Happy St. Patrick’s (& Marcus Aurelius’) Day! by Kevin Vost

I, Patrick, am a sinner,
the most uncultured and smallest among the faithful,
and indeed, many people consider me to be worthless.
– St. Patrick, Confession

Take care that you turn not into a Caesar…
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI, 30

The pagan Celtic goddess Brigid was associated with the feast of Imbolc on February 1 (the same date Catholics would later celebrate the feast of Saint Brigid of Kildare). Heralding the coming of spring, Imbolc marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. Though the date may sound a little early for spring, according to an old Irish tale, things would just begin to “think about growing” on February 1. On that day one ancient fabled hag who lived underground would begin to push the dormant vegetation up through the earth while two other hags would keep holding it down. By St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, the second hag would join in to push the plants up, and finally, by April 1, all three were pushing things up, signifying that by then spring had definitely sprung!

Well, in the year 2020 spring starts on March 19, but I am going to zoom in on the date that the two hags got busy, that is, on March 17.  On that date, as nature moves so close to spring, my thoughts turn not only to the patron saint of the Irish, but to one of the patron sages of the Stoics. 

St. Patrick died on March 17, most likely sometime around 461 AD.  On March 17, 180, a century before St. Patrick was born, the western world lost its foremost leader, Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Great celebrations mark St. Patrick’s feast to this day (though Patrick himself was not known for wearing gaudy green clothing, drinking great drafts of green beer, sailing down green rivers, or marching in parades.) Though Marcus is becoming increasingly and deservedly well-known in our time, I am not aware of any formal public celebrations of the anniversary of his death. Still, there is no reason we, as modern Stoics, cannot celebrate him in our own ways.

What I hope to do in this brief article is to pay a little homage to both of these great men by providing a few comparisons and contrasts, and by highlighting a few virtuous character traits both men held in common, but expressed in their own ways through actions of their lives according to their unique times, locations, beliefs, and roles.

Humility

Humility is a fitting virtue both for Christians and Stoics. Deriving from the Latin word humus for the earth’s soil, it reminds the Christian (and the Jew) that we are “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” (cf.  Gen. 3:19, Job 30:19; 42:6). None of us gave ourselves life and all of us are mortal. Cultivating this awareness can help keep us from the kind of pride whereby we come think of ourselves as like God. The Stoic too was well aware both of our rootedness in nature and of our mortality, and like the ancient Greeks, the Stoics warned us against the hubris that would lead us to strive to control things beyond our own powers or to focus on praise and glory rather than on living a good and principled life for its own sake.

If any men might rightfully be tempted toward pride or hubris, both Patrick and Marcus would seem excellent candidates.  Marcus, as Roman Emperor, was the most powerful man on all the earth. Patrick, at the height of his power, converted the chieftains and kings of an entire island nation away from their traditional religion to embrace the Christianity he loved and preached.

Indeed, to see what a legendary figure Patrick would become, one can read the incredible pious legends of St. Patrick’s astonishing miracles which abound in the ancient lives, as was the style for the hagiographical writing of the Middle Ages.  Some of the stories are quite whimsical, like his driving the snakes out of Ireland (though it seems they actually never lived there). Others should seem highly questionable in light of St. Patrick’s saintly character—like praying to God that the citizens of Rome be put asleep so that in their slumber he could make off with a load of their precious relics to take back home to Ireland! Surely, this holy saint was well aware of the demands of  justice summarized in the Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal!” 

Still, we have one extant book, in addition to a brief letter, penned by the real Patrick himself, known as the Confession. Its first sentence appears at the start of this article. How strange to see the conqueror of Druids, converter of a nation, banisher of demons (as well as snakes), raiser of the long dead, worker of sundry miracles, bearer of the very staff of Jesus Christ, not to mention the namesake of countless parades in the centuries to come, declare that he is considered “worthless” by many! The real Patrick was indeed a humble man.

