Creating a Stoic Circle

Stoicism is an individual journey but, like sailing, it can also be a collective practice. A group of practicing Stoics may want join and form a STOA, or Stoic Circle, to meet regularly in their city. But why to join a Stoic Circle? Self-improvement, sharing what you know, learning from others, fellowship, spiritual growth, or just because they want to. In today’s digital age we are becoming more and more isolated, many important things are lost when we just use e-mails or social media, the importance of face-to-face  human communication is becoming more evident than ever.

I think that a STOA should keep some structure and observe certain rules:

  • A STOA could be described as a group of people with an interest in philosophy in general and Stoicism in particular, not only intellectually but as a way of life.
  • Rules and regularly. A STOA should have certain rules in order to be successful.
  • Openness. It should be open to anyone interested in philosophy as a way of life.
  • Cosmopolitanism. Every person, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or nationality should be welcomed.
  • An ethical code. Stoics believe that Virtue is the highest good and a goal in itself.  That means being willing to transform their lives and their communities.
  • Respect for the opinnions of other members.
  • Democratic character, consensus should be the rule.
  • Self-Education: Stoicism teaches a system of Virtue ethics that can only be learned through practice and experience in real life. It encourages its members to expand their knowledge of the world around them.
  • Books and information should be shared among members.

AVTIVITIES

Some activities I propose  for a Stoic Circle are:

Socratic Dialogue

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Stoicism is a Socratic philosophy. Socratic dialogue is a systematic way of formulating questions and finding answers. A group (5-15 people), guided by a facilitator, would seat in circle and come up with a universal question (e.g. “What is happiness?”, “Can Virtue be taught?”, “Can conflict be fruitful?”, etc.). Then the group should make more precise questions, “What does happiness mean for you?”, “what are you lacking in this moment, to have a good life? We should respect some rules: Be constructive, avoid competition, attack ideas, not people, define your terms… The virtues of patience, tolerance, attentiveness, thoughtfulness and civility must prevail.

Group reading

Reading can be a form of meditation. Reading in group, like meditating in group is interesting because we can share our ideas and doubt about a particular text. Some philosophical texts can be difficult, and other people can give us different insights. The books can be ancient and modern, on Stoicism or other topics related to philosophy.

Physical activity

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Sports were a central part of the Hellenic character and education, and ancient philosophers used to meet in gymnasiums to express their ideas. Activities in Nature such as hiking, climbing or sailing are particularly interesting because they take us out of our comfort zone. In urban areas, martial arts and calisthenics can be a good way of testing our resilience. The word calisthenics comes from the ancient Greek words kalos (κάλλος), which means “beautiful” or “good” and sthenos (σθένος), meaning “strength”. It is the art of using one’s body weight and qualities of inertia as a means to develop one’s physique.  We should remember that a Stoic’s working-out goal is training his or her character and resiliance. Health benefits and body-fitness are just secondary.

Stoic counsel

 If a member of the group has a personal problem, or a negative emotion that is disturbing his or her peace of mind, and wants to share it, the group can gather to listen to the member’s problem, making it the topic of the day. The Stoics used to write to each other letters of advice and consolation. Nevertheless, advice should be avoided unless asked by the member. The very act of speaking and been listen to, is in itself therapeutic.

Roundtable & symposium

“To drink together” The Greek symposium was a key Hellenic social institution. It should be a forum, a relaxed discussion accompanied with some wine, in moderation,  exchange of books and ideas, etc. preferably in a round table.

A fire

Humans have gathered by the fire from time immemorial, for warmth, to tell stories, recount myths and histories. It was the ever-present symbolic element in Graeco-Roman and Persian cultures. A fire was ever lit at the household, the sacred fire burned in Vesta’s circular temple. At the Platonic Academy, a fire was consacrated to Prometheus (meaning “forethought”), who had stolen the fire from the gods and given to man, an act that enabled progress and civilization. Fire was for Heraclitus the Arché; the origin of all matter, the primordial substance, representing change, light, mind, creation and destruction, This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire. In Stoic physics, the universe was shaped by a logos or the “creative fire” (pur technikon). Fire should be present in one way or another in a Stoic circle, to symbolize a living tradition. The fire’s light attracts, unites, galvanizes attentions. The flame and community.

 

If you are interested in finding a Stoic community near your city this website can be help you:

https://www.stoicfellowship.com/home/

The Stoic Fellowship is a project that aims at connecting people interested in Stoicism, regardless of location, identity, or financial means.

 

 

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The meaning of the journey

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.

 Ithaka By Kavafis

Homer’s Odyssey is probably the greatest poem about life’s journey, at once a timeless human story and an individual test of moral character. In this post I would like to argue that Homer uses the idea of spiritual growth as one of his underlying themes in the Odyssey, a poem plenty of metaphors and insights about life as a journey.

Odysseus’ name means “trouble” in Greek, referring to both the giving and receiving of trouble—as is often the case in his wanderings He begins on Calypso’s island, where he has everything, except happiness.  His spirit is low as he longs for his homeland.  Homer introduces Odysseus at a low point to emphasize the growth of Odysseus’ spirit from beginning to end.  If Homer had shown Odysseus in a good spirit first, then the growth would not have seemed as prevalent.

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Odysseus seems to see the light when he finds out that he will be sailing home.  He is tested first when Poseidon nearly kills him off the coast of Scheria, the first island he reaches.  The Odyssey says, “and trapped within that backwash of the brine, Odysseus would have died before his time had not gray-eyed Athena counseled him” (Odyssey by Mandelbaum, 109).  Athena allows Odysseus to experience the storm, but not die.  She knows that it will make him stronger for it.

Odysseus is also tempted when he and his crew pass the Sirens.  He is the only one to hear their song and must be tied to a post in order to keep himself restrained.  Odysseus’ spirit is still weak as he is engrossed with the Sirens ability to foretell the future.  He says, “So did they chant with their entrancing voice.  My heart longed so to listen, and I asked my men to set me free”.  The restraints allow him to struggle with the challenge and become stronger without being entangled with the evil.

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The suitors entice Odysseus when he returns home disguised as the beggar.  But now, he has the strength and will power to reject those spoken words.

Homer expresses his ideas about pride and spirit when Odysseus encounters the Cyclopes.  After out-smarting the Polyphemus, Odysseus shouts out his own name in search for “kleos.”  These were his words to Polyphemus, “if any mortal man should ask about the shameful blinding of your eye, then tell him that the man who gouged you was Odysseus, ravager of cities” (Odyssey by Mandelbaum, 185).  Instead of being humbled by the experience, Odysseus tries to brag about what he has done.  In reality, it was the gods who blessed him with the ability to escape his situation.  Odysseus pays for this action as Poseidon makes his journey back more difficult than it should have been.  We see later in the Odyssey how Odysseus grows from this experience when he returns home.  He is angered by the suitors and has the composure to keep his name secret until the right time.  His spirit is more humble now with the idea of pride than it was on his journey home.

Telemachus also experiences spiritual growth, but Homer displays it in a different manner.  Whereas Odysseus’ growth is concerned with situations, Telemachus’ is dependent upon a journey.  He is sent away from home in search of his father.  It seems as though the prince was so dependent on his father that he never really got away from home on his own.  It took his father’s disappearance to force Telemachus into a leadership role.  He visits friends of his father’s and experiences “xenia” as the normal head of households do.  Through his journey, he learns to depend on the gods and returns home a more spiritually inclined man.  Telemachus learns how to make decisions and trust the instinct that the gods give to him.  Many can “talk the talk,” but Telemachus had to “walk the walk” in order to grow spiritually.  And his maturity is displayed toward the end of the Odyssey.

Homer shows many different types of spiritual growth throughout the Odyssey.  But, he has one main idea:  the spirit with the most growth and strength is the one that is tested and weakened through the process.  Telemachus’ spirit grows, but cannot compare to that of Odysseus because he was not weakened and tested as much as Odysseus.  The weakening allows a person to grow stronger, not just grow.

Even though Odysseus longs for his return to Ithaka, it is the journey what makes the story and his life meaningful. If he never left Ithaka, if he never encountered Laistrygonians and Cyclops, nobody would read the poem. I think our Ithaka is a life that is worth living. I don’t think life has “a” meaning, but life itself “is” meaning. Life is direction, transformation and ending, it is a “story”, one that can be good or bad, depending of our attitude more than our circumstances. We are here to develop our full human potential, to achieve wholeness. Eudaimonia is a greek word that means to live with a good spirit, a good flow of life. By a “good” life I don’t mean one of pleasure and comfort, but a life of purpose, joy, challenge and experience. One in which you can say to yourself in your deathbed, “I would do it all over again!”

