Category Archives: History & Biographies

Marcus Aurelius: a guide for the perplexed

Marcus Aurelius a guide for the perplexedMarcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, one the few philosopher-kings (well, okay, emperor) in the history of the world, is a fascinating figure. Despite being one of the most famous Stoics, he was not a philosopher and teacher like Zeno, Chrysippus, or Epictetus. Unlike Seneca, he wrote just one book, the Meditations, which was actually addressed to himself, meant as a personal diary of philosophical reflection, not to instruct others, let alone as a treatise on Stoic philosophy. He was by all accounts an extraordinary man, who tackled some of the greatest challenges the Roman empire had to face, including a war against the irreducible Parthians, another one against a coalition of German tribes led by the Marcomanni, an internal rebellion by one of his most trusted governors, and a plague that killed two or three million people. He did not want to be emperor, but he leaned on his philosophy to do the best job he could. And ended up in the disastrous choice of his son Commodus to take up the purple mantle (but see here for a nuanced analysis of that episode), a decision that ended the prosperous and relatively peaceful age of the five good emperors of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty.

My friend and collaborator Greg Lopez chose Marcus as this year’s theme for his regular Stoic meetup in New York City, and I will focus on the Meditations in the upcoming Summer Stoic School in Rome. So it makes sense we started things off by reading William Stephens’ concise but highly informative Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2012). The book is logically organized in five chapters: the first one provides readers with the biography and historical context of Marcus’ life; the second one discusses the two major influences in the Meditations: the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and, of course, Epictetus; the third through the fifth chapters develop three major themes in Marcus’ philosophy: wholes and parts; time, transience, and eternity; and virtues, vices, and junk.

I want to comment here on the influences of Heraclitus and Epictetus on Marcus, briefly cover the three major themes in Marcus’ philosophy, and then point out a nice feature of the last three chapters of Stephens’ book, which I definitely recommend, even for people who are somewhat familiar both with Stoic philosophy and with Marcus Aurelius in particular.

Heraclitus is the oldest known source about the Logos, a crucial, complex Stoic concept, which was common to a number of Greco-Roman philosophies, and which was later imported into Christianity. It’s not obvious what Heraclitus meant by the term, in part because he wrote in a rather obscure fashion, in part because we only have fragments of his works, and in part because the term Logos had several related meanings. Here is Heraclitus, quoted by Stephens:

“Although this logos holds forever [is true], people ever fail to comprehend, both before hearing it and once they have heard. Although all things come to pass in accordance with this logos, people are like the untried when they try such words and works as I set forth, distinguishing each according to its nature and telling how it is. But other people are oblivious of what they do awake, just as they are forgetful of what they do asleep.” (p. 49)

Nonetheless, Stephens provides a nice summary of the major meanings of Logos in Heraclitus. It can mean: (i) Heraclitus’ own discourse; (ii) the nature of language; (iii) the structure of the psyche; or (iv) the cosmic law according to which everything happens. It is the latter two meanings that Marcus deploys in the Meditations, as he regards the Logos as a universal principle regulating the world, and also as the principle that makes possible our “ruling faculty” (the Hêgemonikon), the improvement of which is a major goal of Stoic training. Nowadays, we may interpret the Logos as the observation that the laws of nature are rationally understandable, or (not mutually exclusively) the biological structures that make possible for human beings to exercise judgment (i.e., the frontal lobes of the neocortex).

Most interestingly, fragment XXX from Heraclitus concerns the idea that human beings ought to work for each other’s benefit, precisely because they all partake in the Logos. This idea is taken up repeatedly by Marcus, for instance here:

“Where the end is, there also is the advantage and the good of each thing. Now the good for the reasonable animal is society.” (Meditations V.16)

Heraclitus is also famous for his concept of panta rhei (everything flows):

“One cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs.” (p. 62)

This is one of the earliest known articulations of a position termed process metaphysics, which nowadays is very popular among philosophers, in part because it accords well with the findings of modern science, especially fundamental physics. Again, here is Marcus deploying the concept:

“Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And can you take a hot bath unless the wood for the fire undergoes a change? And can you be nourished unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?” (Meditations, VII.18)

This is not only a profound insight into the nature of things, but also a source of consolation: change, including our death and decomposition, is both natural and necessary, if the universe is to work. Just as astronomer Carl Sagan famously reminded us that we are literally made of stardust, so we are reminded by Heraclitus and Marcus that the elements that make up our body will be recycled in the universal flow of things.

The second major influence on Marcus, apparent all over the Meditations, is that of Epictetus. Indeed, Marcus acknowledges it right at the beginning, in book I, where he thanks his teacher Quintus Junius Rusticus for having given him his own copy of the Discourses. As Stephens points out, Epictetus is mentioned directly in VII.19, and he is paraphrased in the last seven entries of book XI, which concludes with a reference to brief dialogue that is likely taken from a lost book of the Discourses.

“Epictetus’ direct, unvarnished style of calling a spade a spade seems to have influenced Marcus’ method of clear-eyed scrutiny of objects in front of him.” (p. 68)

One of the ways in which Epictetus influences Marcus is in a certain degree of disdain for the body. This doesn’t come from any misguided sort of dualism, but rather from the observation that while we share the possession of a body with all other animals, human beings are unique in having a mind capable of rational thought. And it is this, together with our sociality, that for the Stoics defined human nature, and hence what it means to “live according to nature.”

Another important aspect of Marcus’ philosophy is the idea — again derived directly from Epictetus, but of course part of the general Stoic view — that death is a natural phenomenon, not to be feared. Indeed, Marcus even directly endorses Epictetus’ famous “open door” policy, i.e., the notion that suicide is admissible under certain circumstances. As Stephens puts it:

“Marcus repeats this Open Door Policy of Epictetus when he writes ‘If the smoke makes me cough, I can leave’ (V.29). Thus, like Epictetus, Marcus accepts the Stoic doctrine that suicide under extreme circumstances of suffering can be morally permissible — at least for the person who is making progress in virtue. Moreover, Marcus and Epictetus both derive consolation from the fact that we are free to exercise our own judgment about what degree of suffering we will tolerate and what degree of suffering we need no longer endure. We have the power to decide when to exit the smoky house of life. The question is not whether we mortal beings will die. The question is when and how it is appropriate for us to exit life.” (p. 73)

The third, fourth, and fifth chapters of the book then zoom into the details of Marcus’ philosophy, by focusing on three major recurring themes in the Meditations: Marcus’ use of mereology, i.e., the branch of metaphysics that is concerned with the identification of parts and their relationship to the whole; the interrelated notions of time, transience, and eternity; and the relationship between virtue and vice (and what Stephens calls “junk”). There is no space here to treat any of this in depth, but let me give a flavor of how the author proceeds, keeping in mind that his goal is to show that Marcus — even though he is not a philosopher, and he is writing for himself — nonetheless articulates a coherent, and at times original, philosophy of life.

