Video: Course Overview


Hi everyone. This video is an overview of the course. It’s a bit of a rough cut because the course content is constantly being revised and improved so the overview might need to be re-recorded periodically but this is how things stand at the moment. You’ve already seen the welcome section, which contains some basic orientation and initial material for you, while you wait for the course to begin. I’m just going to dive right in now and explain what the main sections contain…

The course lasts four weeks with each one covering different aspects of Stoic theory and practice. They’re also roughly organized in chronological order focusing on different stages in Marcus Aurelius’ life, both in terms of his outer progress in relation to his role as Roman Emperor and also his inner journey as a Stoic philosopher. We’re basing this both on his reflections in The Meditations and on what the Roman histories and others sources tell us about his biography. There’s a little bit of speculation involved as we’re not strictly doing history, we’re just using his life to help illustrate Stoic philosophy and psychology.

Week One: Overcoming Anger and Developing Empathy

Week One includes a brief introduction to the central doctrines of Stoicism, particularly the concept of virtue in Stoic Ethics and the Stoic goal of life: “Living in agreement with Nature”. That’s the logical place to start. The main Stoic exercise theme we’re going to work on during this week is the contemplation of the Sage or the ideal of the Stoic wise man or woman. However, we’ll also be looking at the Stoic emphasis on empathy and understanding of others, especially as a way of coping with anger.

This section focuses on the first stage of Marcus’ life, from his birth until the day he was acclaimed Emperor, upon the death of his adoptive father, the preceding emperor, Antoninus Pius. So here we’re looking at Marcus as a young man, and his initial education in philosophy. Many good stories begin with the training of the hero, and this is no exception. This is an interesting period as we see Marcus going through several personal transformations, as he prepares to become the most powerful man in the known world. He’s just beginning to learn about Stoicism. He’s a young man, finding his feet. He argues with his main Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus, and has to learn to control his temper.

From clues in The Meditations and elsewhere, we can imagine some of the processes Marcus had to go through as a novice Stoic. However, Marcus had a long wait until he became emperor, aged forty, so this period includes his adulthood in Rome, helping his father with the bureaucracy. We’re going to touch upon his relationship with major characters in this period of his life including his father Antoninus Pius, his Greek rhetoric teacher Herodes Atticus, and his main Stoic tutor Junius Rusticus. Marcus’ education and what he says about his family members and tutors in the first book of The Mediations provides a good example of the Stoic practice of contemplating virtue in others. He particularly talks about his father, Antoninus Pius, as an example of virtue, and he also viewed Junius Rusticus as a Stoic role model. We’re particularly going to refer to a less well-known book on ancient psychotherapy by Marcus’ personal physician, Galen, as he describes in detail the role of a mentor in the Stoic therapy of the passions, which I believe is key to understanding some of the psychological techniques in The Meditations.

Week Two: Conquering Worry and Anxiety

Week Two focuses on the Stoic concept of indifference or apatheia, and acceptance of external things. This follows naturally from our discussion of Stoic virtue and psychotherapy. It allows us to explore a range of Stoic psychological techniques, including the premeditation of future adversity, sometimes called “negative visualization”.

This section deals with the period of Marcus’ early reign, from his acclamation as emperor until the end of the Parthian War. During this time, Marcus was beset by a barrage of catastrophic events. He ruled alongside his handsome and affable but somewhat unreliable adoptive brother, the co-emperor Lucius Verus, who was the opposite of Marcus in many ways. Rome had been at peace throughout reign of their adoptive father Antoninus Pius. However, shortly after Marcus became emperor, the Parthian king Vologases invaded Armenia, a Roman ally, starting a war in the east that would last five years. The River Tiber also flooded destroying homes and causing the death of many farm animals, which led to a major famine, possibly followed by a malaria epidemic. When the Romans eventually defeated the Parthians, their legionaries brought back what became known as the Antonine Plague to Rome, and spread it throughout the empire. This was an extremely difficult period for the new emperor and we know Marcus struggled with worries about matters of state. We can imagine that during this time he really had to call upon Stoicism as a way of coping with the mounting challenges that he faced, going from being a student of Stoicism to someone increasingly required to embody it, for the sake of his subjects.