But there are many moments of pain, disappointment and loss along the journey. It would not be a journey if there were no such moments. The Universe is not there for us, nor against us, gravity pulls us downwards, so we push upwards. Without antagonistic forces there would be no world, only particles floating in the void. Those moments of loss and pain can be destructive, but, with the right attitude can also be transformative, even necessary, for a good voayage.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

–  Ithaka By Kavafis

Many men and women throughout history have experienced the most important transformations of their lives after suffering a long and difficult illness, many artist and scientist begun to write, paint or study during a crisis of health, exile or prison.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

We will find meaning in our lives when we overcome our ego, and let our actions be guided by Virtue, toward something bigger than ourselves, when we strive for the common good. The journey of human existence should be like that of an initiation. From the ignorance and alienation of infancy and adolescence, to the ethical self- transformation, the flourishing of maturity and the wisdom and serenity of old age.

Life is transformation, it is up to us to transform our life into a meaningful journey.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

–  Ithaka By Kavafis

Ancient Greek (women) philosophers

placees of wisdomIT IS A GREAT loss to mankind that most philosophy books of antiquity are lost. But that loss is even more painful in the case of philosophers that were women, since none of their books have survived. And they thought, taught and wrote a great deal. Only fragments of their works have come to us, and most of them written by men. In this post I am going to do my best to gather the words and ideas of philosophers with names such as Diotima, Aesara, Aristoclea, Hiparchia, Theano, Areté, Sosipatra, Porcia, Hypatia…

For what we know, most female ancient philosophers were Pythagorean and Neoplatonic, although many were Stoic, Epicurean and Cyrenaic.  Like many of their male counterparts, they believed in the existence of the soul, which could become immortal and transcend the body, if properly purified through philosophy. In ancient times it was not uncommon that a philosopher would be a priest, a poet and politician. In the case of ancient greek and roman women, to be a priestess or a poet, normally from an aristocratic family, was  the only way to develop an intellectual life. Due to their roles in their traditional societies, their philosophies tended to be more spiritual than political, nevertheless, women manged to be in the intellectual circles that influenced power and politics.

To complete this post, I will include modern women philosophers and writers that have been influenced by ancient greek philosophy, such as Simone Weil, Maria Zambrano, Myrto Dragona-Monachou, Julia Annas or Gretchen Reydams-Schills, so we can read women’s thoughts in their own words.

Aristoclea of Delphy. Pythagoras’ teacher.

 

Diogenes Laertius says that Pythagoras got most of his philosophy by a philosopher priestess called Aristoclea of Delphy. Aristoxenus says that Pythagoras got most of his moral doctrines from the Delphic priestess Themistoclea. The Neoplatonic Porphiry wrote that: “He (Pythagoras) taught much else, which he claimed to have learned from Aristoclea at Delphi.”

Theano of Crotone

Theano was a disciple of Pythagoras that lived with him in their colony of Crotone, Southern Italy, some scholars say she was Pythagoras wife. The writings attributed to Theano were: Pythagorean ApophthegmsFemale AdviceOn VirtueOn PietyOn PythagorasPhilosophical Commentaries, and Letters.

A fragment of her treatise On Piety has survived:

“I have learned that many of the Greeks believe Pythagoras said all things are generated from number. The very assertion poses a difficulty: How can things which do not exist even be conceived to generate? But he did not say that all things come to be from number; rather, in accordance with number – on the grounds that order in the primary sense is in number and it is by participation in order that a first and a second and the rest sequentially are assigned to things which are counted.”

Diotima of Mantinea. Teacher of Socrates?

“Love (Eros) is not a god at all, but is rather a spirit that mediates between people and the objects of their desire. Love is neither wise nor beautiful, but is rather the desire for wisdom and beauty.”  Diotima of Mantinea

069In the Symposium the male members of a drinking party discuss the meaning of Love in all of its forms. Socrates tells us that in his youth, a priestess called Diotima of Mantinea taught him the secrets of philosophy. Diotima could be a fictitious personage, but if Plato’s account is to be trusted, Diotima’s ideas are the origin of the concept of Platonic love. Diotima personifies “the wise woman,” she represents the mystical element in Platonism, and her discourse is a blend of allegory, philosophy, and myth, were she exposes the transcendental Idea of the Soul of the philosopher; the lover of wisdom.

Socrates called his philosophical method “Maieutic”, a mode of enquiry which aims to bring a person’s latent ideas into clear consciousness. Maieutic comes  from Greek maieutikos, from maieuesthai act as a midwife, from maia midwife.  During the dialogue, Diotima teaches her doctrine to Socrates using precisely the metaphor of pregnancy and giving birth to ideas and the search for immortality that drives some men to beget children and other to create works of art and literature:

“Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children — this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant — for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions? — wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor. But the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of states and families, and which is called temperance and justice. And he who in youth has the seed of these implanted in him and is himself inspired, when he comes to maturity desires to beget and generate. He wanders about seeking beauty that he may beget offspring — for in deformity he will beget nothing — and naturally embraces the beautiful rather than the deformed body; above all when he finds fair and noble and well-nurtured soul, he embraces the two in one person, and to such an one he is full of speech about virtue and the nature and pursuits of a good man; and he tries to educate him; and at the touch of the beautiful which is ever present to his memory, even when absent, he brings forth that which he had conceived long before, and in company with him tends that which he brings forth; and they are married by a far nearer tie and have a closer friendship than those who beget mortal children, for the children who are their common offspring are fairer and more immortal.

“That in that life alone, when he looks at Beauty in the only way that Beauty can be seen–only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images or virtue (Because he’s in touch with no images), but to true virtue (Because he is in touch with the true Beauty).”

Many would argue that Plato’s dialogues cannot be trusted, that Diotima may be a fictional character, but we can say the same about Socrates’ philosophy, which comes  from secondary sources, since he wrote almost nothing. Presocratic philosophers such as Parmenides or Pythagoras are also quasi mythical figures. Some argue that Diotima is in reality a character based on Aspasia the philosopher and lover of Pericles, most admired by Plato for her wisdom and wit.

Areté of Cyrene

Detail of Statue of Arete in the Library of Celsus in Ephesus

Areté learned philosophy from her father, Aristippus, who had himself learned philosophy from Socrates. She was remarkable in that while many women studied philosophy in her time, she was one of the few for whom it was a career. Areté is sometimes described as the successor of her father as head of the Cyrenaic school. She is said to have publicly taught natural and moral philosophy in the schools and academies of Attica for thirty-five years, to have written forty books, and to have counted among her pupils one hundred and ten philosophers. She was so highly esteemed by her countrymen that they inscribed on her tomb an epitaph which declared that she was the splendour of Greece and possessed the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Thirma, the pen of Aristippus, the soul of Socrates and the tongue of Homer.

Hipparchia of Maroneia

800px-Crates_and_Hipparchia_Villa_FarnesinaRoman wall painting of Hipparchia and Crates from the Villa Farnesina, Rome.

Hipparchia was a Cynic philosopher, and wife of Crates of Thebes. Little survives of her own philosophical views, but like most Cynics, her influence lies in the example of her life, choosing a way of life which was usually considered unacceptable for respectable men and women of the time. Hipparchia’s fame undoubtedly rests on the fact that she was a woman practising philosophy and living a life on equal terms with her husband.

Diogenes Laertius claims that Hipparchia was so eager to marry Crates that she threatened to kill herself rather than live in any other way. Together they lived like beggars on the streets of Athens, where both were treated with respect.  Their philosophy was a challenge and a shock to the moral conventions of Athenian society.  They lived the most naturalistic life, sleeping in the streets and even having sex in public. Hipparchia’ later fame (apart from her unconventional lifestyle) lies in the fact that Crates became the teacher of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. The Cynic strain to be found in early Stoicism (such as Zeno’s own radical views on sexual equality spelled out in his Republic) can be ascribed to Hipparchia and Crates’ influence.

She wrote some philosophical treatises, and some letters addressed to a Cynic philosopher called Theodorus the Atheist. None of these have survived. There are some accounts of her encounters with Theodorus:

When she went into a symposium with Crates, she tested Theodoros the atheist by proposing a sophism like this: “That which if Theodoros did, he would not be said to do wrong, neither should Hipparchia be said to do wrong if she does it. Theodoros hitting himself does not do wrong, nor does Hipparchia do wrong hitting Theodoros.” He did not reply to what she said, but pulled up her garment.

