Marcus Aurelius

by Marcus Aurelius

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George Long (essay date 1881)

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SOURCE: “M. Aurelius Antoninus” and “The Philosophy of Antoninus” in The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus, George Bell & Sons, 1881, pp, 1-67.

[In the following excerpt, Long discusses Aurelius's personal history, the status of Christians in his time, and his philosophical ideas.]

M. Antoninus was born at Rome a.d. 121, on the 26th of April. His father Annius Verus died while he was praetor. His mother was Domitia Calvilla also named Lucilla. The Emperor T. Antoninus Pius married Annia Galeria Faustina, the sister of Annius Verus, and was consequently the uncle of M. Antoninus. When Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius and declared him his successor in the empire, Antoninus Pius adopted both L. Ceionius Commodus, the son of Aelius Caesar, and M. Antoninus, whose original name was M. Annius Verus. Antoninus then took the name of M. Aelius Aurelius Verus to which was added the title of Caesar in a.d. 139: the name Aelius belonged to Hadrian's family, and Aurelius was the name of Antoninus Pius. When M. Antoninus became Augustus, he dropped the name of Verus and took the name of Antoninus. Accordingly he is generally named M. Aurelius Antoninus or simply M. Antoninus.

The youth was most carefully brought up. He thanks the gods (I. 17) that he had good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good. He had the happy fortune to witness the example of his uncle and adoptive father Antoninus Pius, and he has recorded in his work (i. 16; vi. 30) the virtues of this excellent man and prudent ruler. Like many young Romans he tried his hand at poetry and studied rhetoric. Herodes Atticus and M. Cornelius Fronto were his teachers in eloquence. There are extant letters between Fronto and Marcus,1 which show the great affection of the pupil for the master, and the master's great hopes of his industrious pupil. M. Antoninus mentions Fronto (i. 11) among those to whom he was indebted for his education.

When he was eleven years old, he assumed the dress of philosophers, something plain and coarse, became a hard student, and lived a most laborious abstemious life, even so far as to injure his health. Finally, he abandoned poetry and rhetoric for philosophy, and he attached himself to the sect of the Stoics. But he did not neglect the study of law, which was a useful preparation for the high place which he was designed to fill. His teacher was L. Volusianus Maecianus a distinguished jurist. We must suppose that he learned the Roman discipline of arms, which was a necessary part of the education of a man who afterwards led his troops to battle against a warlike race.

Antoninus has recorded in his first book the names of his teachers and the obligations which he owed to each of them. The way in which he speaks of what he learned from them might seem to savour of vanity or self-praise, if we look carelessly at the way in which he has expressed himself; but if any one draws this conclusion, he will be mistaken. Antoninus means to commemorate the merits of his several teachers, what they taught and what a pupil might learn from them. Besides, this book like the eleven other books was for his own use, and if we may trust the note at the end of the first book, it was written during one of M. Antoninus' campaigns against the Quadi, at a time when the commemoration of the virtues of his illustrious teachers might remind him...

(This entire section contains 21491 words.)

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of their lessons and the practical uses which he might derive from them.

Among his teachers of philosophy was Sextus of Chaeroneia a grandson of Plutarch. What he learned from this excellent man is told by himself (i. 9). His favourite teacher was Q. Junius Rusticus (i. 7), a philosopher and also a man of practical good sense in public affairs. Rusticus was the adviser of Antoninus after he became emperor. Young men who are destined for high places are not often fortunate in those who are about them, their companions and teachers; and I do not know any example of a young prince having had an education which can be compared with that of M. Antoninus. Such a body of teachers distinguished by their acquirements and their character will hardly be collected again; and as to the pupil, we have not had one like him since.

Hadrian died in July a.d. 138, and was succeeded by Antoninus Pius. M. Antoninus married Faustina, his cousin, the daughter of Pius, probably about a.d. 146, for he had a daughter born in 147. He received from his adoptive father the title of Caesar and was associated with him in the administration of the state. The father and the adopted son lived together in perfect friendship and confidence. Antoninus was a dutiful son, and the emperor Pius loved and esteemed him.

