Philosophy – Ancient and Modern
Author’s note: This is my original work. A previous version of this has appeared on another blog.
“What We Do In Life Echoes In Eternity”
The Stoic At the Moment of Truth
In personal, as well as in public life, peril and the test they make of one’s character are as common as they are unavoidable, for all but the most timid souls. To paraphrase Shakespeare, some are born to it, some seek it, and others have it thrust upon them. How the crisis met is often, at first glance, the seeming product of instinct, chance, or a snap decision. What makes those actions possible is lifelong habit and choice, whether understood as such, or not. The title of this inquiry is taken from Gladiator, where it is spoken by Maximus, and its’ origin is in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism, the ancient school of virtue of which the latter is the most famous disciple, and how its adherents fared in the facing of the major crisis of their lives, is what we will now consider.
The present inquiry will center on the most famous of the later Roman Stoics, and on a latter-day disciple, examining how their philosophy fared in the face of the major life crisis that each confronted. Seneca, Senator and playwright, had to deal with Nero’s tyrannical and insane rule as one of Rome’s leading citizens. He will be examined in light of what his letters and plays say about his beliefs and in light of how he chose to deal with a situation intolerable to a man of honor. Marcus Aurelius, last of the ‘Good Emperors’ of the second century, will be judged by his Meditations, in light of his choice about his successor. Epictetus faced no single defining crisis that forced upon him so drastic a choice as Seneca or Marcus Aurelius had, but one of his students did. James Bond Stockdale, living 19 centuries after the Enchrideron was written, chose, as a captive of the Communist government of North Viet Nam, what to do with the teachings of the crippled slave that he professed to live by. These three Stoics in crisis will be the object of this study.
Socrates had four famous students; Plato, Xenopohon, Alcibiades, and Anthisthenes, the man considered Socrates’ spiritual heir by his contemporaries. Antisthenes was a proto-cynic, and would have remained famous to this day had he not been of the same generation as Plato, and had he not been the teacher of Diogenes and Zeno. Diogenes, founder of the Cynic school, was famed in his lifetime more than anyone in the Hellenic world, except for the Hellenes’ conqueror, Alexander of Macedon. Zeno began Stoicism as a school of philosophy as Diogenes’ contemporary, in the middle years of the third century, B.C. Stoics had certain tenets held in common: the belief in a Divine Providence that governs the Universe, a World-Soul, which is the divinity of all things, as the entirety of Creation is part of the Mind of God; the end of days in a cosmic fire, to be followed by the reincarnation of all things; and the road to serenity and peace as lying within our will to grasp by recognition that things external to the self are immaterial to happiness, and divinely ordained.
The Stoic view of human nature was that it was perfectible through a discipline that revolved around three basic topics of moral philosophy: the Desires and Aversions, the Pursuits and Avoidances, and the Assents. The goal of this was to obtain such serenity as was coextensive with Duty, and unmindful of Fortune. Like Calvinism in a later age, adherents were few to a discipline that demanded discipline above and beyond the capacity of the average mind and soul. Those who persevered did, in proportion to their numbers, great service to the common weal. Scipio the Younger, Cato the Younger, Cicero, Seneca, Burrus, the ‘Good Emperors,’ including Marcus Aurelius were all public men who professed Stoicism or were at least well-wishers; Spengler said that all real Romans had a Stoic nature and temperament, unawares.
SENECA: Lucius Annaeus Seneca is the first of the Triumvirate of Virtue in the Imperium who are the objects of our scrutiny. Born a provincial in Iberia, he rose to prominence in the Eternal City amidst the ephemeral fortunes of courtiers who rose and fell in favor with Emperors with the regularity of the Sun. Committed to a life which disdained worldly fortune, he amassed through the use of his legal and oratorical gifts a fortune unequaled in the world, according to Tacitus (3). His fortunes were reversed thrice, as he was ordered put to death by Tiberius, then reprieved, only to have his life decreed forfeit by Claudius, the sentence commuted to exile in Sardina, only to be recalled to tutor the future Emperor Nero (4). The latter’s first years were remembered as the best of the four score years between Augustus’ death and Nerva’s elevation, even as his last were the worst. In tandem with the soldier Burrus, Seneca governed the Roman world from behind the throne. After Burrus’ murder, Seneca’s growing fortune and rising popularity made enemies of his student’s envy and avarice, and the master of the Empire accepted his schoolmaster’s protestations of ill health (and his fortune) as reason for retirement from public life (5). The Stoic philosopher was unable to retire to the porch and watch the world pass by; hounded by Nero’s suspicions, if not his assassins, the aging teacher had to remain on the move. When, at last, he grew weary of the chase, he chose to leave this life for death’s embrace, in accord with the teachings of the Stoa.
