Who Is Paconius Agrippinus? An Introduction To The Red Thread Contrarian

Introduction

It’s humbling to know that as we look up to the Stoics of antiquity, they too idolized those who came before them. In the beginning pages of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes out the names of all the people who have mentored and molded him throughout his life. He speaks eloquently of a man named Antoninus, who would become a father figure to Marcus, and guide him in his journey to become Emperor. Seneca too had people who inspired him, one of them being Cato the Younger. Seneca mentions Cato several times throughout his works as a reminder of what a great example he set. It was Epictetus, however, who mentioned Paconius Agrippinus more than once as an exemplary Stoic.

Much of what we know about Agrippinus comes from the account of others, similar to the way we only know about the life of Socrates through the works of Plato. Agrippinus was a highly regarded Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher who was known for his ability to do what was right, even when it meant going against the popular opinion. He was also a prominent member of the Stoic Opposition, a group that was comprised of Stoic philosophers who opposed the tyrannical rule of certain Roman emperors, specifically Nero and Domitian.

As it was characteristic of ancient philosophers to be condemned by their rulers, Agrippinus was no exception. In fact, one could argue it was in his blood to do so. Agrippinus’ father, Marcus, was executed for treason by Emperor Tiberius. Later in life, Agrippinus would find himself exiled from Italy at the same time that Thrasea, another prominent Stoic, was put to death by none other than Emperor Nero. As we read about the life of Agrippinus, the words of Seneca come to mind, “There is the need for someone against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler, you won’t make the crooked straight.”

We need mentors to measure ourselves against. And it’s apparent that Agrippinus was such a ruler, by which some of the greatest Stoics who we admire today, measured themselves. Below are the works, lessons, and quotes from one of Romes most influential Stoics.

Notable Works & Suggested Readings

While there are no known or preserved works by Agrippinus, most of our insight comes from Epictetus’ Discourses. Epictetus often used famous historical figures to demonstrate to his students how a Stoic should act. One of those figures was Agrippinus, due to his willingness to go against popular opinion and remain indifferent to happenings outside of his control. It might seem odd that Agrippinus is regarded as a philosopher even though there are no great works or books attributed to his name. Though it’s important to note in that time period, the title of “philosopher” described how someone lived their life rather than what academic contributions they made or what thesis they developed. Agrippinus was a philosopher because he lived philosophically, which is why he was so highly regarded amongst the Stoics of old.

Exercises & Lessons From Paconius Agrippinus

Agrippinus was a man of action, not a man of words. That’s why we know nothing of his writing, and only of his character as it is described by others. “It is only right,” Epictetus said, “to praise Agrippinus, who never praised himself, although he was a man of the highest character. If he was praised by anyone else, he only became embarrassed.” He was a man of duty, a man of courage in the face of tremendous misfortune, a man who refused to conform despite nearly incomparable pressure to do so. With that here are 3 lessons and exercises from Epictetus’ favorite exemplary Stoic.

Be The Red Thread

Epictetus said it: If you want to improve, if you want to achieve wisdom, you have to be okay looking strange or even clueless from time to time. Epictetus also tells us the story of Agrippinus, who, despite what everyone else was doing, refused to keep a low profile during Nero’s reign, refused to conform or tamp down his independent thinking. Why do this, Agrippinus was asked, why not be like the rest of us? 

Because you regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment. What follows, then? This, that you ought to take thought how you may resemble all other men, precisely as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads. But I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. Why, then, do you say to me, “Be like the majority of people?” And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?

Beautifully said. And a reminder to all of us. Embrace who you really are, embrace what makes you unique. Zeno used to practice begging people for money, even though he had plenty. Cleanthes worked as a manual laborer for so long, some in Athens thought it might be a front for something. Cato used to walk around bareheaded and barefooted, wearing dingy clothing. Seneca was completely unafraid both of regularly practicing poverty (despite his wealth) and unafraid of showing his wealth (despite his reputation as a Stoic). He also experimented with vegetarianism at a time when it was deeply transgressive in Rome. And can you imagine the scene Marcus Aurelius created when he would write and read philosophy while the gladiatorial games raged on beneath his box seats in the coliseum? The Stoics were not afraid to be themselves, to be seen as weird.

Be red. Be the small part that makes the rest bright.

Shrug It Off

Epictetus tells us the story of when Agrippinus, during Nero’s reign, was delivered some awful news one morning: He was exiled. Effective immediately. Agrippinus’s response? “Very well, we shall take our lunch in Aricia.” 