Marcus’ use of mereology is what allows him to analyze the component parts of certain objects, reflect on their relations to the whole object, and draw philosophical conclusions pertinent to his view of life. For instance, in VII.23, he notes that the universe is made of a large number of individual objects, including all living beings (horses, trees, human beings). All these objects contain the universal matter, and as he says, “it does the container no harm to be put together, and none to be taken apart.” In other words, death is a kind of cosmic recycling, to which the cosmos are indifferent:

“Every portion of me will be reassigned as another portion of the world, and that in turn transformed into another. Ad infinitum. I was produced through one such transformation, and my parents too, and so on back. Ad infinitum.” (V.13)

Mereology comes into play also when Marcus wants to remind himself that we, as individual human beings, are limbs of the social body, and that we therefore have to work together for the betterment of the whole body, i.e., the polis.

“We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.” (II.1)

The second theme, that of time, transience, and eternity, is explored by Marcus in order to quell his own fear of mortality, to achieve serenity of mind, and to develop a sense of equanimity toward people and events. Here, of course, is where we find his use of Heraclitus’ metaphor of time as a flowing river. The idea is that once we fully appreciate the infinity of time, we realize how silly it is to get upset about the minutiae of our puny everyday life, regardless of how disproportionately large they may loom in our thoughts whenever we let go of the view from above.

Another consequence of this perspective is that it exposes pride in one’s accomplishments, and especially seeking fame, for the empty things they are: everyone we know will soon be dead and forgotten, and so will we. What we do matters in the here and now, because it is helpful to others, not because it will be remembered for a little bit longer by people who we will not know. The real gift is the present, over which we have control (in the sense of controlling our judgments and actions). The past and the future are infinite, and we have no control over them.

The third theme is that of virtue, vice, and junk. Here, according to Stephens, we see some of the more mature and sophisticated aspects of Marcus’ philosophy. One manifestation of this is his analysis of the nature of things, aiming at discerning whether they are truly important or not. These are the bits in the Meditations where we get the reminder that precious marble is nothing but hardened dirt, gold and silver are just residues mined from the earth, the prestigious purple dye worn by the emperor is just the blood of a shellfish.

“With this strategy, Marcus shatters the rosy-colored lenses through which we prefer to view the things we so intensely desire. He insists on seeing these pleasures for what they really are.” (p. 133)

As we know, the implication of this approach is not that external objects do not matter, but rather that they are merely preferred indifferents, things that are not good in themselves, and which certainly take a backseat when compared to the chief good: virtue. To pursue them for their own sake, therefore, becomes a vice. It is like going after junk rather than something of true value.

Let me conclude by giving you just one of several examples in the book where Stephens goes through a particular section of the Meditations and reconstructs the formal structure of Marcus’ argument. This is a useful exercise for two reasons: first, it allows us to examine the argument more carefully, to see whether it is valid and sound. Second, and I think actually more importantly, it dispels the common notion that the Meditations is written somewhat casually, and that it is not a serious book of philosophy. It is, but since Marcus was writing to himself, not to an audience, we have to do the work necessary to appreciate his thinking.

My preferred example is in the context of Marcus’ discussion, in VIII.17, of the idea that it is futile to lay blame, regardless of what particular metaphysical view of the world (the Stoic, the Epicurean, or any other one) we happen to hold. Here is Stephens’ reconstruction of the full argument:

1. The matter is either in our control or in the control of someone else.

2. If it’s in our control, then we can handle it appropriately without blaming ourselves.

3. If it’s in the control of someone else, then we could blame either atoms (if the
Epicureans are right about how the cosmos works) or the Logos (if the Stoics are right about how the cosmos works), or no one and nothing.

4. It’s stupid to blame atoms (since they have no intentionality).

5. It’s stupid to blame the Logos (since the cosmos — which for the Stoics was a living organism — knows best what should happen).

6. Hence, if it’s in the control of someone else, then blame no one and nothing.

7. Therefore, blaming is pointless.


Nobody expects the Stoic Opposition!

the Spanish Inquisition“So what was it that Agrippinus used to say? ‘I won’t become an obstacle to myself.’ The news was brought to him that ‘your case is being tried in the Senate.’ ‘May everything go well! But the fifth hour has arrived’ — this was the hour in which he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then having a cold bath — ‘so let’s go off and take some exercise.’ When he had completed his exercise, someone came and told him, ‘You’ve been convicted.’ ‘To exile,’ he asked, ‘or to death?’ — ‘To exile.’ — ‘What about property?’ ‘It hasn’t been confiscated.’ — ‘Then let’s go away to Ariccia and eat our meal there.’” (Discourses I.1.28-30)

That’s how Epictetus describes one of the famous episodes of the so-called Stoic opposition, a group of philosophers and Senators who criticized and opposed the rule of the emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, during the late I century. The Agrippinus in question was Paconius Agrippinus, who was sent into exile by Nero, and whose own father had been put to death for treason by the emperor Tiberius. The Stoic opposition is important because it was a result, not an aberration, but of deliberately applying Stoic philosophy to politics. It should be a good counter to so many nowadays who insist in thinking of Stoicism as a quetist philosophy, inward looking and inherently favoring the status quo.

Which is a rather strange position, since the first and most famous example of a Stoic taking up arms to oppose someone he thought was a tyrant was none other than Cato the Younger, the archenemy of Julius Caesar often praised by Seneca as a role model. That, of course, was in Republican times, but the Stoics gained notoriety for systematically opposing the tyranny of emperors, so much so that Tacitus tells us that Cossutianus Capito, an advisor to Nero, uttered these words against the Stoic Thrasea Paetus: “Either let us pass over to his creed, if it is the better, or let these seekers after a new world lose their chief and their instigator. It is the sect that … subverts the empire, they make a parade of liberty: the empire overthrown, they will lay hands on liberty itself. You have removed Cassius to little purpose, if you intend to allow these rivals of the Bruti to multiply and flourish!” (Tacitus, Annals, xvi. 22)

This more than hints at the fact that the Stoic opposition was a consequence of philosophical principles, not just a local affair triggered by personal antipathy or lust for power. The idea is explicitly reinforced later on by Marcus Aurelius himself, one of whose teachers was Junius Rusticus, a direct descendant of Arulenus Rusticus, who was executed by Domitian for having written a panegyric in praise of Thrasea:

“It was through [my brother Severus] that I came to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and to conceive the idea of a balanced constitution, and of government founded on equity and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all things the freedom of the subject.” (Meditations, I.14)

The Stoic opposition had taken shape initially under Nero, whose first victim in this regard was the Senator Rubellius Plautus, sent into exile in 60 CE. He was accompanied by none other than Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, who in turn was to be exiled two more times, again by Nero in 65 CE, and sent to the inhospitable Greek island of Gyarus, and then once more around 75 CE by Vespasian, who for good measure expelled all philosophers from Rome (only to be outdone by his son Domitian, who expelled them from the entire Italian peninsula — including Epictetus, thus leading to the establishment of his school in Nicopolis, on the Western coast of Greece).