Seneca’s choice of suicide over continuing to live in a situation that he found intolerable was in concert with his writings on the subject throughout his lifetime. A playwright whose operas were never meant for the stage, but only for private circulation, he puts into the mouth of Oedipus in, The Phoenecian Women, a speech expounding at length on the justification for suicide:
…’Tis better I should find the way I seek,
Alone? the path that takes me out of life
And frees from sight of this crime-laden head
the earth and sky. (6)
No longer strive; in my own hands I hold
The right to live or die. I laid aside
Freely my sovereign power, but still retain
Sovereignty o’er myself. (7)
Oedipus justifies suicide as fit way to end a sinful life in repentance. Did the tutor of Nero and keeper of so vast a fortune as no private man could boast of believe himself unfaithful to his true love, Philosophy? Would the finality of irreversible sin have been before Seneca’s eyes as he roamed, vagabond, in his old age, waiting for an ill-omened message from Nero? Mad Hercules, another Senecan drama, offers this passage from its tragic subject, after he is deluded into killing his family in a mad rage brought on by Juno, his sworn enemy among the gods:
Why I should longer keep my soul in life,
And linger on the earth, there is no cause;
For I have lost my all: my balanced mind,
My arms, my reputation, children, wife,
The glory of my strength? my madness too,
There is no remedy for tainted souls;
But death alone can cure me of my sin. (8)
If I yet live, I have committed wrong;
But if I die, then I have suffered it.
I haste to purge the earth of such as I. (9)
Hercules is thus another case of wrong transfiguring heroic character so formidably that no remedy can be offered but to die. This speech is one of consummate self-loathing, transfixing in tragedy the soul that gave it utterance. To view either Oedipus or Hercules as model for Seneca’s own suicide requires of the philosopher some self-admitted crime so odious that the stain cannot be wiped out, in his eyes, but by self-spilled blood. Without this, only the anthem, “In my own hands I hold the right to live or die,” justifies Seneca’s letting despair inform reason (lacking the light of transcendent faith) of the only course left open to honor.
Seneca’s Letters, written to Lucilius, a younger friend, were intended to be teaching epistles, in a manner not unlike St. Paul’s. Therein we find the master exhorting his pupil and friend to claim everything that is true and right as his own, regardless of source (10). Epicurian quotes abound, and it is curious indeed that Rome’s most famous Epicurian, Petronius, the ‘Arbiter Elegante,’ should have chosen to follow Seneca in self-chosen death, when Nero’s existence became unbearable for him. Lucilius learns in Letter XII that Seneca believes we should live every day as if it were our last; that, while no one is so old as not to hope for one more day, we should go to bed with Virgil’s words upon our lips:
I have lived: I have completed now the course
That fortune long ago allotted me.
The most telling reference comes from Letter LXX, where he deplores the treatment of gladiators, while admiring one slave who killed himself rather that live with sin:
…there was lately in a training-school for wild-beast gladiators a German,
who was making ready for the morning exhibition: he withdrew in order
to relieve himself? the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and
without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of
wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses, and
stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat:; thus he blocked up his windpipe,
and choked the breath from his body…the foulest death is preferable to the
What can be admired among the barbarians is not unworthy of the philosopher. From Letter LXIII:
…Perhaps, too, if only there is truth in the story told by the sages that some
welcoming abode awaits us, he whom we suppose to be dead and gone has
merely been sent on ahead.(13)
Death is not to be feared, nor is it necessarily the end of things. What matters is to live in conformity to nature, and he is happy who thinks himself happy.
Seneca’s writings, examined cursorily here, clearly show no contradiction between his expressed philosophic views and his actions at the moment of crisis in a life filled with such moments. He lived a Stoic; indifferent to fortune (even while he amassed a magnificent one) as to misfortune; he died a Stoic.
EPICTETUS: Nero’s court favorites included Seneca, Petronius, Tigellis (who was the undoing of both), and the freedman Epaphroditus, who killed the master of the world. This freedman bought a crippled slave, who, in the time after Nero’s death, was sent to hear the Stoic philosopher Rufius teach. This was Epictetus, whose Discourses and “Enchreidiron” (or, Manual) are still read today. Like Socrates, he wrote nothing; like Socrates, he had a Xenophon (8.) who did. Arrian, a young aristocrat, undertook to set down his precepts as he heard them, and preserve them for posterity.
