Senior Thesis Research Proposal

The reign of Marcus Aurelius stands out in history as one of the few times in which one of Plato’s philosopher kings may have truthfully donned the Tyrian purple. My thesis will dissect the reign of Marcus in order to make the argument that the philosophy of Stoicism was an essential element in establishing realm stability and socio-political flourishing. It will be illustrated that as the military emperors to follow Marcus during the Crisis of the Third Century lacked Stoic virtue, they were unable or unwilling to maintain the same devotion to state that previously Stoic-minded statesmen had offered. Essentially this thesis will both expand upon and criticize Gibbon, arguing that a different type of moral decay contributed to the decline of the Empire. While this latter argument has fallen upon such a measure of criticism in recent years as to nearly become debunked, being replaced by more favorable economic theories, this thesis will attempt to restore some credence to it by illustrating the impact that Stoicism had on Roman leadership, arguing that it became the esprit de core of the senator-class by the dawn of the common era, while also holding a profound influence for two centuries before. The implications of the abandonment of the Stoic ethic in leadership will be overviewed in order to argue for the philosophy’s significance in establishing benevolent, prudent and just government. Ultimately the thesis will contrast the exemplary reign of Marcus Aurelius, who identified himself as a Stoic, with the reigns of men who were not identified as being Stoics who followed him, military men who attempted to seize the power of the throne through ambition and greed rather than in the spirit of Stoic justice, and thus contributed to the manorialism, strife and duress which by the fifth century had become fatal for the Empire.

The question of why the Roman Empire declined and disappeared from history is perhaps one of the most extensively studied fields in the discipline, being exhausted by multiple angles of inquiry since at least the fifth century of the Common Era. As it is a tall order to challenge such extensive scholarship, the purpose of my thesis will not be to argue why the Empire fell fundamentally but instead to suggest that an element that has often been neglected by scholarship may have been a significant factor in the healthy operation of the state, namely under the Five Good Emperors and in especial Marcus Aurelius, and that it’s abandonment or absence under the later military despots during the Crisis of the Third Century contributed to a fatal spirit of civic disengagement, strife and manorialism. This element is the philosophy of Stoicism, which had a profound impact on the leadership caste of Mediterranean aristocracy from at least the time of the Diadochi, reached an apex during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and is absent from the behaviors and writings of future emperors. In sum, my essay will argue that the abandonment of Stoic behaviors in leadership was a significant factor contributing to the decline by contrasting the reign of the late stoic emperors with the despotic rule of the military emperors of the third century. In order to bring this argument to bear I will first examine the historiography of the decline of the Empire and then confront perceived failings. I do not dare to define the fundamental causes of the decline, but I must admit that I do perceive a significant flaw in the scholarship of others.

The decline of the Roman Empire is one of the most exhausted and diverse studies of history[1], explained by a range of concepts, from elegant general theories to complex and systematic frameworks. While all of the historians to be surveyed propose reasons for why the Empire declined, or why we perceive it as having declined, none of them save Vegetius and Gibbon dare to argue for the cause of such change, the deeper and more fundamental reason why men chose to engage in civil war and kill one another for gold. Through modern Rankean cynicism most historians have rejected psychology, philosophy and religion as being meaningful movers of change, instead focusing on economic and political motives. My argument is that the economic and political decline of the Empire was necessarily motivated by a psychological decline: the Stoic Emperors were better adept at dealing with crisis and seem to have ruled with relative selflessness and magnanimity, especially when contrasted with the period of anarchy and murder following them during the third century. Fundamentally, my argument is that the abandonment of Stoicism left the Roman leadership without knowledge of how to rule well.

Goldsworthy for instance argues that infighting and civil war contributed to degrading military standards and a lack of respect for central authority, which in turn weakened the defensive capabilities of the Empire, finally ushering in the fatal barbarian invasions of the fourth through sixth centuries. This chain of events is an accurate report of the state of affairs of the third century and such a tumultuous cocktail may have proved deadly for the empire. Goldsworthy’s argument fails in that it does answer the question of why men chose to betray each other, to reject the rule of law and to disobey superiors, to quest for gold as the lowest common denominator, why they abandoned civic duty in the pursuit of personal power, i.e. why the behaviors and values of the leadership caste shifted to foster dysfunction.  Goldsworthy does not answer the question of what determines the actions of people and what would cause men to wage civil war, the latter weaknesses all originating from the first. I propose that inclinations, desires, judgments and aversions, defined by a knowledge or perception of the good of life, predicate the behaviors of actors, and must have necessarily predicated the actions of the military emperors of the third century. This knowledge of the good was during the reign of the five good Emperors defined by the philosophy of Stoicism, and the defacto civic religion fell out of prominence or was rejected by the despots to follow during the third century, who seemingly lacked a codified system of ethics and held power and gold as the greatest good. As these mediocre men lacked or refused a knowledge of the good transcendent of animal impulse and indulgence, holding the traditions, values and laws of both the cosmopolis and of Rome herself to be irrelevant in the pursuit of their own advancement, the statesmen to follow exercised tyrannical dispositions which were averse to the wellbeing of the commonwealth and so perpetuated the decline of the Empire.

