« Prev Chapter III. The Reign of the Philosophers. Next »



The problem of the happiness of humanity had never before been known to have been pursued with so much assiduousness and heartiness. The ideal of Plato was realised; the world was governed by the philosophers. All that had been in the form of a beautiful sentiment in the great soul of Seneca had come to be a reality. Though railed at for two hundred years by the brutal Romans, the Greek 20philosophy, by dint of patience, triumphed. We have seen already under Antoninus philosophers privileged, pensioned, enjoying almost the position of public functionaries; now the emperor is wholly surrounded with them. His old masters have become his ministers, his men of state. He showers honours upon them with profusion, raises statues to them, places their monuments among his household gods, and, on the anniversary of their death, goes to sacrifice at their tombs, which he always keeps decked with flowers. The consulship, which until now had been reserved for the Roman aristocracy, is invaded by the rhetoricians and the philosophers. Herodus Atticus, Fronto, Junius Rusticus, Claudius Severus, Proculus, became in their day consuls or proconsuls. Marcus-Aurelius had in particular for Rusticus the most tender affection. He made him twice consul, and always embraced him before saluting the prefect of the prætorium. The important functions of the prefect of Rome were for some years as if placed immutably in his hands.

It was inevitable that this sudden favour, accorded by the emperor to a class of men who combined all that was excellent and contemptible, should lead to many abuses. From all parts of the world the good Marcus-Aurelius had caused to be brought philosophers of renown. Among the proud mendicants, clad in ragged blouses, which that large call had put in movement, there were more than one person of mediocrity, more than one charlatan. That which implied an exterior profession provoked always a comparison between real manners and those which habit engendered. These parvenus were accused of greediness, of avariciousness, of gormandising, of impertinence, and of rancour. People sometimes laughed at the weaknesses which their mantles could shelter. Their badly combed hair, their beards, their nails were the objects of raillery. 21“His beard is worth to him ten thousand sestercias,” said some people, “it will soon be necessary to salary also goats.” Their vanity gave often occasion to these pleasantries. Peregrinus, sacrificing himself upon Mount Olympus (in 166), showed how far the necessity of the tragic could lead a fool who was infatuated with his rôle and eager to have himself spoken of.

Their pretended absolute self-sufficiency called forth stinging rebukes. People repeated the phrase attributed to Demonax, upon Apollonius of Chalcis, departing from Rome with his suite: “Here comes Apollonius and his argonauts.” These Greeks, these Syrians, flocking to the assault of Rome, seemed to be setting out for the conquest of a new fleece of gold. The pensions and the exemptions which they enjoyed meant that they were in charge of the republic; and Marcus-Aurelius was compelled to justify himself on this point. People complained especially of their maltreatment of certain individuals. The ordinary insolences of the cynics only too far justified those accusations. These miserable snarling dogs possessed neither shame nor respect, and they were very numerous.

Marcus-Aurelius did not dissimulate the defects of his friends; but his perfect sagacity led him to make a distinction between the doctrine and the weaknesses of those whom he taught. He knew that there were few or none of the philosophers really practical in what they advised. Experience had taught him that the majority of them were greedy, quarrelsome, vain, insolent; that they sought only disputation, that they were possessed solely by a spirit of pride, malignity, and jealousy. But he was too judicious to expect perfection in men. As St. Louis was not disturbed for a moment in his faith by the disorders of the clericals, so Marcus-Aurelius was never disgusted with philosophy—22with what were the vices of the philosophers. “I esteem the true philosophers, indulgently exempt from blame the pretended philosophers, without, however, ever being duped by them,” was what he remarked in Antoninus, and the rule he himself observed. He went and listened in their schools to Apollonius and to Sextus of Cheronea, and was not made angry by people laughing at him. Like Antoninus, he had a faculty for supporting the ill-natured remarks of vain and badly educated people, which those honours probably exaggerated and rendered impertinent. Alexander saw him walking in the streets without courtiers, without a guard, clad in the mantle of the philosopher and living like one of them. At Athens he instituted chairs for all the sciences, and endowed them liberally; and he was able to give to the institution called the university of that city an éclat superior even to that which she had received from Hadrian.