In 65 CE, still under Nero, it was Epaphroditus, the emperor’s secretary and Epictetus’ master, who denounced both Seneca and his nephew, Lucan, who were then both ordered to commit suicide. As we all well know, Seneca certainly wasn’t a model Stoic, something he readily admitted himself, but in all fairness he was faced with a near impossible situation in trying to reign in the increasingly unhinged Nero.

Barea Soranus, another Stoic teacher, was put on trial in 66 CE, after false accusations made by the Stoic teacher Publius Egnatius Celer. Celer was later openly accused by Musonius Rufus, and as a result fell out of favor with the emperor Vespasian.

That same year it was Thrasea’s turn to be charged with treason and put to death. His crime was one of the earliest recorded campaigns of civil disobedience: he did not attend Senate meetings, refused to take the yearly senatorial oath to the emperor, never sacrificed for the health of the emperor, and excused himself from voting to confer divine honors to Poppaea (the wife Nero killed, apparently accidentally, in a fit of rage), after skipping her funeral.

The above mentioned Paconius was a friend of Thrasea, and so was another Stoic who was sent in exile at the same time, Helvidius Priscus, about whom Epictetus writes:

“When Vespasian sent for Helvidius Priscus and commanded him not to go into the Senate, he replied, ‘It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the Senate, but so long as I am, I must go in.’ ‘Well, go in then,’ says the emperor, ‘but say nothing.’ ‘Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent.’ ‘But I must ask your opinion.’ ‘And I must say what I think right.’ ‘But if you do, I shall put you to death.’ ‘When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow.’” (Discourses, 1.2.19-21)

Moving forward to 82 CE, Dio Chrysostom — whom we have seen mentioned in the Meditations — who was a Stoic-influenced rhetorician, banished by Domitian. In 93 CE seven more people were brought to trial for insulting the emperor. Three were put to death: Arulenus Rusticus (Junius’ ancestor named earlier), Herennius Senecio, and Helvidius Priscus (the son of the elder Priscus). The Stoic opposition only came to an end with the period of the five so-called good emperors, the last of whom was Marcus. Dio, for instance, returned to Rome under Nerva, the first of the five, and Epictetus had good relations with Hadrian, the third good emperor.

So there is plenty of historical evidence that the Stoics did oppose tyranny and defended the ideal of a society marked by liberty and free speech. Of course this is to be understood within the constraints of the culture of the time. When Cato the Younger opposed Caesar he was thinking of liberty for non slave white males, especially of the higher social classes. And we should not construe people like Priscus and Agrippinus as anything like modern figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. The point, however, is that the Stoic opposition was not an aberration, but rather the logical consequence of a philosophy counting justice among one of its virtues, and a discipline of prosocial action among its principles.

When I hear modern Stoics emphasizing courage and wisdom, but somehow neglecting social justice, I am therefore dumbfounded. And if I were not a decent practitioner I would get positively irritated by many of our critics who insist that Stoicism counsels passivity in the face of social evils. It does no such thing, so if you are genuinely interested in Stoicism, the question is: are you a member of the Stoic opposition, wherever you are in the world? Because there are plenty of threats to liberty and freedom of speech for us to oppose, at home and abroad.

A simple Stoic timeline

Stoicism invented hereIt’s always a good thing to have a sense of the development of ideas, so as to be able to put them in a broader historical and cultural context. This is true, of course, also for philosophies, such as Buddhism or Stoicism. Fortunately, the history of Stoicism is far less complex than that of Buddhism, since it has been “interrupted” during the late Roman Empire, precluding the diversification of schools and approaches that is characteristic of Buddhism. Still, it may be of service to the Stoic community, as well as to curious onlookers, to have available a handy timeline highlighting what I think are the major events and people that have shaped Stoicism throughout the past 23 centuries. That’s what this post, and the two accompanying slides, aim at accomplishing.

The trace origins of what later became Stoicism can be found in the figure of Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), the pre-Socratic philosopher most famous for his discussions of the Logos (a crucial Stoic concept) and his “process metaphysics,” summarized in the phrase “panta rhei” (everything flows). He is referred to by all the major late Stoics, including Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus.

A crucial historical event occurred in 399 BCE, with the death of Socrates. The Stoics explicitly referred to their philosophy as Socratic in nature, and their idea that virtue is the chief good is articulated by Socrates in the Euthydemus.

The Stoics were also influenced by the Cynics, whose philosophy was inspired by Antisthenes (445-365 BCE), and most famously epitomized by Diogenes of Sinope, mentioned with admiration by Epictetus.

In 323 BCE the Greek world is shaken by the death of Alexander (“the Great”), which is followed by the disintegration of his empire and the beginning of the Hellenistic period, during which a number of philosophies, including Stoicism, arise and flourish.

Around 300 BCE Zeno of Citium, a former Phoenician merchant who had studied with the Cynic Crates and several others, begins to teach his own philosophy in the Stoa Poikile (painted porch), an open market in Athens. His followers are initially called Zenonians, but the word Stoics is the one that sticks.

History of Stoicism-1


Chrysippus (279-206 BCE) becomes the third head of the Stoa. He makes huge contributions to logic, among other things, writing a large number of books, listed by Diogenes Laertius, who comments that “but for Chrysippus, there had been no Porch.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.183)

In 155 BCE another crucial event occurs that likely affected the successive history of philosophy in the ancient world, not just Stoicism: a delegation of three philosophers, including Diogenes of Babylon, the head of the Stoa, arrives in Rome on a diplomatic mission. While there, the philosophers lecture to the public, introducing the Romans to philosophy for the very first time. Reportedly, they enjoy great success and piss off Roman conservative aristocrats, like Cato the Elder.

About seven decades later, in 86 BCE, Athens is sacked by the Roman General Sulla, and it ceases to be the cultural center of reference of the Mediterranean world. This begins a diaspora of philosophers, who transfer their schools to Rhodes, Alexandria of Egypt, and, of course, Rome.

The next important figure is Posidonius (135-151 BCE), a major exponent of the so-called middle Stoa, and teacher of Cicero. I hope to be writing quite a bit more about him eventually, as I’m slowly making my way through his extant fragments.

