Like many other members of the new Stoicism movement, I have a great interest in ancient Roman history. The Roman Empire is not only a fascinating subject in its own right, but knowledge of it also can help us gain a more profound understanding of Stoic philosophy. One of the world’s foremost experts on Roman history today is Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge university. In her books and her BBC documentaries, Beard presents the complexities of ancient Roman society in a way that is not only educational but also entertaining. So it was with tremendous joy that I recently found myself able to sit down with her latest work, a general history of Rome titled SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus: “The Senate and the People of Rome”).
To be sure, I began reading SPQR with a few caveats in mind. I knew that this was going to be a book that focused more on the politics, society, economy and everyday life in Rome than on its schools of philosophy, Moreover, I was aware that Beard was no fan of Stoicism. Whenever I see her name, I still have to think about a review she wrote several years ago of three biographies of the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca: “How Stoical was Seneca?” The reviewed authors all viewed Seneca as a hypocrite and Beard agreed with them. For her, Seneca only affected a virtuous life to divert attention from his involvement with the tyrant Nero and from his amassment of enormous wealth by dubious means.
Beard even mocked Seneca’s suicide. (Nero believed Seneca was part of a conspiracy against him and commanded that he kill himself.) After failing to draw enough blood by slashing his veins (“he was so old and emaciated the blood hardly escaped”), Seneca took hemlock, offering a libation to Jupiter. This was, so Beard, an obvious attempt to emulate Socrates’ legendary death. But the poison also failed to achieve the desired effect, so Seneca ordered his servants to bring him into a hot bath, where he suffocated in the steam. Beard saw something comical in all this. For a philosopher who had devoted so much of his writing to preparations for death, she writes, he made a very bad job of it when his own turn came. Seneca was for Beard a poor exemplar of Stoic philosophy, which she seemed to dislike as much as she disliked him:
Hard-line Stoicism was a deterministic, fatalist doctrine that valued a virtuous life (and death) beyond almost everything else, with very little room for human frailty indeed.
And yet, with all this in mind, I was still not prepared for what I discovered in SPQR:
There are occasional examples of outstanding imperial virtue too. The philosophical Thoughts of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, cliché as much of it is (‘Do not act as if you were going to live 10,000 years. Death hangs over you’) still finds many admirers, buyers and advocates today, from self-help gurus to former US president Bill Clinton.
In truth, it is not necessary for a scholar to sympathize with Stoicism in order to write a first-rate history of ancient Rome (which is what SPQR is). What a reader can expect, however, is that a historian has some understanding of Stoicism before comparing it to contemporary self-help literature or former American presidents with obvious self-control issues. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations contain trite observations which are repeated over and over? Well duh! The repetition of philosophical principles was necessary, the Stoics taught, because we tend to keep forgetting them.
As those of you reading this now know, my initial response to Beard’s comment was a decidedly non-Stoic one. I felt a twinge of anger and responded in a mocking tone. Had I remembered my Stoic principles, however, I would have realized that it was my own self who had decided that Mary Beard had somehow offended me and all modern-day Stoics. I also would have considered how to respond in a more mature manner. Now that I have taken a moment to regain my composure (cognitive distancing: another trite Stoic principle), I will attempt to do just that.
When Marcus Aurelius was writing what came to be known as his Meditations or “Thoughts”, he was not composing a philosophical treatise intended for academic discussion; instead he was keeping a private journal intended to help him live a more virtuous life. This was (and remains) common Stoic practice. Epictetus, one of the greatest Stoic philosophers, stressed the importance of this exercise to his students: Let these things be ready at hand, night and day. These things write, these things read: of these things talk both to yourself and to others. (Discourses, 3:24). The purpose of this practice is described well by the writer Jules Evans. As he put is, Stoics keep journals full practiced a form of “autosuggestion”:
The student memorises these sayings, writes them down in their journal, repeats them to themselves, and carries them around – that’s the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or “close at hand”. We repeat the maxims until “through daily meditation [we] reach the point where these wholesome maxims occur of their own accord”, as Seneca put it. We assimilate them into our inner dialogue, and make them a “part of oneself”. The teachings become merged with our “tissue and blood”, part of our “body”. We become the Logos made flesh.
