Should One Be Stoic With Fanatics?

One of the greatest stoic philosopher ever was Marcus Aurelius. We will ask his opinion here, not by brandishing his famous quotes, but by observing what he did, in his acts, as emperor. And the answer is unambiguous, and we will see that it has bearing to today’s governance. All the way to Libya.

We are now enjoying the holidays known by our ancestors the Romans as Saturnalia (Christians displaced Christ’s birth by 6 months, around 400CE, to give the impression that those celebrating the Winter Solstice were also celebrating Christ!)

Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher-emperor. However, he encountered a problem we are encountering today. Marcus, uncharacteristically for somebody obsessed by stoicism, inside out, criticizes the Christians. He finds their readiness to die founded on perverse perseverance:

“What a great soul is that which is ready, at any requisite moment, to be separated from the body and then to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist. But this readiness must come from a man’s own judgment, not from mere obstinacy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade another, without tragic show.” [Meditations, Book XI, #3]

Indeed: “Errare humanum est, perseverare, diabolicum” (to err is human, to persevere in error, diabolical) was one the pillar of Roman Republican philosophy, and it fed well Roman pragmatism.

Under Roman Law, private citizens could launch a CRIMINAL lawsuit (not just a civilian lawsuit, as presently the case). Such criminal actions were launched against a handful of Christians during Marcus Aurelius’ reign. Six were executed in Rome (during a twenty year reign). More, overall (at least so the Christians claim.)

Fine. Indeed. However the Problem Is Not What To Do With The Gods, But With The Fanatics Who Invent Them

Fine. Indeed. However the Problem Is Not What To Do With The Gods, But With The Fanatics Who Invent Them

One of them was a centurion, and an author. Another was Justin Martyr, who was brought to Rome from the Middle East, and tried. This is from the minutes of the trial:

“The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is OUR DESIRE, TO BE TORTURED for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws. The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Saviour.”

Justin Martyr invented the theory that reverence for the LOGOS was actually reverence for the Christian god, so Plato, Aristotle, etc. were truly Christian, and thus Christianism existed before Chris…

However, the claim that people want to be tortured, is most troubling: if one will do with others as if with oneself, does that mean one want to torture others? Actually Chris expected this to happen. Christ realized that the persecuting instinct found in many of His followers would mar the future path He wished for civilization. “They shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you . . . for my name’s sake” (Luke 21:12).  It’s not clear what remedy Chris proposed. Nor is it clear what Marcus Aurelius proposed, either.

Justin Martyr was executed around 165 CE. However, a decade later or so, Marcus Aurelius stopped the prosecution of Christians… under the penalty of death. This came from the following incident, which has several versions. Here it is, supposedly in a letter of Marcus Emperor to the Roman Senate:

…”For during five days we had got no water, because there was none; for we were in the heart of Germany, and in the enemy’s territory. And simultaneously with their casting themselves on the ground, and praying to God (a God of whom I am ignorant), water poured from heaven, upon us most refreshingly cool, but upon the enemies of Rome a withering hail. And immediately we recognised the presence of God following on the prayer-a God unconquerable and indestructible. Founding upon this, then, let us pardon such as are Christians, lest they pray for and obtain such a weapon against ourselves. And I counsel that no such person be accused on the ground of his being a Christian. But if any one be found laying to the charge of a Christian that he is a Christian, I desire that it be made manifest that he who is accused as a Christian, and acknowledges that he is one, is accused of nothing else than only this, that he is a Christian; but that he who arraigns him be burned alive. And I further desire, that he who is entrusted with the government of the province shall not compel the Christian, who confesses and certifies such a matter, to retract; neither shall he commit him. And I desire that these things be confirmed by a decree of the Senate. And I command this my edict to be published in the Forum of Trajan, in order that it may be read.”

The legion involved in the incident came to be known as “Fulminata”, to remind the future that it was reborn in a terrible thunderstorm (the soldiers were drinking the rain, mouths open to the sky, while fighting).

