A Stoic Response to Power

“To recognize the malice, cunning, and hypocrisy that power produces, and the peculiar ruthlessness often shown by people from ‘good families.’” Marcus Aurelius

At a young age, Marcus Aurelius is chosen to one day ‘assume the purple’—to become emperor—by Hadrian. Perhaps Hadrian saw something in him, perhaps since he lacked a son of his own, he thought he might be able to cultivate the traits needed to successfully rule the Roman empire.

Hadrian set in line a succession plan that involved Hadrian adopting the elderly Antoninus Pius who in turn adopted Marcus Aurelius. All the while, Marcus studied philosophy—he read and thought about what it meant to be a good person.

In 161 AD, after the death of Antoninus, Marcus becomes emperor. We’re told that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Well, Marcus was given that power. And what did he with it? What was the first thing he did upon ascending the throne?

He appointed his step-brother Lucius Verus co-emperor. Marcus Aurelius was given unlimited, executive power and the first thing he did was share it with someone he was not even technically related to. In fact, he essentially refused in front of the Senate to be made emperor unless Lucius would also rule with him. Marcus simply did it because he thought it was fair. Because it was the right thing to do.

That’s magnanimity. That’s what biographer Robert Caro, who has deeply studied some of the most powerful people in history, means when he says that power doesn’t corrupt, it reveals.

Marcus’s magnanimity didn’t stop there. Throughout his reign the power he held never seemed to go to his head—neither did the stress or burden. He rarely rose to excess or anger, and never to hatred or bitterness. What’s more impressive about his composure is all the challenges and obstacles Marcus faced during this period: Nearly constant war, a horrific plague, possible infidelity, an attempt at the throne by one of his closest allies, repeated and arduous travel across the empire—from Asia Minor to Syria, Egypt, Greece, and Austria—a rapidly depleting treasury, Lucius turning out to be an incompetent and greedy step-brother as co-emperor, and on and on and on. Despite all this, he adhered to philosophy as a guide.

It would be Machiavelli who would consider Marcus as one of the “Five Good Emperors” and say this about the respect he had earned through his virtuous rule: “Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the good-will of their subjects, and the attachment of the senate.”

Part of the reason Marcus was able to do this was practicing Stoicism and reminding himself of the important tenets of the philosophy. He was actively working to not let power go to his head. In his writings, we see him speak over and over again about the other emperors who had come before him and who would come after him. How many people even remember their names, he said? He reminded himself that his military successes paled in comparison to Alexander the Great’s. He reminded himself that all of Rome, which was his kingdom, was just a tiny piece of the earth—that it looked pathetic if you flew up in the clouds and looked down upon it. All of this was designed to escape what he called “imperialization”—the stain of power and popularity.

We can confidently conclude that it worked. As Matthew Arnold, the essayist, remarked in 1863, in Marcus we find a man who held the highest and most powerful station in the world—and the universal verdict of the people around him was that he proved himself worthy of it.

As he would write,

“But the great record for the outward life of a man who has left such a record of his lofty inward aspirations as that which Marcus Aurelius has left, is the clear consenting voice of all his contemporaries,—high and low, friend and enemy, pagan and Christian,—in praise of his sincerity, justice, and goodness. The world’s charity does not err on the side of excess, and here was a man occupying the most conspicuous station in the world, and professing the highest possible standard of conduct;—yet the world was obliged to declare that he walked worthily of his profession.”

Seneca’s fate, another prominent Stoic figure, eventually one of the most influential power brokers in the empire, was different. Like Marcus, he almost ascended through luck to the highest position in Rome. It would be a conspiracy’s plans—at the height of Seneca’s career—to murder the then-Emperor Nero and have Seneca take the throne, “being a man who seemed to be marked out for supreme power by the good qualities for which he was so famous.” But unlike Marcus, one can argue that Seneca was almost corrupted by power after becoming Nero’s tutor years earlier, a ruthless tyrant by most historical standards, and remaining by his side for years, amassing vast amounts of wealth and power in the process.

As the Roman proverb went, Amici vitia si feras, facias tua. If you put up with the crimes of a friend, you make them your own.

Seneca of course was deeply familiar with power’s corrupting effect, observing of Caligula, that “Nature produced him as an experiment, to show what absolute vice could accomplish when paired with absolute power.” He would eventually write to Nero, in the years after he became Emperor, how one should act when in a position to wield power. He would tell him that “great power is glorious and admirable only when it is beneficent; since to be powerful only for mischief is the power of a pestilence.” Seneca would also say that “cruel punishments do a king no honour: for who doubts that he is able to inflict them? But, on the other hand, it does him great honour to restrain his powers, to save many from the wrath of others, and sacrifice no one to his own.”

It was a letter that urged self-restraint, mercy and compassion and the beneficial exercise of power. Using a popular rhetorical device from the time, Seneca would write as if he was Nero, writing how a ruler, and particularly one with unlimited power, should behave,

“In this position of enormous power I am not tempted to punish men unjustly by anger, by youthful impulse, by the recklessness and insolence of men, which often overcomes the patience even of the best regulated minds, not even that terrible vanity, so common among great sovereigns, of displaying my power by inspiring terror.”

As Seneca’s biographer James Romm would observe, Seneca’s message was to show why power needs to be restrained. As Romm would say, the point was that “kindness from rulers wins adoration from subjects and results in a long, secure reign; severity breeds fear, and from fear springs conspiracy.”

And it would be Romm who would pose the timeless question in regards to Seneca’s life: “How could this sage, who constantly exhorted his readers toward virtue and reason, have served as the right-hand man of a despot notorious for madness, repression and family murder?”

We can never know. Seneca might as easily have told himself that he was the only one who could’ve controlled Nero. Without him, it might have been much worse. Or the answer is vastly simpler—he coveted to be close to power and wield influence as most of us would do given the chance. It may simply be that power corrupted Seneca and rendered all his Stoic training moot.

This tension between Stoicism and power seems to have always been there. Thrasea, a Stoic peer of Seneca’s would conspire against Nero rather than collaborate with him. Cato opposed Julius Caesar, and refusing to live under his rule, committed suicide. Musonius Rufus would be exiled by Vespasian and only returning to Rome after the emperor’s death. Epictetus has also observed power firsthand—as a slave, his own leg was broken by his master, was banished to Greece by Domitian, and his advice would be sought by Hadrian, the emperor who early on saw the potential in Marcus Aurelius.

And what we saw in Marcus was the true Stoic response to power—proving yourself worthy of it. He was a ruler that was universally acknowledged. Upon Marcus’s death, the renowned historian Cassius Dio would describe how things would turn for the worse: “My history now descends from a kingdom of gold to a kingdom of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans at that time.”

So for all the brilliance of Marcus, we can also look at Seneca as kind of a cautionary tale, a tragic figure that allows us to debate both the morality of his choices and the efficacy of what he claimed to believe. And through this complicated pairing of opposites, we have a set of important guideposts to orient ourselves against and be wary of.


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