The Stoics believed in a universal reason (known as the Logos) which bound together all of humanity, and interpreted all people as being equal and sharing in bonds of fellowship. Living in accordance with reason and virtue they held that in order to live properly one must recognize this common reason and the essential value of all people, treating others with fairness and magnanimity. The four cardinal virtues are wisdom (sophia), courage (andreia), justice (dikaiosyne) and temperance (sophrosyne). The Stoics held that action and choice were extensions of virtue, and sought to behave constantly in a fashion consistent with those goods; they sought to build a self-sacrificing and tempered character, and so wielded the knowledge necessary to rule others.

In the centuries leading up to the “decline of the third century” the people of Rome venerated the semi-mythical figure of Cincinnatus who unflinchingly abandoned his farm and family to repel the Gauls as the ideal role model and found the incorruptible and austere Cato the Younger who dared to resist the tyranny of Gaius Julius for sake of upholding his duty to the republic as a living example of the embodiment of their national pride, so inspiring his compatriots to virtue and integrity. Both men embodied the Stoic virtues of temperance, prudence, justice and courage and were interpreted by Livy and Plutarch respectively as being ideal Romans: men who heroically served the community of the republic with no compromise and held loyalty not to individuals or to gods but the idea of what Rome could become, who laid down their lives in dutiful service, with no complaints. My thesis is that this mode of thought was common in the behaviors of the aristocracy during the reign of the Five Good Emperors of the first and second centuries, most notably under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, who professed himself to be a Stoic and also comprised a book of Stoic meditations in his own right, all the while holding the reins of power to the most powerful state on earth.

The knowledge of the good as perceived by a Stoic exemplar such as Cato the Younger, who served the state with voluntary self-sacrifice in order to bring about a just and harmonious society and who died rather than disobey the rule of law, lies in great contrast to the mercenaries of the third century, who exploited their power and positions, leading treacherous legions into battle against fellow citizens, in order to secure material prizes. The sublime republic, founded as a vessel of the virtues, grown into an empire of laws, having been left destitute by the murderous sabotage of the military emperors, was finally unable to resist the Gothic expansion.

I will illustrate my argument by dissecting the historical record: the reign of Marcus was plagued by threats and dangers: barbarian adventurism and plague, for instance, yet the Stoic emperor endured and sought to bring about a just and fair society. This is in stark contrast to the petty men who followed him: professing no conviction in Stoicism and who seem to have fought each other like mad dogs for mere power and gold, all the while inflicting widespread and irrevocable damage to infrastructure, the social order and the rule of law. In this manner I will not argue that the rejection of stoicism was the essential cause of decline, but rather that its abandonment began a psychological decline in the minds of the leadership and officers, precipitating the fatal causes.

This topic is significant academically as well as generally. In terms of historiography, I believe that Stoicism has been crudely ignored as a significant factor in determining the decline of the Empire, so much so that a great measure of the broader academic community lacks knowledge of what Stoicism is, and how it influenced history, at all. Few in academia, and even less in the greater community, realize that Stoicism was the most influential philosophy of antiquity, profoundly influencing not only the Mediterranean aristocracy but also early modern European contemporaries up until at least the eighteenth century, at which point the emphasis was artificially shifted to Plato and Aristotle, as the study of the history of philosophy became a technical and intellectual pursuit rather than a civic and historical topic. The superficial (and often erroneous) coverage that Stoicism receives in most western civilization and ancient history survey courses is an affront to the historical record and betrays the complex reality of the situation; Stoicism cannot be covered in two sentences, no matter how pithy. Ultimately, my hope is that my thesis will be compelling enough to convince the reader that the abandonment of this influential system of ethics and perception represents a critical degradation in the civic behaviors of the late Roman statesmen, playing a significant factor in their decisions to wage civil war.

Generally, the thesis elucidates a more fundamental topic: how should a ruler behave or what is the good of life? My thesis will not answer this, as it is not within the domain of the discipline, but this topic is nonetheless why I consider such an essay to be of importance. I believe that the Stoic philosophy is extremely effective for purposes of just and compassionate government, as well as creating citizens of proper character. Many of the great statesmen through history have either been influenced by Stoicism or by the deep themes it touches upon (Sima Qian for instance, of the ancient Han court, with influence of Confucius, instructed a similar moral philosophy) from Scipio to Frederick II of Prussia, to George Washington, the latter two of which were said to have always had a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius at hand while on campaign. The story of why the Roman Empire declined is the story of why all empires decline: when civic goods and the practice of virtues are replaced by the pursuit of gold and personal power, when lies become truth, and the people are unwilling or unable to participate in government, fear death more than they fear slavery, abandon decorum for ill-tempered indulgence, vote themselves largesse from the treasury, are disconnected from the good life, the state collapses. This judgment, in my mind, has a great deal of immediacy for the contemporary political culture of the United States, as the quality of the leadership has degenerated from selfless Stoic paladins to demagogue mall-culture sophists dedicated to exploiting their power at the expense of raping the health of the republic. In this fashion my thesis serves as a letter of warning to those who have not yet abandoned their reason to the seductions of despot emperors.


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[1] See Chris Krause. Historiographical Survey of the Decline of the Roman Empire. 2008.

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