Marcus Aurelius’ Workout Book

To the memory of Christopher Nelson Lasch No image comes as quickly to mind when thinking about the ancient Stoics than that of stone-cold busts from antiquity. Frozen in time, the taut and grim facial muscles secret away any feelings that might have roiled the hearts buried deep beneath the weighted folds of drapery. To be Stoic has long been dismissed as being devoid of strong passion, colorless. Recent studies and museum exhibits, thanks to ultraviolet lights and other tools, have now restored to collective memory the colors with which ancient artists painted their sculpted limestone and marble statuary. They were stone but not quite stoney. In much the same way, the effusive new interest in Stoics’ philosophy of life, popular and scholarly, can restore the vivid hues of the inner life as they depicted it, possibly even recalling us to elements missing in our own self-understanding. We can begin by adding to the stately visual imagery of the busts, such as those in the Capitoline Museum’s Hall of Philosophers, a more tempestuous scene. Let us close our eyes and see what colors flood them. Imagine liquid clouds billowing above the midnight ocean like a field of rosebuds all opening at once in the dark, or a blazing scarlet finale of underwater fireworks. Pigment spills into the waves, diffused into the mass of gray swirling and churning beneath evil skies and mad winds. Its shade more than hints at other horrors, such as casualties of naval battles tinting the sea or the effluvium of tribal whale hunts washing up on shore. But just as purple does not capture what we see, neither does red. It is a particular shade from the lesser-known terrain between red and blue — what we now think of as royal purple, but the ancient kind.

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