Cicero (106-43 BCE) himself is a major contributor to the history of Stoicism, even though his allegiance is formally for the Academic Skeptics. He writes abundantly, and generally sympathetically, about Stoicism, including in book III of De Finibus, the Paradoxa Stoicorum, and the Tusculan Disputations.

In 31 BCE Octavian, adoptive son of Julius Caesar, defeats Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium, which marks the end of the Hellenistic period, the beginning of the Roman Empire, and the onset of the late Stoa.


Seneca the Younger (4 BCE-65 CE) writes by far most of the extant literature on Stoicism, including his famous philosophical letters to his friend Lucilius, the landmark treaties On Anger, and a number of other books.

Several Stoic philosophers are persecuted by Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian, because of their criticisms of the tyranny exercised by these emperors (the so-called Stoic opposition). Twice, in 88/9 and 93/4 CE, Domitian expels all philosophers (not just the Stoics) from Italy.

One of those expelled by Domitian is Epictetus (55-135 CE), a brilliant former slave and student of Musonius Rufus. His most famous student, Arrian of Nicomedia, transcribes Epictetus’ dialogues with his students and visitors, producing what we know as the Discourses and the Enchiridion.

The last great ancient Stoic we know of is the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), who near the end of his life writes a personal diary of philosophical reflections that is referred to today as The Meditations.

At this point we have the first great hiatus (indicated in the second slide by the sundial), as Stoicism declines together with the other Hellenistic schools, replaced by Christianity during the last part of the history of Rome and beyond.

The first resurgence of Stoicism is the result of the efforts of Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), who explicitly forges his Neo-Stoicism as an attempt at reconciling the ancient philosophy with the tenets of Christianity. It does not last long, though it probably influences some major modern philosophers, like Descartes and especially Spinoza.

We then have a second hiatus, until the publication, in 1995, of Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. That book is not specifically about Stoicism (though his The Inner Citadel, centered on Marcus Aurelius, certainly is), but puts back on the map the idea that philosophy can, and should, be practical, a sort of therapy for the sane, so to speak. (It is also relevant that some modern psychotherapies, like REBT and CBT, taking holds in the 1960s and ‘70s, are loosely inspired by Stoic teachings.)

In 1998 Larry Becker publishes A New Stoicism, the first serious attempt by a modern scholar to update Stoic philosophy for contemporary life. It is not a “how to” manual, but rather a conceptual analysis and discussion of what form Stoicism might take in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Finally, beginning in 2012, a diverse group of philosophers, cognitive therapists, and others, launches Stoic Week and the associated annual Stoicon, which — together with the publication of accessible books by the likes of Don Robertson, Bill Irvine, John Sellars, and others (including, eventually, yours truly), sets the stage for, and continues to define and reshape, what I call the Fifth Stoa (after the early, middle, late ones, and Neo-Stoicism). And the story continues, Fate permitting…

Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher

Heraclitus and Democritus

crying Heraclitus and laughing Democritus, from a 1477 Italian fresco, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

The Stoics referred to themselves as “Socratic,” thus publicly acknowledging the direct connection between their philosophy and the one developed by the Athenian sage. For instance, the idea that wisdom if the chief good — because it is the only thing that is always good, and in fact the one that allows us to use other things (such as wealth, education, etc.) well — is defended by Socrates in the Euthydemus.

But the Stoics were also greatly influenced, especially in their metaphysics, by one of the most mysterious pre-Socratic philosophers: Heraclitus of Ephesus. Much of what we know of Heraclitus is from Diogenes Laertius (at the beginning of book IX of the Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers). Diogenes tells us that “Heraclitus, [who was the] son of Bloson or, according to some, of Heracon, was a native of Ephesus. He flourished in the 69th Olympiad,” i.e., around 504-501 BCE. We are told that he lived until the age of 60, probably dying of dropsy.

Apparently, Heraclitus was a bit of a misanthrope, not liking either the Athenians or his own fellow Ephesians. Diogenes says that “he would retire to the temple of Artemis and play at knuckle-bones with the boys; and when the Ephesians stood round him and looked on, ‘Why, you rascals,’ he said, ‘are you astonished? Is it not better to do this than to take part in your civil life?’” This enmity was the result of the fact that the Ephesians banished a friend of Heraclitus, Hermodorus, whom he considered “the worthiest man among them.”

Heraclitus was born into an aristocratic family, and actually abdicated his right to be king in favor of his brother (though he would have been “king” within the limits imposed by the Persian empire, of which Ephesus was part at the time). He educated himself through a sort of self-applied Socratic inquiry, and when he was young claimed — like Socrates later on — not to know anything (though, unlike Socrates, he later believed to have learned a lot).

His major work was apparently entitled On Nature, and it consisted of three parts, devoted to the nature of the universe, politics, and theology. His writings were not very clear, apparently on purpose. Diogenes tells us that “he deliberately made it the more obscure in order that none but adepts should approach it, and lest familiarity should breed contempt.” This is consistent with a saying that Diogenes attributes to Heraclitus: “Much learning does not teach understanding.” This confusion between (rote) learning and actual understanding, or between knowledge and wisdom, is very much alive today, unfortunately, though I don’t prescribe obfuscatory writing as a cure…

It is probably because of the difficulty of his writings that he was variously referred to as “the riddler” (by Timon of Phlius) and “the dark” (or the obscure one) by Cicero. Curiously, Heraclitus was also referred to as the weeping philosopher, and often contrasted in that respect with another pre-Socratic, Democritus, referred to as the laughing philosopher. Interestingly, Seneca — one of several Stoics who mentions Heraclitus — says:

“We ought therefore to bring ourselves into such a state of mind that all the vices of the vulgar may not appear hateful to us, but merely ridiculous, and we should imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. The latter of these, whenever he appeared in public, used to weep, the former to laugh.” (On Tranquillity of Mind, XV)

There are several obvious influences of Heraclitus on the Stoics. To begin with, he was among the first known authors to talk about the Logos, and “the idea that all things come to pass in accordance with this Logos.” There may have been also a connection with the famous Stoic notion of living according to nature: “it is necessary to follow what is common. But although the Logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.” This sounds a lot like the idea that we should live by following our nature and the nature of the cosmos, developed already by the early Stoics, contrasted with the notion that most people don’t realize this — which necessitates Stoic training, of the type for instance offered by Epictetus.

Heraclitus identified the Logos with the fire, the generative principle of the cosmos, and interestingly, the early Christians also adopted the Heraclitean Logos, incorporating it into their theology. In particular, Hippolytus, in the III century, identified it with the Christian Word of God.

In terms of ethics, Heraclitus famously said that “character is fate,” a phrase that has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but generally as meaning that character is the most important aspect of a person, what sets us apart from other animals. Needless to say, the Stoics built their entire philosophy of life on the concept of character and the possibility of its improvement through the practice of the cardinal virtues.

