On the worth of comedy and tragedy

Figs in Winter
4 min readJun 14, 2024

Marcus Aurelius reflects on the social relevance of drama

Mosaic showing theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Roman artwork, 2nd century CE. Image from timelessmoon.getarchive.net, CC license.

We tend to think of Marcus Aurelius as a philosopher-king, and in a sense he was, though the ancient Romans were allergic to the word “king” and preferred Imperator, which technically just meant supreme commander of the troops, the equivalent of a modern American President being hailed as “commander-in-chief.”

Emperors ever since the first one, Octavian Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, also liked to present themselves as “princeps,” which literally meant, somewhat oxymoronically, “first among equals.” As an added bonus, both “imperator” and “princeps” were terms that arched back to the time of the Roman Republic, which many still considered to have embodied the ideal form for a State.

Anyway, back to the philosopher part of “philosopher-king.” Marcus had not just studied philosophy, but also rhetoric, history, and the arts. Accordingly, we find this stunning comment near the beginning of the eleventh notebook of the Meditations:

“After Tragedy the old Comedy was put on the stage, exercising an educative freedom of speech, and by its very directness of utterance giving us no unserviceable warning against unbridled arrogance. In somewhat similar vein Diogenes [the Cynic] also took up this role. After

--

--

Figs in Winter

by Massimo Pigliucci. New Stoicism and Beyond. Entirely AI free.