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Stoicism & Marcus Aurelius

Chivalry did not leap forward from the Middle Ages out of nowhere. Most of its ideals already had strong historical roots in Western culture.
    One powerful example came from the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which influenced not only Greece, from which it sprang, but the Roman Empire as well. It spoke of the highest virtue being justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. Much of this austere philosophy was adopted by early Christianity in its development of monasticism. Indeed, their word for retreat was monasterium, from which monastery came.
    To illustrate the similarities between Stoicism and chivalry, and that particular distillation of chivalry that we call the 12 Trusts, the words of the last of the great Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, serve us well. We turn to his private journal of thoughts entitled Meditations, which is still published today for those who want to examine his thoughts more closely.
    Marcus Aurelius, despite his lineage, education, wealth, power and privilege, was a simple man of simple tastes, and not given to excesses. He took his responsibilities as emperor seriously, and ruled fairly and wise. Kind and loyal to his friends, forgiving to his enemies, generous to those in need, he was a model of Socrates' benevolent monarch, or philosopher king.
    He was deeply thoughtful as well, pondering the ways of Nature and trying to live his life accordingly.
    In Book One of the Meditations, he acknowledged the people who influenced him, including teachers, relatives, friends and statesmen. With each person he speaks of, he specifies what he learned, giving us sharp insight into the values that were important to him as a man.
    For sake of brevity, I provide a list of some of these values, transcribed from his own words. I have highlighted many of the concepts related to the 12 Trusts and Chivalry-Now as a whole. Remember, these are the words of the most powerful man in Europe at his time, the very opposite of emperors like Caligula and Nero.

  • Good morals and the governing of my temper.
  • Modesty and a manly character.
  • Piety, beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts
  • Simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.
  • To have good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.
  • Never be a partisan.
  • The endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands.
  • Not to meddle with other people's affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.
  • Not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to superstition.
  • To endure freedom of speech, and to become intimate with philosophy.
  • Character requires improvement and discipline.
  • Not to be led astray by sophistry
  • Not to show myself off as a man who practices much discipline, or performs benevolent acts in order to make a display.
  • With respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled.
  • Read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily give my assent to those who talk overmuch.
  • Freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason.
  • The same man can be most resolute and yielding, and not peevish.
  • Expounding philosophical principles as the smallest of merits.
  • Receive from friends what are esteemed favors, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed.
  • A benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner.
  • The idea of living conformably to nature; and gravity without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends.
  • To tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.
  • Express approbation without noisy display, and possess much knowledge without ostentation.
  • Refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who speak poorly.
  • Observe that envy, and duplicity, and hypocrisy are in a tyrant, and that generally those among us who are called Patricians are rather deficient in paternal affection.
  • Not to be indifferent when a friend finds fault, even if he should find fault without reason, but to try to restore him to his usual disposition.
  • Love kin, love truth, and love justice.
  • The same law should be applied to all, respecting equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.
  • Consistency and undeviating steadiness in regard to philosophy.
  • A disposition to do good, to give to others readily, to cherish good hopes, and believe that I am loved by my friends.
  • Self-government. Not to be led aside by anything.
  • Cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness.
  • A just mixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining.
  • Do acts of beneficence, and be ready to forgive.
  • Be free from all falsehood.
  • Be humorous in an agreeable way.
  • Mildness of temper, unchangeable resolution, and no vainglory in things which men call honors.
  • Love of labor and perseverance.
  • A readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common good.
  • Giving to every man according to his desserts.
  • Consider yourself no more than any other citizen.
  • Take careful inquiry in all matters of deliberation.
  • Not to be extravagant in affection.
  • Be satisfied on all occasions, and cheerful.
  • Be wary of popular applause and all flattery
  • Take reasonable care of health.
  • Do not be harsh, nor implacable, nor violent
  • Indebtedness to good family and teachers and associates.
  • Live according to nature.
  • Never do anything which that you might repent.

Marcus Aurelius, as one can plainly see by his own words, was a defender of freedom, especially free thought. He clearly saw the relationship between freedom and the kind of personal responsibility that comes from self-discipline.
It is easy to find references in the 12 Trusts that would fit well with this philosophy. So too Enlightenment thinking, and existentialism - all expressions of Western thought. The tenets for our own democracy are embedded here, in recognition of equal rights and common citizenship.
Most striking of all was his recognition of humility as a proper approach to truth, which the words clearly illustrate. He also recognizes the dangers that come from wealth.
We can learn much from Marcus Aurelius that can be directly applied to Chivalry-Now today, and to our own individual quests. Indeed, we gain deeper appreciation for our cultural history from his remarks. Many of our ancestors were highly intelligent, sensitive to the world around them, and desirous of improving the lives of everyone.
Reading his Meditations is therefore highly recommended.

(For those interested, Marcus Aurelius was portrayed in early part of the movie Gladiator.)


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