Perhaps the most famous of Heraclitus’ utterances is panta rhei, everything flows, or “ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers,” rendered also as “everything changes and nothing remains still … you cannot step twice into the same stream.” In this respect too Heraclitus is opposed to Democritus: the latter espoused an ontology of objects, forerunner of what nowadays in philosophy is referred to as substance metaphysics. Heraclitus’ approach, by contrast, eventually led to the modern, currently cutting edge, process metaphysics. It is possible to see similarities between the concept of panta rhei and the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, and the image of the flowing river recurs also in the 13th century Japanese tale of Hōjōki — which in fact refers to Buddhist impermanence.

Heraclitus was influential on Plato (who, however, vehemently disagreed with his doctrines), the Christians, and, most germane to us here, the Stoics. Anthony Long points out the fact that the pre-Socratic is often mentioned by Marcus Aurelius, for instance here:

“Remember Heraclitus: ‘When earth dies, it becomes water; water, air; air, fire; and back to the beginning.’ ‘Those who have forgotten where the road leads.’ ‘They are at odds with what is all around them’ — the all-directing Logos. And ‘they find alien what they meet with every day.’ ‘Our words and actions should not be like those of sleepers’ (for we act and speak in dreams as well) ‘or of children copying their parents’ — doing and saying only what we have been told.” (Meditations, IV.46)

But we find him also in Epictetus, who actually connects Heraclitus with the close philosophical kins of the Stoics, the Cynics:

“Remember that you should behave in life as you do at a banquet. Something is being passed around and arrives in front of you: reach out your hand and take your share politely. It passes: don’t try to hold it back. It has yet to reach you: don’t project your desire towards it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. … For it was by acting in such a way that Diogenes [the Cynic], and Heraclitus, and others like them, deservedly became divine and were called so.” (Enchiridion, XV)

Stoic role models: Ulysses in Seneca and Dante, and the difference between curiositas and studiositas

The rock of Gibraltar, one of Hercules’ pillars

I have recently written three essays about Odysseus as interpreted philosophically by the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans, a reflection of my interest in the idea of Stoic role models, as well as my personal passion for the cunning Greek hero. While those three entries were based on a highly recommended book by Silvia Montiglio (which covers also Platonism), this last entry in the quadrilogy moves forward about a millennium, to see how the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri treats Ulysses (as he was known by the Romans) in Inferno 26, one of the most beautiful passages in the Divine Comedy. This will also give us a chance to look at the surprisingly similar way in which Seneca treats Ulysses, from a Stoic perspective.

My main source for this post is a scholarly article by Gabriel Pihas, published in 2003 in Dante Studies, the Annual Report of the Dante Society, and entitled “Dante’s Ulysses: Stoic and Scholastic models of the literary reader’s curiosity and Inferno 26.” (You can read Pihas’ paper online for free here.)

Ulysses is an important figure in Dante’s Comedy. To begin with, he is the only ancient mythological character that has a major role, all the other main figures being historical individuals, and usually Dante’s own contemporaries. More importantly, Ulysses plays the part of Dante’s consciousness in the poet’s version of a debate that began with Aristotle’s Poetics, continued with Seneca’s discussion of literary studies in his letter on curiosity to Lucilius (CXXXVIII, On Liberal and Vocational Studies), and characterized an important phase of Scholasticism near the end of the Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas was seen as a dangerous, possibly heretical, exponent of the nouvelle vague.

The fundamental opposition in Canto 26 of Inferno is between curiosity for curiosity’s sake, and curiosity for things that are morally relevant, what Aquinas referred to respectively as “curiositas” and “studiositas.” As Pihas puts it: “In Inferno 26, curiosity is fundamentally understood, following Seneca, as a problem of the seduction of language and rhetoric, both in philosophic disputation and in poetry. Calling curiosity into question [via his dialogue with Ulysses] is Dante’s form of literary-philosophical self-consciousness.”

At the beginning of 26, Dante almost falls into the pit where Ulysses is being punished, because of his irrepressible interest in the fate of the Greek hero. This is usually interpreted as a metaphor to remind the reader of Ulysses’ own downfall, brought about by his own curiosity about the world. In the version of the story that Dante relates, Ulysses left Ithaca again, after his return home and the punishment of the suitors. He headed toward Hercules’ Pillars (the Strait of Gibraltar), intent on navigating the open ocean to see what lies beyond. And he and his crew perish during the ambitious attempt.

Pihas points out that Seneca’s letter mentioned above is the inspiration for Dante’s encounter with Ulysses, and possibly even for the famous opening lines of the Comedy itself, which find Dante lost in the middle of a forest, a metaphor for what we would today call his midlife crisis, and which is the trigger for his journey of spiritual rediscovery:

“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.”

Back to Seneca, here is what he writes to Lucilius about Ulysses:

“Do you seek out where Ulysses’ wondering took him more than try to end our own perpetual wanderings? We don’t have the leisure to hear whether it was between Italy and Sicily that he ran into a storm, or somewhere outside the sea of the world we know … when everyday our souls are running into our own storms, and driven into all the evils that Ulysses ever knew. We are not spared those beauties or enemies that attract the eyes. We too have to contend in various places with savage monsters rejoicing in human blood, insidious voices that flatter our ears, shipwrecks and all manners of misfortune. What you should be teaching me is how I may attain such a love for my country, my father, and my wife, and keep on course for those ideals even after a shipwreck.”

Dante, in Inferno 26, is burning from the desire of asking Ulysses precisely the question that Seneca tells Lucilius should not distract us, because it is mere self-serving curiosity: how did Ulysses die?

Before we accuse Seneca — and therefore Dante — of anti-intellectualism, Pihas remind us that Seneca — and obviously Dante — were not anti-literature. Seneca wrote tragedies, among other things. But they both thought that literature (and philosophy) have to have a moral component, otherwise they deteriorate into simple escapism.

The way Dante brilliantly presents this concern to his readers is by allowing Dante-the-character to be tempted by curiositas while at the same time as Dante-the-author reminds us that our focus should be on studiositas:

Then it pained me, and now it pains me once again,
As I direct my mind to what I saw,
And I rein in genius more than I usually do,
That it not run where virtue not guide it;
So that, if good star or better thing
Has given me the good, I not envy myself of it.

