What Marcus Aurelius Said About Manliness
Stoicism, Masculinity, and Virtue
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Just be one! — Meditations, 10.16
There’s been a resurgence of interest in Stoicism over the past few decades. The emerging community of modern Stoics naturally divides into several distinct groups, although there’s presumably some overlap between them. One of those consists of guys who are interested in masculinity and often, but not always, the Men’s Movement.
People often confuse stoicism (lower-case), a coping style that involves suppressing or concealing emotions (having a “stiff upper-lip”) with Stoicism (capitalized), the ancient Graeco-Roman school of philosophy. Some crudely equate manliness with being tough and unemotional (lower-case “stoicism”) but I think many others do have a more nuanced understanding of how Stoic philosophy might inform a modern man’s conception of his role in society.
The most famous ancient Stoic is Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor of Rome during the height of its power. (I wrote about his use of Stoicism in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.) Marcus was remembered by subsequent generations as the closest thing the world has ever witnessed to Plato’s ancient ideal of the philosopher-king. Indeed, we’re told he himself constantly had the saying of Plato on his lips “that those states prospered where the philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers”. He did have enemies, though. In 175 AD, toward the end of his reign, Marcus faced a civil war when the governor-general of the eastern provinces, Avidius Cassius, had himself acclaimed as a rival emperor by the Egyptian legion.
Cassius was a notoriously strict general, to the point of savagery. He once bound dozens of captured Sarmatians to a massive wooden pole and set it on fire so that their neighbours for miles around could watch as they burned alive. He shattered the hips and cut off the hands of deserters, leaving them to live in misery as a warning to his other legionaries. Cassius seems to have believed that Marcus was too soft. We’re told he criticized him behind his back for being a weak and unmanly ruler, calling him “a philosophical old woman”. After only three months, however, Marcus won the civil war when Cassius’ own officers ambushed and beheaded him. Although Avidius Cassius was briefly acclaimed emperor, no statues of him survive today and his name is all but forgotten. He was feared by the men under his command but not loved by them, as Marcus was.
Marcus actually tackles the question of masculinity head-on in his personal notes on Stoic philosophy as a way of life, known today as The Meditations. My impression is that he inherited certain old-fashioned Roman values from his immediate family, particularly his mother, Domitia Lucilla. Despite being an immensely wealthy and highly-educated Roman noblewoman, she nevertheless preferred a simple way of life “far removed from that of the rich” (Meditations, 1.3). She seems to have been good friends with Junius Rusticus, who became Marcus’ main Stoic tutor. I sometimes wonder therefore whether it could have been Marcus’ mother who first introduced him to the study of Stoic philosophy, which came to shape his concept of what it means to be a man.
His father tragically died when Marcus was only a child, perhaps as young as three years old. We don’t know the circumstances. Marcus only knew him through early childhood memories and what he learned from family and friends about his father’s reputation, which he sums up in just two words: “modesty and manliness” (Meditations, 1.2). We can assume, though, that the concept of manliness he has in mind is quite at odds with how Cassius, for one, defined the term. That’s already clear from the fact that it’s paired with modesty, a trait that other Roman nobles would have regarded as evidence of weakness. Marcus, on the contrary, saw the modesty for which his father was known as a sign of his manliness and strength of character.
Although he lost his father before he even had a chance to know him, Marcus was fortunate to be adopted later, as a teen, by a Roman noble destined to become the emperor known as Antoninus Pius. The boy soon made this man his role model in life and decades after his adoptive father’s death Marcus would still describe himself as a “disciple of Antoninus”. The Meditations lists in great detail the qualities Marcus most admired in his adoptive father and sought to emulate. However, the first thing he mentions is that Antoninus was gentle. He was “never harsh, or implacable, or overbearing,” and never worked himself up into a lather over anything (Meditations, 1.16). For Marcus, the ability to show kindness and compassion toward others, rather than wallowing in anger, was one of the most important signs of true inner strength and manhood.
Anger as Unmanly
In one of the most impressive passages in The Meditations, Marcus goes into detail about Stoic strategies for mastering our feelings of anger. He concludes by saying something remarkably ahead of its time:
And when you do become angry, be ready to apply this thought, that to fly into a passion is not a sign of manliness, but rather, to be kind and gentle. For in so far as these qualities are more human, they are also more manly. It is the man who possesses such virtues who has strength, nerve, and fortitude, and not one who is ill-humoured and discontented. Indeed, the nearer a man comes in his mind to freedom from unhealthy passions [apatheia], the nearer he comes to strength. Just as grief is a mark of weakness, so is anger too, for those who yield to either have been wounded and have surrendered to the enemy. — Meditations, 11.18
Marcus, like other Stoics, didn’t believe that all feelings of anger and grief are signs of weakness. There’s a natural type of emotional reaction that’s inevitable in certain situations, which the Stoics accepted. He’s talking about what they called the unhealthy passions, feelings such as fear or grief that someone indulges in and magnifies beyond the bounds set by nature. The wise man, by contrast, simply doesn’t add to this initial spark of anger or perpetuate it any further. To do so, according to Marcus, is a sign of true weakness. Although he seemed like a powerful figure, the cruel usurper Avidius Cassius was, in this sense, actually a very weak man. He lacked the strength of character and freedom from passionate grief and anger (apatheia) exhibited by Marcus’ birth father and role models such as his adoptive father, Antoninus.
One of the problems with defining manliness is that if you’re not careful you’ll fall into the trap of implying that women don’t possess the qualities you’re describing. The Stoics actually avoided that by insisting that the virtues are fundamentally the same in men and women. However, they manifest in superficially different ways in each of us, depending on our nature and circumstances. It would be better to say that Marcus is describing prerequisites for manliness, required for humans to fulfil their nature properly — “in so far as these qualities are more human,” as he puts it, “they are also more manly”. Some sort of moral or practical wisdom is the main virtue that Stoics believed we require to reach our potential in life, whether male or female.
Elsewhere Marcus affirms his desire to live up to Antoninus’ example and become “one who is manly and mature, a statesman, a Roman, and a ruler” (Meditations, 3.5). He says that means being able to perform his duties, and even face death, in good cheer, without being dependent upon support from others. He sums all of that up in one of his favourite maxims: “you must stand upright, not be held upright”. Marcus repeated this striking expression of self-reliance three or four times in The Meditations. Finally, he condensed it into just three Greek words, which he undoubtedly had committed to memory:
Ὀρθός, μὴ ὀρθούμενος
“Upright, not righted (by others)” (Meditations, 7.12). That’s the sort of man he admired and wanted to become. Someone with the strength of character to stand on his own two feet and, like his adoptive father Antoninus before him, to repay even anger with unshakeable wisdom, patience and kindness.
You may also be interested in my recent interview about Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism for The Art of Manliness podcast.