Stoic Influences

In Insights and Thoughts by John Porter

A Young Marcus Aurelius, Musei Capitolini MC279

Up on the Platform:

*Have you forgotten what’s what?*

–I know, but it’s important to them.”

*So you have to be an idiot as well?*

-Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

A while back in Union Lodge, I had the pleasure of being on the investigation committee for a candidate. He has an abiding interest in the Roman Empire, with a collection of coins from that era. During the interview, we discussed a bit of Masonic history, and he complimented the Brothers on their knowledge of American History—noting that his own area of interest was considerably earlier with the Roman Empire.

One of the neat things about studying Masonic history is that you never really know what rabbit hole you might pop down in the course of your search. That is never more true than when you are looking into the origins of Masonry, and all the schools of thought that helped create our gentle craft. There were many influences that combined to make our Fraternity possible, from the Enlightenment to the earliest Greek philosophers. And amongst those were the Stoics.

The ancient Greek philosophies were born in the 6th century BC, and their cradle was Athens. Plato, Socrates and Aristotle were amongst the many who were drawn there to learn astronomy, geometry and rhetoric. There they founded schools of thought which included Cynicism, Stoicism, Skepticism and Epicureanism. When that city-state fell to the Roman Empire, most of those schools of philosophy simply moved to Rome and set up shop. There they flourished until the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the State Religion, thus ending the party for all other schools of philosophy.

One of the last Stoics of the ancient world was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He left a wealth of writings that have become known as the Meditations, but really they were his notes to himself—his diary, if you will. We don’t have the originals, only copies of copies. We don’t even know what order they were originally in. To a degree, we’re not even sure which are his own thoughts or which quotes from other people. But they give us a great window into the views of a thoughtful man trying to live up to his creed. And the parallels between his Stoicism and Masonry are striking.

When we first become Freemasons, we are told of the power of good men gathering together, how they will naturally seek one-another’s welfare as much as their own. Marcus wrote “When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.” He has stated one of the basic foundations of our Fraternity, that the work of making oneself a better person is easiest when you are surrounded by good people.

Masonry is, in part, the belief and practice of the cardinal virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity. The Stoics strove to practice their own cardinal virtues: Temperance, Justice, Courage and Wisdom. Through tolerance they strove to help their fellow men and achieve harmony with the world around them. As Marcus put it, “To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice—it degrades you. And you can also commit injustice by doing nothing. Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now, at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need.”

Or think upon the lesson of circumscribing one’s passions, to keep one’s actions within due bounds. Marcus wrote “It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you—inside or out.” As we would say, if you keep your actions within due bounds you cannot materially err.

Our ritual helps to instill in us the concepts which we seek to internalize, by repetition keeping those worthy precepts in mind. “We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle said, “therefore, excellence is not an act but a habit.” Marcus would later add to that that we are a product of our thoughts: “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind.”

But Masonry is not just a school of thought, but the belief that good men should do good works. To work in harmony with our Brothers to promote the public good, as all human beings have a claim upon our kind offices. To do good because we can, with no expectation of reward—or as Seneca put it, that “the words should become works.” The echoes of the Stoic Tradition in our gentle craft are striking.

Nor would we be the first Masons to take note of that. At Valley Forge, General George Washington had the Stoic play Cato performed for his men, to boost their morale. Brother Teddy Roosevelt carried a copy of Marcus’ Meditations with him on his adventures.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius was an interestingly complex and humble fellow, who referred to the Imperial Robes as “just sheep’s wool, dyed with the blood of shellfish.” He sounds like he would have made an excellent Mason.

And so, a hat tip to our newest Entered Apprentice and his special area of historical interest. He may just have stumbled upon the root, before he began to study the tree.

Walk in Light, my Brothers.

— WB John Porter