Seneca made the same point in depth in his letter:

“How many superfluous and useless things are to be found in the philosophers. Even they have descended to the level of drawing distinctions between the uses of different syllables and discussing the properties of prepositions and conjunctions … with the result that they are more diligent in speaking than in living. Listen and let me show you the evils too much subtlety can create, and what an enemy it is to truth. Protagoras says that in all things it is possible to argue both sides of any question with equal force, even the question whether or not one can really argue either side of a question! Nausiphanes says that of the things that seem to us to exist, none exists anymore than it does not exist. Parmenides says that, of all the phenomena, none exists except the whole. Zeno of Elea has dismissed all such confusions by introducing another confusion: He declares that nothing exists … All these theories you should throw on that heap of superfluous liberal studies.”

It is hard to read the above and not imagine the Sophist Protagoras has a precursor of modern postmodernist philosophers like Jacques Derrida, or to think that what Seneca is railing against is what Dan Dennett refers to as “chmess,” i.e., difficult, but ultimately pointless philosophizing.

And as Pihas tells us: “Ulysses resembles the philosophers’ in Seneca’s letter insofar as he wishes to go beyond moral reality into a ‘world behind the Sun, without people.” Dante, by contrast, is more concerned with the damage that curiositas can do in the hands of fraudulent politicians, of the kind that sent him into exile from his native Florence (Seneca would have approved of such concern, given his own exile to Corsica at the hand of Claudius). In this sense, then, Inferno 26 is very relevant to contemporary culture: it is a warning that we are led into escapism (bad movies, constant social networking on the internet, not to mention “reality” television), because that serves the interests of the powerful by distracting us from their moral corruption.

At this point Pihas’ paper takes a bit of a different turn, examining Thomas Aquinas’ contribution to the debate on curiositas vs studiositas. I will not go into the details, because it doesn’t really pertain directly to either Ulysses or Stoicism, but it is interesting in terms of a broader understanding of the cultural and intellectual contexts.

Indeed, it had been Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, published a few decades before Dante began writing the Comedy, that presented curiositas as the “evil twin” of studiositas.

Aquinas provides a useful taxonomy of curiositas, which he divides into four categories: (i) zeal for the useless, e.g., love poetry; (ii) interest in the illicit, e.g., fortune telling or superstition; (iii) desire for knowledge of creatures without reference to their end in God; and (iv) interest in what is beyond our capacity to know. By contrast, says Pihas, “studiositas is thoughtfulness about the appetite for knowledge. Note too that Aquinas was actually attempting to save philosophy, and particularly the new studies of the recently rediscovered Aristotle, from the censorship of the Church, which had been suspicious of new ideas since Augustine’s condemnation of philosophy as a distraction from theology.

While I certainly don’t subscribe to Aquinas’ specific classification, nor do I feel bound to agree with Seneca just because I am a Stoic, the basic idea does seem sound to me. There are things that are worth pursuing and others that are useless or even dangerously distracting. And since we all have limited time and resources available, it is wise to keep that distinction in mind.

Here is another insightful commentary by Pihas: “What binds play and the desire for knowledge, and what makes both dangerous, is the idleness from which they may originate. Both curiositas and excessive play are daughters of acedia … [which] may be translated as ‘sloth’ or sometimes as ‘despair,’ but it borders on the modern meanings of boredom and melancholy. It is potentially nihilistic … it is an appetite for nothing.”

There is much to chew on here, but again I do not want the reader to be left with an impression of general anti-intellectualism, which would be a bizarre thing to attribute to intellectual giants like Seneca, Dante, and Aquinas. Ultimately, each of us will need to use practical wisdom to determine where the line lies, in our life and experience, between curiositas and studiositas. And it is up to us individually to navigate it in pursuit of a eudaimonic life.

It seems fit, however, to conclude with the lines from Inferno 26 that so inspired me when I was a teenager and read them for the first time. It’s Ulysses’ speech to his comrades, to convince them to follow him to the limits of the known world:

“O my brothers, who have reached the west, through a thousand dangers, do not deny the brief vigil, your senses have left to them, experience of the unpopulated world beyond the Sun. Consider your origin: you were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” Virtue and knowledge indeed.

Odysseus and the Epicureans

Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis

Odysseus was one of the classic role models for the Stoics. And he was my favorite mythological hero when I was a kid. Both excellent reasons for this mini-series on the legendary Greek hero and how he has been interpreted through the lenses of a number of Hellenistic philosophies. These notes are based on my reading of the excellent From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought, by Silvia Montiglio. We have looked at how the Cynics and the Stoics tackled the question of Odysseus, and it is now the turn of the Epicureans. I am skipping Montiglio’s treatment of the Platonists, but I will conclude next time with a jump forward in time, to Dante’s take on Ulysses in the Divine Comedy, where Cato the Younger — another Stoic role model — is also featured, as the only pagan outside of Hell.

Montiglio begins the chapter with Heraclitus’ famous accusation that Epicurus used Odysseus’ praise of feasting and singing to further his nefarious philosophy: “What Odysseus said falsely, unwisely, and hypocritically at the court of Alcinous, Epicurus pronounces as the goal of life, and claims to be speaking the truth.” But this doesn’t make much sense once we consider that the Epicureans’ praise of pleasure was not at all concerned with feasting and singing as if there were no tomorrow: “the kind of pleasure Epicurus deems the end of life is a permanent repose of the mind (‘katastematic’ pleasure), not the enjoyment derived from pleasurable activities (‘kinematic’ pleasure).”

Indeed, Montiglio adds, the only Epicurean author of which we have inherited a direct treatment of Odysseus is the Syrian Philodemus, who actually mocks the Greek hero “for his bottomless belly”: “By dissociating his Epicurean value-system from Odysseus’ parasitic hunger, Philodemus strongly suggests that Odysseus’ supposed hedonism was targeted by opponents of Epicureanism as evidence for the ‘shamefulness’ of that doctrine, rather than being exploited by the Epicureans themselves to defend it.”

Turns out, it is the Stoic Seneca who probably correctly described the Epicurean take on Odysseus’ stories, when he pointed out that the Epicureans “praised the condition of a state at peace” in their treatment of the episode in which Odysseus arrives in the country of the Phaeacians.

Indeed, the same Philodemus mentioned above wrote On the Good King, where he criticizes the Phaeacians as “luxurious” (thus, again, rejecting the image of Epicureans as hedonists), but praises them for their rigorous physical training and the consequent securing of peace. And Odysseus is likened to them and in particular to their king Alcinous, because he, too, was physically vigorous and presided over a peaceful kingdom. All of this makes sense, for Montiglio, because Philodemus was writing within the historical context of the late Roman Republican period, in the midst of civil war.

“Philodemus [made his treatise appealing to the Roman elite] by avoiding any reference to a specific political contingency and by drawing his examples from the Homeric world, whose multiple rulers could be proposed as models to a Roman aristocrat less offensively than a single monarch. Of all the Homeric heroes Odysseus was the most suitable to embody the ideal ruler in this context because he was not the king of kings but a primus inter pares, as it were, and the most effective and cooperative of all his peers.”

