

“Stay,” he said.

Vincent turned the knob and opened the door.

The report from the pistol echoed throughout the dormitory halls of the Super Shepherd Ministries.

 

About the author:

Headshot

Morgan Wade’s first novel, The Last Stoic, was edited by award-winning novelist Helen Humphreys (author of best-selling works such as The Reinvention of Love and Coventry).  The Last Stoic made the 2012 ReLit Awards long list.  Morgan’s short stories and poems have been published in Canadian literary journals and anthologies, including, The New Quarterly and The Nashwaak Review. He attended the Humber School of Writing where he worked and studied under novelist Michael Helm.  Morgan lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

The Last Stoic can be ordered online from Amazon: www.amazon.co.uk
More information:  http://laststoic.morganwade.ca

Full Synopsis:

The Last Stoic is a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Half of the story’s narrative occurs in the time and place of the ancient Roman Empire; the other half occurs in the present-day United States. The parallels between the two eras are so strong that the narrative continues uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter.

Marcus, a young man from a northern provincial border town, journeys deep into the heart of the empire and witnesses first-hand the excesses that can lead to ruin, both personal and political. His story offers an ancient commentary on the preoccupations of our own turbulent times. Shortly after his arrival, the empire is thrown into a panic by an unprecedented barbarian attack on the capital. Suspicion and paranoia abound. A young Roman/American runaway named Patrick, disillusioned with his own life and the state of his country, becomes convinced that Marcus is a dangerous traitor. Culminating in a public accusation made by Patrick, Marcus is wrongfully imprisoned, exiled and tortured as an enemy of the state. In prison, he confronts the many contradictions he has found in his adopted home, and in himself. 

Throughout the story, in both eras, the writings of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (The Meditations) insinuate themselves unexpectedly into Marcus’ life. In prison, he is saved by a chance meeting with Sextus Condianus, the “last Stoic” of the title, a cell-mate who is able to fully recite Aurelius’ words and impart their wisdom. Ultimately, it is this unanticipated and unbidden instruction that gives the young man the strength he requires to survive. It becomes evident that the words of the venerable Stoic emperor have as much relevance to our own era as they did to his.

The Last Stoic by Morgan Wade, Part One

The Last Stoic by Morgan Wade is a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Half of the story’s narrative occurs in the time and place of the ancient Roman Empire; the other half occurs in the present-day United States. The parallels between the two eras are so strong that the narrative continues uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter. This first excerpt is taken from the Prologue.  Central to the novel’s theme are the two primary passions identified by the Stoics: appetite and fear.  In the emperor Commodus we find both in abundance.  His gluttony, and his terror, set the stage for what’s to come.  Also, we get a first glimpse of his late father’s famous journal, The Meditations, perhaps the only copy extant at this time.

The Last Stoic: Extract One

_The Last Stoic - Front Cover

Commodus did not notice the dusky figure lingering at the foot of the vast, marble bath, just beyond the candle glow.  He was preoccupied with the parchment that Galen had presented to him earlier that evening; he spooled and unspooled it, glancing idly at the mass of script.  Actually reading his late father’s journal, at this hour and in his condition, would take an effort he had no intention of summoning.  He’d read as far as the second line…

Existimatione et recordatione genitoris mei ad verecundiam et animum viro dignum excitari debeo.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.

…and then was content to toy with it between his meaty fingers.

A scuffing of sandal leather against stone echoed through the caldarium.  Commodus hoisted his body from one side of the pool to the other, scanning the shadows, choking back the familiar reflux.  The cylinder of goatskin buckled under his tightened grip.  Tepid water, viscous with a dozen oils and perfumes, slopped unctuously between his thighs and under his buttocks as he rolled over, exacerbating the churn of his stomach.

Earlier, he had forced down more bloody portions of that very rare roast beef than he was otherwise inclined, prodded by Marcia’s urging.  And then there was the array of smelly cheeses from Belgica, olives from Apulia, the hen, quail, pigeon, peacock, and ostrich eggs, sea urchins from Misenum, mussels and clams from Ostia, potted hare and venison from the forests of Germania, pickled tuna and grilled mullet from the Hispanic coast, trout and pheasant from Britannia, broiled Egyptian flamingo stuffed with figs, roast side of Umbrian boar, sow’s udder, antelope tongue, sheep stomach, calf brains.  The five cups of undiluted Falernian wine that sluiced down dinner were just enough to numb his gouty toes, but they constituted no more than an average evening’s drinking.  Although he had vomited twice since dinner, once more than was typical, there was none of the customary reinvigoration.

            “Who’s that?  Identify yourself!”

