Stoicism and Christianity, III: Marcus

MarcusWe now get to the third of the three great Roman Stoics as seen from a Christian perspective, following along C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. (Part I on Seneca is here; part II on Epictetus here.) Of course the analysis is based entirely on the Meditations, about which Pierre Hadot said: “Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations … are not the spontaneous outpourings of a soul that wants to express its thoughts immediately, but rather an exercise, accomplished in accordance with definite rules. … [The Meditations ] presuppose a pre-existing canvas, upon which the philosopher-emperor could only embroider.” And a significant part of that canvas was provided by the work of Epictetus, which Marcus had read and studied. Also keep in mind, throughout the following, that the Meditations are characterized by Marcus going back over and over to the three Epictetean disciplines of desire, action, and assent.

As usual, Rowe proceeds by discussion what he sees as the major themes emerging from a given author’s work, and in this case the first theme is that of death. Marcus did spend a significant amount of time in the Meditations talking about death, similar to Seneca, and definitely more than Epictetus. Considering that he wrote the diary while on a military campaign against the Marcomanni, this is probably not surprising, quite aside from the general interest of the Stoics in the topic, and of whatever aspect of Marcus’ personality this may also reflect.

To begin with, Marcus notes how death reaches everyone, “death laid low not only ‘Alexander the Great but also his muleteer.'” Second, death is a natural phenomenon, that is, it happens according to nature, as the Stoics would say: “Dissolution is but one of the processes of nature, such as to be young and to grow old … to grow teeth and beard and gray hairs … and if one is afraid of a work of nature, why that’s childish!” Third, he reflects on the possible outcomes of death: “Concerning death: if we’re atoms, then we’re scattered; and if we’re a whole, then it’s either extinction or translation.” So Marcus is not concerned with whatever happen after death, but he includes the Epicurean outcome (“atoms”) as one of the possibilities. As Rowe points out: “Marcus’s refusal to decide between the options reflects his honest agnosticism about the specifics of postmortem human reality. … there will be no more ‘Marcus’ after Marcus dies, for everything that dies is finally ‘dissolved into the elemental constituents of the cosmos.'” Lastly, all of this brings him to focus on what really matters, the here and now: “every deed and thought be as a man who can depart from life at any moment.”

The second theme picked up by Rowe in Marcus concerns god and nature, and he notes that Marcus doesn’t use anything resembling the “pious” tone of Epictetus. Here is an example: “there is one cosmos made up of all things, and one God through all things, and one substance, and one law, and one reason common to all intelligent living beings,” which is basic Stoic monistic materialism. Here too, Rowe points out, Epicureanism is a viable alternative for Marcus: “Remember … either Providence or atoms!” (See this essay of mine to expand on the point.) Regardless, however, Marcus does see value in the Stoic idea that to understand how to live one’s life (ethics) one also has to have some understanding of how the world works (physics): “The man who does not know what the cosmos is does not know what he is.”

The next theme is that of human beings and right judgments, where Marcus is concerned with what the Stoics called phantasia, that is, the multifarious “impressions” with which we are constantly bombarded, and that we need to submit to our “ruling faculty” in order to arrive to a correct judgment of what is and is not important. And how does the Stoic deal with phantasia? “Just as the doctors have their instruments and scalpels always at hand for cases that require emergency therapy, so you have your prepared dogmata.” Dogmata, the root of the English word dogma, means nothing like the modern usage of it, but refers rather to correctly formed judgments (you can imagine, however, how, over the centuries, the original meaning could have turned into the modern one: if your judgment are correct, then you don’t want to change them…). Rowe makes the interesting point that the Stoics kept their dogmata handy, so to speak, always ready for action: “it is too late to begin looking for the correct Stoically formed judgments once the impression strikes. We need the dogmata, in a favorite phrase of [Marcus], ‘right at hand.'” And here is a good summary of Stoic training in that respect: “the more he meditates, the more the dogmata lie close at hand; the closer the dogmata, the more automatic the sorting; the more automatic the sorting, the happier the man.”