Marcus is too in a sense a “man of one book,” that book being his magnificent Meditations. Marcus was the leader of many nations and a man of many accomplishments. Edward Gibbon, in his classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, considered Marcus the last of the five good Roman emperors in the comparatively golden time just before Rome declined and fell.  Of course, there were many Roman emperors (about 70) over the course of the empire’s 500 years of existence, but Marcus is the only one dear to modern Stoics. Indeed, he is also often called “The Last Stoic.” 

In Marcus’s own words too we find both irony and humility. Behold the last great pagan Roman Emperor, official bearer of the titles Augustus and Caesar, and the last great Stoic philosopher as well, in a time when some Roman Emperors were popularly acclaimed or proclaimed themselves gods, exhorting himself, “take care that you do not become a Caesar.” Indeed, he proceeds to advise himself to live a simple, good, free, and pure life, “a friend of justice, a worshipper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all right acts.”

May both these men inspire and remind us to strive for great accomplishments while remembering our own limitations, with eyes focused squarely upon noble goals, rather than seeking other’s eyes on ourselves.

Integrity

Modern dictionaries define integrity to mean the possession of a sound moral character; to be complete or whole; or to be unimpaired or perfect. I am using the term in both the first and second senses to refer to Patrick and Marcus, integrity meaning a noble, principled moral character (the first definition) that shows through in one’s thoughts, words, and deeds, in other words, in the person as a whole (second definition). To put it in the terms of modern slang expressions, the person of integrity is the man (or woman) who is “the real deal,” and who “walks his talk.”

Both Patrick and Marcus seem to have been entirely sincere in all they proclaimed, and to have guided their own daily lives, as much as is humanly possible, by their highest moral principles. I believe one key element to each man’s integrity rings out pretty clear in both of their writings, and it is the fact that they both so frequently and fervently absorbed the wisdom of their faith (Patrick) or philosophy (Marcus) that their principles virtually oozed out through their pores. Please allow me to explain and provide a few examples.

To begin with Patrick and give his story in short, this son of a Catholic deacon and grandson of a priest grew up in Bannavem Taberniae (“the field of the tents”) that once had housed the Roman legions somewhere in the western half of the island of Britain in the waning days of its rule by the Romans.  He did not take his Christianity very seriously until after his capture by Irish pirates, along with many others from his village, just before he turned sixteen years old.   While forced to tend pigs and sheep somewhere in Ireland, Patrick grew in his faith, reporting in his own words that he would come to pray to God, “one-hundred times a day and as many times at night.”

During his sixth year of captivity, Patrick, now a young man of about age twenty-two, heard a voice in a dream tell him that he would return to his own country. Soon after, the voice told him that his ship was ready but that it was about 200 miles away in a place he had never been and where he knew not a soul. Patrick, as a runaway Irish slave, could have faced death if he were captured, and so could any who had helped him. Nonetheless, Patrick tells us that with God directing his path, he made the journey without fear, and he did indeed gain passage on a ship that returned him to his home and his freedom.

There is an interesting detail in the summary above from the seventeenth section of Patrick’s Confession. For centuries, scholars had consulted maps of ancient Ireland, trying to deduce from his mention of 200 miles exactly where Patrick had been held and where he met the boat that took him home. Modern Patrick biographer Thomas O’Loughlin notes that a distance of 200 miles equates to the “one thousand and six hundred stadia” referred to in the New Testament Book of Revelation 14:20.  It is used in Scripture to represent a great distance.

Patrick, then, may not have been attempting to give any kind of exact measurement of the actual distance. Rather, by the time Patrick wrote his life story decades later, he had become so immersed in Christian teachings that he practically thought, wrote, and lived, in and through the words of Holy Scripture. Indeed, while Patrick’s Confession is quite brief, divided by modern scholars into 62 passages roughly commensurate in length with the 53 passages of Epictetus’s condensed Enchiridion, it contains more than 100 direct references or allusions to the Bible. This I see as one important key to Patrick’s own integrity. He so imbibed and absorbed the lessons of Scripture into his moral character that he thought, wrote, and lived by them.

