Pay Attention to the Occasion

Sometimes we take things to extremes in our zeal to live according to Nature.

Scipio Aemilianus, the grandest Roman of his day, died at the height of his career.

One of his nephews was throwing him an ambitious funeral banquet, and planned to give a magnificent eulogy.  He was going to proclaim to a large audience how the entire world was fortunate that Scipio was born in its ruling city, and rose up to guide it.  It was going to be a dignified occasion.

He asked one of his cousins to arrange for the cutlery and furnishings.  That nephew, however, was a student of philosophy. 

His name was Aelius Tubero, and he was especially devoted to that form of Stoicism which was sympathetic to the counter-cultural “Cynic” school.

The Cynics advocated radical contempt of wealth and luxury.  Their most famous representative was Diogenes “the Dog” of Sinope.

Tubero had learned philosophy in his uncle Scipio’s house, studying with the famed Panaetius of Rhodes.  Scipio was also a fan of Stoicism.  He needed no finery to remind him of his own dignity, neither out in the dust of a military campaign nor at liesure at home.

Tubero produced trappings for the feast which he thought his departed uncle would appreciate: shabby goat skin mats to go on the benches, and cheap Samian pottery for the dishes.

But perhaps Tubero failed to appreciate that a funeral is really put on for the living more than for the dead.  The guests were shocked and indignant, and word went around town about this unsociable “philosophy” stuff.  Now Scipio seemed to be a great man not because of Stoicism, but despite it.

The affair cost Tubero the election when he ran for the office of praetor, as Cicero later remarked.

Could Tubero not have won more devotees to philosophy if he had won a leadership position in his society and executed it with honesty? 

It is a mark of courage to challenge people’s mistaken preconceptions.  But wisdom is what helps us discern on what occasion they will be more receptive to such a challenge.

(Scipio appears in Episode 1 of the Life of Marius, and Tubero’s friend Rutilius Rufus does in Episode 2 and 3.  Go listen if you haven’t yet!)