Rowe then takes up an intimately related theme, that of human beings and the possibility of right judgments. He says: “If we were to ask Marcus how exactly ‘Nature has given us authority over impressions,’ he would respond with one word: the hēgemonikon (governing-faculty within us).” Epictetus tells us that a major goal of Stoic training is, in fact, to sharpen our hēgemonikon, which becomes lazy and inaccurate if we don’t pay attention. In modern scientific parlance, the hēgemonikon is roughly analogous to the brain’s executive functions, housed primarily in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the orbitofrontal cortex. I plan on writing a separate essay on the relationship between the hēgemonikon and the executive functions, as there is much that the modern Stoic can learn from current neuroscience in this respect. Finally, Rowe focuses on “Marcus’s use of the word metadidaskalein [which] shows [that] ‘teaching’ is much broader than ‘do or don’t do this specific thing.’ More comprehensively, metadidaskalein points to the need to adopt a new frame of reference, or mode of understanding the world.” Which is, of course, what Stoicism (or any other life philosophy) aims at providing.

The next theme is philosophy itself: “Philosophy, for Marcus as for the other Stoics, is not intellection alone but is instead ‘to keep the Reason within you unwronged and unharmed, master of pain and pleasure, doing nothing without purpose, nothing through falsehood or with hypocrisy … and, above all, to await death with the merciful knowledge that it is nothing other than a release of the elements of which every living thing has been composed … for this is kata physin, and nothing bad can be kata physin,'” where “kata physin” means according to nature. Marcus reminds himself that in the moment of need the Stoic can retreat into what Pierre Hadot referred to as “the inner citadel”: “you can retreat into yourself at any hour you wish. For nowhere can a person retreat into more tranquility or solitude than in his own soul, especially the one who has the sort of inner habits of thought that immediately bring comfort. And by ‘comfort,’ I mean a well-ordered life. Continually, therefore, grant yourself this retreat and renew yourself.” Crucially, though, for the Stoic (unlike, say, for the Epicurean), this turning inward does not entail a detachment from society or from one’s duties: “‘My nature,’ after all, is simultaneously ‘rational and political.'”

A final theme in Marcus is that of society: “In contrast to the Epicureans … the Stoic tradition emphasized the compatibility of philosophy with civic life; indeed, many went a good deal farther than this and stressed the necessity of civic engagement as part and parcel of what it meant to be a Stoic.” In fact, “our purpose or end (telos), [Marcus] thinks, is to live rationally according to the polity of the cosmos.” But what does this mean in a world where not many people embrace Stoic philosophy? “In practice this often means that those of us who live kata physin must either ‘teach or bear with’ our fellow humans.” Finally, this — humans being what they are — requires patience: “Don’t be disgusted, don’t give up, don’t be impatient if you don’t always succeed in acting from right judgments-formed-by-Stoic-principles (dogmata). But after you fail, return again, and rejoice if most of your conduct is worthy of humanity.”

8 thoughts on “Stoicism and Christianity, III: Marcus

  1. Robin Pennie

    I wonder if at least part of the reason for the change in the use of the word “dogma”, which I was previously unaware of, is due to the difference between schools of thought (including Stoicism) and religions (particularly Buddhism) which are concerned with method and those (particularly the religions of the Book) which make claims to absolute truth.

    In the first case one would need to practice the skill of making right judgments in any given circumstances, while in the second the judgments have to conform to some claimed revealed truth, and then become an extension of the revealed truth that cannot be questioned.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo Post author


    Probably. The change in meaning in the Western tradition certainly did occur during the reign of Christianity in the Middle Ages.


  3. labnut

    One Life‘ is a remarkable book for its lucid, well balanced arguments, deep research and profound conclusions. What a lovely piece of writing it is.

    I find myself having to make an intellectual volte-face once again, just as this atheist did before when he followed the evidence, gave up cherished beliefs and concluded that God did indeed exist(You are free to disagree, I respect disagreements). I started the book agreeing with Massimo and ended the book agreeing with Rowe, who I think, has made a most powerful argument.

    I wholeheartedly support Rowe’s conclusion that the two rival traditions are incommensurate, that the bricolage approach(chapter 9) eviscerates the essential meaning of the traditions as lived philosophies. I don’t necessarily agree with all that he says but I think the main thrust of his argument is incontestable.