A similar phenomenon is readily apparent in Marcus’s Meditations, where the words and the lessons, not of the Christian Bible, but of the teachings of the Stoics, most particularly Epictetus, ring out loud and clear in every page, sometimes through direct references and homage to Epictetus, but by far more often as reformulated in Marcus’s own words. 

In his Discourses, Epictetus reminds his students that sheep don’t vomit up grass to show their shepherds how much they have eaten, but they chew and digest that grass and then produce wool and milk of their own. Marcus had chewed on and digested the rich, verdant grass of Epictetus’s lessons for decades before he produced the wool and the milk of his Meditations, wool and milk that can help shield us from the elements and nourish our souls even to this day.  Moreover, the Stoic lessons that Marcus digested came through not only in his words to himself, but in his acts. The ways in which Marcus “walked his talk,” produced deeds that helped Roman citizens live  flourishing lives in the second century and can help us do so in the twenty-first.

Fortitude

The strength of moral character referred to as the virtue of courage or fortitude rings out boldly again and again in the lives of our saint and our sage. Let’s look at a few examples, borrowing from St. Thomas Aquinas’s analysis of the allied virtues that are essential to the full display of fortitude. He borrowed primarily from Cicero, and a bit from Aristotle, in describing two active virtues of magnanimity and magnificence, and two more passive virtues of patience and perseverance.

Megalopsychia, magnanimity, or greatness of soul, was Aristotle’s contribution to the Thomistic quartet of fortitude. It entails a focus on great things truly worthy or honor for their own sake, regardless of whether or not one’s person is honored for doing them. The magnanimous person focuses on what matters that most and doesn’t get lost in things that are mean and petty. Indeed, in book one of the Meditations, Marcus thanks Diognetus for teaching him not to busy himself about trifling things and Severus for teaching him undeviating devotion to philosophy.  We can see such singled-minded great souledness in Patrick’s zeal to convert an entire nation to Christ, and in Marcus’s zeal to live out the truths of Stoicism in his own life, not merely for his own inner tranquility, but so that he could best play out the role assigned to him to protect and defend the world’s most extensive empire.

Magnificence is the second active allied virtue, and it entails the capacity to make great things through outlays of one’s own efforts and resources. Patrick displayed magnificence in abundance. Not only did he build up “the Church” in Ireland, he and the cadre of literal builders and craftsmen he brought with him would erect hundreds of actual wooden churches to be used as houses of God for the nation of new Christians he helped build as no one had before him. As Patrick helped make a land with many barbarous and brutal practices more civilized, Marcus, through his magnificence, gave an already magnificent empire its last golden moments before its fall, leading through his example as the greatest philosopher-king the world has seen.

Patience is the first of the passive or enduring virtues comprising fortitude. It is the ability to endure suffering or insults in pursuit of noble ends. Patrick was exceedingly patient. Indeed, he had been home in Ireland but for a few short years, when in a dream, he heard “the voice of the Irish” people, calling him to come back to them. From that moment on he experienced a burning desire to go back to the land of his captors and share with them the gospel of Christ. Still, one of the greatest feats of patience in the ancient lives of St. Patrick is told in a story featuring the great saint, but he was not the one who displayed the astonishing patience.

One day, as the story goes, young prince Angus, son of the King of Munster, underwent a  most unusual baptism. At the end of the ceremony, Patrick noticed fresh blood on the ground. He was much aggrieved to see that the sharp pointed end of his crozier had pierced through the young prince’s foot! When he asked the royal warrior why he had endured it without uttering a word, Angus told him he assumed it was part of the ceremony, the price one must pay for such heavenly benefits! The Irish apostle, greatly impressed by the young prince’s heroic fortitude, inscribed a cross on his shield with the same staff, prophesying that the shield would see innumerable physical and spiritual victories.