Another passage of SPQR which might irritate modern-day Stoic readers comes when Beard discusses Marcus Aurelius’ military exploits:
And some of the modern admirers of the gentle philosopher-emperor Marcus would be less admiring if they reflected on the the brutality of the suppression of the Germans, proudly illustrated in the scenes of battle that circle their way up the commemorative column that still stands in the centre of Rome; though less famous, it was clearly intended to rival Trajan’s and was carefully built just a little taller.
First, as a scholar of German history, I wince every time other historians use the term “the Germans” in this anachronistic way. “The Germans,” as a distinct ethnic-cultural nation, did not emerge until the Middle Ages, at the earliest. “Germanic” would be more accurate for the ancient world. But I digress. More important is Beard’s suggestion that, since Marcus Aurelius engaged in brutal warfare, he violated his Stoic principles and was therefore, like Seneca, some kind of a hypocrite.
Marcus Aurelius was not always a mild-mannered philosopher, but an emperor and a general who also committed acts of violence that would make us blanch today? If I may be allowed one more un-stoical response: Another shocker! Anyone who has devoted any amount of serious study to the history ancient Rome knows this. Marcus Aurelius was responsible for things that today would get him sent to the International Court of Criminal Justice at the Hague. But Marcus Aurelius did not reign in the twenty-first century. He was a man of his time, and the ancient world was a very violent place.
In contrast to many other Roman emperors, however, Marcus never prosecuted wars of conquest. His wars were purely defensive — and necessary. Several times in the course of his reign, Germanic tribes invaded the Roman empire, pillaging and murdering local populaces, and setting off a wave of panic that reached the city of Rome itself. As a Stoic, he knew that the gods or the fates have entrusted each one of us with certain duties and responsibilities which we must carry out as best we can. As emperor, it was Marcus’ chief duty to protect the empire. He discharged his duty, trying to maintain his humanity as far as possible.
While it is true that his armies repelled the invaders with great brutality, the ancient accounts report that Marcus was also magnanimous to the Germanic tribes once they had been subdued. It is also important to remember that, despite certain similarities, Stoics are not Christians. Being a Stoic does not mean that one has to be a pacifist as well. (Christians themselves, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, have also historically honored Christ’s pleas for love, peace and forgiveness more in the breach than in the observance.) Perhaps this is why Stoicism has traditionally found a receptive audience within the military. In any case, by guiding his troops into battle, Marcus was honoring his Stoic principles, not betraying them.
If I may conclude on another digression: While Mary Beard herself may be no admirer of Stoicism and the Stoics, she has, in the past few years, exhibited some public behavior which Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius would have found commendable. In 2013 Internet trolls reacted to some of Beard’s television appearances with vile, obscene, misogynist comments on Twitter. Beard responded by publicly naming and shaming them. Most remarkably, however, she later forgave her trolls and even befriended some of them. As she said, people shouldn’t be punished forever for solitary acts of stupidity: In general, I am more concerned to be sure that people don’t use the internet in this way (or don’t do so again) than to seek ‘punishment’. Mary Beard’s dignified and generous response to her tormentors is worthy of a philosopher. Perhaps, somewhere along the way of her decades spent studying ancient Rome, she acquired some Stoic habits of mind after all.
And I would highly recommend all fellow modern Stoics to buy a copy of SPQR. Not to learn about the ancient Roman Stoics, but to discover the fascinating world in which they lived.
Kevin Kennedy is a German-American historian, writer, lecturer and commentator. He lives with his Swedish partner and their two children in Potsdam, Germany and Kungsbacka, Sweden. His academic specialty is eighteenth-century Prussian history. He discovered Stoicism some twenty years ago, but it has only become a part of his daily life since the first Stoic Week in 2013. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.