Meditation XI.06 - Comedy, Tragedy, and Stoicism - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
At first tragedies were brought on the stage as means of reminding us of the things which happen, and that it is according to nature for things to happen so, and that, if you are delighted with what is shown on the stage, you should not be troubled with that which takes place on the larger stage. For you see that these things must be accomplished thus, and that even they bear them who cry out "O Cithaeron."1 And, indeed, some things are said well by the dramatic writers, of which kind is the following especially: - “Me and my children if the gods neglect, This has its reason too.” And again - “We must not chale and fret at that which happens.” And, “Life's harvest reap like the wheat's fruitful ear.” And other things of the same kind.2 After tragedy the old comedy was introduced, which had a magisterial freedom of speech, and by its very plainness of speaking was useful in reminding us to beware of insolence;3 and for this purpose too Diogenes used to take from these writers.4 But as to the middle comedy which came next,5 observe what it was, and again, for what object the new comedy was introduced, which gradually sunk down into a mere mimic artifice.6 That some good things are said even by these writers, everybody knows: but the whole plan of such poetry and dramaturgy, to what end does it look!7
(1) Marcus offers us a cool reminder of the role and importance of the arts. Drama offers not only entertainment, but demonstrates how our personal experiences tie in with those on the "larger stage." Drama serves too as a mechanism for reflecting on the most difficult situations. The cry "O Cithaeron" is a reference to Oedipus's powerful monologue in Sophocles's tragedy Oedipus the King:
"O Cithaeron! Why didst thou e'er receive me, or received, Why not destroy, that men might never know Who gave me birth? O Polybus! O Corinth! And thou, long time believed my father's palace, Oh! what a foul disgrace to human nature Didst thou receive beneath a prince's form! Impious myself, and from an impious race. Where is my splendor now? ... "(2) These selections are consistent with Stoic philosophy. We ought never "fret" about the accidents of life - what happens to us causes no real harm and is - in the end - what was meant to be. And, in his second reference, we do indeed "harvest" what we sow, so that here too we not not be surprised by life's twists and turns.
(3) The Old Comedy survives today in the works of Aristophanes (ca. 448-380 BCE).
(4) The reference is to Diogenes the Stoic (ca. 230 - ca. 150 BCE), a Greek philosopher active during the middle period of Stoicism (for more on this, please see the Introduction, "A Brief History of Stoicism" p xxiii, in the book). None of Diogenes's works survive but he is quoted frequently by other writers, particularly by Cicero (103-43 BCE).
(5) Middle comedy flourished in the 4th century BCE in the works of Eubulus, Epicrates of Ambracia, Anaxandrides, and Alexis.
(6) The New Comedy is perhaps best represented by Menander (ca. 342–291 BCE). Marcus's veiled criticism, "mere mimic artifice," might refer to New Comedy's predilection toward moral one liners, as well as its frequent but simplified imitations of the older styles of comedy.
(7) Marcus clearly prefers the older comedy forms over the new, which he seems here to dam with faint praise, "some good things are said even by these writers." His criticism was valid. The works of Aristophanes and the importance of the old comedy have survived over twenty-five hundred years of positive critical review.
Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.