It was natural that the representatives of what still remained of solidity, endurance, and of strength in the ancient Roman nature should exhibit some impatience at that invasion of the high places in the republic by people without family renown, without military audacity, belonging for the most part to those oriental races which the true Roman contemned. Such was especially the position unfortunately taken by Avedius Cassius, a true soldier and statesman, an enlightened man even, and sympathising fully with Marcus-Aurelius, but one who was persuaded that government existed for another purpose than philosophy. By reason of calling the emperor in jest “a good female philosopher,” he was led into embracing the most fatal of ideas, to wit, revolt. The great reproach that he laid at the door of Marcus-Aurelius was the confiding of the highest positions to men who, whether as regards fortune, antecedents, and even 23education, could offer no guarantees, Bassæus and Pompeian, for example. The good emperor went, in fact, so far as innocently to desire that Pompeian should marry his daughter Lucilla, the, widow of Lucius Verus, and to pretend that Lucilla loved Pompeian, because he was the most virtuous man in the empire. This unfortunate idea was one of the principal causes which corrupted his internal government; for Faustina supported the resistance of his daughter, and that was one of the causes which threw her into the opposition against her husband.

If Marcus-Aurelius had not united to his goodness a rare degree of practical sense, his infatuation for a class of persons, who were not always worth that which his profession would have made one suppose, would have led him into errors. Religion has had its absurdities; philosophy has had its also. Those people who crowded the public places, armed with truncheons, parading their long beards, their wallets, and their threadbare cloaks, these shoe-makers, these artisans who abandoned their benches to lead the idle life of begging cynics, exciting amongst people of mind the same antipathy which later on the Capuchin vagabond excited amongst the well-educated bourgeoisie. But, in general, despite the somewhat exaggerated respect which he had à priori for the costumes of the philosophers, Marcus-Aurelius exercised in his discernment of men a very perfect tact. The whole group of sages who had seized power on all sides presented a very venerable aspect; the emperor regarded them less as masters or friends than as brothers, who were associated with him in the government. The philosophers, as Seneca had dreamed, had become a power in the State, a certain constitutional institution, a privy council, whose influence in the affairs of State was of first importance.


This curious phenomenon, which has been witnessed but once in history, partook certainly of the character of the emperor; but it partook also of the nature of the empire, and of the Roman conception of the State, a conception wholly rationalistic, into which there entered no theocratic idea. The law was the expression of reason; it was hence natural that men of reason should attain one day or other to power. Like judges in cases of conscience, the philosophers had a rôle which was in a manner legal. For centuries the Greek philosophy had constituted the education of the highest Roman society; almost all the preceptors were Greeks; education was imparted wholly in Greek. Greece could not name a more splendid victory than that which she had thus gained through her pedagogues and professors. Philosophy took more and more the character of a religion; she had her preachers, her missionaries, her directors of consciences, her casuists. The great personages conversed with one another in a familiar philosophy, which was at the same time their intimate friend, their monitor, the guardian of their souls. It was hence a philosophy which had its thorns, and the first conditions of which were a venerable exterior, a fine beard, and a fashion of wearing a cloak with dignity.

Rubellius Plautus had near him, it is said, “two doctors of wisdom,” Cœranus and Musonius, the one Greek, the other Etruscan, in order to furnish him with the grounds for being able to await death with courage. Before death, people conversed with some sage, similar to what is called with us a priest, so that the last breath drawn might have a moral religious character. Canus Julius walked to the scaffold accompanied by “his philosopher.” Thraseus died assisted by the cynic Demetrius.


People hold it to be the first duty of a philosopher to enlighten men, to sustain them and to direct them. In great afflictions we send for a philosopher to give consolation, and often the philosophers, like our priests invoked in extremis, complain that they have only been sent for at the last minute when it is too late. We only purchase remedies when we are very sick; we neglect the philosopher in like manner, except when we are very unfortunate. We see a man rich, enjoying good health, and having a wife bien portants, but should he lose his fortune, or his health, should his wife, or his son, or his brother be struck down dead, then it is that the philosopher is sent for; he is called in to administer some consolation, to explain to the rich man in what manner one can support so much misfortune.