Patience could just about be Marcus’s middle name.  His Meditations brim over time and again with self-exhortations to patiently bear insults and injuries from others. So many previous emperors, and not only the insane or sociopathic ones like Caligula and Nero, treated real or imagined enemies with subjugation, confiscation, banishment, or execution, while Marcus reminds himself to forgive in advance every day “the busy-body, the thankless, the overbearing, the treacherous, the envious, and the unneighborly,” because they do not know what they do, lacking real understanding of what is good and evil.

We who understand the truth and beauty of the good, he says, must not hate them or let them upset us, but must strive to cooperate with them like the hands, and the feet, they eyelids and the upper and lower rows of teeth, coming as we do from the same divine source. How intriguing, as well, to hear the most powerful man in the world remind himself to patiently bear injuries to his own body too, for example, when he is accidentally wounded by the fingernails of a wrestling partner.

Perseverance is the last virtue related to fortitude that we will consider. It entails staying the course over time despite great and enduring hardships. As for Patrick, due to the years of captivity during his teens, he ever afterwards considered himself woefully uneducated. He had to work and study for decades before he could heed the call of the voice of the Irish and come back to them as a bishop armed with the Christian knowledge, ecclesiastical authority, power, and resources to convert scores of native pagan chieftains and their peoples to the way of Christ.  It was not until his 40s or 50s that Patrick began his great mission of conversion.

Marcus also displayed remarkable perseverance throughout his life. While Patrick reports he did not take life serious until sometime after his capture around age 16, we find Marcus, the recipient of a most excellent education, at age 12, imposing austerities upon himself, desiring to mimic the ancient Cynic philosophers by wearing a simple cloak and sleeping on the ground – in the midst of a palace! It was reported that only at his mother’s insistence did young Marcus agree to sleep on a small bed covered in straw.

A few years later, at age 16, shortly after the age Patrick was abducted by pirates, Marcus’s future as a philosopher, was, so to speak, abducted by an emperor. Marcus once remarked that one’s eyes reveal one’s character. Perhaps it was something in the child Marcus’s eyes that captured the good will of the emperor Hadrian, who nicknamed him “Verissimus,” playing on Marcus’s grandfather’s name, “Verus,” which means true, and amping it up to the max – “verissimus” meaning “truest.” On February 25, 138, months before his death, Hadrian adopted Marcus’s maternal uncle T. Aurelius Antoninus on the condition that Antoninus in turn adopt the 16-year-old Marcus, along with 7-year-old Lucius Verus.     

 Recall, if you will, Patrick’s dream of the voice of the Irish that presaged the role he would undertake decades later as the father of Christian Ireland (his name, Patricius, itself deriving from the Latin pater, for father). Well, on the night of Marcus’s adoption he reported a dream that his shoulders had turned to ivory and had been endowed with great strength. That July 8th, the shoulders of Marcus’s adoptive father would bear the weight of the world as Hadrian died. Antoninus succeeded him and Marcus become co-heir to the empire. Nearly 22 years later on March 7, 161, the good emperor Antoninus passed away and the nearly 40-year-old Marcus would become co-ruler, along with Lucius Verus his adoptive brother. Nine years later, Lucius, though the younger of the two co-emperors, would pass away as well, leaving to Marcus’s ivory shoulders sole responsibility for the administration of the Roman Empire.    

It was during the final years of his life that this man of ideas found himself on the frozen banks of German rivers commanding the legions of Rome. Still, perhaps in the evenings, this reluctant man of war sheathed his sword and drew forth his stylus, with mightier and far farther reaching results. At the day’s end, he became the philosopher he was by nature and self-training, recording the Meditations to cajole himself to virtue, and whether he intended it or not, to provide similar consolation and inspiration to countless generations that have followed him.

Gratitude

Though Seneca literally wrote the book on gratitude (On Benefits), I am hard-pressed to think of other saints or sages who wrote about and displayed in their lives the virtue of gratitude as clearly and as repeatedly as did St. Patrick and Marcus Aurelius. 