Meaning: We might as well get this show on the road. No use bemoaning or weeping about it. Hey, is anyone else hungry? 

That’s how a Stoic responds—they shrug off the emotional weight of even the worst news. They have humor about it. They focus on what they can control and they let go of everything outside of it. Like Agrippinus, like Walker Percy did, like you can if you put in the work. If you practice, if you rehearse, if you steel yourself for the fact that life inevitably will deliver these moments to us

Being exiled. Finding out you got fired. Hearing that your computer just deleted a year of hard work. Being informed that you just lost the election. None of that is fun. It’s often unfair. You can let it crush you. You can fall to your knees and tear out your hair. 

Or you can shrug it off, and start thinking about lunch.

Know Your Role

Epictetus had an interesting metaphor: “Keep in mind that you are an actor in a play that is just the way the producer wants it to be…If we wants you to act the part of a beggar, see that you play it skillfully, and similarly, if the part is to be a cripple, or an official, or a private person. Your job is to put on a splendid performance of the role you have been given.” When he was given the role of governor, Epictetus tells us, Agrippinus played it incredibly well. Particularly impressive, Epictetus marveled, was how he treated those he sentenced. He quotes Agrippinus:

“I don’t at all condemn them in a spirit of malice, much less with an eye to seizing their property. I act in a spirit of concern and good will, like a doctor who comforts the patient whom he plans to cut open, and cajoles him into submitting to the operation.”

“I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own.” And in another spot, “Human beings have been made for the sake of one another. Teach them or endure them.” This is what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said, “They are what we would be under similar circumstances.” The Stoics had a word for this: sympatheia—the belief in mutual interdependence among everything in the universe, that we are each part of a larger whole. Actors in the same play. We each play a role. Some people’s roles were to be shameless, to be evil, to be lazy. But our fate is bound up with theirs and everyones—so their gain is our gain, when someone—criminal or otherwise—is made better, we’re all made better.

Agrippinus knew that. That we are all in this thing together. That we are obligated to contribute to the common good. Because if we don’t…the whole thing falls apart. Stoicism is about making a difference when we have the ability to make a difference, being strategic and empathetic, working to make everyone around us better…not completely write them off as hopeless and broken. Not caring, complete detachment? That’s the real crime. It is a rejection of our duty. “People,” Marcus said, “are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them…Our actions may be impeded by them, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions.” How much better a place the world would be if we could all remember this. If the Stoic concept of sympatheia was never far from our minds (it’s why we created a reminder of it to carry in your pocket). If the Stoic virtues of justice and fairness dictated our actions. We are all connected to each other, and to help others is to help ourselves. We are obligated to serve and to be of service. 

Paconius Agrippinus Quotes And Interactions (As Documented By Epictetus)

After being told (of his exile), “Your case is being tried in the Senate,” Agrippinus responded:

“Good luck betide! But it is the fifth hour now” (he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then a cold bath at that hour); “let us be off and take our exercise.”

After he had finished his exercise someone came and told him, “You have been condemned.”

“To exile,” says he, “or to death?”

To exile.

“What about my property?”

It has not been confiscated.

“Well then, let us go to Aricia and take our lunch there.”

On Being The Red Thread:

Because you regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment. What follows, then? This, that you ought to take thought how you may resemble all other men, precisely as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads. But I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. Why, then, do you say to me, “Be like the majority of people?” And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?

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Meet The Stoics:

Who Is Marcus Aurelius? Getting To Know The Roman Emperor

Who Is Seneca? Inside The Mind of The World’s Most Interesting Stoic

Who Is Epictetus? From Slave To World’s Most Sought After Philosopher

Who Is Cleanthes? Successor to Zeno & Second Head of the Stoic School

Who Is Cato? Roman Senator. Mortal Enemy of Julius Caesar.

Who Is Zeno? An Introduction to the Founder of Stoicism

Who Is Cicero? Getting To Know Rome’s Greatest Politician

Who Is Posidonius? The Most Academic Stoic

Who Is Panaetius? Spreading Stoicism from Greece to Rome

Who Is Paconius Agrippinus? An Introduction To The Red Thread Contrarian

Who Is Porcia Cato? An Introduction To The Stoic Superwoman

Who Is Gaius Rubellius Plautus? An Introduction To Nero’s Rival

Who Is Chrysippus? The ‘Second Founder of Stoicism’ Who Died Laughing

Who Is Diotimus? An Introduction To The Man Who Made An Extraordinary Mistake

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