It was the conscience of the sovereign in particular that the philosophers, like the Jesuits later, sought to gain over to the right. “The sovereign is good and wise for the benefit of others;” in bettering him the philosopher accomplished more than if he had seduced into the paths of wisdom hundreds of isolated individuals. Areus was to Augustus a director, a kind of confessor, to whom the emperor unfolded all his thoughts, even to his most secret movements. When Livy lost his son Drusus it was Areus who condoled with him. Seneca played at intervals a similar part to Nero. The philosopher in the times of Epictetus, though he was still treated with great rudeness by the unpolished personages in Italy, became the comes of the prince, his most intimate friend, he whom he received at all times. It might be said of these species of almoners that they had functions and received regular treatment. Dion Chrysostom wrote for Trajan his discourses on the duties of 26royalty. Hadrian has been represented to us as being surrounded with Sophists.

The public had, like the princes, its regular lessons in philosophy. There were in important cities an eclectic official teacher, lessons, conferences. All the ancient denominations of the school subsisted. There were yet Platonists, Pythagoreans, Cynics, Epicureans, Peripaticians, drawing equal salaries, on the sole condition of their proving that their teaching was in full accord with that of Plato, Pythagoras, Diogenes, Epicurus, and Aristotle. The scoffers even pretended that certain professors taught at once several philosophies, and were paid for playing divers parts. A sophist presented himself at Athens as being acquainted with all the philosophies: “When Aristotle calls me to the Lyceum,” said he, “I am he; when Plato invites me to the Academy I enter it; if Zeno calls me, I make myself the guest of the Portico; at one word of Pythagoras I am silent.” “Suppose that Pythagoras were to call thee?” responded Demonax.

It is too often forgotten that the second century had a veritable Pagan preaching, similar to that of Christianity, and in many respects in accord with the latter. It was not uncommon at the circus, at the theatre, or in the assemblies to see a sophist get up, like a divine messenger, in the name of eternal truth. Dionysius Chrysostom had already furnished the model of these homilies, borrowed from a polytheism greatly mitigated by philosophy, and which recalls the teachings of the Fathers of the Church. The Cynic Theagenus, at Rome, attracted the multitude to the course of lectures he gave in the gymnasium of Trajan. Maximus of Tyre in his Sermons presents to us a theology, at bottom monotheistic, in which the representations set forth are conserved only as the necessary symbols of human weakness, and which could 27satisfy alone the sages. All cults, according to that sometimes eloquent thinker, are an impotent effort in the direction of a unique ideal. The varieties which they present are insignificant, and ought not to be any impediment to the veritable worshipper.

Thus there was realised a veritable historical miracle, what might be called the reign of philosophers. This is the moment to study that which such a régime favoured, that which it contemned. It assisted marvellously the social and moral progress; humanity, the softening of manners, increased exceedingly; the idea of a state being governed by wisdom, benevolence, and reason was established for ever. On the other hand, the military force, art, and literature underwent a certain decadence. Philosophy and letters were far from being the same thing. The philosophers regarded with pity the frivolity of lettered persons and their taste for applause. The lettered laughed at the barbarousness of the style of the philosophers, their lack of manners, their beards, and their mantles. Marcus-Aurelius, after hesitating between the two factions, decided boldly for the philosophers. He neglected Latin, ceased to encourage the necessity of writing in that language, preferred the Greek, which was the language of his favourite authors.

The utter ruin of the Latin literature was then decided. The West decayed rapidly, whilst the East became day by day more brilliant; the dawn of Constantine was already apparent. The plastic arts, so greatly loved by Hadrian, must have appeared to Marcus-Aurelius a sort of semi-vanity. That which remains of his arch is insipid enough; everybody, even the barbarians, are given in it a dignified air; the horses have tender and philanthropic eyes. The Antonine column is a curious work, but is without delicacy in the execution, greatly inferior 28to the temple of Antoninus and Faustina, erected under the preceding reign. The equestrian statue of the Capitol charms us by the exact image it presents to us of the excellent emperor; but the artist has not the right to give up all boasting on this point. We feel that the total ruin of the art of design, which was accomplished in fifty years, has some profound causes. Christianity and philosophy equally contributed to it. The world began to be too indifferent to form and beauty; it asked no more than what improves the lot of the weak and sweetens the strong.