Philodemus in turn influenced a young Virgil, whom he knew personally, and consequently Virgil’s picture of Ulysses in the Aeneid is — Montiglio claims — less negative than it is often assumed.

Philodemus praises Odysseus for the firm intervention he makes in the Iliad to restore order to the Greek camp, thus helping to secure Agamemnon’s imperiled leadership. This very much appealed to Virgil, who wrote his poem within the context of the Pax Romana imposed by the first emperor, Octavian Augustus.

In On the Good King, Philodemus, an Epicurean, praises Odysseus for not claiming to be better than the heroes of earlier times, in contrast with Hector’s prideful defiance of the gods. Odysseus also corrected Achilles, for both his anger against Agamemnon and his excessive grief over Patroclus. His appeal to moderation in mourning is proverbial, and would have been appreciated by the Stoics as well.

Both Plutarch (a middle Platonist, not an Epicurean) and Philodemus, moreover, approve of Odysseus’ reassurance of his companions when they are steering their ship near the monster Charybdis. At first glance, it may appear that the hero is vaingloriously boasting of the wit that got him and his shipmates out of trouble in the episode of the Cyclop Polyphemus, but “this kind [of] self praise belongs to a man who offers his virtue and knowledge to his friends as security to lift their spirits. For at critical moments an important element for success is the respect and confidence placed in a man who has the experience and abilities of a leader.” Odysseus, that is, is boasting for the practical purpose of injecting courage in his crew, not out of vain pride. Moreover, for the Epicureans it was also important that Odysseus was praising intellectual, not merely physical, talent, since the emphasis on the former is what distinguished the sect from that of the Cyrenaics.

As Montiglio writes: “This preference for mental qualities over physical ones even on the battlefield resonates with the Socratic tradition, especially with Antisthenes, who reconfigured the very notion based on Odysseus’ intelligence against Ajax’s brutish force.”

In an “interlude” within the chapter, Montiglio seeks to explain why Philodemus presents Odysseus to his fellow Romans not as an impossible ideal, a Socrates, say, but rather as a practical model of political virtue. Throughout the Homeric poems, Odysseus acknowledges the mutability of human affairs, and braves whatever Fate throws at him in the best way he can.

Again in the episode of his visit to the island of the Phaeacians, his compassion shines through: “This picture of Odysseus accords with the humane sympathy he shows for his victims already in the Odyssey. At the court of Alcinous he asks the bard to sing of the ruse of the Wooden Horse, his major feat in the war. His response to the song is poignant and disquieting: he weeps like a woman who clings to her dying husband while the enemy drags her into slavery … As many a reader has seen, by means of this simile Odysseus is portrayed in the act of identifying with the victims of the war he won, especially the weakest ones, the Trojan women doomed to be enslaved. The celebration of his major achievement in the war draws tears of empathy from him. He feels no joy or pride.”

For the Epicureans, friendship and mentorship were crucial to a life worth living. Accordingly, Philodemus also sees Odysseus as a good teacher and friend, who knows when it is time to speak frankly and when that is not, in fact, appropriate: “His ideal is not an Achilles-type, for whom outspokenness is a rigid principle, but a flexible, sensitive teacher-friend-doctor, who knows when and how frank speech is beneficial.”

Moreover, Ulysses repeatedly deflects flattery, because he knows himself, and a man who is following the Delphic Oracle’s advise to Socrates needs no flattery. Odysseus is also praised for his solitary and rather unemotional stance: “This role of Odysseus as unemotional friend is in keeping with his fundamental solitude. In the Iliad Odysseus has no personal friend and shows no special attachment to anyone. There is no Patroclus, no Pylades, no Pirithous, no Euryalus at his side. His association with Diomedes is no intimate friendship, but the relationship between a mature man and his young and ambitious apprentice.” There is a big difference between this sort of solitary demeanor and that of Achilles, a tragic figure. Achilles cannot be anyone’s mentor, because he is unconcerned with other people’s welfare (except that of his lover and friend, Patroclus).

Overall, then, we have seen that the three sects we examined — the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans — each found a way to interpret the figure of Odysseus, sometimes twisting the earlier sources a bit, in a way congruous with their respective teachings. The Cynics emphasized the episode of Odysseus in rags. The Stoics paid particular attention to his ability to accept circumstances and deal with them in the best way he can. And the Epicureans emphasized his humility and love of peace.

Of course, there is no truth of the matter about who Odysseus really was, since he is a mythological figure. Accordingly, it makes little sense to criticize, say, the Cynics for twisting the “facts” to fit their philosophy, as that is the role of mythological figures: to be reinterpreted in new ways by successive generations. Indeed, what we learn from Montiglio’s philosophical journey is how members of different Hellenistic schools saw themselves and what they thought was important or valid, in a sense using their treatment of the story of Odysseus as a mirror through which to better understand the differences among those schools. It is a testament to the art of Homer and the ancient poets who put together the original Epic Cycle, of which the Iliad and Odyssey are two of the twelve parts, that three millennia later we can still appreciate one of the most enduring creations of their lyrical imagination.

Odysseus and the Stoics

IMG_8352We have recently examined how the Cynics, the cousins and partial inspiration of the Stoics, treated the mythical figure of Odysseus as a role model. It is now the turn of the Stoics themselves, as part of my commentary on From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought, by Silvia Montiglio (the book also has a chapter on Plato’s view of the Greek hero, which I am skipping for the purposes of this blog).

The Stoics were apparently enthusiastic about Odysseus, beginning with the founder, Zeno, who in fact wrote five books of Homeric Problems. Ulysses, as the Romans called him, embodied a major tenet of Stoicism: the obligation to cheerfully submit to one’s Fate — while at the same time also unequivocally showing that this “submission” doesn’t equate to quietism. Just think of all the heroic efforts that Odysseus makes on behalf of his companions and in pursuit of the ultimate goal to get back home. That is why Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Dio Chrysostom all commented favorably on the legend of Odysseus.

One difference between the Cynic and Stoic treatments is the episode in which the hero dresses like a beggar in order to begin his revenge against the suitors, once back in Ithaca. While the Cynics did like the image of the king-beggar, it did not really fit well with their overall philosophy, because Odysseus didn’t choose a minimalist existence, he simply wore the clothes of a beggar in an instrumental fashion. This was not a problem for the Stoics, however, who taught that one has to adapt to the circumstances, especially in order to follow the will of the cosmos (which in the episode is personified by the goddess Athena, who helps Odysseus).