In the end, Christianism was disastrous for Rome, 190 years later: libraries were destroyed, and a “war against the philosophers” engaged. The empire sank into incompetence and fanaticism. Within 20 years of making Christianism the official state religion (edicts of Theodosius), the Roman government was a government of bishops. The defense of three huge provinces was delegated to the Franks. Six more years, and the legions were ordered to evacuate Britain, as part of the austerity program.

So what to do with fanatics?

It depends which fanatics. Fourth Century Christian “Men In Black” were the exact predecessors of the Islamist State: they should have been destroyed. The case of the Christians of the Second Century was completely different.

Second Century Christians should have been left alone, as long as they did not breach secular law, or military law. Military law demanded total obedience to superiors, and breaching that meant death (a problem arose when the superior decided he would become emperor, hence the period of “barrack emperors” of the Third Century; this is also the main proximal reason why the imperial system appeared).

Leaving Second Century Christians alone is what Marcus Aurelius finally decided to do. But too late to prevent Christians to whine for the next two millennia about the horrible persecution they had endured (notice they don’t moan about the millions of Albigenses and Cathars they exterminated).

Marcus Aurelius, confronted to fanatical German tribes which swooped into Italy from their their wild wastes, understood that he had to carry war and extermination into the enemy. So he advanced into Germany, conquering two provinces, and was poised to go where no Roman emperor had gone before, deep in the heart of Germany, when he suddenly died in 180 CE.

Marcus was perhaps assassinated by his own son, the assassin, self-obsessed and general catastrophe, the spoiled Commodus. In any case, if not assassinated physically, Marcus was certainly assassinated in spirit by his son: Commodus not only stopped the military campaign, but he abandoned ground dearly acquired by his father.

So what to do with fanatics? The stoic theoretician Marcus Aurelius Emperor shows the way (contrarily to what a naïve interpretation of stoicism would lead one to).

Don’t turn the other cheek. Hit them hard. Force fanatics to obey the republic’s secular law. By sending them to jail when they don’t. (Sending felons to jail massively works very well, as the situation of increasing peace and quiet in the USA demonstrates…)

Practically it means that that the French Republic should attack in Libya, destroy the Islamist State there, and, this time, stay long enough to establish a democratic, confederal republic (don’t laugh, the Romans used to do that).

If anything, Marcus the Stoic did not hit felons hard enough. He should have struck the plutocrats hard to pay for the war, and disappear as a class. And, instead of spoiling rotten his son, he should have adopted somebody else with a better character (this is the ploy of the excellent movie, “Maximus”).

In the genealogy of philosophy, stoicism ( bear it and carry on) descended from cynicism (look at the wolf at the core of man, don’t flinch, and draw the consequences). Thus stoicism descended from the most abrasive critical mentality possible. The high standard the stoic sets for the individual should also apply to the society.

So, as it is obvious that Libya is the soft underbelly of the empire, it implies that said empire should strike and domesticate, there. Or, to put it in a slightly more Politically Correct way,  civilization should be re-imposed in the land which saw the birth of emperor Septimus Severus (the first significant emperor after Marcus).

If you want civilization, you need an imperial republic, and that does not go without guts, hearts and brains. Thus, without the latter, you can’t have the former, as the butchery in Paris in November demonstrated. Spineless doesn’t work, feel, or think.

Patrice Ayme’

P/S: The French Interior Ministry just revealed it stopped ten mass murdering attacks by Islamists (and that does not the fake bomb in an Air France jet with 459 passengers on board).


14 Responses to “Should One Be Stoic With Fanatics?”

  1. Chris SnuggsC Says:

    I wrote a short article on Marcus Aurelius:

    Concerning Empires, none lasts more than a few hundred years, since corruption and complacency usually destroy them from within, whereupon they are often finished off by their enemies without.

    Someone designed a chart illustrating this with timelines, but I have lost it.

    • Gmax Says:

      According to Patrice, the Roman Empire is still going on. Her argument is that we use the law and many institutions invented by the Romans, like welfare.

