Why look back to the Ancients: Aurelius, Seneca, and the Stoics?
Why would we want to return to one of the last Roman Emperors and Greek philosophers who personified rigorous self-denial, extreme fortitude and emotional indifference?
Perhaps because we live in an age characterized by self-indulgence, cowardice, and untrammeled emotion?
One of the very first books I devoured as a college undergrad was Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. A college professor I admired greatly and have written about in previous posts would liberally quote Aurelius’ pithy observations.
I had walked away from God and all things religious but was ferociously searching to replace the deep faith of my childhood. A search which would last for a very long time. Meanwhile, I encountered friends like Aurelius along the way.
The appeal of Marcus Aurelius [if you have never read Meditations, click here for free PDF]
and his underlying philosophy of stoicism are based on three foundations or ‘disciplines’: perception, action and will. Concepts which conflict with much of what is sold as American culture by the media, Hollywood and even politics. But more than intriguing to more than a few of us who seek what is real and lasting…Truth.
- That perception varies from person to person is evident. But why what one person views as a crisis and the next as challenge, not so much. Take failure for example. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma prides himself on the numerous times he has crashed and burned.
One explanation for Ma’s unusual perspective might be a training in objectivity- the ability to remain detached from events around us. Freeing ourselves from the notion of intrinsic good and evil.
- For Aurelius, our actions are inextricably bound with others. Because we are are all participants in the Logos, the universe is an orderly and hierarchical place.
We were made, Marcus tells us over and over, not for ourselves but for
others, and our nature is fundamentally unselfish. In our
relationships with others we must work for their collective
good, while treating them justly and fairly as individuals…
- The last precept of Aurelius and the Stoics is that of will. Hay explains in his preface to the Meditations that while the discipline of action governs those things in our control, that of will determines our response to those events which lie outside our control.
…we must see
things for what they are (here the discipline of perception is
relevant) and accept them, by exercising the discipline of
will, or what Epictetus calls (in a phrase quoted by Marcus)
“the art of acquiescence.” For if we recognize that all events
have been foreseen by the logos and form part of its plan,
and that the plan in question is unfailingly good (as it must
be), then it follows that we must accept whatever fate has in
store for us, however unpleasant it may appear, trusting that,
in Alexander Pope’s phrase, “whatever is, is right.” This
applies to all obstacles and (apparent) misfortunes, and in
particular to death—a process that we cannot prevent, which
therefore does not harm us, and which accordingly we must
accept willingly as natural and proper.
Together, the three disciplines constitute a comprehensive approach to life…
Rolling the clock forward a few decades,
I found immersed once again in Aurelius, Seneca and the Stoics when, to my great surprise, I switched from writing medical mysteries to historical fiction. In researching the early education of well-to-do Romans like Pontius Pilate, I learned that they were schooled at home- frequently by Greek tutors.
My friend Paul, who normally does not read fiction, commented recently about the idiosyncratic relationship between the conquering Romans and the ostensibly subjugated Greeks made explicit in my latest book. Rather than extinguishing the wisdom of the Greeks, the Roman Emperors assimilated Greek philosophy and language into the culture of the Roman Empire: A glaring contrast with the prevailing culture of today.
Those few years I spent embedded in ancient Rome, Greece and Israel renewed and deepened my admiration and even reverence for those learned men in search of wisdom.
For now, these people were my allies—but I knew it would take just a whisper to awaken their enmity. I suspected that Caiaphas could incite murderous rage among these Hebrews if he chose to do so, and direct it squarely against Rome and me.
Theirs was a religious fervor I could not grasp. I had made the requisite sacrifices to Mars, just as all legionnaires did, since my childhood days. But, did I honestly believe in this deity and his power to protect me? Did I believe in the others, with their specific powers and causes?
The truth was, if I embraced any religion at all, it was Stoicism. My Greek tutors had schooled me in the writings of Xeno and Epictetus. Foundational to me was the belief that, through the forces of will and discipline, I could control my own affections, opinions, bodily appetites, and the like. And, when it came to the things outside of my control—the things controlled by the opinions of others such as position and prestige, or matters of illness and death—I resigned myself to accept what came my way with equanimity. With every cell of my being, I knew that it was my own mastery of myself that had effected the truce with Caiaphas—not the will of a remote god.
Of late, I had discovered the work of a young Spaniard named Seneca, also a Stoic, and had gone so far as to write to him, advising that I had memorized a passage of his I admired:
“The sovereign good of man is a mind that subjects all things to itself, and is itself subject to nothing: his pleasures are modest, severe, and reserved: and rather the sauce or the diversion of life than the entertainment of it. It may be some question whether such a man goes to heaven, or heaven comes to him: for a good man is influenced by God himself, and has a kind of divinity within him. What if one good man lives in pleasure and plenty, and another in want and misery? It is no virtue to contemn superfluities, but necessities: and they are both of them equally good, though under several circumstances, and in different stations.”