While reading Marcus' Meditations, I noticed a dose of subtle criticism directed at rhetoric and poetry. As per Book I Chapter XIV:

From the gods I received that ... I was no great proficient in the study of rhetoric and poetry, and of other faculties, which perchance I might have dwelt upon, if I had found myself to go in them with success.

Why does he reproach them?

  • 1
    Merely judging from the wording I'd understand it means that if one was immediately successful at some activity (like rhetoric and poetry), one would never gain real proficiency in them (since this takes devotion and studies, for which the motivation would be none then). But that's just my impression per reading comprehension.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 11:47
  • Thank you for this wonderful perspective. Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 7:26
  • I see no criticism of those fields at all, and @PhilipKlöcking s comment seems exactly backwards. Yes, I would have been a world-class athelete, had I been predisposed. Instead, I am a programmer, and yes, it was really tough sledding, not just at the start but sometimes 4 decades along. Probably athletics would have been hard too?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 17:08

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure about the Stoic attitude generally towards rhetoric and poetry, certainly Cicero had no problem with rhetoric. But the classical case against rhetoric and poetry is most famously made by Plato in a number of his dialogues, and these are certainly in the Stoic lineage.

The objection is quite relevant to our own times. Plato was concerned, first, with the dramatic oral tradition represented by Homer. Of course, he admired Homer, but the tradition had no element of "science" or truth seeking. It provided only the reckless example of the Homeric heroes by way of models. A modern equivalent might be young people who imbibe all their moral standards from Western movies or rap videos.

Similarly, he was concerned about the political influence of the many renowned teachers of rhetoric at the time, such as Gorgias. They taught ambitious young men like Menos how to argue and persuade, but this was not accompanied by any deeper considerations of justice or truth.

The result was endless argument and a polis led into disastrous actions and eventual ruin by self-seeking demagogues. Not hard for us to sympathize there, alas. The scholar Eric Havelock has described Plato as developing new models for a self-reflective culture of literacy to replace the older culture or oral tradition and forceful persuasion.

I apologize that my answer is somewhat off topic, in terms of Stoicism itself, but I thought the background might be helpful. For many classical thinkers poetry and rhetoric could be not only frivolous, but politically and personally injurious.

  • "Poetry is a Destructive Force" - Wallace Stevens
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 17:16

What good are rhetoric and poetry? They pretty up what you want to say, but that works just as well for lies as for truth. Indeed, if you are a master of rhetoric, you might lead all sorts of people into all sorts of false beliefs.

Indeed, lies have more need of rhetoric than the truth does, because the truth at least has that it's true even in the plainest form. Many a lie, translated out rhetorical excess, is obviously false.

Hence, not only Marcus Aurelius but many other philosophers have decried it. Hence, sophistry, originally the teaching of rhetoric, came to mean "unsound reasoning." Given the rhetoric often appeals to the emotions, Stoics in particular would have reason to disapprove of it. Marcus Aurelius was tapping into this tradition.

  • "A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent. It is right it should be so, man was made for joy and woe." - William Blake
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 17:18

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