We are told she was neither offended nor ashamed by this “as most women would have been.” We are also told that when Theodorus (quoting a line from The Bacchae of Euripides) said to her: “Who is the woman who has left behind the shuttles of the loom?” she replied:

“I, Theodorus, am that person, but do I appear to you to have come to a wrong decision, if I devote that time to philosophy, which I otherwise should have spent at the loom?”

Many other anecdotes existed about Hipparchia, but they have been mostly lost.  It is not known how or when she died. There is an epigram ascribed to Antipater of Sidon, as the sort of thing which may have been written on her tomb:

“I, Hipparchia chose not the tasks of rich-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynic.
Brooch-clasped tunics, well-clad shoes, and perfumed headscarves pleased me not;
But with wallet and fellow staff, together with coarse cloak and bed of hard ground,
My name shall be greater than Atalanta: for wisdom is better than mountain running”

Aesara of Lucana

Aesara of Lucania was a Pythagorean philosopher (4th or 3rd century BC), who wrote a work On Human Nature, of which a fragment is preserved by Stobaeus. Aesara argues that it is by studying our own human nature (and specifically the human soul) that we can understand the philosophical basis for natural law and morality:

“Human nature seems to me to provide a standard of law and justice both for the home and for the city.”

Aesara divides the soul into three parts: the mind which performs judgement and thought, the spirit which contains courage and strength, and desire which provides love and friendliness:

“Being threefold, it is organized in accordance with triple functions: that which effects judgment and thoughtfulness is [the mind], that which effects strength and ability is [high spirit], and that which effects love and kindliness is desire.

These things, being divine, are the rational, mathematical, and functional principles at work in the soul. Aesara’s theory of natural law concerns three applications of morality, concerning the individual, the family, and social institutions.”

The Pythagoreans were notable as a sect for including women in their ranks. This did not necessarily equate to modern ideas of equality; they believed that women were responsible for creating harmony and justice in the home, in the same way that men had the same responsibility towards the state. Seen in this context, Aesara’s theory of natural law is fundamental to justice and harmony in society as a whole.

Ptolemais of Cyrene

Ptolemais was a harmonic theorist, author of Pythagorean Principles of Music. She lived perhaps in the 3rd century BC. She is one of several women writers associated with Pythagoreanism.

What is the distinction between those who preferred a combination of both [reason and perception]? While some adopted both perception and reason in the same way, as being of equal importance, others took one as the leader and the other as a follower. Aristoxenus of Tarentum adopted them both in the same way. For neither can what is perceived be composed by itself without reason, nor is reason strong enough to establish something if it does not take its starting points from perception, and the conclusion of the theorising does not agree again with the perception.

In what way does he want perception to be in advance of theory? In order, but not in importance. For he says when what is perceptible whatever it is, is grasped, then we must promote reason for the theoretical study of it.

Who treats both together? Pythagoras and his successors. For they want to adopt perception as a guide for reason at the beginning, as if to provide a spark for it, but to treat reason, when it has started off from such a beginning, as separating from perception and working by itself. So if the composite whole is found in a study by reason to be no longer in accord with perception, they do not turn back, but make their own accusations, saying that the perception is mistaken, and that reason by itself finds what is correct and refutes perception.

Porcia Catonis, the Stoic

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Porcia was born between 73 BC and 64 BC.  She was a Stoic philosopher, described as addicted to philosophy, full of understanding and courage. We don’t know if she wrote anything, but as her fellow Stoics, her philosophy was to be practiced in deeds rather than words. She was the daughter of Cato the Stoic, who opposed Caesar’s attack on the Roman Republic. In 46 BC, Cato committed suicide following his defeat in the battle of Thapsus.

She married Brutus, a politician and a Stoic. Brutus, along with many other co-conspirators, murdered Caesar in 44 BC. He promised to share the “heavy secrets” of his heart with his wife but it is unclear if he ever got the chance. Some historians believe Porcia may have known about the plot, and may have even been involved in the conspiracy itself.  Plutarch claims that she happened upon Brutus while he was pondering over what to do about Caesar and asked him what was wrong. When he didn’t answer, she suspected that he distrusted her on account of her being a woman, for fear she might reveal something, however unwillingly, under torture. In order to prove herself to him, she secretly inflicted a wound upon her own thigh with a barber’s knife to see if she could endure the pain of torture. As a result of the wound, she suffered from violent pains, chills and fever. Some believe that she endured the pain of her untreated wound for at least a day. As soon as she overcame her pain, she returned to Brutus and said:

“You, my husband, though you trusted my spirit that it would not betray you, nevertheless were distrustful of my body, and your feeling was but human. But I found that my body also can keep silence… Therefore fear not, but tell me all you are concealing from me, for neither fire, nor lashes, nor goads will force me to divulge a word; I was not born to that extent a woman. Hence, if you still distrust me, it is better for me to die than to live; otherwise let no one think me longer the daughter of Cato or your wife.”

Brutus marveled when he saw the gash on her thigh and after hearing this he no longer hid anything from her, but felt strengthened himself and promised to relate the whole plot. Lifting his hands above him, he is said to have prayed that he might succeed in his undertaking and thus show himself a worthy husband.

Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia_Great_Female_Philosopher_Alexandria

She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, the highest intellectual position a philosopher could hold in the late Roman Empire. Daughter and disciple of the mathematician Theon, she taught philosophy and astronomy. No written work widely recognized by scholars as Hypatia’s own has survived to the present time. A partial list of Hypatia’s works as mentioned by other antique and medieval authors or as posited by modern authors:

  • A commentary on the 13-volume Arithmetica by Diophantus.
  • A commentary on the Conics of Apollonius of Perga.
  • Edited the existing version of Ptolemy’s Almagest. “Until recently scholars thought that Hypatia revised Theon’s commentary on Almagest. The view was based on the title of the commentary on the third book of Almagest, which read: “Commentary by Theon of Alexandria on Book III of Ptolemy’s Almagest, edition revised by my daughter Hypatia, the philosopher.” Cameron, who analyzed Theon’s titles for other books of Almagest and for other scholarly texts of late antiquity, concludes that Hypatia corrected not her father’s commentary but the text of Almagest itself. Thus, the extant text of Almagest could have been prepared, at least partly, by Hypatia”.
  • Edited her father’s commentary on Euclid’s Elements.
  • She wrote a text “The Astronomical Canon“. (Either a new edition of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables or commentary on the aforementioned Almagest.)

Her contributions to technology are reputed to include the invention of the hydrometer, used to determine the relative density (or specific gravity) of liquids. However, the hydrometer was invented before Hypatia, and already known in her time. Some say that this is a textual misinterpretation of the original Greek, which mentions a hydroscopium (ὑδροσκοπίον) – a clock that works with water and gears, similar to the Antikythera mechanism.

A contemporary Christian historian described her in his Ecclesiastical History:
“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more”

Hypatia was brutally murdered by a christian mob during an episode of city-wide anger stemming from a feud between Orestes, the prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. Her death is symbolic In March 415 CE, when the mob led by the ironically named Peter the Reader burned the Library of Alexandria, they also brutally assassinated its last chief librarian, Hypatia. Many scholars view her murder as representing the symbolic death of classical antiquity.

Modern philosophers inspired by Greek philosophy

Simone Weil

French philosopher, (3 February 1909 – 24 August 1943). Her brilliance, ascetic lifestyle  and knowledge made her a unique philosopher, half anarchist half mystic.

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Simone Weil’s lifelong philosophical inquiries came from many sources, but the ancient Greeks were the most important of all; she was a precocious student, proficient in ancient Greek by age 12. Despite her professed pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about spiritual mysticism. Her book The Iliad, or the Poem of Force is one of her most celebrated works- an inspired analysis of Homer’s epic that presents a nightmare vision of combat as a machine in which all humanity is lost.

In the last years of her life Simone Weil devoted herself especially to the task of revealing “the center of all Greek thought”, studying and translating the texts of philosophers and poets. In their translations of both “Electra” and “Antigone” passages, fragments of Heraclitus, in her comments to Plato (or God in Plato) or in her notes to Cleantes, Fereccides, Anaximander and Filolao. Some of her more celebrated works are:

  • The Iliad or the Poem of Force. Pendle Hill Pamphlet. Mary McCarthy trans.
  • The Need for Roots. Routledge Kegan Paul, 1952. Arthur Wills trans., preface by T.S. Eliot
  • Gravity and Grace. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952.
  • Two Moral Essays by Simone Weil—Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations & Human Personality. Ronald Hathaway, ed. Pendle Hill Pamphlet. Richard Rhees trans.