The dominant philosophy was moral in the highest degree, but it was not very scientific; it did not urge research. Such a philosophy had nothing in it incompatible with cults so little dogmatic as were those of that time. Philosophers were often invested with sacerdotal functions in their respective towns. Thus Stoicism, which contributed so powerfully to spiritual improvement, was weak against superstition; it elevated the heart, not the intellect. The number of truly learned was very small. Galienus himself is not a practical spirit; he admits medical dreams and many superstitions of the time. In spite of the laws, the most mischievous magicians succeeded. The East overflowed with its mass of chimeras. In the province every folly found followers.

Bæotia had a semi-god, a certain Sostratus, a kind of colossal idiot, leading a savage life, in whom everybody saw Hercules resuscitated. He was considered to be the good genius of the country, and they consulted him from all quarters.

A most incredible thing! the stupid religion of Alexander of Abonoticos, which we saw emerging from the depths of the Paphlagonian folly, found some adherents in the higher ranks of Roman society and among the friends of Marcus-Aurelius. 29Severian, legate of Cappadocia, allowed himself to be taken in by it. At Rome the people desired to see the impostor; a consular personage, Publius Mummius Sisenna Rutilianus, became his apostle, and when sixty years old found himself honoured by marrying a girl whom this base rogue pretended to have had by the moon. At Rome Alexander established certain mysteries which lasted three days; the first day they celebrated the birth of Apollo and Æsculapius; the second day the epiphany of Glycon; the third, the birth of Alexander; each one with pompous processions and dances by torchlight. There were enacted in these mysteries scenes of revolting immorality. During the plague of 166 the talismanic formulas of Alexander, engraved on the doors of houses, were believed by the superstitious multitude to be preservatives against it. At the time of the great war of Pannonia (169-171), Alexander still spoke of his serpent, and it was by his orders that two live lions were thrown into the Danube with solemn sacrifices. Marcus-Aurelius personally presided over the ceremony, attired as pontiff, surrounded by personages clothed in long robes. The two lions were beaten to death by blows of the bludgeon on the other bank, and the Romans cut in pieces. These exhibitions did not at all hurt the impostor, who, protected by Rutilianus, was able to escape all that the defenders of the good public feeling attempted to do to arrest his career. He died in his glory; statues of him were, about 178, the object of public worship, especially at Parium, where his tomb decorated the public square. Nicomedia stamped Glycon on its coins; Pergamos also honoured him. Some Latin inscriptions, found in Dacia and in Upper Mysia, prove that Glycon had a large number of devotees, and that Alexander had recognised him as a god.


This uncouth theology had even its development. They gave the serpent a female, the Dracena; they connected Glycon with the agathodemon Chnoubis and the mystic Iao. Nicomedia kept the serpent with the human head upon its coins till about 240. In 252 the religion of Glycon still flourished at Ionopolis. The name substituted by the impostor for Abonoticos has been more lasting than a thousand changes better justified. It continues in our day under the Turkish-looking name Ineboli.

Peregrinus, after his extraordinary suicide at Olympia, also obtained at Parium statues and a worship. He pronounced oracles, and sick people were cured by his intercession.

Thus intellectual progress did not advance at the same pace as social progress. Attachment to the State religion only nourished superstition, and prevented the establishment of good public education. But that was not the emperor’s fault. He did what he could. The object he had in view—the improvement of men—needed centuries. Those centuries Christianity had before it; the empire had not.

The universal cause, said the emperor, is a torrent which carries everything along with it. What wretched politicians are those little men who pretend to rule the world by the maxims of philosophy; they are babies whose noses require to be wiped with a pocket-handkerchief. Man, what would you do? Do that which nature demands at the present moment. Go before it if you can and don’t disturb yourself by seeking to know whether anyone occupies himself with what you are doing. Do not hope ever to have a republic like Plato’s; let it he sufficient for you to improve some things, and do not regard this as a success of inconsiderable importance. How, in fact, can the inward dispositions of men be changed? And, without this change in their thoughts, what are they but slaves fastened to the yoke, people affecting a hypocritical persuasion? Come then, and tell me about Alexander, Philip, Demetrius of Phaleria. If they have only played the part of tragic actors, no one has condemned me to imitate them. The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not persuade me therefore with a dead-house full of pretension. (Thoughts, ix. 29.)

« Prev Chapter III. The Reign of the Philosophers. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection