Humility: Of Stoic Philosophers and Poverty with Cato the Younger, Scipio Africanus & The Mbarkaens

Marcus Porcius Cato (the Younger)

Marcus Porcius Cato (the Younger) – Google Images


Amongst lessons to be learnt from Socrates’ story of the cave dwellers, is that true enlightenment culminates in humility, and a life dedicated to the service of humanity. This is the underlying principle of stoic philosophy. The modesty and sometimes poverty dignified by the stoics, is aimed towards achieving self-discipline. Good examples include the Roman statesman, Cato the Younger and Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome.

Marcus Porcius (Cato the Younger), lived at about 95 – 46 BC. He was known for his activism, fearlessness and love for justice. He was particularly known to despise bribes and corruption. As an activist, he was a known critic of Julius Caesar. Most striking, is that although he was wealthy, he was said to ‘practice poverty’, living modestly, subjecting himself to rigorous exercise and drinking cheap wine. His popular statue in the Louvre Museum portrays him about to kill himself (story for another day) while reading the Phaedo, a dialogue of Plato describing the minute details of the death of Socrates. It should be noted however, the real message of the Stoics is not the glorification of poverty or suffering, but to remind oneself of what it means to be poor, so one would not forget to give justice to the poor. With Cato’s disposition, it is no wonder Plutarch said this of one of his sons:

Of his two daughters, one married a son of Cato, the other Aelius Tubero, an excellent man, who supported his poverty more gloriously than any other Roman. There were sixteen in the family, all Aelii; and one small house and estate sufficed for them all, with their numerous offspring and their wives, among whom was the daughter of our Aemilius, who, though her father had twice been consul and twice triumphed, was not ashamed of the poverty of her husband, but was proud of the virtue that kept him poor. But nowadays brothers and kinsmen, unless their inheritances be divided by mountain ranges, rivers, and walls like fortifications, with plenty of space between them, quarrel without ceasing. These are the materials for reflection which history affords to those who choose to make use of them.”

Excerpt From: 46-120? Plutarch. “Plutarch’s Lives, Volume I.” iBooks.

Certain principles are universal, and wherever we may find ourselves on the planet in whatever generation, it is our philosophy of life that determines true kinship. This is why I can relate with the likes of which Marcus Aurelius describes here:

30. The one is a philosopher without a tunic, and the other without a book: here is another half naked: Bread I have not, he says, and I abide by reason—and I do not get the means of living out of my learning, and I abide [by my reason].

  1. Love the art, poor as it may be, which thou hast learned, and be content with it; and pass through the rest of life like one who has intrusted to the gods with his whole soul all that he has, making thyself neither the tyrant nor the slave of any man.”

“33. The words which were formerly familiar are now antiquated: so also the names of those who were famed of old, are now in a manner antiquated, Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Leonnatus, and a little after also Scipio and Cato, then Augustus, then also Hadrianus and Antoninus. For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them. And I say this of those who have shone in a wondrous way. For the rest, as soon as they have breathed out their breath, they are gone, and no man speaks of them. And, to conclude the matter, what is even an eternal remembrance? A mere nothing. What then is that about which we ought to employ our serious pains? This one thing, thoughts just, and acts social, and words which never lie, and a disposition which gladly accepts all that happens, as necessary, as usual, as flowing from a principle and source of the same kind.”

Excerpt From: Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius. “Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius.” iBooks.

Scipio Africanus

Scipio Africanus – Google Images

Meet the Mbarkaen’s

Mbarkaen, translated from the Kuteb language literally means ‘child of suffering’. This is the name of a small clan, from a little known village called Kwambai, in Takum, Taraba State of Nigeria. Although there are no written records, this clan historically and till date, are among the patricians in the village, one wonders why then they would have such a name. A look at the life of Cato the Younger, should answer that question. The Mbarkaen fall into the category of philosophers whom Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome, described as “ … having no books”; indeed stories of wise and just ancestors of this clan abound in the village. This is the clan I happen to belong to, no wonder I fell in love with Socratic philosophy, as Socrates himself was a Stoic, not because he called himself so, but because he lived so; same way the Mbarkaen never called themselves stoic philosophers, but lived so.

Mambilla Plateau

A view of Mambilla Plateau (Google Images), Taraba State Nigeria. Mambilla is the highest point in Nigeria, and a famous tourist destination

Dr Ande Elisha

The Amateur Philosopher