Antoninus Pius died in March a.d. 161. The Senate, it is said, urged M. Antoninus to take the sole administration of the empire, but he associated with himself the other adopted son of Pius, L. Ceionius Commodus, who is generally called L. Verus. Thus Rome for the first time had two emperors. Verus was an indolent man of pleasure and unworthy of his station. Antoninus however bore with him, and it is said that Verus had sense enough to pay to his colleague the respect due to his character. A virtuous emperor and a loose partner lived together in peace, and their alliance was strengthened by Antoninus giving to Verus for wife his daughter Lucilla.

The reign of Antoninus was first troubled by a Parthian war, in which Verus was sent to command, but he did nothing, and the success that was obtained by the Romans in Armenia and on the Euphrates and Tigris was due to his generals. This Parthian war ended in a.d. 165. Aurelius and Verus had a triumph (a.d. 166) for the victories in the east. A pestilence followed which carried off great numbers in Rome and Italy, and spread to the west of Europe.

The north of Italy was also threatened by the rude people beyond the Alps from the borders of Gallia to the eastern side of the Hadriatic. These barbarians attempted to break into Italy, as the Germanic nations had attempted near three hundred years before; and the rest of the life of Antoninus with some intervals was employed in driving back the invaders. In 169 Verus suddenly died, and Antoninus administered the state alone.

During the German wars Antoninus resided for three years on the Danube at Carnuntum. The Marcomanni were driven out of Pannonia and almost destroyed in their retreat across the Danube; and in a.d. 174 the emperor gained a great victory over the Quadi.

In a.d. 175 Avidius Cassius a brave and skilful Roman commander who was at the head of the troops in Asia revolted and declared himself Augustus. But Cassius was assassinated by some of his officers, and so the rebellion came to an end. Antoninus showed his humanity by his treatment of the family and the partizans of Cassius, and his letter to the senate in which he recommends mercy is extant. (Vulcatius, Avidius Cassius, c. 12.)

Antoninus set out for the east on hearing of Cassius' revolt. Though he appears to have returned to Rome in a.d. 174, he went back to prosecute the war against the Germans, and it is probable that he marched direct to the east from the German war. His wife Faustina who accompanied him into Asia died suddenly at the foot of the Taurus to the great grief of her husband. Capitolinus, who has written the life of Antoninus, and also Dion Cassius accuse the empress of scandalous infidelity to her husband and of abominable lewdness. But Capitolinus says that Antoninus either knew it not or pretended not to know it. Nothing is so common as such malicious reports in all ages, and the history of imperial Rome is full of them. Antoninus loved his wife and he says that she was “obedient, affectionate and simple.” The same scandal had been spread about Faustina's mother, the wife of Antoninus Pius, and yet he too was perfectly satisfied with his wife. Antoninus Pius says after her death in a letter to Fronto that he would rather have lived in exile with his wife than in his palace at Rome without her. There are not many men who would give their wives a better character than these two emperors. Capitolinus wrote in the time of Diocletian. He may have intended to tell the truth, but he is a poor feeble biographer. Dion Cassius, the most malignant of historians, always reports and perhaps he believed any scandal against anybody.

Antoninus continued his journey to Syria and Egypt, and on his return to Italy through Athens he was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. It was the practice of the emperor to conform to the established rites of the age and to perform religious ceremonies with due solemnity. We cannot conclude from this that he was a superstitious man, though we might perhaps do so, if his book did not show that he was not. But this is only one among many instances that a ruler's public acts do not always prove his real opinions. A prudent governor will not roughly oppose even the superstitions of his people, and though he may wish that they were wiser, he will know that he cannot make them so by offending their prejudices.

