Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Stoic's Counsel Refuted by William Shakespeare, etc


If you go on thus, you will kill yourself,
And 'tis not wisdom thus to second grief
Against yourself.


I pray thee cease thy counsel,
Which falls into mine ears as profitless
As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel,
Nor let no comforter delight my ear
But such a one whose wrongs do suit mine.

Bring me a father that so loved his child,
Whose joy of her is overwhelmed like mine,
And bid him speak of patience.
Measure his woe the length and breadth of mine,
And let it answer every strain for strain,
As thus for thus, and such a grief for such,
In every lineament, branch, shape and form.

If such a one will smile and stroke his beard,
Bid sorrow wag, cry "hem" when he should groan,
Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk
With Candlewashers- bring him yet to me,
And I of him with gather patience.

But there is no such man, for, brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel, but, tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passion, which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air and agony with words.

No, no! 'Tis all men's office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no man's virtue or sufficiency
To be so moral when he shall endure
The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel.
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.


Therein do men from children nothing differ.


I pray thee peace! I will be flesh and blood;
For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently
However they have writ the style of the gods
And made a pish at chance and sufferance.

" Much Ado About Nothing"; Act V, V.1


  1. While It is easy to see why the emperor Marcus Aurelius appreciated and was influenced by both Socrates and Heraclitus, at first sight his liking for Diogenes of Sinope seems bizarre. Some critics have taken the line that Diogenes was yet another in a long line of charlatans by whom Marcus was bamboozled, and one can understand the distaste of those who have seen in him nothing more than 'an obnoxious ragpickers and offensive churl'. Diogenes (@412-323 BC) first swam into the public ken when he latched on to Antisthenes, a disciple of Socrates. Born on the shores of the Black Sea, Diogenes was the son of a forger and counterfeiter and by all accounts was a rebarbative figure, even when young. Antisthenes took an instant dislike to him and tried to drive him away by beating him with a stick, but Diogenes endured the beatings unflinchingly until Antisthenes agreed to take him as a pupil.

    The next phase in Diogenes's evolution was when he decided to live like a dog. He and his followers became known as Cynics ( from the Greek word for 'canine'). In this guise he rejected all conventions of dress and decency, ate sparingly, munched raw meat, walked barefoot in the snow, lived on alms, slept rough and made his home in a large burial pitcher- so that in legend he became 'the man who lived in a tub'.. His behavior was deliberately designed to shock and outrage. He masturbated in the marketplace, urinated on a man who insulted him, defecated in the amphitheatre and gave people the finger. He famously searched through the marketplace at Athens with a lantern in daylight, claiming to be looking for 'an honest man'.

    The stories about him were legion, and the most famous concerned the young Alexander the Great. Before he set out for his epic conquest of the Persian Empire, Alexander one day came upon Diogenes basking in the sunlight and told him he would grant him any favor. "In that case, stand out of my light,' was the sage's answer. Preaching the Stoic doctrine of the supremacy of 'virtue', he produced a number of vintage saws avidly quoted by his admirers. Asked which beast has the worst bite, he replied, "Of the wild ones, the sycophant, and of the tame ones the flatterer. When asked where one could find virtuous men in Greece, he riposted, 'Men nowhere, but boys, in Sparta'. Seeing temple officials arresting someone for stealing a bowl, he exclaimed, 'Big thieves are arresting a little one.' When captured by pirates and sold into slavery, and asked what skills he had, he answered, 'Does anyone want a master for himself?' Incredibly, he found one.

    This, then, was the man that Marcus Aurelius regarded as the true heir of Socrates, far more so than Plato. Both he and Epictetus lionized a man who argued that virtue essentially meant that he should take while others worked and gave to him. Even Epictetus conceded that whereas Zeno's speciality was instruction and doctrine, Diogenes's was merely reproof. But he thought that Diogenes's put-down of Alexander the Great was a piece of peerless wisdom. Marcus, obsessed with the pointlessness of earthly fame and the superiority of philosophers to other men, agreed: 'Alexander and Caesar and Pompey? Compared with Diogenes, Heraclitus and Socrates? No contest. The philosophers knew the what, the why and the how. Their minds were their own. And the three heroes? Nothing but anxiety and enslavement.'

    "Marcus Aurelius; A Life" by Frank McLynn; Da Capo Press, 2009

  2. " Some desire is necessary to keep life in motion; and he whose real wants are supplied must admit those of fancy."

    Samuel Johnson, "Rasselas" Chapter 8

  3. As far as Stoicism goes, Marcus Aurelius was something of an oddball. His notion of God tended towards pantheism rather than poly or monotheism. His idea of the Divine was more one of immanence ( 'holism') rather than atomistic or transcendent. He was also a social conservative, an upholder of "traditional values" in the extraordinarily hierarchical society of his time. The evidence suggests that he performed his functions as the high priest of the Roman State Religion with sincerity and good faith.

    However much we may regret the deployment of such rhetoric in a contemporary context- that Marcus "lionized a man who argued that virtue essentially meant that he should take while others worked and gave to him." - , it IS bizarre that MARCUS would so lionize Diogenes. However, despite his undeniable commitment to duty and service to humanity, (as he saw it) Marcus was remarkably tolerant of really awful and useless characters which previous and subsequent emperors dispatched with never a second thought.

    There are many inconsistencies in his "Meditations", which are remarkable for their candor and present a model for autobiographical writing nearly unique in the history of mankind.

  4. Makes me wonder if all the timeless questions of Philosophy don't boil down to narrow, if not entirely arbitrary, aesthetic judgments.

  5. see comment from Joseph Brodsky in the M.A.: Philosopher-King blog.