Born around 20 AD in Libya, Lucius Annaeus Cornutus was a Phoenician like the Stoic founder Zeno. He was at some point brought to Rome, most likely by Seneca’s brother Mela. Perhaps it was seeing what an impact Seneca’s childhood tutor—the Stoic Attalus—had on his brother that Mela hired Cornutus to tutor his own son, Lucan. Along with Lucan, Cornutus also famously taught the poet and satirist Persius. Suetonius records that both Lucan and Persius were rarely seen apart from their beloved teacher. Persius died young of a stomach disease. When he was diagnosed, he penned his will and left Cornutus a huge sum of money and his library, which included the full seven hundred volumes of Chrysippus’s books. Cornutus accepted the books but not the money, instead demanding Persius’ sister take it.
After Persius’ death, Cornutus set out on a mission to collect and edit all of his prolific friend and protégé’s writing. As soon as he published the book, Suetonius writes, “all the world began to admire it, and were eager to buy it up.” One of his famous edits was the line where Persius compared Nero to a donkey:
Auriculas asini Mida rex habet;
King Midas has an ass’s ears;
Cornutus changed it to:
Auriculas asini quis non hahet?
Who has not an ass’s ears?
Though willing to compromise on the page, in person, Cornutus couldn’t. As Persius’ posthumous work was being read across the empire, Cornutus’ other student Lucan was also enjoying high praise. Word of this man producing great writers must have gotten to Nero. Cassius Dio tells us that Nero summoned Cornutus for advice. “Continuing to do many ridiculous things,” Dio writes, Nero was now planning to write an epic history of Roman achievement. The group all agreed with what Nero wanted to do: tell the narrative in four hundred books. When Cornutus was asked for his thoughts, he, unlike the rest, didn’t tell the Emperor what he wanted to hear. Four hundred books is “too many, nobody would read them.” One of Nero’s sycophants interjected to point out that Chrysippus wrote way more. “But they are a help to the conduct of men’s lives,” Cornutus said. Cornutus must have known the risk of offering his honest opinion. He did, afterall, tweak the donkey line. Nero banished Cornutus right then and there. And his student Lucan, Nero added, was prohibited from continuing to write poetry.
We don’t know where Cornutus was exiled to. But wherever it was, he was swallowed by obscurity because there is nothing more on him in the historical record.
Speak The Truth
“Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being…Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it.” — Marcus Aurelis
No matter what your profession is, there are things you can say that will cost you. Speaking up against somebody’s pet project can get an officer passed over for promotion. Voicing a certain political viewpoint can cost you fans or endorsements. Challenging the status quo can bring a hail of critics and haters. Telling the Emperor that his idea to write four hundred books is a terrible idea can get you banished.
And in those situations, what should we do? The answer to the Stoic is pretty simple. It’s what Cornutus did: Speak the truth. Yes, it may cost you.
Nassim Taleb’s rule of thumb is worth remembering always: If you see fraud and do not say ‘fraud,’ you are a fraud.
If you know the truth, speak it. If you believe in a truth, live it. If you’re asked for your honest opinion, give it. Even if it costs you. Because to do otherwise is to lie. To do otherwise is to be a coward. Remember how the Stoics define courage: Courage to face misfortune and death. Courage to risk yourself for the sake of your fellow man. Courage to hold to your principles, even when others get away with or are rewarded for disregarding theirs. Courage to speak your mind.
“This is the first promise that philosophy holds out to us: fellow-feeling, humanity, sociability.” — Seneca
Some people imagine that Stoicism involves an unfeeling approach to other people. But the truth is that friendship has been a constant topic for philosophers. Cicero has a wonderful essay On Friendship (recently re-translated by Princeton University Press as How To Be A Friend) Seneca has an essay, On Benefits, which is all about mutual reciprocity, and of course, his letters to Lucilius are a wonderful window into a long, fruitful friendship between great minds. Marcus Aurelius wrote it repeatedly: we’re social beings.
Cornutus’ life is a beautiful reminder anytime you hear that the Stoics were without joy or friendship. Persius wrote fondly of “spending long days…and plucking the early evenings” with Cornutus, working and relaxing together in “seriousness at a restrained table.” They were, he said, “in harmony with a fixed bond and are guided by one star.” What a beautiful image.
He must have had an equally strong friendship with Lucan. Epictetus said that “the necessity of circumstances proves friends.” Well, Lucan proved their friendship. It was the egregiousness of Nero’s banishing Cornutus for such a minor slight that galvanized Lucan to join the 65 AD conspiracy against Nero.
“With the exception of wisdom,” Cicero said, “I’m inclined to believe that the immortal gods have given nothing better to humanity than friendship.” Cornutus enjoyed a life full of both.
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!