Antoninus and his son Commodus entered Rome in triumph, perhaps for some German victories, on the 23rd of December a.d. 176. In the following year Commodus was associated with his father in the empire and took the name of Augustus. This year a.d. 177 is memorable in ecclesiastical history. Attalus and others were put to death at Lyon for their adherence to the Christian religion. The evidence of this persecution is a letter preserved by Eusebius (E. H. v. 1; printed in Routh's Reliquiae Sacrae, vol. i. with notes). The letter is from the Christians of Vienna and Lugdunum in Gallia (Vienne and Lyon) to their Christian brethren in Asia and Phrygia; and it is preserved perhaps nearly entire. It contains a very particular description of the tortures inflicted on the Christians in Gallia, and it states that while the persecution was going on, Attalus a Christian and a Roman citizen was loudly demanded by the populace and brought into the amphitheatre, but the governor ordered him to be reserved with the rest who were in prison, until he had received instructions from the emperor. Many had been tortured before the governor thought of applying to Antoninus. The imperial rescript, says the letter, was that the Christians should be punished, but if they would deny their faith, they must be released. On this the work began again. The Christians who were Roman citizens were beheaded: the rest were exposed to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre. Some modern writers on ecclesiastical history, when they use this letter, say nothing of the wonderful stories of the martyrs' sufferings. Sanctus, as the letter says, was burnt with plates of hot iron till his body was one sore and had lost all human form, but on being put to the rack he recovered his former appearance under the torture, which was thus a cure instead of a punishment. He was afterwards torn by beasts, and placed on an iron chair and roasted. He died at last.

The letter is one piece of evidence. The writer, whoever he was that wrote in the name of the Gallic Christians, is our evidence both for the ordinary and the extraordinary circumstances of the story, and we cannot accept his evidence for one part and reject the other. We often receive small evidence as a proof of a thing which we believe to be within the limits of probability or possibility, and we reject exactly the same evidence, when the thing to which it refers, appears very improbable or impossible. But this is a false method of inquiry, though it is followed by some modern writers, who select what they like from a story and reject the rest of the evidence; or if they do not reject it, they dishonestly suppress it. A man can only act consistently by accepting all this letter or rejecting it all, and we cannot blame him for either. But he who rejects it may still admit that such a letter may be founded on real facts; and he would make this admission as the most probable way of accounting for the existence of the letter: but if, as he would suppose, the writer has stated some things falsely, he cannot tell what part of his story is worthy of credit.

The war on the northern frontier appears to have been uninterrupted during the visit of Antoninus to the East, and on his return the emperor again left Rome to oppose the barbarians. The Germanic people were defeated in a great battle a.d. 179. During this campaign the emperor was seized with some contagious malady, of which he died in the camp at Sirmium (Mitrovitz) on the Save in Lower Pannonia, but at Vindebona (Vienna) according to other authorities, on the 17th of March a.d. 180, in the fifty-ninth year of his age. His son Commodus was with him. The body or the ashes probably of the emperor were carried to Rome, and he received the honour of deification. Those who could afford it had his statue or bust, and when Capitolinus wrote, many people still had statues of Antoninus among the Dei Penates or household deities. He was in a manner made a saint. Commodus erected to the memory of his father the Antonine column which is now in the Piazza Colonna at Rome. The bassi rilievi which are placed in a spiral line round the shaft commemorate the victories of Antoninus over the Marcomanni and the Quadi, and the miraculous shower of rain which refreshed the Roman soldiers and discomfited their enemies. The statue of Antoninus was placed on the capital of the column, but it was removed at some time unknown, and a bronze statue of St. Paul was put in the place by Pope Sixtus the fifth.

The historical evidence for the times of Antoninus is very defective, and some of that which remains is not credible. The most curious is the story about the miracle which happened in a.d. 174 during the war with the Quadi. The Roman army was in danger of perishing by thirst, but a sudden storm drenched them with rain, while it discharged fire and hail on their enemies, and the Romans gained a great victory. All the authorities which speak of the battle speak also of the miracle. The Gentile writers assign it to their gods, and the Christians to the intercession of the Christian legion in the emperor's army. To confirm the Christian statement it is added that the emperor gave the title of Thundering to this legion; but Dacier and others who maintain the Christian report of the miracle, admit that this title of Thundering or Lightning was not given to this legion because the Quadi were struck with lightning, but because there was a figure of lightning on their shields, and that this title of the legion existed in the time of Augustus.