In one amusing story form the ancient hagiographies revealing Patrick’s gratitude, a king had delivered to Patrick a fine and valuable massive copper cauldron. When he asked what Patrick had replied in response to his gift, his messenger said that the saint merely said, “Thanks be to God.” Thinking this a meager response to such a magnificent gift, the king bade his messenger to go take it back. When he arrived home the second time, the king asked St. Patrick’s response.  His messenger said the saint said, “Thanks be to God.” Impressed by this man who praised God whether a gift was bestowed or removed, he instructed his messenger to take the cauldron back to Patrick, and the king decided he must go and meet him!  Perhaps this incident will remind some Stoic readers of Epictetus’ counsel to wish that everything happens as it does, and to think of anything that we lose that we have given it back. The small samples we have of Patrick’s own writings are suffused with explicit gratitude to God for everything he has given to such an ordinary and uneducated man.

As for Marcus, readers will recall the first book of his Meditations as a veritable paean of gratitude. He expresses his indebtedness to the gods from giving him the specific family members, friends, teachers, and mentors who helped him in various ways throughout his life, enumerating key lessons he learned from each of them. Among the most notable for our purposes are his words of thanks to the philosopher Rusticus who taught him he needed to train and improve his character, to be forgiving, and to be careful in his opinions. He gives him special thanks as well for providing him with the most treasured book in his library – the Memoirs of Epictetus (most likely the Discourses).  For this reason we owe our gratitude to Rusticus as well, for those Epictetan Memoirs provided the seedsthat would grow into Marcus’s Meditations.

Concluding Thoughts on Virtues, Sages, and Saints

I’ve culled less than a handful of character traits that shine forth in Patrick and Marcus, and there is certainly a good measure of arbitrariness in the virtues of humility, integrity, fortitude, and gratitude that I’ve selected. Both men were so dedicated to living out their understanding of goodness and truth that their writings and lives manifested all manners of virtues. If we were to draw parallels between these virtues and the four classical cardinal virtues of temperance (self-control), fortitude (courage), prudence (practical wisdom), and justice (Stoics like Musonius Rufus referring to them in Greek as sophrosyne, andreia, phronesis, and diakaiosyne),  I would note parallels between humility and temperance, since both can rein in selfish desires; between fortitude, and well, fortitude of course; between gratitude and justice, since justice involves giving all their rightful due, including our benefactors; and between integrity and prudence, since it surely requires practical wisdom to translate the truths that one believes into an art of living well over the course of a lifetime as expressed through the acts of one’s daily life.

 So how might we choose to celebrate this St. Patrick’s (and Marcus Aurelius’) Day? I suppose one could offer a toast or libation of green beer or Falernian wine. Better still would be to dip into Patrick’s brief Confession (only 20 pages or so and readily available free online) and to visit or revisit Marcus’ Meditations.  Perhaps their wisdom can help us become better men or women this spring by growing a little humbler, stronger, more thankful, and more consistent in thinking noble thoughts and doing noble deeds.

Kevin Vost, Psy.D. is the author of twenty books including The Porch and the Cross and Three Irish Saints. He recently provided a talk 40 Years on the Porch: Lessons Ancient Stoics Taught at Stoicon-X MKE 2019.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today, president of ReasonIO, adjunct professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design | Sadler's Lectures podcast - https://soundcloud.com/gregorybsadler | YouTube channel with 1700+ philosophy videos - https://www.youtube.com/c/GregoryBSadler

2 thoughts on “Happy St. Patrick’s (& Marcus Aurelius’) Day! by Kevin Vost”

  1. Nicely done, Kevin! If I had to offer a “diagnosis” of the woes that plague our modern culture, it would be stated in terms of “absence”; namely, the pervasive lack of humility, integrity, fortitude, and gratitude. Hence, “the center cannot hold,” as Yeats famously put it. Thank you for the fine exposition on St. Patrick and Marcus.

    Regards,
    Ron

    Ronald W. Pies MD

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.