Epictetus taught that reliance on externals inevitably leads to disappointment. We cannot control externals, which leads to our desires and aversions being affronted, as we think, by Chance and Fortune. A man does well to pay things outside of himself no heed; then they will do him no harm.
The life which is implicated with fortune is like a
winter torrent: for it is turbulent, and full of mud,
and difficult to cross, and tyrannical, and noisy, and
of short duration.
-Epictetus, Fragments, I.
No man is free who is not master of himself.
Of things, some are in our power, and others are not.
From the above we can see that the goal of a Stoic is to live in conformity to what is, and to be ruled by Reason, not passion. These words ring more true on the lips of a crippled slave than from a Senator, Emperor, or anyone for whom philosophy might be a parlor game. Epictetus is reputed to have survived to a great age, and perhaps to have lived into the reign of Hadrian.
MARCUS AURELIUS: Hadrian, following the practice of his immediate predecessors, named his successor; he did something novel in naming his successor’s heir as well. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, chosen for the Principate, was 17 years old at Trajan’s death. Not wishing to bequeath Empire to one too young, prudence informed Hadrian’s judgment and the elderly but respected Antoninus, surnamed Pius, prominent Senator, was chosen as a stand-in Emperor, to succeed Hadrian for a few years, until Marcus was ready for power.
Prudence also dictated the training of a prince for responsibility, which Hadrian undertook, and Antoninus Pius completed. The Meditations of this most famous Stoic are begun with a chapter thanking the people who influenced his life and conduct. Fronto, the most famous teacher of his generation, tutored the Emperor-to-be, endeavoring to make Plato’s philosopher-king come into being in him. The Emperors, in their turn, were his schoolmasters in the conduct of the government of the civilized world. Junius Rusticus acquainted the younger Antoninus with the Discourses of Epictetus, with whom Marcus shared the same comprehension of the Stoic doctrine.
Marcus Aurelius called the Universe the ‘universal substance,’ and believed it governed by Reason. He so endeavored to conduct his administration that it conformed to Reason as the latter did to the Universe governed thereby. Taking the reins of power in middle age, (Antoninus Pius having lived 23 years beyond Hadrian’s death) with a coregent in Lucius Verus, heading an Empire then at the zenith of it’s prestige, the horizon must have looked bright indeed. Gibbon said of the period which closed with Marcus’ death:
In the second century of the Christian era the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of
the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy
were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of
laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. …During a happy
period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and
abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. (12)
The era remembered as the fairest in Western history drew to close with Marcus at the helm. Fortune is nothing to a Stoic; nothing lasts forever. Declining population, lax morals – byproduct of long years of peace and prosperity, Parthian and barbarian invasions, the blows of Fortune cannot be laid at Marcus’ feet. He did his able best to meet the danger; he was aided by the best men that the time could offer. So much as the danger was, he met, and left his successor the Empire intact, if not as vigorous as he found it.
Marcus’ policy has been remembered for three defects: enrolling slaves and barbarians in the Legions (perhaps out of necessity), which was later to prove the source of turmoil for other Emperors; the persecution of Christians, an indelible stain on an otherwise morally upright character; and choosing his son as successor. The latter is the crisis that we will examine. Commodus, child of Marcus and Empress Fausta, was given every advantage that birth, wealth, learning and example could bestow upon his mind and spirit. His nature was such that all the nurturing of a busy father, who spent nearly his entire Principate in war on the frontiers of the empire, and all the teachers and councilors in his stead, could not counteract the cruel, greedy, narcissistic nature of the youth. (Fausta was subject of scandal-mongers in the ancient world, and was reputed to be a dissolute, lustful, vile woman, but Marcus affirmed her virtue, and thanked the gods for a wife of such modesty, in Book I of the Meditations.) Whatever the source of his ill disposition, it was apparent long before Marcus’ passing. Marcus’ own writings on the subject of duty abound:
From Anthisthenes: It is royal to do good and to be abused.
-Meditations, VII: 36
The perfection of moral character consists in this, in passing every day as the last, and in being
neither violently excited, nor torpid, nor playing the hypocrite.
-Meditations, VII: 69
It is thy duty to leave another man’s wrongful act there where it is.
-Meditations, IX: 20
To look for a fig in winter is a madman’s act: such is he who looks for his child when it is no longer
allowed (Epictetus, iii. 24, 87).
-Meditations, XI: 33
It is clear that Marcus believed that his duty was to see things as they were, not as he wished for them to be. In looking for a successor in Commodus, he sought in vain for that fig in winter. He must have known that he was taking up his child’s wrongful acts and laying them upon the people he ruled. The philosopher could not but have informed the father that his son wanted the perfection of moral character which consists in being neither violently excited, nor torpid, yet the father ignored this, and in so doing, played the hypocrite.
