Lower Fifth Scholars: report

Lessons from a Roman Emperor: The Practical Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
On Wednesday after school, Lower Fifth scholars were introduced to the ideas and life of Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. After taking the group through the philosophical background – Socrates, Diogenes, Zeno, Epictetus – Mr Whitman asked the scholars to identify from a list those items they considered to be under their control. The exercise opened up a lively debate that led naturally to Epictetus’ claim that happiness – tranquility, effectiveness, flourishing – depended upon our ability to know the difference between what we can and cannot control, which led in turn to Epictetus’ statement that how we think about the events that befall us is essentially, crucially, what matters. With an overview of the Stoic understanding of what is good, bad and indifferent, and with Marcus contextualized, the group considered quotations taken from the Emperor’s Meditations. These included how to think about others’ opinions of us and how we might avoid fooling ourselves as we went about the invaluable but challenging task of coming to know ourselves. The session drew to a close by pointing up, respectively, the importance of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus to Nelson Mandela and US fighter pilot James Stockdale. It finished with a brief discussion of Marcus Aurelius’ view that the common law of reason is what binds humanity together to make us citizens of the world and family to each other. In seeking to suggest to scholars the value of knowing ourselves, Mr Whitman of course began to know them – through their quick insight, rapid understanding and intellectual engagement.

Mr Whitman