In fact, says Montiglio, “‘The beggar’ is … one of the many roles Odysseus teaches us to play as directed by destiny. The Stoics exhort us to be like good actors, to interpret as well as we can the part(s) assigned to us by fate.” But she immediately adds: “The Stoic imperative of detachment from externals does not entail that we should be uncommitted to our roles: on the contrary, we should play them as seriously as possible but always remembering that we are wearing masks, and that each mask might be changed.” Moreover, Odysseus is a good role model for the Stoic because he is committed to play well his roles while at the same time not confusing any specific role with who he more fundamentally is: “Odysseus is and is not the character he plays: he is, as a committed performer of life’s script; he is not, because his ‘moral purpose’ extends beyond each role and protects him, so to speak, from them.”

When Dio (who was a Stoic with strong Cynic leanings) writes, referring to Odysseus: “prudence is the safest wall, for it does not fall down or fail; one must set up walls in one’s impregnable reason,” Montiglio reminds us that this sort of talk is very similar to what we find in Marcus Aurelius and his famous idea of an inner citadel: “The mind that is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and repel every attack.” (Meditations, VIII.48)

Similarly, when Montiglio says that “Odysseus in rags is an athlete of life, training himself to endure so-called misfortunes (of which poverty is a major one) and to reject pleasures,” one is reminded again of Marcus: “The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” (Meditations, VII.61) That is why in antiquity Ulysses became the epitome of the dictum that virtue is schooled in misfortune, a theme that also recurs in Seneca: “No wall can be erected against Fortune which she cannot take by storm; let us strengthen our inner defences. If the inner part be safe, man can be attacked, but never captured.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXXIV. On Virtue as a Refuge from Wordly Distractions, 19)

Maximus of Tyre wrote of Odysseus: “he rejected an immortality that came at the cost of inactivity, and the loss of all opportunity to exercise his virtue in action,” which dovetails nicely with the Stoic idea that hardship is to be endured for the sake of virtue, not fame, the latter being a preferred indifferent.

Another reason Odysseus was a favorite of the Roman Stoics in particular is that Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Favorinus, and Dio Chysostom had all been persecuted and exiled, just like the Greek hero had been persecuted by Poseidon and exiled to a number of places, including Circe’s and Calypso’s islands. “For Musonius,” writes Montiglio, “Odysseus embodies the truth that people can profit from exile: ‘Alone, naked, and shipwrecked’ when he landed at Phaeacia, he ‘gathered enormous wealth.'”

At the same time, Epictetus uses Odysseus to illustrate his idea that we are not meant to stay in one place for our entire existence: “And that human beings, in addition to being noble-minded by nature and capable of feeling contempt for all that lies outside the sphere of choice, also possess this further quality, of not being rooted down or attached to the earth, but being able to move from one place to another, sometimes under the pressure of specific needs, sometimes merely so as to enjoy the spectacle. It was something of this kind that happened to Odysseus, ‘Cities of many men he saw, and learned their ways.'” (Discourses III.24.12-13).

Epictetus — one of the most Cynic-like of the Stoics — however, has a problem with Odysseus’ strong longing for his home and his wife, which are only preferred indifferents, after all. Here Seneca, as usual, comes across as more approachable. Writes Montiglio: “Seneca reinterprets Odysseus’ love for fatherland and family as the call of duty, which Stoically includes service to fatherland and family.”

Another interesting aspect of the myth of Ulysses, as far as the Stoics were concerned, was his relationship with knowledge. Was he curious for curiosity’s sake (which wouldn’t sit well with the practically oriented Stoics), or was his curiosity an aspect of his practical virtue? Both Zeno and Epictetus criticize what they saw as Odysseus’ excessive curiosity, and so did Dio.

And Seneca writes: “We have no time to hear lectures on whether Odysseus was tossed about between Italy and Sicily or beyond the known world (for so long a wandering could not have taken place in such a limited space); we ourselves are tossed about by storms every day, and our badness thrusts us into all the ills Odysseus encountered.” (Letter LXXXVIII.7)

Nevertheless, even for Epictetus, says Montiglio, “Odysseus … turns out to be the paradigmatic pursuer of wisdom because he did not pass by the Sirens with his ears plugged, but both listened to their song and sailed forth: that is, he was able to apply the right dose of dialectics to his philosophical goal.”

Finally, and rather interestingly, the Cynics (and then later the Stoics) had interpreted Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, who was wise and virtuous, as the personification of Philosophy itself. Which explains why Bio the Cynic said: “it is fine to travel around many cities, but profitable to live in the best one.”

Odysseus and the Cynics

Odysseus and the Cyclop

“The immortal gods had given us in Cato a more assured example of the wise man than Odysseus and Hercules in earlier centuries. For we Stoics have proclaimed that these were wise men, not being conquered by effort, despising pleasure, and victorious over the whole world.” (Seneca, On Constancy, II.1)

The Stoics thought that role models are important, because that’s how you pattern your behavior toward virtue. One can explain, perhaps, what it means to be virtuous, but it is far more efficient and inspiring to study the biographies and follow the examples of great men and women. While the classical role models of ancient Stoicism were Socrates (of course), Cato the Younger, and the demigod Hercules, I want to propose a series of posts on Odysseus, the mythical Greek warrior who single handedly won the Trojan War by way of his cunning stratagem of the wooden horse, and whose further exploits are recounted in the immortal poem by Homer that refers to his name (check this superb translation by Robert Fagles, with an excellent introductory essay and notes by Bernard Knox). Besides, I’ve been fascinated by Odysseus since I was a kid, and a recent book by Silvia Montiglio, From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought, gave me a perfect excuse to indulge my love for he who the Romans called Ulysses.

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The Cato chronicles, part VI: the legacy

Porcia, Cato’s daughter

We have reached the end of this short series looking into the life and philosophy of Cato the Younger, one of the classic Stoic role models. Following Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s book, Rome’s Last Citizen, we started with indicative, symbolic, even, episodes from Cato’s childhood, examined his conscious embracing of Stoicism, saw him commanding the respect of his troops but also weeping at the death of his half-brother, clashing with his friend-and-rival Cicero, and finally choosing suicide — by gruesome means — in order not to concede a political advantage to his arch-enemy, Julius Caesar.
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The Cato chronicles, part V: death

Cato’s death, by J-P Laurens

This mini-series on Cato the Younger, one of the quintessential Stoic role models, began with a look at episodes from his childhood, and continued with his embracing of Stoicism as a young man, his first time as a military commander, the contemporaneous death of his half-brother, and the epic clash with his friend and rival, Cicero. I am going to bring the series to an end with two more entries — like the other ones inspired by the reading of Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni’s Rome’s Last Citizen. In this episode of the Cato chronicles we’ll look at his legendary death, and in the next and last installment to his afterlife, so to speak, i.e., his legacy through history and all the way to modern times.

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