STOIC CALENDAR: Marcus Aurelius 2022

Marcus Annius Verus was born on ante diem V kalendas Maias (‘the fifth day before the start of May’) or Aprilis XXVI in the year DCCCLXXV ab urbe condita (‘875 years after the founding of Rome’) in Hispania Baetica near Corduba.

The boy came to be called Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (or just ‘Marcus Aurelius‘ to us). The date is now just called April 26th. The year is now called 121 CE (or AD 121). The province is now called Córdoba, Spain (Marcus moved to Rome when he was three).

To commemorate this day, I strongly recommend dipping into Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and letting it inspire you. You should see a different approach and style to Stoic philosophy than other writers. There are several translations of the work in the public domain: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Meditations

I would also like to take this moment to commemorate Stoic philosopher Lawrence Becker, who shared a birthday with Marcus Aurelius (he was born in 1939 CE in Nebraska, USA).

Becker was Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus at William and Mary College in Virginia. Here’s the message put out by the provost shortly after his death in 2018 (I myself remembered this because I founded the Los Angeles Stoics that past October and was committed to reading his book once I got enough people on board!):

Dear Colleagues,

I write to share the news that Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus Lawrence C. Becker, 79, of Roanoke, Va., died on Thursday, November 22, 2018.  He had an energetic career as a philosopher of ethics, political philosophy, and had a special focus on the philosophy of disability and health. 

Lawrence C. Becker earned his B.A. in history summa cum laude from Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Nebraska, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in philosophy from the University of Chicago, where he held both Danforth and Woodrow Wilson Graduate Fellowships.  He began his teaching career as a visiting instructor at Hollins College in 1965, and was promoted through the ranks there, becoming Professor of Philosophy in 1978.

Professor Becker joined the W&M faculty in 1989 as the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy after spending 25 years on the faculty at Hollins College.  At W&M he designed and taught courses in advanced ethics, morality and law, Stoic ethics, ethics and public policy, practical rationality, international justice, and philosophy and narrative art, among others.  In his twelve years here, his service included a term on the Faculty Assembly, and terms on a wide range of Arts & Sciences committees, including Retention, Promotion and Tenure, Admissions, Curriculum Review, and Assessment.  He also served a year as acting chair of his department, chaired a search for Dean of the Faculty, and served on a Provost Search Committee.

During the course of his scholarly career, Professor Becker authored four monographs, including A New Stoicism (1998), for which he is perhaps best known and which appeared in several editions.  He is the author of more than four dozen articles in scholarly journals, and co-editor of two anthologies.  For fifteen years, he was an Associate Editor of Ethics: An International Journal of Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy, the flagship journal in his field.  He contributed widely to professional conferences and colloquia, and served as an officer or committee member of a variety of professional associations.  With his beloved wife of 51 years, Charlotte Burner Becker, he co-edited a multi-volume reference work, the Encyclopedia of Ethics, the second edition of which was published in 2001.  They had a relationship that was composed in equal parts of intellectual partnership and deep love and affection.  Charlotte passed away at the age of 74 in September 2018, just two months before Larry.     

Professor Becker was twice selected as a Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and held similar research fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.  When he left Hollins in 1989 he was named a permanent Fellow of that institution, and his undergraduate alma mater recognized him with both its Distinguished Alumnus Award and an honorary doctorate.  In 1999, he received William & Mary’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award.

Professor Becker was stricken as a child with polio and it is impossible to fully appreciate his accomplishments without putting them in the context of his disability.  He spent virtually his whole life in a wheel chair, and had absolutely no use of his arms and very little use of his legs.  Remarkably, he typed the manuscripts for all of his books and articles with his toes.  He wrote about the ethics of disability and served on several national committees that addressed disability policies.  He served as the president and chair of Post-Polio Health International and as chair of the board of directors of the National Institutes of Health National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research.     

He contributed in many ways to the vitality of the William & Mary community.  He served on many faculty policy and search committees and taught the core ethics course in the public policy program.  He and Charlotte also hosted a social and political philosophy reading group for several years that was attended by faculty from several departments.  Professor Becker was a highly respected colleague, and a thoughtful and effective teacher.

I was even more impressed with him after I read Massimo Pigliucci’s book How to be a Stoic in which the author discusses Becker in the context of disability and the dichotomy of control. To emphasize the point, let me repeat a couple sentences from the eulogy: “Professor Becker was stricken as a child with polio … He spent virtually his whole life in a wheel chair, and had absolutely no use of his arms and very little use of his legs.  Remarkably, he typed the manuscripts for all of his books and articles with his toes.” Even without the use of most of his body, Becker presumably focused on what was in fact under his power to influence. How he directed his incredible mind was under his power… and some of his toes. He would go on to use them to demonstrate the character strengths and virtues that make for a well-lived life. Becker did not have any less agency, virtue, or happiness than a person with full mobility and strength; he did not have any less agency, virtue, and happiness than a Roman Emperor at the prime of his life. Keeping things in perspective in this way using role models like Becker are very useful to motivate enthusiasm and hope for everyone making slow yet sure progress on their journey to moral development.

Happy birthdays! — Justin K.

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