Scaliger also had observed that the legion was called Thundering … before the reign of Antoninus. We learn this from Dion Cassius (Lib. 55, c. 23, and the note of Reimarus) who enumerates all the legions of Augustus' time. The name Thundering or Lightning also occurs on an inscription of the reign of Trajan, which was found at Trieste. Eusebius (v. 5) when he relates the miracle, quotes Apolinarius, bishop of Hierapolis, as authority for this name being given to the legion Melitene by the emperor in consequence of the success which he obtained through their prayers; from which we may estimate the value of Apolinarius' testimony. Eusebius does not say in what book of Apolinarius the statement occurs. Dion says that the Thundering legion was stationed in Cappadocia in the time of Augustus. Valesius also observes that in the Notitia of the Imperium Romanum there is mentioned under the commander of Armenia the Praefectura of the twelfth legion named “Thundering Melitene;” and this position in Armenia will agree with what Dion says of its position in Cappadocia. Accordingly Valesius concludes that Melitene was not the name of the legion, but of the town in which it was stationed. Melitene was also the name of the district in which this town was situated. The legions did not, he says, take their name from the place where they were on duty, but from the country in which they were raised, and therefore, what Eusebius says about the Melitene does not seem probable to him. Yet Valesius on the authority of Apolinarius and Tertullian believed that the miracle was worked through the prayers of the Christian soldiers in the emperor's army. Rufinus does not give the name of Melitene to this legion, says Valesius, and probably he purposely omitted it, because he knew that Melitene was the name of a town in Armenia Minor, where the legion was stationed in his time.

The emperor, it is said, made a report of his victory to the Senate, which we may believe, for such was the practice; but we do not know what he said in his letter, for it is not extant. Dacier assumes that the emperor's letter was purposely destroyed by the Senate or the enemies of Christianity, that so honourable a testimony to the Christians and their religion might not be perpetuated. The critic has however not seen that he contradicts himself when he tells us the purport of the letter, for he says that it was destroyed, and even Eusebius could not find it. But there does exist a letter in Greek addressed by Antoninus to the Roman people and the sacred Senate after this memorable victory. It is sometimes printed after Justin's first Apology, but it is totally unconnected with the apologies. This letter is one of the most stupid forgeries of the many which exist, and it cannot be possibly founded even on the genuine report of Antoninus to the Senate. If it were genuine, it would free the emperor from the charge of persecuting men because they were Christians, for he says in this false letter that if a man accuse another only of being a Christian and the accused confess and there is nothing else against him, he must be set free; with this monstrous addition, made by a man inconceivably ignorant, that the informer must be burnt alive.2

During the time of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Antoninus there appeared the first Apology of Justinus, and under M. Antoninus the Oration of Tatian against the Greeks, which was a fierce attack on the established religions; the address of Athenagoras to M. Antoninus on behalf of the Christians, and the Apology of Melito, bishop of Sardes, also addressed to the emperor, and that of Apolinarius. The first Apology of Justinus is addressed to T. Antoninus Pius and his two adopted sons M. Antoninus and L. Verus; but we do not know whether they read it.3 The second Apology of Justinus is intitled “to the Roman Senate;” but this superscription is from some copyist. In the first chapter Justinus addresses the Romans. In the second chapter he speaks of an affair that had recently happened in the time of M. Antoninus and L. Verus, as it seems; and he also directly addresses the emperor, saying of a certain woman, “she addressed a petition to thee the emperor, and thou didst grant the petition.” In other passages the writer addresses the two emperors, from which we must conclude that the Apology was directed to them. Eusebius (E. H. iv. 18) states that the second Apology was addressed to the successor of Antoninus Pius, and he names him Antoninus Verus, meaning M Antoninus. In one passage of this second Apology (c. 8.), Justinus, or the writer, whoever he may be, says that even men who followed the Stoic doctrines, when they ordered their lives according to ethical reason, were hated and murdered, such as Heraclitus, Musonius in his own times and others; for all those who in any way laboured to live according to reason and avoided wickedness were always hated; and this was the effect of the work of daemons.