“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” 

“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” 

“We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, “I am suffering,” than to say, “This landscape is ugly.”

“We are drawn towards a thing, either because there is some good we are seeking from it, or because we cannot do without it. Sometimes the two motives coincide. Often however they do not. Each is distinct and quite independent. We eat distasteful food, if we have nothing else, because we cannot do otherwise. A moderately greedy man looks out for delicacies, but he can easily do without them. If we have no air we are suffocated, we struggle to get it, not because we expect to get some advantage from it but because we need it. We go in search of sea air without being driven by any necessity, because we like it. In time it often comes about automatically that the second motive takes the place of the first. This is one of the great misfortunes of our race. A man spokes opium in order to attain to a special condition, which he thinks superior; often, as time goes on, the opium reduces him to a miserable condition which he feels to be degrading; but he is no longer able to do without it.”

“One recognises that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognises it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organisations that generate such evils.”

 María Zambrano

Zambrano

Spanish essayist and philosopher. Disciple of J. Ortega y Gasset, Zubiri and Manuel García Morente, was one of the capital figures of the Spanish thought of century XX.

Nevertheless, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936, she openly sided with the Republic and consequently went into exile after its defeat in 1939. She was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities (1981) and Cervantes (1988).

Her thinking revolved around the search for moral principles and forms of behavior that were applicable to everyday problems. Her approach to ethical conflicts, and the study of the interrelation between reality and truth, demanded the need for a deep dialogue between the being and her environment. She was very influenced by Seneca. 

Maria Zambrano combines historical and personal circumstances to approach in an intimate way to Seneca through exile, lack, resignation and comfort. Through the renunciation of the ideal to consider life and its most daily circumstances, including the abuse of power over the human being. 

“To draw the thought of Seneca is to draw his living figure, to trace the outline of his person. Stoic tempered, with a style or tone of his own that does not rule out the loans of other philosophical schools (Epicureanism, skepticism, cynicism, Platonism …) Seneca is a master of life, of philosophical good living. To dominate oneself, to escape the passions of the vulgar, to seek tranquility through resignation, to practice clemency. In times of crisis the thought of Seneca is more alive than ever because it has a great virtue: that of making us “enter into reason” smoothly.” El pensamiento vivo de Seneca. (The Living Thought of Seneca)

“To discover time is to discover the deceit of life, its ultimate trap; is to feel forcibly, in an instant at least, as a deceived boy who is deceived. It is, thus, an enter into reason. For some reason Heraclitus, who has so exact sense of time, speaks to us in that paternal tone of reprimand. By putting ourselves before the evidence of the incessant running of things, it is making us “to reason.”  – El pensamiento vivo de Seneca. (The Living Thought of Seneca)

Myrto Dragona-Monachou

Myrto Dragona Monachou, is a Greek philosopher and educator specialized in Stoicism

Some of her publications are:

Zeno’s moral and political radicalism

The Stoic arguments for the existence and the providence of the gods = Ta epicheiremata ton stoikon gia ten hyparxe kai ten pronoia ton theon: Didaktorike diatrive (Vivliotheke Sophias N. Saripolou) Paperback – 1 Jan 1976

Julia Annas

Hellenistic Philosophy of Mind is an elegant survey of Stoic and Epicurean ideas about the soul—an introduction to two ancient schools whose belief in the soul’s physicality offer compelling parallels to modern approaches in the philosophy of mind. Annas incorporates recent thinking on Hellenistic philosophy of mind so lucidly and authoritatively that specialists and nonspecialists alike will find her book rewarding.

Gretchen Reydams-Schills

Gretchen Reydams-Schils is Professor of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame  across the Departments of Philosophy and Theology.  She is a specialist in Plato and the traditions of Platonism and Stoicism.

Some of her books are

Demiurge and Providence, Stoic and Platonist Readings of Plato’s Timaeus 

The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Catherynne M. Valente

Cathelynne M. Valente is an American fiction writer, poet, and literary critic. She graduated from high school at age 15, going on to UC San Diego and Edinburgh University, receiving her B.A. in Classics with an emphasis in Ancient Greek Linguistics. Although not a philosopher, I wanted to conclude this post with this beautiful fragment from one of her books:

“When I was a young girl, I studied Greek in school. It’s a beautiful language and ever so many good things were written in it. When you speak Greek, it feels like a little bird flapping its wings on your tongue as fast as it can. This is why I sometimes put Greek words into my stories, even though not so many people speak Ancient Greek anymore. Anything beautiful deserves to be shared round, and anything I love goes into my stories for safekeeping.

The word I love is Arete. 

It has a simple meaning and a complicated meaning. The simple one is: excellence. But if that were all, we’d just use Excellence and I wouldn’t bring it up until we got to E. Arete means your own excellence. Your very own. A personal excellence that belongs to no one else, one that comes out of all the things that make you special and different. Arete means whatever you are best at, no matter what that is. You might think the Greeks only meant things like fighting with bronze swords or debating philosophy, but they didn’t. They meant whatever you’re best at. What makes you feel like you’re doing the rightest thing in the world. And that might be fighting with bronze swords and it might mean debating philosophy—but it also might mean building machines, or drawing pictures, or playing the guitar, or acting in Shakespeare plays, or writing books, or making a home for people who need one, or listening so hard and so well that people tell you the things they really need to say even if they didn’t mean to, or running faster than anyone else, or teaching people patiently and boldly, or even making pillow forts or marching in parades or baking bread. It could be lending out just the right library book to just the right person at just the right moment. It could be standing up to the powerful even if you don’t feel very powerful yourself, even if you’re lost and as far away from home as you can get. It could be loving someone with the same care and thoroughness that a Wyvern takes with alphabetizing. It could be anything in the world. And it isn’t easy to figure out what that is. It’s even harder to get that good at it, because nothing, not even being yourself, comes without practice. But your arete goes with you everywhere, just waiting for you to pay attention to it. You can’t lose it. You can only find it. And that’s my favorite thing that starts with A.” 

Catherynne M. ValenteThe Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

 

The Stoic Paradoxes

In 46 a.d.C. three years before his death, Cicero wrote his “Paradoxa stoicorum” a brief book dedicated to Marcus Brutus. The Stoic Paradoxes were six precepts that encapsulated Stoic philosophy and, according to Cicero, the Stoics only explained in their inner circles. If a non stoic would hear them, he would probably find them puzzling, if not laughable. What does it mean, they may ask, that “Only what is beautiful is good” or that “All the vices and all virtues are equal” ?

“Since these things are remarkable and contrary to everyone’s opinion (they themselves even call them “paradoxes”), I want to-test whether they can be brought into the light, that is, into the forum. I have treated the same things as Stoics hardly say in gyms and at leisure.” And with much more pleasure he says: “I have written insofar as these we call paradoxes, they seem to me mainly Socratic and very true”.  Although Cicero was an Academic Skeptic, by the end of his life he leaned toward Stoicism. In the book Cicero uses the Stoic Paradoxes to explain his ideas about the nature of moral goodness, the possession of virtue, good and bad conduct, the transcendence of wisdom, and the sources of real wealth. He specifically claims that what he is doing is playfully transcribing the Stoic paradoxes into language befitting the Forum to see whether or not it can be done.

I – Oti monon to kalon agathon That only what is beautiful is good

In classical greek, the word Kalon meant both beautiful, noble and honorable, the ideal perfect beauty in the physical and moral sense. (Words such as calligraphy come from Greek Kallos “beauty” and graphein “write”) Stoics thought that honorable actions were beautiful, and were more desirable goods than good-looks, or beautiful buildings. (This paradox is probably playing around with a famous poem by Sappho that says: “What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon be beautiful.)

Cicero was not a Stoic, and in many cases he didn’t completely agree with the Stoic position, nevertheless he had a good account of Stoicism and he was no amateur in the matter.

“I never was one who reckoned among good and desirable things, treasures, magnificent mansions, interest, power, or those pleasures to which mankind are most chiefly addicted. For I have observed, that those to whom these things abounded, still desired them most: for the thirst of cupidity is never filled or satiated. They are tormented not only with the lust of increasing, but with the fear of losing what they have.”

“But some one will ask, ‘What then is a real good?’ Whatever is done uprightly, honestly, and virtuously, is truly said to be done well; and whatever is upright, honest, and agreeable to virtue, that alone, as I think, is a good thing.”