The man padded forward.  Candle-light flickered across his features, accentuating the lines of sinew and ridges of muscle.  He gazed toward the emperor, handsome and haughty.

The emperor made a sound like air escaping slowly from a bladder.

“Not tonight Narcissus.”

            The slave did not withdraw.

            “Not tonight!  I’m not well!”

Narcissus moved forward noiselessly and with purpose, like a leopard.  Commodus watched; his burly jaw-hinge slackened.  Narcissus moved behind the emperor and he began to massage his thickly knotted shoulders.  Waves of pleasure rolled up his neck and down his back, tension melting under the forceful manipulations.  For a moment, the warm sensation spreading out from the kneading fingers held at bay the discomfort threatening from his abdomen.  But the nausea swelled again and Commodus was reminded of his slave’s appalling disobedience.

“Narcissus!”

Quick fingers clenched around the emperor’s windpipe, treating him to the second great shock of the evening.

Commodus dropped the roll of parchment to the edge of the bath and clutched at the black, straining fingers pressing into his neck.  He was larger and heavier than his assailant, but in his weakened state he was unable to resist.  This was one wrestling match that the Nubian would not artfully lose.

 The smile on the emperor’s face looked more like a grimace.  At the time, it had seemed peculiar how no-one else had partaken of the roast beef.  Now it was obvious.  Poison.  The extra regurgitation earlier had saved his life, temporarily.  Frustrated, Marcia had sent Narcissus to finish the job.  Commodus ground his teeth imagining her clandestine collaborations with the magnificent athlete, rutting with him like a bitch, by way of concluding the deal.  Again, most inappropriately, he was aroused.

Narcissus, disgusted, poured every ounce of reserved strength into his constricting fingers.  There was a loud pop of cracking vertebrae and tearing ligaments.  As the oxygen dissipated from the emperor’s body, his resistance abated and he began to revert to a foetal position, crunching himself into a ball.  From the emperor’s core a final chasm of fear yawned and caused an utter evacuation of his bowels.  The cooling water of the bath, originally sweet with aromatics, now darkened and muddied into a foul broth.  Through his diminishing consciousness, Commodus could see his father, standing on a distant hill, clad in gold armour, bathed in the warmth of a Mediterranean sun reflected and redoubled in its brilliance.  The emperor began to cry the pure, unrestrained tears of a baby.  In his fading reverie he called out to his father, but the distance was too great, and his words were carried away by the wind.

“Father,” Commodus mouthed, “forgive me.”

Narcissus stood, bent to retrieve the crumpled parchment from the stone floor, and turned to rejoin the shadows.  The mass of the emperor’s body began to sink into the thick water until, with a soft burble, he submerged.

About the author:

Headshot

Morgan Wade’s first novel, The Last Stoic, was edited by award-winning novelist Helen Humphreys (author of best-selling works such as The Reinvention of Love and Coventry).  The Last Stoic made the 2012 ReLit Awards long list.  Morgan’s short stories and poems have been published in Canadian literary journals and anthologies, including, The New Quarterly and The Nashwaak Review. He attended the Humber School of Writing where he worked and studied under novelist Michael Helm.  Morgan lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

The Last Stoic can be ordered online from Amazon: www.amazon.co.uk
More information:  http://laststoic.morganwade.ca

Full Synopsis:

The Last Stoic is a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Half of the story’s narrative occurs in the time and place of the ancient Roman Empire; the other half occurs in the present-day United States. The parallels between the two eras are so strong that the narrative continues uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter.

Marcus, a young man from a northern provincial border town, journeys deep into the heart of the empire and witnesses first-hand the excesses that can lead to ruin, both personal and political. His story offers an ancient commentary on the preoccupations of our own turbulent times. Shortly after his arrival, the empire is thrown into a panic by an unprecedented barbarian attack on the capital. Suspicion and paranoia abound. A young Roman/American runaway named Patrick, disillusioned with his own life and the state of his country, becomes convinced that Marcus is a dangerous traitor. Culminating in a public accusation made by Patrick, Marcus is wrongfully imprisoned, exiled and tortured as an enemy of the state. In prison, he confronts the many contradictions he has found in his adopted home, and in himself. 

Throughout the story, in both eras, the writings of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (The Meditations) insinuate themselves unexpectedly into Marcus’ life. In prison, he is saved by a chance meeting with Sextus Condianus, the “last Stoic” of the title, a cell-mate who is able to fully recite Aurelius’ words and impart their wisdom. Ultimately, it is this unanticipated and unbidden instruction that gives the young man the strength he requires to survive. It becomes evident that the words of the venerable Stoic emperor have as much relevance to our own era as they did to his.