Justinus himself is said to have been put to death at Rome, because he refused to sacrifice to the gods. It cannot have been in the reign of Hadrian, as one authority states; nor in the time of Antonius Pius, if the second Apology was written in the time of M. Antoninus; and there is evidence that this event took place under M. Antoninus and L. Verus, when Rusticus was praefect of the city.4

The persecution in which Polycarp suffered at Smyrna belongs to the time of M. Antoninus. The evidence for it is the letter of the church of Smyrna to the churches of Philomelium and the other Christian churches, and it is preserved by Eusebius (E. H. iv. 15). But the critics do not agree about the time of Polycarp's death, differing in the two extremes to the amount of twelve years. The circumstances of Polycarp's martyrdom were accompanied by miracles, one of which Eusebius (iv. 15) has omitted, but it appears in the oldest Latin version of the letter, which Usher published, and it is supposed that this version was made not long after the time of Eusebius. The notice at the end of the letter states that it was transcribed by Caius from the copy of Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, then transcribed by Socrates at Corinth; “after which I Pionius again wrote it out from the copy above mentioned, having searched it out by the revelation of Polycarp, who directed me to it, &c.” The story of Polycarp's martyrdom is embellished with miraculous circumstances which some modern writers on ecclesiastical history take the liberty of omitting.5

In order to form a proper notion of the condition of the Christians under M. Antoninus we must go back to Trajan's time. When the younger Pliny was governor of Bithynia, the Christians were numerous in those parts, and the worshippers of the old religion were falling off. The temples were deserted, the festivals neglected, and there were no purchasers of victims for sacrifice. Those who were interested in the maintenance of the old religion thus found that their profits were in danger. Christians of both sexes and of all ages were brought before the governor, who did not know what to do with them. He could come to no other conclusion than this, that those who confessed to be Christians and persevered in their religion ought to be punished; if for nothing else, for their invincible obstinacy. He found no crimes proved against the Christians, and he could only characterize their religion as a depraved and extravagant supersition, which might be stopped, if the people were allowed the opportunity of recanting. Pliny wrote this in a letter to Trajan (Plinius, Ep. x. 97). He asked for the emperor's directions, because he did not know what to do: He remarks that he had never been engaged in judicial inquiries about the Christians, and that accordingly he did not know what to inquire about or how far to inquire and punish. This proves that it was not a new thing to examine into a man's profession of Christianity and to punish him for it.6 Trajan's Rescript is extant. He approved of the governor's judgment in the matter; but he said that no search must be made after the Christians; if a man was charged with the new religion and convicted, he must not be punished, if he affirmed that he was not a Christian and confirmed his denial by showing his reverence to the heathen gods. He added that no notice must be taken of anonymous informations, for such things were of bad example. Trajan was a mild and sensible man, and both motives of mercy and policy probably also induced him to take as little notice of the Christians as he could; to let them live in quiet, if it were possible. Trajan's rescript is the first legislative act of the head of the Roman state with reference to Christianity, which is known to us. It does not appear that the Christians were further disturbed under his reign. The martyrdom of Ignatius by the order of Trajan himself is not universally admitted to be an historical fact.7