Gibbon reports that the dozen years of Commodus’ misrule were, like Nero’s, unseasonably mild at the beginning, and for the same reason: councilors whose fading respect in the eyes of the youthful prince bought a short time for just government (13). An unsuccessful assassination attempt instigated by his sister Lucillia, widow of Lucius Verus, broke the spell of his father’s virtue, example, and advisors; the impressionable mind was finally and permanently unbalanced, and any hopes for a break with his profligate youth were dashed. The rest is, as they say, history.
One can only wonder why things did not turn out differently. The example of Hadrian, who adopted Antoninus Pius as de facto regent-Emperor until Marcus was ‘of age’ was before him. With age (59) creeping up on him, with ¨self-exhortations to live each day as the last and to be ever-ready for death, and at the head of an army in far-off places, exposed to enemy and elements, why didn’t Marcus take caution for the future? Roman private law provides for a man to name a ‘tutor’ over his estate; agnatic succession to the office of paterfamilias was legally specified. Why would a man whose estate was the fairest portion of the world not take the time to do so much as name an executor to his estate, until
such time as the heir was of legal age? Pertinax might have lasted more than three months had he succeeded Marcus, and not Commodus. For not obeying the dictates of his philosophy, let alone his common sense, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus must be judged a failure in the principle crisis of his life. Mitigating circumstances, like Faustia’s influence, a lack of evidence for the bloodthirstiness which showed itself later, etc., are just that: mitigating. They cannot erase the fact that the philosopher-king left the sceptre of the world knowingly to an unworthy son.
STOCKDALE: Epictetus faced no comparable crisis to that which either Seneca or Marcus Aurelius did. His crippled servitude was a chronic, not an acute, condition which he not only learned to live with, but within the confines of which found peace and freedom. His philosophy was put to the test by another man, a disciple separated from him by nineteen centuries.
James Bond Stockdale was 38 years old and a veteran of almost 20 years’ Naval service when he discovered the Stoic philosophy, that had so appealed to the soldierly Roman mind. As preparation for a future Pentagon job, the Navy sent Commander Stockdale, an aviator with carrier squadrons through most of his career, to Stanford University for graduate education in international relations. Near the end of his time there, he signed up for a course called, The Problem of Good and Evil, taught by a philosophy professor named Phillip Rheinlander.
At the end of the two-semester course covering Job, Camus, Lebintiz, Descartes, Hume and others, Cdr. Stockdale took his farewell of the man who had become his mentor. As they parted, Dr. Rheinlander took down from a high shelf in his office a worn copy of Epictetus and gave it to his student, saying, “Here is a book that a man in your profession should own. Keep it and read it from time to time.”
Cdr. Stockdale returned to carriers and leading pilots in the air. Reading the book, first out of reverence for the giver, later out of conviction of the rightness of its precepts, he found his perspective changing under the impact of epigrams like these:
Men are disturbed not by things but by the view they take of them,
Do not be concerned with things that are beyond your power. (14.)
The time came when these principles would be tried in the crucible of war. Physical courage has been displayed often enough that, while it should be commended, it should also be expected. Such can be seen every weekend of the football season by players who do their jobs, knowing that they will be hit, and often hurt, in doing so. The vulgar can show such courage, like Mark Antony, without being ennobled by it. Cdr. Stockdale was called upon to show that moral courage which Stoicism requires of its adherents.
Leading a mission over North Viet Nam in August of 1965, Cdr. Stockdale’s plane was hit and its pilot forced to bail out. Landing in an enemy village, he suffered a broken leg and was beaten savagely before soldiers arrived to capture him. As he floated downward, he told himself two things: ‘It will be five years before I go home, and, I’m entering the world of Epictetus.’(15) Lame and in bondage like his master, he had to continue the struggle against the Communists with mind and soul, while the body lay in leg irons for years at a time. As senior prisoner in camp, Cdr. Stockdale took command. This was done by tapping messages in code on the walls, as each prisoner was isolated, some not seeing an American face for five years.
Encouraging each other in coded messages tapped out when the guards weren’t around, they lived by orders issued by Cdr. Stockdale. These were known by the acronym BACK US: don’t Bow in public; stay off the Air; admit no Crimes; never Kiss them goodbye; Unity over Self. In accordance with the US Code of Conduct, they were to render no aid or comfort to the enemy, accept no parole, and continue to resist by any means necessary. Prison is like a refining fire when the object is not to punish, but to break the human spirit. Through the centuries, the story is pretty much the same: Boethius, Cerevantes, Solzenetsyn, Victor Frankel, Natan Sharansky, and others, especially in the century past, filled as it was with utopian dictatorships, movements of national liberation, and other struggles for dominion or freedom, tell the same story as Stockdale, Denton, McCain and the other POWs in the Hanoi Hilton did.
