Classics, Ethics

In Book 6 of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius makes some remarks about the character of Antoninus Pius, his predecessor as Emperor of Rome, and his adoptive father. Marcus warns himself against being seen as like Julius Caesar, and says to avoid this he must live a good and humble life and conduct his duties in such a manner, as a follower of philosophy. Such a proper lifestyle can be seen in the life of Antoninus.

Marcus describes Antoninus as having a “keenness for logical action” and an “equable temper” (54). This is to say that his adoptive father maintained a calm disposition in his duties and private life. He was not rash in his behaviour, but rather thought his actions through with great care. Here the contrast with Caesar can be seen. Whereas Caesar was power-hungry and with a great ego, Antoninus was much more reasoned in his actions and had a “lack of vainglory” (54), a formidable and unusual trait for an emperor to have.

That “keenness” for a reasoned approach is again evident as Marcus describes Antonius’ “ambition to understand affairs” (54). Again, Antoninus is not seen to be acting on his intuition but to carefully take the time to understand what is going on around him, and apply careful thought prior to action. Rather than merely rely on others for information, Antoninus wanted not only to know the truth of the matter, but to “understand”, as Marcus says. All possible choices before Antoninus were carefully and completely examined before one was chosen. “He never rushed things.” (54).

Marcus also praises Antoninus’ disposition towards other people, especially in his public life. When he was criticized publicly, he not only “tolerated” challenges to his views, but he “was glad” when presented with a more favourable view to his own position. To those who were wrong, or offered only negative commentary without foundation or suggestion for improvement, Antoninus “endured” their scorn. Neither slander nor rumour had any effect on him. He also maintained strong, “unchanging” friendships (54). That is, he did not abandon his friends, nor was he quick to end a friendship over petty matters.

In his duties of public office, Antoninus is said to have enjoyed his work to the point of being completely focused on it for long periods of time. He was “energetic” when working and continued to work until late, taking no breaks at all. His duties as a statesman were guided by justice and a goal of protecting the people, as Marcus lists among the virtues one must seek in his position.

Marcus also comments on Antonius’ spiritual lifestyle. Antoninus is described as pious, having respect for the gods and acting in accordance with their laws. Marcus also makes a curious remark, that Antoninus “was religious but free from superstition” (55). In this sense, Antoninus would have characterized the humbleness and reverence that come with piety and the proper following of a religion, along with its moral code. However, more petty or sensational aspects that often accompany religious belief, such as certain types of ritual and accompanying fears of retribution, would not have formed a part of Antoninus’ thought. Thus, he was able to obtain virtue from his beliefs without hinderance.

In all other areas of life, Antoninus demonstrated this same humility. Happy to live simply, he did not need elaborate housing or clothing. His diet was “scanty” (54), which both showed this humility and allowed him to to focus on work for longer periods of time. He also required “little in the way of . . . servants” (54). These aspects of his life again contrast him with Caesar, who was known to enjoy a lavish lifestyle and demand much of those around him.

Marcus’ description here follows one earlier in Book 1 of his text, where he tells of his adoptive father’s advice to follow such a lifestyle, and to “honor genuine philosophers” (7). Both there and in this section, what is good is to put proper philosophical and moral thought and action above one’s selfish, personal inclinations. Marcus tells himself that being Antoninus’ “disciple” (55) in all of these traits will leave him with a clear conscious at death, knowing that he had lived a good life.

Marcus Aurelius. The Meditations. Trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983.

Classics, Epistemology

In Book I of his traditionally-titled Against the Logicians (Book VII of Adversus Mathematicos), Sextus Empiricus presents a critique of how past philosophers have attempted to define the human being. He notes that these philosophers would pass off a definition as an “explanation of man” (132), a strategy that, for Sextus, would surely fail.

First is the account that goes back to Aristotle, though Sextus does not cite him directly. He remarks that some philosophers define man as a “‘rational, mortal animal receptive of thought and knowledge’” (132). Sextus points out that this does not conjure up man himself, but rather lists of some of his attributes.

With respect to attributes, Sextus says that there are two distinct types, those which are “inseparable” (132) from the thing which has them and others which “can be separated” (132) from the attributed object. Those which cannot be separated from the object include its extended dimensions, for an extended body is inconceivable without such attributes. Separated attributes, for Sextus, include activities or potential activities which an individual can take part in. For instance, speaking and sitting are attributes of the human being, since these are things which “happen to” people, “but not continuously” (132).

However, as Sextus states, neither the separable nor the inseparable attributes are identical to the thing that bears them. Hence, the Aristotelian definition fails to define the human being, since it only recounts some of humankind’s attributes: that human beings are animals, an inseparable attribute, and that human beings possess the separable attributes of “‘reasoning’ and ‘possessing knowledge’” (133).

For Sextus, the other component of the given definition, that human beings are mortal, is not an attribute at all. He remarks that mortality is not something that is ever an attribute of a human being, since what makes a human seemingly mortal, death, is never a part of the human but something that happens after the human ceases to exist. One is never at the same time human and dead, hence, humans do not have mortality as an attribute in Sextus’ language.

Sextus also makes the point that none of these attributes uniquely give us the idea of the human being. For instance, being rational or possessing knowledge are also attributes of the gods, while many animals exist besides human beings. Of course, such a definition does not mean to imply that each of these attributes are uniquely true of humans, rather, it is “all of them in conjunction” that present the human being.

