Junius Rusticus was a 2nd-century Stoic philosopher. The grandson of a member of The Stoic Opposition, Rusticus must have heard story after story of those revered philosophers. And he must have been enchanted because the sense of duty that compelled his grandfather summoned Rusticus as well. He became a soldier then a general then a consul under the emperor Hadrian.
The consul position was prestigious in itself, but Rusticus further distinguished himself. In 138 AD, the heirless Hadrian began planning to make a 17-year-old Marcus Aurelius emperor. Hadrian selected Rusticus as one of the boy’s tutors. As we’ll see, Rusticus was quite the teacher.
Also around this time, modern scholars like Donald Robertson believe, Rusticus might have been attending the lectures of Epictetus. Epictetus’ student Arrian (whose notes were later published as Epictetus’ Discourses) was also a consul in Hadrian’s court. One way or another, Rusticus had gotten his hands on a copy of Epictetus’ teachings. In book 1 of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reflects on what he learned from Rusticus:
The recognition that I needed to train and discipline my character. Not to be sidetracked by my interest in rhetoric. Not to write treatises on abstract questions, or deliver moralizing little sermons, or compose imaginary descriptions of The Simple Life or The Man Who Lives Only for Others. To steer clear of oratory, poetry and belles lettres. Not to dress up just to stroll around the house, or things like that. To write straightforward letters (like the one he sent my mother from Sinuessa). And to behave in a conciliatory way when people who have angered or annoyed us want to make up. To read attentively—not to be satisfied with “just getting the gist of it.” And not to fall for every smooth talker.
Then he thanks Rusticus:
For introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures—and loaning me his own copy.
In 161 AD, when Marcus became emperor, he immediately hired Rusticus as his magistrate and advisor. Then in 162 AD, consul and urban prefect. As Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman write in Lives of the Stoics, the urban prefect was “essentially the mayor of Rome, supervising its police, legal enforcement, public works, and the city’s food supply. Given the vast corruption that had been endemic in Rome, this was a position of immense responsibility and trust. By all accounts, [Rusticus] acquitted himself honorably.”
In 165 AD, a seemingly minor court case fell on his lap. A cynic philosopher named Crescens was accusing a Christian philosopher named Justin and six of his students of refusing to acknowledge the Roman gods. Naomi Mitchison wrote in The Blood of the Martyrs about why the burgeoning Christian faith was feared in Rome. “No Roman ever really bothered about a difference of gods,” she has a character—a Stoic philosopher named Nausiphanes—explain, “in religious matters they were profoundly tolerant because their own gods were not of the individual heart but only social inventions—or had become so. Yet politically they did and must persecute: and equally must be attacked by all who had the courage.”
Rusticus’ job was to keep public order, to protect the peace. Only the crazy and dangerous types—tyrants like Nero and Caligula—shun the gods. So Rusticus asked Justin to submit, to go along to get along, to acknowledge the gods protecting the empire. Justin refused to compromise on his beliefs. Like so many Stoics—Cato, Agrippinus, Thrasea, Helvidius—Justin was sentenced to death for being perceived as a threat to power. It was a blemish on Rusticus’ otherwise perfect reputation. In 168 AD, after decades of public service, he retired. In 170 AD, he died.
You Must Contribute
Rusticus’ grandfather was murdered for stepping into a public role within a violent world. Part of Rusticus feared following his grandfather’s example. Part of him wanted to keep his head down, to be a “mere pen-and-ink philosopher,” to retreat into his books and ides. But he didn’t. Instead, he chose the active life. As Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman write in Lives of the Stoics of Rusticus’ choice to participate in public affairs,
It’s an example that should challenge every talented and brilliant person: You owe it to yourself and to the world to actively engage with the brief moment you have on this planet. You cannot retreat exclusively into ideas. You must contribute.
Seneca wrote in his essay On Leisure about how Stoicism is a philosophy that isn’t just suited for public life, it demands it. “Epicurus says: ‘The sage will not engage in public affairs unless he must.’ Zeno [the founder of Stoicism] says: ‘The sage will engage in public affairs unless he cannot.’” Even at the cost of comfort and convenience, the Stoic contributes.
Welcome Hard Truths
Junius Rusticus was to Marcus Aurelius what Seneca was to Nero. Nero’s mother and the empress Agrippina selected Seneca to tutor her boy as he awaited the throne. Junius Rusticus was selected for Marcus. If both Marcus and Nero had virtually the same education, how did one become one of history’s greatest leaders and the other, the worst? To borrow once more from Lives of the Stoics:
Plutarch would talk later talk about how many politicians sought to govern as an exemption from being governed by others. Perhaps what made Marcus so special was that he seemed to place an advisor and a philosopher like Rusticus above himself, despite the fact that his power as emperor was nearly absolute. Why did Marcus remain good while so many other rulers have broken bad? His relationship and deference to a wise, older man like Rusticus explains a lot of it.
It’s hard to take criticism. It’s hard even for (or maybe, especially for) the greats. Marcus talks about how he was “often upset with Rusticus” and his tough teaching style, his criticisms, delivering the truth as he saw it. But Marcus learned to welcome that feedback and criticism. “If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake,” Marcus later wrote. “I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”
P.S. The bestselling authors of The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, have teamed up again in their new book Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living From Zeno To Marcus. Along with presenting the fascinating lives of all the well-known and not so well-known Stoics, Lives of the Stoics distills timeless and immediately applicable lessons about happiness, success, resilience, and virtue. The book is available for pre-order and is set to release on September 29!