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I’ve been listening to the History of Rome podcasts of late and was pondering on some of the comments about the emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was, before listening, one of my top three choices for best ruler of the empire. What better role model than the philosopher-king? Now, I’m not so sure that he managed both the empire and his own position as well as I had assumed. But that’s neither here nor there. What caught my attention was the narrator’s comments on the philosophical life of his times.
Marcus Aurelius was, of course, the unwitting author of the now-famous, inspirational work Meditations, a collection of aphorisms based on his own Stoic view of life I’m sure most of you have read (and if not, scurry over to your local bookstore and get a copy now).
I say unwitting because, as Wikipedia reminds us, he wrote the book (or rather books, because there are 12 separate parts which are now labelled chapters) for his own edification and guidance, not as a manual for others. It was never intended for publication. It is fortuitous that after his death, the work was copied and shared and eventually handed down to us, despite the emperor’s misgivings.
Aurelius’ work was, as far as I can recall, my first significant introduction to ancient philosophy (Greek, Roman and earlier). Since then, I’ve dabbled in others, but didn’t start reading them in any comprehensive way until recently. Which is a shame, really, since they have so much to offer. For years, I knew more about Eastern philosophy than Western. Now I’m trying to redress that situation.
To fill in the gaps in my mostly autodidactic education, I have been reading a lot of ancient Western philosophy these past couple of years, mostly Plato, Aristotle and a smattering of later Romans. I just added a few titles to the reading list only this past month: Epictetus and Diogenes the Cynic, with Epicurus on the way. I suppose once I’ve finished with Rome, it’ll be time to turn to philosophy podcasts. I certainly need help interpreting what I’ve been reading.
What has always fascinated me is that many people in the days of the Roman empire followed and embraced philosophy actively, as deeply as many people follow religion today. True, it was mostly the upper class and elites who had both the education and the leisure time to study something so abstract. But philosophy wasn’t merely an academic pursuit: it had deep roots in their daily lives. It was practical.
Perhaps it’s in large part because Egyptian, Greek, then later Roman, pagan religions offered little in the way of moral guidance, and even less in answering those Great Questions that have haunted humankind since we first started to write. You know, the why-are-we-here, what’s-the-meaning-of-life, why-is-there-evil, what-happens-when-we-die sort of question. The questions that keep you awake at night, and wake you up at 3 a.m. to run around in your brain like little, frantic mice.
Or at least they keep me awake… maybe you already have them figured out.
That’s also a reason why the Eastern mystery cults, then later the upstart Christian cult spread so quickly throughout the empire, and became so popular: they offered answers to those pressing questions, plus a hefty serving of moral guidance and ritual. Having ready-made answers made them accessible, comforting and gave life a depth that the pagan religions lacked. But which philosophy supplied.
(I am still trying to understand how and why Judaism didn’t fill in the gap earlier – it, after all, has the answers and rituals so many people are comforted by – but suspect it has something to do with the fractious politics of the Jews, and the unrelenting, unbending absolutism of their beliefs, which baffled and offended the Romans.)
Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic; Stoicism was one of the four major schools of philosophy in post-Republic Rome. Cicero and Seneca – other authors I’ve been reading recently, but for different reasons – were also Stoics.
The other main schools were Epicureanism, neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism. All originated in Greece. Only Aristotle and Plato would survive the fall of the Empire. Even Plato went into stasis for many centuries before being re-discovered by the West. But the others weren’t entirely lost: many of the writings survived. It’s just that the message submerged under the ruling Christian message and became a matter of history and academia, rather than daily life.
Or so I understand from my reading so far. I may be wrong in my interpretation. And there were minor schools, too, but I’m still unsure of how long some of them lasted, and whether they had adherents this late.
Even so, I’m trying to properly appreciate the difference between the Stoics and Epicureans. Both had the goal of calming the minds of practitioners and believers. But they were often light years apart in how they approached The Big Issues like death.
I had previously thought of Epicureans as hedonists. Based on sensuality. Stoics were like Spock’s Vulcans in Star Trek: emotionless, bio-machines. Seems I was wrong. It’s vastly more complex and the generalities don’t convey the subtleties of their beliefs. More to the point, those simplistic views were not their own but constructed by their opponents, or competing schools.
And,as I learn more about them, I wonder which, were I alive in the days of Emperor Marcus, would be the school I followed. I tend to think Stoicism, but perhaps only because I’ve read more of it. Still, it seems to hew a logical, philosophic line closer to that of the secular Buddhism I prefer. Stoics placed an emphasis on reason, and virtue was living the life according to reason.
Yet the Epicureans held a similar view of death and mortality to Buddhist views. Epicurus wrote in a letter:
Get used to believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience. Hence, a correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life a matter for contentment, not by adding a limitless time [to life] but by removing the longing for immortality.
I can understand from this why later Christians would scorn the ancient philosophers, because this sort of saying ran counter to the grain of church promises of immortality, be it paradise or eternal damnation. Epicurus also wrote,
Chance has a small impact on the wise man, while reasoning has arranged for, is arranging for, and will arrange for the greatest and most important matters throughout the whole of his life.
Which is something I need to incorporate into my writings about Machiavelli, who commented on the balance between fortuna and virtu in his work, The Prince.
I still have a long road ahead of reading and exploring, trying to understand and appreciate the beliefs of these and other schools of philosophy. Any suggestions for books, podcasts, websites or videos to help me in my learning would be welcome.
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