“As far as I am concerned, true reasoning will have more weight than the mob’s opinion; and I will never say that someone has lost goods who has lost cattle or furniture, and I will often praise that wise man Bias,When the enemy captured Priene, his homeland, and the rest fled and carried off their property, and he had been warned by someone that he should do the same thing, he said, “But that is what I’m doing, for I carry all that is mine with me.” 9. He did not even consider these toys of fortune which we call “goods” as his own. Someone will ask,”What then is good?” If something which is done uprightly and honorably and with virtue can be truly said to be well done, then I believe that alone which is upright and honorable and virtuous is good.”

II – Oti autarkês ê aretê pros eudaimonian That Virtue is sufficient for a good life

The Stoic motto and doctrine of the good life was: live according to nature. To act in accordance with nature is first of all to act in accordance with your own nature as a human being. For man, this means to act rationally, since his nature, which distinguishes him from the rest of the universe, is to be rational. Virtue was conceived as a disposition to act in accordance with reason. To know the truth about yourself and the world is the same thing as to be able and willing to act according to that knowledge. Virtue is also the one and only summum bonum.

The things which we normally consider good, like pleasure, wealth, fame, and health cannot be considered real goods, and pain, poverty, anonymity, and sickness cannot be considered real evils. The only real good is virtue, and the only real evil is vice. But wealth, fame and health, can come as consequence of virtue, just as sickness, poverty and pain may follow us for our vices.

The Stoics maintained, quite controversially among ancient ethical thought, that the only thing that always contributes to happiness, as its necessary and sufficient condition, is virtue.

“You don’t know, madman, you don’t know how much force virtue has. You appropriate virtue’s great name: what its value is, you are ignorant. No one can fail to be most happy who is complete in himself and dependent on himself and who places all that is his own in himself.”
“Exile is terrible to those who have their habitation, as it were, circumscribed, not to those who consider the whole world to be one city. Every hardship and affliction crushes you who consider yourself happy and prospering. Your desires are tortured, you are crucified day and night, you for whom what you have is not enough, and who fear that even that won’t last long.”

III – Oti isa ta amartêmata kai ta katorthômata That all the vices and all virtues are equal

Stoics used to say that a wrong action was wrong regardless of the consequence. If a pilot sinks a ship, it doesn’t matter if the cargo was corn or gold. To kill an animal for no reason, as bad as killing a human being.

“offenses should not be measured by the outcome of things, but by the vices of the people committing them. The matter in which someone commits an offense can be
greater or less, but the offense itself, however you turn it, is the same.”

IV – Oti pas aphrôn mainetai. That all fools are madmen

Stoics thought that only the ideal Sage was truly sane, all the rest were insane, in different degrees. We will never become sages, but we can progress toward wisdom and go as far away as possible from folly.

Cicero addresses directly to one of his political enemies:

“And look how I despised those weapons of your brigandage. I have always thought you launched and hurled horrible injustices at me: I never thought they reached me, unless
perhaps you thought something of mine was being ruined or burned down when you were destroying walls, or when you were throwing criminal torches onto roofs.  Nothing is mine, or anyone’s, which can be carried off, taken away, or lost.
If you had taken away my divine constancy of soul, my knowledge that the republic stood, much against your will, because of my care, my vigilance, and my plans; if you had blotted out the undying memory of this eternal service, even more if you had taken from me that mind whence those plans flowed, then I would admit I had suffered an injustice.

Do you distinguish a citizen from an enemy by birth and location, not by soul and deeds? 30. You made a slaughter in the forum, you held temples with armed bandits, you burned private homes and holy shrines. Why is Spartacus an enemy if you are a citizen? But can you be a citizen, since because of you there was once no state?

And do you call me “exile”, which is your name, when everyone thinks that the republic went into exile with my departure? Will you never look around you, most insane man, nor ever consider what you are doing or what you are saying? Don’t you know that exile is a punishment for crimes, but that my journey was undertaken on account of my most glorious deeds?”

V – Oti monos o sophos eleutheros kai pas aphrôn doulos That only the sage is free and every fool is a slave

“No one is free unless he is wise. What then is freedom? Ability to live as you wish. Who then lives as he wishes, if not the one who pursues upright things, who rejoices in duty, whose way of life is considered and planned, who doesn’t obey the laws because of fear, but follows and cultivates them because he judges that to be most advantageous, who says nothing, does nothing, in fact thinks nothing unless it is willingly and freely, whose every plan and undertaking proceeds from and returns to him, nor is there anything which has more power for him than his own will and judgement, to whom even that which is said to have the most power. Fortune herself, yields, since, as the wise poet said, she shapes herself according to each man’s own character?”

“So this happens only to the wise man, that he does nothing unwillingly, nothing sorrowfully, nothing under duress. Although this ought to be more fully discussed, it is nevertheless a concise truth which ought to be acknowledged, that no one is free except him who is so furnished with virtues.”

VI – Oti monos o sophos plousios Only the wise man is rich

The Stoics want us to change our values. If the propositions above mentioned are true, there is only one kind of good, that is virtue, which springs from wisdom and one kind of evil, vice that comes from ignorance. Wisdom is something that is always with the sage, and that would be desirable to have under any circumstances. Therefore, a wise person is richer than an emperor, because whether the emperor is wealthy, he can be miserable due to his folly, but a wise man, even in poverty will be rich.

“It is fitting that your soul should judge you rich, not people’s talk or your possessions. If
it considers that it lacks nothing, if it doesn’t trouble about anything more, if it is satisfied or even content with your money, then I yield; you are rich. But if because of greed for money you consider no profit to be base (when in your station no profit can really be honorable), if every day you defraud, cheat, demand, bargain, plunder, and grab, if you rob your partners, loot the treasury, if you wait for something from your friends’ wills, or you don’t even wait and forge them yourself, are these the signs of a wealthy man, or a needy one? “Is it a man’s soul, not his money- box, which is usually called rich?” Although that box is full, I will not consider you rich as long as you seem empty to me. In fact, men measure a man’s wealth by how much is enough for him. Someone has a daughter: he needs money; he has two: he needs more; he has many: he needs still more; if a man has fifty daughters, as they say Danaus had, so many dowries require a lot of money. The measure of a man’s wealth, as I said before, is adjusted to how much he needs. 

 

I have based this post in thesis by Mark O. Webb:

CICERO’S PARADOXA STOICORUM:
A NEW TRANSLATION WITH
PHILOSOPHICAL
COMMENTARY
by
MARK 0. WEBB, B.A.
A THESIS
IN
CLASSICAL HUMANITIES
Submitted to the Graduate Faculty
of Texas Tech University in
Partial Fulfillment of
the Requirements for
the Degree of
MASTER OF ARTS

How should we live?

Most philosophy can be reduced to a few fundamental questions. What is reality? why is there something instead of nothing? how do we know what we know? what is the meaning of existence? does existence have to have a meaning?

Modern science seems to be overtaking  philosophy in answering those questions. Physics is giving us ever more accurate models of the Universe, neuroscience is providing us with better explanations about how the mind works. Linguistics, the social sciences, anthropology, aesthetics, are all offshoots of philosophy, but philosophy’s children have grown bigger and more specialized than their parent. That specialization is both the strong and the weak side of those disciplines. Over-specialization is a problem that can narrow our understanding of humanity and the cosmos. Science and technology are developing at such a rate that it is no longer possible for one person to maintain an integrated and coherent worldview. Philosophy can be a potential bridge-builder to those narrow worlds, and provide a wider perspective.

But modern science is not giving us something fundamental to our lives. It is giving us a more accurate map of the territory, tools for navigation, but to find out why to navigate, or where to go, and if an action is right or wrong, are still a philosophical questions. That is why in the field of Ethics philosophy is still a stubborn contender. Ethics was the most important field of Stoic philosophy, the goal of studying Physics and Logic.

The whole Stoic project could be reduced to a single question; How should we live?

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Or better, how to live a good life? Here we are assuming two premises, that we want to live, and that we want to live a good life. But what does a “good” life even mean? Different things for different people, and not even that, since people want different thinks in different moments of their lives. What would a Stoic answer to that? If our life was perfect, he may say, simple and happy, philosophy would be only an intellectual entertainment. But, in the real world, experience tells us that events change quickly, life can be transformed from sweet to harsh in a few seconds.

The problem of suffering

An undeniable fact of life is that there is suffering. Even if you do not care about other people’s suffering, if you live in an affluent society, you are healthy and things look good around you, the problem of suffering is one that you will have face sooner or later. Anxiety and depression are becoming ever more prevalent in advanced societies. We are ever more connected to technology and less connected to each other.

Why not  pleasure and comfort

Many philosophers have answered that in a universe devoid of meaning, any direction can be right, and the pursuit of pleasure is the ultimate good. Afer all, we are pleasure-seeking creatures, we avoid pain whenever we can and we tend to take the minimum effort if we can. Humans, like all mammals, want to avoid pain and feel pleasure, and that is their goal in life. Hence; consumerism is the answer.

The promise of modernity was that with technology. material wealth and unlimited progress, we will maximize the pleasure and reduce pain. And in many ways that view has achieved to drastically reduce the number of people dying from infectious disease and hunger, an unprecedented colossal achievement in the history of humanity.

Most people living today have better access to healthcare, information and technology than a Roman emperor ever dreamed of. Yet, modern man seems to live radically dissatisfied, sometimes in a permanent state of anxiety. For thousands of years our ancestors survived to all kinds of extreme situations, life or death challenges that made their minds and bodies sharper and resilient. But with the emergence of technology and other advancements, we are becoming soft-minded and weak.

•  Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being, nor is it the way to happiness or even to maximum pleasure.

• Consumerism is creating ecological desasters and endangering the future of life on earth.

• Diabetes and coronary disease are the principal cause of death in the world. Our consumerism making us is unhealthily and weaker.

•  According to The World Health Organization by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world.

Even the ancient philosopher Epicurus for whom “pure” pleasure is the highest goal, rejected the unrestrained search for pleasure, and thought pleasure meant “absence of pain” (aponia) and stillness of the soul (ataraxia). According to Epicurus, pleasure as satisfaction of a desire cannot be the aim of life, because such pleasure is necessarily followed by unpleasure and thus keeps humanity away from its real goal of absence of pain

 We have created a civilization based on consumerism, entertainment and the worship of new gadgets and celebrities. Paradoxically, many of the so-called luxuries and modern comforts are not only not indispensable, but impediments to a god life. Advertizing is designed to create new “necessities”, to make us feel incomplete, ever dissatisfied, to make the worst appear to be the best.

If we have more opportunities for fulfillment than ever before but we are more disquiet and unhappy, could it be our problem is not of lack of choices but a lack of values? A wrong understanding of what a good life means?

Eudaimonía. A flourishing life

What could the ancient teach us? We live in a very different world from that of the ancients Greeks and Romans, our problems and challenges differ radically from theirs. But if one learns anything after reading Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius is that human nature has changed very little in the last two millennia.

Stoicism is  about developing strategies and habits of training and self-discipline, for times of excess as well as for times of hardship. It is not about being detached from the world, but about approaching it in a radically different way.

We suffer and waste a great deal of energy for things that are not in our control.

We do not get to choose most of the things that happen to us in life. We do not choose the circumstances of our birth, our body, family and culture. Most of our decisions are unconscious, and life is full of accidents and unexpected turns of fortune. If we have so little control over our lives, what is then up to us? We can choose the way we face those circumstances. We can use those very misfortunes to train our character, learning from our mistakes and drawbacks, or we can just keep making the same mistakes over and over.

Living according to Nature

The goal of life, according to most Hellenistic philosophies was to achieve Eudaimonia, meaning a good spirita flourishing life, or well-being. Zeno, the founder of the Stoa, defined it as a good flow of life, a life lived in according with Nature.

They believed that an act is good or bad depending on whether it contributes to or deters us from our proper human end—the telos or final goal at which all human actions aim. That telos is eudaimonia, or happiness, where “happiness” is understood in terms of completion, perfection, or well-being.

Pleasure and happiness were not to be pursued directly, they were regarded as by-products of living wisely. Instead our actions should aim for Areté (virtue or moral excellence); the act and habit of living wisely.  A good life, then, should be oriented toward worthy ends, having a Telos (end, purpose, direction) and guided by the Logos (reason, meaning, account).

Engaging with others

Expanding our circle of concern When we help others we help ourselves.  By leaving our self center concerns and focusing on others we find meaning in our lives.

Stoics saw the world as a single community, in which all humans are relatives, and are here to work together (sunergia)We find more meaning in our lives when we overcome our small self, and let our actions be guided towards something higher, like the common good. The journey of human existence should be like that of an initiation. From the dependence of infancy and the alienation of adolescence, to the ethical self- transformation, wisdom and human flourishing of maturity.

Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I am enjoying almost every line of Edward Gibbon’s monumental book on the fall of the Roman Empire. Widely considered the greatest work of history ever written, I was surprised to find many thoughts on Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics, both in praise and criticism. Gibbon cannot hide his admiration for the Roman virtues (so parallel to Stoic virtues) and his disdain for the vices that made that great civilization fall. He shows some bias towards Christians and Huns, but it must be hard not to, when you are writing a 6 volume and 3589 pages work on the decline of your favorite ancient civilization. 

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On Marcus Aurelius’ virtues:

“The virtue of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was of a severer and more laborious kind. It was the well-earned harvest of many a learned conference, of many a patient lecture, and many a midnight lucubration. At the age of twelve years he embraced the rigid system of the Stoics, which taught him to submit his body to his mind, his passions to his reason; to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only evil, all things external as things indifferent. His meditations, composed in the tumult of a camp, are still extant; and he even condescended to give lessons of philosophy in a more public manner than was perhaps consistent with the modesty of a sage, or the dignity of an emperor. But his life was the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind. He regretted that Avidius Cassius, who excited a rebellion in Syria, had disappointed him, by a voluntary death, of the pleasure of converting an enemy into a friend; and he justified the sincerity of that sentiment, by moderating the zeal of the senate against the adherents of the traitor. War he detested, as the disgrace and calamity of human nature; but when the necessity of a just defence called upon him to take up arms, he readily exposed his person to eight winter campaigns on the frozen banks of the Danube, the severity of which was at last fatal to the weakness of his constitution. His memory was revered by a grateful posterity, and above a century after his death, many persons preserved the image of Marcus Antoninus, among those of their household gods.”

The Germans unite against Rome for the first time during Marcus Aurelius reign:

“The general conspiracy which terrified the Romans under the reign of Marcus Antoninus, comprehended almost all the nations of Germany, and even Sarmatia, from the mouth of the Rhine to that of the Danube. It is impossible for us to determine whether this hasty confederation was formed by necessity, by reason, or by passion; but we may rest assured, that the barbarians were neither allured by the indolence, nor provoked by the ambition, of the Roman monarch. This dangerous invasion required all the firmness and vigilance of Marcus. He fixed generals of ability in the several stations of attack, and assumed in person the conduct of the most important province on the Upper Danube. After a long and doubtful conflict, the spirit of the barbarians was subdued.”

On the Antonines 
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” Chapter 3

On Roman Virtues

“The education of Helvidius and Thrasea, of Tacitus and Pliny, was the same as that of Cato and Cicero. From Grecian philosophy they had imbibed the justest and most liberal notions of the dignity of human nature, and the origin of civil society. The history of their own country had taught them to revere a free, a virtuous, and a victorious commonwealth”

“We stand in need of such reflections to comfort us for the loss of some illustrious characters, which in our eyes might have seemed the most worthy of the heavenly present. The names of Seneca, of the elder and the younger Pliny, of Tacitus, of Plutarch, of Galen, of the slave Epictetus, and of the emperor Marcus Antoninus, adorn the age in which they flourished, and exalt the dignity of human natures. They filled with glory their respective stations, either in active or contemplative live; their excellent understandings were improved by study; philosophy had purified their minds from the prejudices of the popular superstition; and their days were spent in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue. Yet all these sages (it is no less an object of surprise than of concern) overlooked or rejected the perfection of the Christian system.” Chapter 15

Criticism of Marcus Aurelius

Indulgence of Marcus
“THE mildness of Marcus, which the rigid discipline of the Stoics was unable to eradicate, formed, at the same time, the most amiable, and the only defective, part of his character. His excellent understanding was often deceived by the unsuspecting goodness of his heart. Artful men, who study the passions of princes, and conceal their own, approached his person in the disguise of philosophic sanctity, and acquired riches and honours by affecting to despise them. His excessive indulgence to his brother, his wife, and his son, exceeded the bounds of private virtue, and became a public injury, by the example and consequences of their vices.”

To his wife (I must say in defense of Faustina that it must be difficult to be the wife of a philosopher-emperor who is all too busy fighting barbarian invasions and writes on his Meditaions that sex is “no more than the friction of a membrane and a spurt”)


“Faustina, the daughter of Pius and the wife of Marcus, has been as much celebrated for her gallantries as for her beauty. The grave simplicity of the philosopher was ill-calculated to engage her wanton levity, or to fix that unbounded passion for variety, which often discovered personal merit in the meanest of mankind. The Cupid of the ancients was, in general, a very sensual deity; and the amour’s of an empress, as they exact on her side the plainest advances, are seldom susceptible of much sentimental delicacy. Marcus was the only man in the empire who seemed ignorant or insensible of the irregularities of Faustina; which, according to the prejudices of every age, reflected some disgrace on the injured husband. He promoted several of her lovers to posts of honour and profit, and during a connection of thirty years, invariably gave her proofs of the most tender confidence, and of a respect which ended not with her life. In his Meditations, he thanks the gods, who had bestowed on him a wife, so faithful, so gentle, and of such a wonderful simplicity of manners.The obsequious senate, at his earnest request, declared her a goddess. She was represented in her temples, with the attributes of Juno, Venus, and Ceres; and it was decreed, that on the day of their nuptials, the youth of either sex should pay their vows before the altar of their chaste patroness.”

To his son Commodus
“The monstrous vices of the son have cast a shade on the purity of the father’s virtues. It has been objected to Marcus, that he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, and that he chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic. Nothing, however, was neglected by the anxious father, and by the men of virtue and learning whom he summoned to his assistance, to expand the narrow mind of young Commodus, to correct his growing vices, and to render him worthy of the throne, for which he was designed. But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous. The distasteful lesson of a grave philosopher was in a moment obliterated by the whispers of a profligate favourite, and Marcus himself blasted the fruits of this laboured education, by admitting his son, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, to a full participation of the Imperial power. He lived but four years afterwards; but he lived long enough to repent a rash measure, which raised the impetuous youth above the restraint of reason and authority.”

Stoicism for Beginners

Ancient philosophers used poetry to express ideas, but also as mnemonic exercises for themselves and their students. The Pythagorean Golden Verses and Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus are good examples. Coming from oral cultures when writing down things was not so common, I suppose it came natural to them to versify their knowledge.

I have tried to arrange the most basic Stoic ideas and quotes into verses for my own use, as a memory exercise for a beginner. The result is a poem of ten tercets, using rhyme to make them easier to remember and “ready to hand”.

I know the result is by no means aesthetic, and rhyme sounds old-fashioned, but it is useful when memorizing, and it wanted to make it sound old style.

Stoicism for Beginners

The Scipionic circle

“I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.”  

Terence

Lovers of Greek culture

The Scipionic Circle, or the Circle of Scipio, was a group of philosophers, poets, and politicians patronized by Scipio Aemilianus. Together they would discuss Greek culture, literature, and humanism, with strong Stoic tendencies. Alongside their philhellenic disposition, the group also had a more humane Roman foreign policy.

Soldier and intellectual

Culturally, Scipio Aemilianus was both progressive and conservative. He received the name Africanus and celebrated a triumph in Rome after his destruction of Carthage (146bc). and the name Numantinus for his reduction of Spanish Numantia (133 bc). He was the patron of the Scipionic circle, a group of 15 to 27 philosophers, poets, and politicians. Besides Roman satirists and comedy writers such as Lucilius and Terence, there were Greek intellectuals, such as the scholar and historian Polybius and the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. Hence, Scipio had a philhellenic disposition (love and admiration for Greek culture).Velleius Paterculus wrote that Scipio was:

“a cultivated patron and admirer of liberal studies and of every form of learning, and kept constantly with him, at home and in the field, two men of eminent genius, Polybius and Panaetius. No one ever relieved the duties of an active life by a more refined use of his intervals of leisure than Scipio, or was more constant in his devotion to the arts either of war or peace. Ever engaged in the pursuit of arms or his studies, he was either training his body by exposing it to dangers or his mind by learning.”

Polybius mentioned going to Africa with Scipio to explore the continent Gellius wrote that Scipio “used the purest diction of any man of his time.” Cicero cited him among the orators who were “a little more emphatic than the ordinary, [but] never strained their lungsof shouted …” It seems that he had a good sense of humour and Cicero cited a number of anecdotes about his puns. He is also a central character in Book VI of Cicero’s De re publica, a passage known as the Somnium Scipionis or “Dream of Scipio.”

Panaetius of Rhodes was a Stoic philosopher. He was a pupil of Diogenes of Babylon and Antipater of Tarsus in Athens, before moving to Rome where he did much to introduce Stoic doctrines to the city. After the death of Scipio in 129 BC, he returned to the Stoic school in Athens, and was its last undisputed scholarch. He brought new vitality to Stoicism in the second century bc by shifting the focus of its ethical theory from the idealized sage to the practical problems of ordinary people. Working a century after Chrysippus had systematized Stoicism, Panaetius is often labelled the founder of ‘Middle Stoicism’ for defending new and generally more moderate positions on several issues. With Panaetius, Stoicism became much more eclectic and flesxible. His most famous work was his On Duties, the principal source used by Cicero in his own work of the same name. With Panaetius began the new eclectic shaping of Stoic theory; so that even among the Neoplatonists he passed for a Platonist. In Ethics he recognised only a two-fold division of virtue, the theoretical and the practical, answering to the dianoietic and the ethical of Aristotle; endeavoured to bring the ultimate object of life into nearer relation to natural impulses,and to show by similes the inseparability of the virtues; pointed out that the recognition of the moral, as something to be striven after for its own sake, was a leading fundamental idea in the speeches of Demosthenes; would not admit the harsh doctrine of apatheia, and, on the contrary, vindicated the claim of certain pleasurable sensations to be regarded as in accordance with nature, while he also insisted that moral definitions should be laid down in such a way that they might be applied by the man who had not yet attained to wisdom.

Polybius was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period noted for his work, The Histories, which covered the period of 264–146 BC in detail. The work describes the rise of the Roman Republic to the status of dominance in the ancient Mediterranean world and included his eyewitness account of the Sack of Carthage in 146 BC. Polybius is important for his analysis of the mixed constitution or the separation of powers in government, which was influential on Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws and the framers of the United States Constitution.Other important themes running through The Histories are the role of Fortune in the affairs of nations, his insistence that history should be demonstratory, or apodeiktike, providing lessons for statesmen, and that historians should be “men of action” (pragmatikoi).

Polybius is considered by some to be the successor of Thucydides in terms of objectivity and critical reasoning, and the forefather of scholarly, painstaking historical research in the modern scientific sense.

Quintus Aelius Tubero was a Stoic philosopher and a pupil of Panaetius of Rhodes. He had a reputation for talent and legal knowledge. He was a tribunate in 130 BC. He also possibly became a suffect consul in 118 BC.

Cicero spoke of his character in parallel to his oratorical style: ” harsh, unpolished, and austere.” Despite this, Cicero also calls him “a man of the most rigid virtue, and strictly conformable to the doctrine he professed.” The approval of Panaetius, gave him access to the Scipionic Circle.

When Scipio Aemilianus died mysteriously in 129 BC, Tubero was responsible for the funeral arrangements. With Cynic-like aesthetics, he arragned Punic couches with goatskin covers and Samian pottery. The lack of public grandeur, allegedly, lost him the election for praetorship.

Panaetius wrote an epistle to Tubero concerning endurance of pain. A scholar of Panaetius dedicated a treatise called De Officiis to Tubero. 

Gaius Lucilius the earliest Roman satirist, of whose writings only fragments remain, was a Roman citizen of the equestrian class, born at Suessa Aurunca in Campania. Velleius Paterculus wrote that he served under Scipio Aemilianus at the siege of Numantia in 134 BC. We learn from Horace that he lived on the most intimate terms of friendship with Scipio and Laelius, (Satire ii.1), and that he celebrated the exploits and virtues of the former in his satires.

Publius Terentius Afer, better known in English as Terence , was a playwright of the Roman Republic, of North African descent. His comedies were performed for the first time around 170–160 BC. Terentius Lucanus, a Roman senator, brought Terence to Rome as a slave, educated him and later on, impressed by his abilities, freed him. Terence apparently died young, probably in Greece or on his way back to Rome. All of the six plays Terence wrote have survived.

One famous quotation by Terence reads: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto“, or “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.”

Publius Rutilius Rufus (158 BC – after 78 BC) was a Roman statesman, consul, orator and historian. During his consulship, he reformed the drill system and improved army discipline. Rufus studied philosophy under Panaetius (becoming a Stoic), law, public speaking and Greek.

Gaius Laelius C.f. Sapiens (born c. 188 BC), was a Roman statesman, best known for his friendship with the Roman general and statesman Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio the Younger). Laelius was called Sapiens (“wise”) because of his decision not to undertake efforts at political reform that were beginning to create serious dissension in the Roman Senate.

Lucius Furius Philus was a Roman statesmen who became consul of ancient Rome in 136 BC. He was a member of the Scipionic Circle, and particularly close to Scipio Aemilianus. In de Republica, Cicero praises the style of Furius’ speeches.

Manius Manilius was an orator and distinguished jurist who also had a long military career. In Cicero’s De oratore, Manilius was depicted as a member of the Scipionic Circle. In the work, Cicero describes Manilius as a “representative of the broad education required of the orator, and of old-fahioned generosity in helping others with his ledgal knowledge”

Spurius Mummius was a Roman soldier and writer. He wrote satirical and ethical epistles, describing his experiences in Corinth in humorous verse. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, these letters, which were still popular a hundred years later, were the first examples of a distinct class of Roman poetry, the poetic epistle.

Quintus Mucius Scaevola Augur  was a politician of the Roman Republic and an early authority on Roman law. He was first educated in law by his father (whose name he shared) and in philosophy by the stoic Panaetius of Rhodes.

Gaius Fannius Strabo  was a Roman republican politician who was elected consul in 122 BC, and was one of the principal opponents of Gaius Gracchus. Fannius’ speech was regarded as an oratorical masterpiece in Cicero’s time, and was widely read. On the advice of his father-in-law, Fannius attended the lectures of the Stoic philosopher, Panaetius, at Rhodes

Stoic Women: Simone Weil

Since writings by ancient Stoic women unfortunately did not survive, I have been looking for writings and quotes by modern women, that could have been written or inspired by ancient Stoics. Doing some research I came across French philosopher Simone Weil.  Her brilliance, ascetic lifestyle  and knowledge made her a unique philosopher, half anarchist half mystic.
18395

Simone Weil’s lifelong philosophical inquiries came from many sources, but the ancient Greeks were the most important of all; she was a precocious student, proficient in ancient Greek by age 12. Despite her professed pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about political movements of which she was a part and later about spiritual mysticism. Her book The Iliad, or the Poem of Force is one of her most celebrated works- an inspired analysis of Homer’s epic that presents a nightmare vision of combat as a machine in which all humanity is lost.

Although born into a secular Jewish household and raised in “complete agnosticism”, she later became a Christian mystic. But Weil did not limit her curiosity to Christianity. She was keenly interested in other religious traditions—especially the Greek and Egyptian mysteries; Hinduism, and Mahayana Buddhism. She believed that all these and other traditions contained elements of genuine revelation. After a lifetime of battling illness and frailty, Weil died in August 1943 from cardiac failure at the age of 34.

Weil’s biographer Gabriella Fiori wrote that Weil was “a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range” and Albert Camus described her as “the only great spirit of our times”.

 


 
“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”


“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”


“We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say, “I am suffering,” than to say, “This landscape is ugly.”

“Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached.”

“All sins are attempts to fill voids.”


“The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it.”


“Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.”


“In struggling against anguish one never produces serenity; the struggle against anguish only produces new forms of anguish.”


“You could not be born at a better period than the present, when we have lost everything.”

“To be a hero or a heroine, one must give an order to oneself.”

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

“We are drawn towards a thing, either because there is some good we are seeking from it, or because we cannot do without it. Sometimes the two motives coincide. Often however they do not. Each is distinct and quite independent. We eat distasteful food, if we have nothing else, because we cannot do otherwise. A moderately greedy man looks out for delicacies, but he can easily do without them. If we have no air we are suffocated, we struggle to get it, not because we expect to get some advantage from it but because we need it. We go in search of sea air without being driven by any necessity, because we like it. In time it often comes about automatically that the second motive takes the place of the first. This is one of the great misfortunes of our race. A man spokes opium in order to attain to a special condition, which he thinks superior; often, as time goes on, the opium reduces him to a miserable condition which he feels to be degrading; but he is no longer able to do without it.”

“One recognises that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognises it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organisations that generate such evils.”

“The sum of the particular intentions of God is the universe itself.”

“But a better remedy is indifference to ourselves, and being happy because the good is good, although we are far from it and may even suppose that we are destined to remain separated from it forever.”

“Contact with the sword causes the same defilement whether it be through the hilt or the point.”

Seneca on travelling

The things you’re running away from are with you all the time. Seneca

Seneca was very suspicious of those who travel  in order to escape from their problems or to achieve wisdom. In letter CIV he wrote:

“What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone? It has never acted as a check on pleasure or a restraining influence on desires; it has never controlled the temper of an angry man or quelled the reckless impulses of a lover; never in fact has it rid the personality of a fault. It has not granted us the gift of judgment, it has not put an end to mistaken attitudes. All it has ever done is distract us for a little while, through the novelty of our surroundings, like children fascinated by something they haven’t come across before. The instability, moreover, of a mind which is seriously unwell, is aggravated by it, the motion itself increasing the fitfulness and restlessness. This explains why people, after setting out for a place with the greatest of enthusiasm, are often more enthusiastic about getting away from it; like migrant birds, they fly on, away even quicker than they came.

Travel will give you a knowledge of other countries, it will show you mountains whose outlines are quite new to you, stretches of unfamiliar plains, valleys watered by perennial streams; it will allow you to observe the unique features of this or that river, the way in which, for example, the Nile rises in summer flood, or the Tigris vanishes from sight and at the completion of its journey through hidden subterranean regions is restored to view with its volume undiminished, or the way the Meander, theme of every poet’s early training exercises, winds about, loop after loop, and again and again is carried close to its own bed and then once more diverted into a different course before it can flow into its own stream. But travel won’t make a better or saner man of you. For this we must spend time in study and in the writings of wise men, to learn the truths that have emerged from their researches, and carry on the search ourselves for the answers that have not yet been discovered. This is the way to liberate the spirit that still needs to be rescued from its miserable state of slavery.

So long, in fact, as you remain in ignorance of what to aim at and what to avoid, what is essential and what is superfluous, what is upright or honorable conduct and what is not, it will not be travelling but drifting. All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re travelling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way. If only they were really following you! They’d be farther away from you: as it is they’re not at your back, but on it! That’s why they weigh you down with just the same uncomfortable chafing wherever you are. It’s medicine, not a particular part of the world, that a person needs if he’s ill.

Suppose someone has broken his leg or dislocated a joint; he doesn’t get into a carriage or board a ship: he calls in a doctor to have the fracture set or the dislocation reduced. Well then, when a person’s spirit is wrenched or broken at so many points, do you imagine that it can be put right by a change of scenery, that that sort of trouble isn’t so serious that it can’t be cured by an outing?

Travelling doesn’t make a man a doctor or a public speaker: there isn’t a single art which
is acquired merely by being in one place rather wan another. Can wisdom, then, the greatest art of all, be picked up in the course of taking a trip? Take my word for it, the trip doesn’t exist that can set you beyond the reach of cravings, fits of temper, or fears. If it did, the human race would be off there in a body. So long as you carry the sources of your troubles about with you, those troubles will continue to harass and plague you wherever you wander on land or on sea. Does it surprise you that running away doesn’t do you any good? The things you’re running away from are with you all the time.

What you must do, then, is mend your ways and get rid of the burden you’re carrying. Keep your cravings within safe limits. Scour every trace of evil from your personality. If you want to enjoy your travel, you must make your travelling companion a healthy one. So long as you associate with a person who‟s mean and grasping you will remain a money-minded individual yourself. So long as you keep arrogant company, just so long will conceit stick to you. Cruelty you‟ll never say goodbye to while you share the same roof with a torturer. Familiarity with adulterers will only inflame your desires. If you wish to be stripped of your vices you must get right away from the examples others set of them. The miser, the swindler, the bully, the cheat, who would do you a lot of harm by simply being near you, are actually inside you.

Move to better company: live with the Catos, with Laelius, with Tubero. If you like Greek company too, attach yourself to Socrates and Zeno: the one would teach you how to the should it be forced upon you, the other how to the before it is forced upon you. Live with Chrysippus, live with Posidonius; they will give you a knowledge of man and the universe; they will tell you to be a practical philosopher: not just to entertain your listeners to a clever display of language, but to steel your spirit and brace it against whatever threatens. For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.”