Marcus Aurelius was a 2nd century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. He is most famous for his Meditations, which was written as...
What can we learn from the Stoics about living a good life? They offer us a set of powerful strategies for becoming indifferent to pain, suffering, and even death. But can we really live by those strategies? And if we could, would we really want to? This week we’re thinking about the Stoic philosophy of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus is probably best known for the Meditations, a book designed to help him remember his (largely Stoic) beliefs, arguments, and slogans, so he could remain tranquil and act kindly under any conditions.
The project is compelling, the slogans brilliant, the ideas fascinating—but much of what we hear is also pretty radical. For example, Marcus thinks you should stay cool, calm, and even chipper when you’re being eaten by a wild beast.
What’s Marcus’s argument for this? Well, he seems to think that getting eaten by a lion, or not getting eaten by a lion, is not the kind of thing we should care very much about. Sure, all things considered it’s preferable to remain uneaten. But the only thing that’s really good for us is virtue, and the only thing that’s really bad for us is vice.
Plus, since the universe is ruled by a kind of providence, there’s definitely an excellent reason for you to be someone else’s lunch right now, even if you can’t quite figure out what it is. So if you find yourself in a lion’s mouth, Marcus would recommend you stop being emotional and start using your reason. You’ll realize you’re not being harmed in any serious way, if at all.
This argument is, to say the least, pretty counterintuitive: it seems to follow that if you, say, took a bullet for a friend, that wouldn't just be good for them; it would also be good for you. In fact it would mostly be good for you! It would increase your virtue, and virtue is what really matters.
Counterintuitive or not, there's something extremely appealing about the view: if you could get into the Stoic mindset, you'd probably end up with less stress and sadness in your life. You wouldn’t be so afraid of death, and you wouldn’t be so distraught when things went badly for you, or when people you love passed away.
But this, as I see it, is where the real problem comes in. Do we really want to feel no pain when we lose a loved one? “What harm is done,” Stoic philosopher Epictetus asked, “if right when you are kissing your child you whisper and say ‘tomorrow you will die’?”
I guess he thought this was a rhetorical question, but I kind of want to say “a lot of harm. A really big, giant, monster truckload of harm.” Stoicism might help us become calm, tranquil, and unflappable—but do we want to end up calm, tranquil, unflappable robots?
Our guest this week is Rachana Kamtekar from Cornell University. She’s an expert on ancient philosophy, and has written about Marcus Aurelius. I’m looking forward to hearing from her exactly how to stay calm while my leg is being chewed off by a lion, though hopefully I’ll never have to put that knowledge into practice...