      Also there was a continuity of states, the passing over of Roman imperial power to the Franks took centuries. In name, Rome extended from Brittany to the Middle East in 800, when Charlemagne was nominated ROMAN emperor by his armies, the Pope and Constantinople

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Dear Chris: Clearly, the Roman empire is still going on: we have the laws, the institutions, the language.

      English is 85% Greco-Roman, and the Germans got fully integrated in the empire, starting as early as under Augustus (his bodyguard was German) or even Marius (after destroying three invasive, invading and hyper furious, lethal German nations, including the Teutoni, he enslaved hundreds of thousands of children and women). Charlemagne, a Roman emperor, indeed, finished the conquest of the Saxoni, Frisi, etc… He displaced whole tribes to the south-west empire (next to Basque country). And so on. If Washington looks like Rome, it’s no coincidence, but the perseverance of will and habit.

      If I have no time to finalize an essay, I am just going to grab your excellent compendium of Marcus’ quotes, and republish them on my site. Note: Marcus wrote all this, in Greek, for himself. It was not made public by him in his lifetime.

      The point of my:
      was that Marcus Aurelius’ acts and facts are even more eloquent: stoic does not mean static.

  2. De Brunet D'Ambiallet Says:

    You are rewriting the history of Rome and philosophy in the most cogent manner. Marcus Aurelius’ real life is quite different from what he wrote in his meditations

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks. History is eminently philosophical. Yesterday’s philosophy rewrote and interpreted the history we had yesterday. Philosophy reborn now means history reborn now.

  3. Kevin Berger Says:

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      France does not need a supplementary authorization to strike the Islamist State in Libya. Not only basic UN law recognizes that right, but the UNSC resolution authorizing annihilation of the Islamist State was passed. Well targeted (that’s the key!) bombardment could make the Islamist State pied a terre in Libya less than ideal.

      BTW, the Islamist State itself said that new recruits have to go to Libya, not the Middle East…

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Comme le concept l’indique, l’idee des Corsaires n’est pas recente… The Islamist State will be finished by the end of the cool season, if France goes all out. But it should be used as an occasion to do away with Literal Islam, austerity, spinelessness, etc.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      All the articles you linked are very interesting, BTW. My conclusion: France better act as the superpower she has to be, lest Europe disappears in an Islamist-Austerity-Plutocracy-PC cloud of toxic smoke. The same holds for the UK, which got the GDP and monetary policy, plus investment policy (high tech) right… But not much besides…

  4. Kevin Berger Says:

    A contrario :

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Il faut se donner les moyens. France should duplicate the same strategy which was used to pacify the Sahara a century ago. In particular the war in Mali will go on, as long as the French don’t put the Touaregs in their pocket. So grab entire military control of Libya by using special forces in the interior.

      Lack of ammunitions? Just spend. Make some. Bring the military spending to 5% of GDP (instead of below 2%). Make one Rafale a day. Bring the state deficit to 10%, employ unemployed Muslim youth, do something. Obama brought the deficit to 10%, just because the big bankers had lost all the money. Now France is fighting for survival (yes, I know it’s not perceived that way, nor did the Romans perceive they were in trouble…). European rules to hell. It’s not like the Wehrmacht will invade Frankreich anytime soon…

  5. Massimo Pigliucci Says:


    Patrice, interesting. Do you have sources for those quotations? I’d like to follow up.

    Obviously, I don’t commend torture, beheading or burning people alive, for whatever reason. But yes, the Christians certainly were fundamentalist zealots, and they showed the world what they were capable of during the Middle Ages.

    As for the Fall of Rome, the idea that it was connected to Christianity, advanced in the classic by Gibbon, no longer has favor among historians. I’m looking forward to reading the new SPQR, which summarizes in an accessible way the most recent scholarship on that and many other aspects of Roman history.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I will try to get the sources. The following essay, we are all Romans now, is a partial answer to your thoughts. As Gmax said (next post), it’s my birthday, and I am under the weather, and I’m scheduled to travel, and…

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