Marius is a young Roman whose family has for many years lived on Whitenights, an estate in northern Italy. On that estate, Marius had grown to adolescence in an atmosphere of pagan piety and rural simplicity. The family leads a relatively simple life because Marius’s grandfather had squandered much of the family fortune. In the atmosphere of his childhood, Marius finds a great joy in worshiping the household gods and in overseeing the work on the estate. His life is one of contemplation rather than one of activity, and his idealism and religiosity are almost morbid in their extreme.

While still in his teens, young Marius is taken to a temple of Aesculapius in the Etrurian hills for the cure of a childhood disease. There the quiet, fresh atmosphere of the place, as well as the teachings of Galen, the great Roman physician, give him a new outlook on life. Upon his return home, Marius finds his mother’s health failing. She dies shortly afterward, and the effect of her death on Marius is to turn him into a skeptic, a young man who questions all aspects of life as they present themselves to him.

Soon afterward, relatives send young Marius to Pisa, where he attends school. While there, he conceives the idea of becoming a poet of the intellectual school. His inclination in that direction is stimulated by his friendship with Flavian, a schoolmate. Flavian is three years older than Marius and has great influence over the younger boy. The two read all the literature and philosophy they find. Among the works they pore over is the Metamorphoses of Apuleius; its ornate style is a source of great joy to Marius.

The studies in literature and philosophy that the two young men plan, however, are short-lived. Flavian gets sick after an excursion with Marius, and he dies soon after of a plague brought back to Italy by the armies of Marcus Aurelius, who had just returned from a campaign into the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire. After Flavian’s death, Marius needs an intellectual crutch to carry him through the agony of seeing his young friend die, and he becomes attracted to the study of mysticism. At last, he puts aside the desire to look to Asian mystic lore and turns to early Greek philosophers to find some answer to his problems in their writings and thought.

One of the first writers he studies is Heraclitus, who teaches him to limit his labors so that he will not lose everything by trying to master all knowledge at once. From Heraclitus, he turns to the teachings of Aristippus of Cyrene, founder of the Epicurean school. From his study of Cyrenaic philosophy, Marius concludes that knowledge is limited to experiences received through the senses, and he thinks that he owes it to himself to have many sensuous experiences to reach the highest possible point of wisdom.

The idea appeals to Marius because of the immensely practical ethics that the whole...

(The entire section is 1189 words.)