To this, Sextus asks how these various attributes can be united to produce the human without also “exceeding” or “falling short” (134) of what human beings are. After all, human beings are not at all times rational or in possession of knowledge, nor do they possess mortality as an attribute because “death is not yet present” (134). So in this case, listing all of these attributes at any time may exclude some human beings, namely those who are not currently reasoning, possessing knowledge, or even simply still living. Hence, this definition exceeds that of human beings. Similarly, these are not the only attributes of human beings, so the definition in another sense falls short of producing the human.

The definition of man from Platonic sources also falls under Sextus’ scrutiny. He says that this definition describes man as a “‘featherless, two-footed, flat-nailed animal, receptive of political science’” (134). Such a definition fails to capture the human being for the same reasons as the Aristotelian one, namely that it gives a list of attributes, some of which are not constant in humans. Further, Sextus calls this definition “even worse than the others” (134) because it contains some negative attributes, such as ‘featherless’, along with positive ones, such as ‘twofooted’. That is, some of what is in this definitions are not attributes of humans, but an account of what are not human attributes.

Since no definition like those given can accurately capture the idea of human beings, or produce the “conception of particular men” (132), Sextus concludes that it is impossible to properly define the human being. Humans are, hence, left without a proper conception of themselves.

Sextus Empricius. Selections from the Major Writings on Scepticism, Man, & God. Ed. Philip P. Hallie. Trans. Sanford G. Etheridge. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1985. pp. 132-134.

Classics, Religion, University

Good Apollo: The Final Cut

My course in Greek Mythology this term had quite a bit of discussion about heroes.  Heroes from all mythologies, both ancient and modern, tend to have remarkable similarities in their stories — in their origins, their lives and their deaths.  It happened for the ancient Greek heroes, it happened in legends, it happens in modern films, and it happens for superheroes in comic books.  These are the heroic motifs.

As the professor went through the list of motifs, I couldn’t help but think of The Amory Wars.

I’m a big Coheed and Cambria fan.  For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this band, their four albums (and upcoming fifth) are all part of a story called The Amory Wars, which is, essentially, a science-fiction story about a teenage boy, Claudio Kilgannon, who becomes messianic figure meant to bring about the apocalyptic end to his solar system.

In addition to being filled with philosophically interesting situations, The Amory Wars (and the related Good Apollo albums and graphic novel) are filled with heroic motifs. When our final exam presented us with an essay option to compare heroic motifs in ancient and modern sources, I couldn’t help but to develop that idea.

Consider a few examples:

  1. Heroes often begin their journey with a prophecy. Perseus’ grandfather was warned that Perseus would kill him. Oedipus’ father, Laius, is told that his son would kill him and marry his wife. The Amory Wars has the prophecy of The Crowing, the messianic figure who young Claudio must become, but also has a distorted prophecy given to his parents, Coheed and Cambria Kilgannon, that their children would bring a more negative destruction to their world.
  2. Heroes often narrowly escape death because of that prophecy. Perseus’ grandfather tries to prevent his birth, and when he is born, attempts to rid himself of the problem by sending Perseus and his mother out to sea in a wooden box.  Similarly, the infant Oedipus has his feet pinned together and is left on a mountainside to die by exposure.  And Coheed and Cambria, misled into believing their children were a threat, killed three of them.  Only Claudio escaped.
  3. Heroes are usually aided in their quest.  The Greek heroes were usually aided by gods or goddesses, by demi-gods, other humans or lesser heroes.  Claudio is aided both by his “uncle” Jesse, and by Ambellina — a member of an angel-like race known as the Prise, who is meant to guide Claudio towards his role as the Crowing.  (“Dear Ambellina, the Prise wishes you to watch over me” – The Crowing, on In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3)
  4. Heroes of prophecy usually try to avoid their prophecies – especially if they are tragic in some way.  Oedipus tries very hard to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother — fleeing his adoptive parents, believing that he was escaping the prophecy.  Claudio is skeptical when Ambellina tells him that he’s the Crowing, and consistently seems to struggle with the whole idea.  Claudio also begins to fall in love with Ambellina, which isn’t exactly making him want to do the whole destroy-the-world thing.
  5. …but in the end are forced to fulfill them. Oedipus feels confident when he learns of the death of his adoptive parents, but does not realize that he has already killed his birth father, and married his birth mother.  Claudio receives a more direct intervention from his ‘God’.  The Writer, who is actually penning the Amory Wars story, (after being persuaded by a hallucination – his talking bicycle) actually writes himself into the story.  He appears before Claudio, kills Ambellina, and tells him that he must fulfill his role as Crowing.  “Your time has come. Crowing. You’re burning Star IV.”  (Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV,Volume 1: From Fear Through The Eyes of Madness)

There are more — The Amory Wars is a very complex story, and it’s not done yet — but you get the idea.  I was a bit concerned when I wrote my exam, because I was choosing a story that the professor was probably unfamiliar with, but I got an A+ on the exam, and in the course, so I guess it was the right decision.  My paper mainly compared Oedipus and Claudio Kilgannon as heroes of prophecy.

I might be the only person in the class, or maybe the school, to use a rock album as a source in a paper for a Classical Studies course.

That’s probably the assignment I’ve had the most fun with so far.  I have a less exciting, but still interesting, paper to finish writing on animal rights for another exam.  After that, one more exam to write at the school and first year is done.  Only three more years to go… for my BA, at least.  I’m considering more, but it’s early.