Week Three: Managing Pain and Illness

Week Three focuses on Stoic Physics and cosmology, and the concept of Nature. Our main exercise this week is called “The View from Above” by modern scholars. We’ll touch on a famous example of this from Cicero’s Republic called The Dream of Scipio, concerning the Roman general Scipio Africanus who conquered Carthage.

This section is about the First Marcomannic War, which began as soon as the Parthian War ended and lasted seven years. The Marcomannic King Ballomar had apparently been planning to betray Marcus for several years, forming a massive coalition of barbarian tribes along the northern frontier. With the Roman army weakened following the Parthian War and the legions devastated by the Antonine Plague, Ballomar seized his opportunity and his huge army rampaged through the northern frontiers right down into Italy, where they besieged the city of Aquileia, throwing Rome itself into total panic. Marcus’ life is transformed by these events. Without any military experience whatsoever he was forced to ride out of Rome, apparently leaving Italy for the first time, to take command of the largest army ever massed on a Roman frontier. His environment changed dramatically. He left behind his friends who were politicians and philosophers and instead made his home with the army, in a series of military bases in the harsher climate of the northern frontier. However, in addition to a dramatic change of location and lifestyle, something else happened. Most scholars believe Marcus wrote The Meditations at this time in his life. I believe that his decision to write his Stoic reflections was perhaps influenced by the recent death of his tutor, Junius Rusticus, and the isolation Marcus must have increasingly felt from his intellectual circle at Rome. The second book of The Meditations famously contains a rubric stating that some, or all, of what follows was written at Carnuntum, a massive Roman legionary fortress near the River Danube, the front line of the Marcomannic War. So this part of the course looks not only at the transformation in Marcus as he assumed command of the northern legions but also what drove him to write The Meditations at this time, and the role that writing served in his evolution as a Stoic, as a kind of self-therapy and perhaps even replacement for the presence of a philosophical mentor.

Week Four: Coming to Terms with Mortality and Loss

Week Four, the concluding week, focuses on the Stoic attitude toward our own mortality. The main exercise theme for this week is the Stoic contemplation of death. We’ll be looking at Stoic determinism and action undertaken with what Stoics call the “reserve clause”, the caveat “Fate willing”. That means reconciling virtuous action with emotional acceptance by being prepared to encounter both success and failure with equanimity.

This final section deals with events from the Civil War in the East, which immediately followed the end of the First Marcomannic War, until Marcus’ death in 180 AD. Marcus became severely ill and rumours of his imminent death began to circulate close to the end of the First Marcomannic War. Avidius Cassius, one of his most powerful generals, who had been left in command over the eastern provinces following the conclusion of the Parthian War, seized the opportunity to have himself acclaimed emperor. The Senate back at Rome panicked. Marcus responded to the crisis with absolute calm. By this stage he was a veteran military commander. We’re told he was adored by the legions, and held in admiration by the Roman people as a truly benevolent philosopher-king. We can imagine that during this stage of his life Marcus was also a much more experienced and confident practitioner of Stoicism. After the Civil War was put down with minimal bloodshed, Marcus toured the eastern provinces and apparently visited Athens for the first time. Then the Second Marcomannic War broke out forcing him to return to the northern frontier, where he died of the plague four years later. During these latter years, Marcus’ notoriously wayward son, Commodus, ruled with him as co-emperor. Commodus became sole emperor of Rome on his father’s death and his reign was reputedly a bad one, the opposite of his father’s. The rest, as they say, is history.


So that’s a quick overview of some of the terrain we’re going to be covering over the next four weeks. It may change a little as I add and update bits of the course. However, each week there will typically be a similar structure. There will be a live webinar, for those taking them, and also one or more videos providing a simple overview of the topics. There will also be some stories and anecdotes from the life of Marcus, designed to illustrate aspects of Stoic philosophy. And with those concrete examples in mind, we’ll also be reading an excerpt from The Meditations and reviewing many short passages related to the same topic. There will be an optional audio recording of a guided psychological exercise you can try. There will also be a group discussion and a short quiz to help you consolidate your learning.

So I hope that helps to give you a taste of what’s to come. I look forward to meeting you all on the course, and in the live webinars if you’re taking them. Good luck with everything and, as always, please feel free to get in touch with me directly if you have any questions.

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