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On the top shelf

Marcus Aurelius

MEDITATIONS

The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121 – 180) was by nature a saint and sage, and by profession a ruler and warrior

INTRODUCTION

By Maxwell Staniforth

The stoic philosophy

Stoicism, the system of philosophy in which Marcus believed, was originally a product of Middle Eastern thought. It had been founded some 300 years before Christ by Zeno, a native of Citium (now Larnaka) in Cyprus, and received its name from the ‘Stoa’, or colonnade, at Athens where he was accustomed to discourse.

His chief disciple was Cleanthes, who in turn was followed by Chrysippus; and the successive labours of these men, who were afterwards held in veneration as the ‘founding fathers’ of Stoicism, has resulted in the formation of a scheme of doctrine embracing ‘all things divine and human’.

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The three keywords of Zeno’s creed were Materialism, Monism, and Mutation. That is to say, he held that everything in the universe – even time, even thought – has some kind of bodily substance (materialism); that everything can ultimately be referred to a single unifying principle (monism); and that everything is perpetually in process of changing and becoming something different from what it was before (mutation).

These three tenets were the bedrock on which Zeno built his whole structure. His uncompromising insistence upon them led him occasionally into propounding ideas that were clearly indefensible; but in the hands of his successors, the more rigid assertions of the founder were modified and softened in such a way as to make them acceptable to thinkers of a more realistic turn of mind.

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When Stoicism passed from the East to the West and was introduced to the Roman world, it assumed a different aspect. Here it was the moral element in Zeno’s teaching that attracted the chief notice, and their practical value were promptly appreciated.

A code which was manly, rational, and temperate, a code which insisted on just and virtuous dealing, self-discipline, unflinching fortitude, and complete freedom from the storms of passion was admirably suited to the Roman character.

Consequently, the reputation and influence of Stoicism increased steadily all through the centuries which saw the decline of the republic and the rise of the principate; and by the time Marcus Aurelius ascended the throne, it has reached the height of its supremacy.

Its conceptions and its terminology were by now familiar to educated men and women in every important city of the Empire.

The Stoics defined philosophy as ‘striving after wisdom’; and ‘wisdom’ in turn was defined as ‘the knowledge of things divine and human’. They divided this knowledge into three branches: Logic, Physics, and Ethics. Since the first requirement in the search for truth is clear and accurate thinking, which itself depends upon a precise use of words and a vocabulary of technical terms, the initial study was Logic.

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After that came the investigation of natural phenomena and the laws of nature. This extended up to the metaphysical interpretation of the universe; for in the Stoic scheme physics included the complete study of Being in its threefold manifestation – man himself, the created universe around him, and God.

Last of all, holding the highest and most important place in the system came Ethics. For the real business of philosophy, the point towards all other inquiries converged and to which other branches of knowledge were subservient, was the proper conduct of man, defined in word as ‘virtue’.

As Diogenes Laertius puts it, ‘they compare philosophy with a living creature; its bones and sinews corresponding to Logic, its body of flesh to Ethics, and its soul to Physics. Or again, they liken it to a fruitful field, of which Logic is the surrounding fence, Ethics the crop it bears, and Physics the soil. It will be convenient to summarise briefly their teaching on these three subjects. (But that will be next week).


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