The moment of crisis for Cdr. Stockdale came when he was to be put to torture until he broke. Every man has his breaking point; the prisoners were on orders to talk only after torture had been inflicted on them. But on that autumn day in 1969, on the night that Ho Chi Minh died, Cdr. Stockdale knew that his captors would take nothing less than complete submission? his soul as the price of escape. Left tied up near a bathroom, Cdr. Stockdale made his way slowly to the bathroom window, broke it, and used a shard of glass to cut open his veins. Found half-dead later in the night, his act of resistance ended the reign of terror in the camp. He was known to be alive in captivity, and the death of so prominent a prisoner during the Paris peace talks would have been a major propaganda blow. The ‘Cat,’ Maj. Bui, overseer of the prison, was eventually demoted for failing to break his prisoners, disrupt their chain of command, or wring from them material for propaganda purposes. The prisoners had jailed their jailer, and their leader received the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor above and beyond the call of duty on that fateful autumn night. (16)
(Epictetus also had a 20th Century literary disciple: Conrad Hensley, one of the protagonists in Tom Wolfe’s
Cdr. Stockdale, like Seneca, found that a time may come when honor can only be satisfied by the spilling of blood – one’s own. Like the gladiator with the toilet sponge, he used the means at hand. Adversity shows Stoicism at its best; the rule of the philosopher-king uncovers its’ greatest failure. No father’s love can compensate for inflicting a Commodus on a defenseless people. The system of Zeno, as preached in Rome and practiced by our subjects, is a strong support in adversity, even though it offers no hope of eternal salvation, as the sentiments of Hercules and Oedipus in Seneca make plain. As we enter more deeply into a world mirroring the characteristics of Hellenism, with its universalization of a national culture over much of the world at the very moment when faith in one of the tenants of that culture – the Polis – failed, in the twilight of simultaneous Western technological triumph and loss of faith, a process now five centuries old, in what made that triumph possible, Stoicism offers a tested haven for minds not infused with the spirit of divine transcendence, and in the case of one like Boethius, who also professed the Christian faith, an able support to that faith in the face of adversity.
-Lloyd A. Conway
1.) Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion, pp. 87-96
2.) Oswald S####pengler, The Decline of the West, p. 186
3.) Tacitus, Annals of the Roman Empire, 14:52-55
4.) Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, (Nero) p. 217
5.) Lives of the Twelve Caesars, p. 234
6.) Seneca, The Phonecian Women, 5?9
7.) The Phonecian Women, 107-111
8.) Seneca, Mad Hercules, 1254-1260
9.) Mad Hercules, 1284-1286
10) Seneca, Letters, XVI
11) Finley Hooper & Matthew Schwartz, Roman Letters, p. 60
12) Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, p. 27
13) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, pp.113-128
14) James Bond Stockdale, Epictetus in Uniform, Chronicles of Culture, March, 1987 pp. 12-17
15) James Bond Stockdale, In Love and War, pp. 356-357
16) James Bond Stockdale, The Role of the Pressure Cooker, from Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, pp. 21-22.
Murray, Gilbert. (1935) Five Stages of Greek Religion. Watts & Co. London.
Gibbon, Edward. (1952) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Viking Press. New York. (Originally published in 1776.)
Suetonius. (1957) The Twelve Caesars. Penguin Books. London.
Spengler, Oswald. (1991) The Decline of the West. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Hooper, Finley and Schwartz, Matthew. (1991) Roman Letters. Wayne State University Press. Detroit, MI.
Duckworth, George E., ed. (1942) The Complete Roman Drama, v. 2. Random House. New York.
Epictetus.###≠ Discourses, Encheiridion & Fragments. A. L. Burt & Co. New York. Date unknown.
Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. A.L. Burt & Co. New York. Date unknown.
Seneca. (1969) Letters From a Stoic. Penguin Books. London.
Tacitus. (1942) The Complete Works of Tacitus. The Modern Library. New York..
Stockdale, James Bond. (1993) Courage Under Fire. Hoover Institution Press. Stanford, CA.
Stockdale, James Bond. (1987) Epictetus in Uniform. Chronicles of Culture. Rockford, IL.
Stockdale, James Bond. (1995) Reflections of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. Hoover Institution Press. Stanford, CA.
Stockdale, James Bond. (1984) In Love and War. Naval Institute Press. Annapolis, MD.