Hidden Brook Press provides reading and book club guides for the North Shore series. The following is intended to help you find interesting approaches to reading and discussing The Last Stoic.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1) How would you characterize The Last Stoic: Historical fiction? Contemporary fiction? Neither? Both?
2) A central conceit of the novel is that the parallels between the two eras are so strong the narrative can continue uninterrupted as the setting shifts from historic Rome to modern America, alternating from chapter to chapter. Are you convinced? What are the similarities between the two eras? What are some significant differences?
3) In a 2004 New York Times Magazine article, journalist Ron Susskind famously relates an interchange he had with a senior aide to President George W. Bush, who derided Susskind for being a member of the “reality-based community.” ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the aide said, ”we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
What role does history play in The Last Stoic? Is it possible to attain wisdom without an understanding of history? In which ways is Caracallus indifferent to history? How does Marcus learn from history? What role do elders play in the novel?
4) Who is the Last Stoic of the novel’s title?
5) Stoicism once provided a philosophical framework for ancient Rome. Could it be said that the pioneers of the early American republic were similarly Stoic? If so, how far from those early ideals has modern America diverged? Is it inevitable that young, vigorous civilizations must eventually decline and fall?
6) The Last Stoic is described as a story of appetite and fear, both modern and ancient. Arius Didymus (1st century BC – 1st century AD), stoic philosopher to the emperor Augustus, called appetites and fears “excessive impulses which are disobedient to reason,” and therefore detrimental.
In what senses are the characters in the novel beset by fear? Appetite? In which ways are these impulses destructive? How prevalent are they in our own societies? In our own lives?
7) In what ways does the character of Patrick/Patricius epitomize the themes of appetite and fear? In what ways is he a distorted mirror image of Mark/Marcus?
8) Admiral James Stockdale spent seven and a half years in a prison camp during the Vietnam War during which he and his men were routinely tortured. Many of his comrades succumbed to the ordeal, their will to live broken. Stockdale credited his own survival, in part, to the stoic writings of Epictetus, whom he had studied at Stanford University when pursuing his Masters.
In The Last Stoic, Sextus Condianus quotes Aurelius to young Marcus saying, “Nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear.” Marcus is dismissive of the old man, rejecting the statement as nothing but empty talk.
How much truth is there in the statement? Are words and ideas powerful enough to overcome great adversity? Can mind triumph over matter?
9) Ulpian, the famed Roman jurist living and working during Caracallus’ reign wrote this about torture: “the strong will resist and the weak will say anything to end the pain.” Sextus Condianus echoes these sentiments in The Last Stoic.
Relative to other societies of the time, ancient Rome had a relatively enlightened view toward torture, prohibiting its use against citizens. This changed with Caracallus, who, in Cassius Dio’s phrase, “made paranoid use” of torture in the hundreds of sedition trials he ordered.
How accurate is Ulpian? Is torture effective? Is it ethical? Can it ever be justified? Does it have any place in modern society? How does it affect the main character, Marcus? How does he survive it? How do the actions of Caracallus mirror our own era?
10) The Meditations, originally entitled To Myself, were never intended for publication. The journal was a self-reminder to Marcus Aurelius to live according to the principles he held dear. It is a minor miracle that the volume survived to be passed down through the centuries to our waiting hands. One can imagine all the other works that didn’t make it, reduced to ash, for instance, in the burning of the great library at Alexandria, ordered by Caracallus in a fit of rage.
How fragile is our cultural heritage? How tenuous our freedoms, rights, and social fabric?
11) Patrick/Patricius aspires to be a delator, making a public accusation of Marcus, hoping for a reward for his conviction as a traitor. The use of delatores or informants, often making unsubstantiated charges that led to confessions made under torture, was pioneered by emperors Tiberius and Nero and encouraged again under Commodus and Caracallus. How likely is it that such a system of justice could take hold in our modern era of terrorism? Can parallels be drawn between the delatores of ancient Rome and the McCarthy era or the current era of Homeland Security?
12) In The Last Stoic, Christianity is marginalized and Mithraism is the prevailing religion, favoured by the elites. In modern times, it is Christianity that has gained the upper hand and is now the state religion. How has Christianity changed over the intervening 1800 years? What has become of Mithraism? How would western society be different if Mithraism or another religion had won the struggle for long-term dominance?
The author, Morgan Wade, is happy to talk, read or discuss The Last Stoic with book clubs, reading groups and schools who are interested in reading this book. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.