Your Occasional Stoic : Caprice in Absolute Rule

An occasional series of posts quoting  the great works of stoicism with some short notes from me.

From Fronto: to understand the effect of suspicion, caprice, and hypocrisy in the exercise of absolute rule; and that for the most part these people we call ‘Patricians’ are somewhat short of human affection.

Aurelius, Meditations, 1:11

  • Fronto is Marcus Cornelius Fronto, a famous (and rich) Roman lawyer, he was also a tutor and friend of Marcus.  A little Raiders of the Lost Ark thing about Fronto – until the early 1800s the only known works by him were his two grammar treatises, but in 1815 Angelo Mai, a cardinal and philologist, realized some palimpsest in a Milan library contained letters between Fronto and his pupils, including letters from Marcus.  Later, more would be discovered in the Vatican library.  Imagine Mai’s thoughts when he unearthed those letters and brought them to light for the first time in hundreds of years?  Pretty exciting stuff for a philologist.
  • The copy of the Meditations from which I pull these quotes makes a big deal in the annotations that, unlike some of Marcus’s other tutors,  Fronto is not identified here as a rhetorician or a grammarian, but merely as Fronto.  From this we are to deduce the closeness of his relationship with Marcus.  To me, this is an example of the dangers of close reading.  We need to remember that we know very little of Marcus’s intentions in writing the Meditations.  If he truly intended for the work to not be published, then perhaps not including a descriptor for Fronto was merely a timesaving maneuver. Or perhaps he just forgot, or got lazy.  Those explanations resonate with me more than the idea that the lack of a descriptor for Fronto’s signals some deeper meaning to the reader.
  • This selection is one of many where Marcus seems to be warning himself about his own power.  Be careful, I hear him saying, you could end up like the emperors before you – dangerous, mad, and murdered by your own troops.
  • The comment that Patricians are “somewhat short of human affection” resonates today.  Even the rich and powerful, like Marcus, always believe the rich and powerful are somehow less human.

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  1. jeannettesmyth

    i often wonder how people of good fortune manage an ethical life. monica lewinsky sort of springs to mind, but there are much more repulsive examples. somebody on the intarnets is fulminating today about adelson, his dye jobs, and what he stands to gain if his pet romney wins.

  2. seanv2

    Something tells me Sheldon Adelson doesn’t keep a notebook where he ruminates on the lessons in life he has learned from his tutors, but maybe I’m wrong.

    I should note that I’m not trying to idealize Aurelius by putting his quotes up here. The Meditations do profoundly resonate with me, and Marcus is often named the best of the so called “five good emperors”, but he was still a dictator, and, as we’ll see as we slowly work through the Meditations, some of his ideas were less than enlightened.

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