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It’s Ok To Break

Daily Stoic Emails

When Marcus Aurelius heard that his beloved teacher Fronto had lost a grandchild, he sent him a letter. Perhaps, if you believe in the stereotype of the unfeeling Stoic, you might expect that this letter was intended to buck his friend up, or attempted to remind the grieving Fronto that loss was a part of life and something we had to be prepared for.

In our recent interview with Professor Martha Nussbaum on the Daily Stoic podcast, we talked about this exchange. Professor Nussbaum believed that the death of a child was so common at the time that Roman parents–especially the Stoics–had learned from painful experience to practice a certain kind of detachment. They didn’t feel these losses as deeply as we might think.

Actually, Marcus’s letter explained that he felt his friend’s “suffering anguish” deeply in his own bones. This was a kind of pain that Marcus knew well and would know well, having buried far too many of his own children. So the two friends went back and forth, talking about grief and loss. Fronto, who had always challenged Marcus when it came to philosophy, replied that “be the immortality of the soul ever so established, that will be a theme for the disputations of philosophers, it will never assuage the yearning of a parent.” Fronto was haunted by the sweet face of his “darling grandson,” hearing everywhere “the echo of his voice.”

Meditations shows several moments where Marcus is haunted the same way, that he was not implacable under the cruel blows of fate. Professor Nussbaum, herself, has written a beautiful new book called Justice for Animals, which was inspired by her grief for her daughter, an animal rights activist. She spoke movingly to us about Cicero, who also lost a daughter, and made no attempt to be the ‘perfect Stoic’ about it.

Life is very hard. It will subject us to pains and yearnings that no amount of philosophy can take away…but that’s OK. It’s OK to break under this pressure and pain–even the best of us do. So long as we figure out what Cicero and Marcus and Professor Nussbaum and Fronto eventually did, how to carry on. How to carry the memory of those we love forward. How to keep going.

You can learn more about the tragedy and triumphs of Marcus Aurelius’ life as well as those of Cicero’s in Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius. We also have signed and personalized copies in the Daily Stoic store. Listen to Professor Nussbaum’s episode on the Daily Stoic podcast here.