    My detailed arguments in support of my contention can wait until Massimo deals with the conclusion.

    For now, though, I want to apologise to Nancy. I vigorously opposed her arguments about Seneca and I was wrong. Nancy, I must admit that you were right and that I was wrong. My reading of Rowe’s book has forced me to make a radical revision of how I understand what you said.

    Nancy, I sincerely apologise and I hope you can accept my apology. I am posting my comment here because the original post has been closed.

    From Rowe:

    This book’s argument is academically surprising because it suggests that the central problem in understanding a rival religious/philosophical tradition is not a lack of knowledge but the fact that rivalry is rooted in different lives. An inexpungible existential wager—and possibility of conversion—is at the heart of all rivalry between traditions. No amount of further study or clearer thinking can overcome lived difference on the question of final truth when the living is necessary to the knowing of the truth

    I thank Massimo for bringing this outstanding book to our attention. I recommend it to Stoics and Christians, who both can learn from it.


  4. labnut

    It is important to note that my previous argument is not arguing for one tradition or another. I think each person must make up his own mind about that. What is important is living your philosophy, whichever you choose, with a deep and authentic commitment.

    Rowe(final chapter):
    Stoicism and Christianity are claims to the truth of life, and knowing the things they teach requires a life that is true.

    We expect the founding figures of a tradition to be clarion examples of a deep and authentic commitment to living their philosophy. This really is the heart of Nancy’s criticism, that Seneca is not a believable example. I suspect she would include Marcus Aurelius in her criticism and I would agree.


  5. Massimo Post author


    I’m glad you found the boook worthwhile, and am looking forward to more discussion when I get to cover Rowe’s crucial argument for incommensurability (which I find only mildly convincing).

    However, I still think that Nancy’s criticism of Seneca is hurried (because the historical evidence is ambiguous at best), and that no similar criticism can possibly be raised against Marcus. More importantly, it doesn’t really matter. Would you reject Christianity if you found out that, say, Paul’s life was less than exemplar? Would his writings be therefore automatically discarded?


  6. labnut

    However, I still think that Nancy’s criticism of Seneca is hurried (because the historical evidence is ambiguous at best),

    That is the problem we have with ancient authors, trying to make sense of fragmentary writings. For example, the four Gospels record a total of 35 days out of about 1000 days of Jesus’ ministry.

    Would you reject Christianity if you found out that, say, Paul’s life was less than exemplar? Would his writings be therefore automatically discarded?

    That is such a difficult question since the truth of a teaching should not depend on the character of the teacher. I think the answer is that we are dealing with more than truth. Truth, to be effective, must ignite our moral imagination. This happens when the teacher lives out his teachings in such a profound way that it fires up our imagination. This is why Jesus, Buddha and Confucius founded great movements. And, I think, this is why Stoicism stalled.

    Returning to the present, I think we are faced with exactly the same problem. The great faith traditions’ appeal rest in the lives of their founders, while Stoicism, by comparison, has an ambiguous foundation. On the other hand, today’s technocratic, meritocratic peoples might find the figures of Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus more appealing precisely because it is un-cool today to make enthusiastic all-out commitments to living a philosophy.


  7. Massimo Post author


    “This is why Jesus, Buddha and Confucius founded great movements. And, I think, this is why Stoicism stalled. … The great faith traditions’ appeal rest in the lives of their founders, while Stoicism, by comparison, has an ambiguous foundation.”

    Besides the fact that I still don’t understand why you equate Marcus and Seneca, character-wise. What about Epictetus? Or Zeno? Or Cato? Or Cleanthes? Or Musonius? So far as we know those were all outstanding examples of moral humans. the foundations of Stoicism are much more clear than those of many religions, because they are rooted in reason, not faith or revelation. That, however, is likely why Stoicism has never been mainstream after the fall of the Roman Empire.


  8. labnut

    the foundations of Stoicism are much more clear than those of many religions

    They are clear because they were written in literate, stable, well organised communities that valued library collections. The fall of the Empire did a lot of damage to this record but it is still better than any other record.

    I will return to this fascinating discussion in the morning.


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