In the time of Hadrian it was no longer possible for the Roman government to overlook the great increase of the Christians and the hostility of the common sort to them. If the governors in the provinces were willing to let them alone, they could not resist the fanaticism of the heathen community, who looked on the Christians as atheists. The Jews too who were settled all over the Roman Empire were as hostile to the Christians as the Gentiles were.8 With the time of Hadrian begin the Christian Apologies, which show plainly what the popular feeling towards the Christians then was. A rescript of Hadrian to Minucius Fundanus the Proconsul of Asia, which stands at the end of Justin's first Apology,9 instructs the governor that innocent people must not be troubled and false accusers must not be allowed to extort money from them; the charges against the Christians must be made in due form and no attention must be paid to popular clamours; when Christians were regularly prosecuted and convicted of illegal acts, they must be punished according to their deserts; and false accusers also must be punished. Antoninus Pius is said to have published Rescripts to the same effect. The terms of Hadrian's Rescript seem very favourable to the Christians; but if we understand it in this sense, that they were only to be punished like other people for illegal acts, it would have had no meaning, for that could have been done without asking the emperor's advice. The real purpose of the Rescript is that Christians must be punished if they persisted in their belief, and would not prove their renunciation of it by acknowledging the heathen religion. This was Trajan's rule, and we have no reason for supposing that Hadrian granted more to the Christians than Trajan did. There is also printed at the end of Justin's first Apology a Rescript of Antoninus Pius to the Commune of Asia, and it is also in Eusebius (E. H. iv. 13). The date of the Rescript is the third consulship of Antoninus Pius.10 The Rescript declares that the Christians, for they are meant, though the name Christians does not occur in the Rescript, were not to be disturbed, unless they were attempting something against the Roman rule, and no man was to be punished simply for being a Christian. But this Rescript is spurious. Any man moderately acquainted with Roman history will see by the style and tenor that it is a clumsy forgery.

In the time of M. Antoninus the opposition between the old and the new belief was still stronger, and the adherents of the heathen religion urged those in authority to a more regular resistance to the invasions of the Christian faith. Melito in his apology to M. Antoninus represents the Christians of Asia as persecuted under new imperial orders. Shameless informers, he says, men who were greedy after the property of others, used these orders as a means of robbing those who were doing no harm. He doubts if a just emperor could have ordered anything so unjust; and if the last order was really not from the emperor, the Christians entreat him not to give them up to their enemies.11 We conclude from this that there were at least imperial Rescripts or Constitutions of M. Antoninus, which were made the foundation of these persecutions. The fact of being a Christian was now a crime and punished, unless the accused denied their religion. Then come the persecutions at Smyrna, which some modern critics place in a.d. 167, ten years before the persecution of Lyon. The governors of the provinces under M. Antoninus might have found enough even in Trajan's Rescript to warrant them in punishing Christians, and the fanaticism of the people would drive them to persecution, even if they were unwilling. But besides the fact of the Christians rejecting all the heathen ceremonies, we must not forget that they plainly maintained that all the heathen religions were false. The Christians thus declared war against the heathen rites, and it is hardly necessary to observe that this was a declaration of hostility against the Roman government, which tolerated all the various forms of superstition that existed in the empire, and could not consistently tolerate another religion, which declared that all the rest were false and all the splendid ceremonies of the empire only a worship of devils.

If we had a true ecclesiastical history, we should know how the Roman emperors attempted to check the new religion, how they enforced their principle of finally punishing Christians, simply as Christians, which Justin in his Apology affirms that they did, and I have no doubt that he tells the truth; how far popular clamour and riots went in this matter, and how far many fanatical and ignorant Christians, for there were many such, contributed to excite the fanaticism on the other side and to embitter the quarrel between the Roman government and the new religion. Our extant ecclesiastical histories are manifestly falsified, and what truth they contain is grossly exaggerated; but the fact is certain that in the time of M. Antoninus the heathen populations were in open hostility to the Christians, and that under Antoninus' rule men were put to death because they were Christians. Eusebius in the preface to his fifth book remarks that in the seventeenth year of Antoninus' reign, in some parts of the world the persecution of the Christians became more violent and that it proceeded from the populace in the cities; and he adds in his usual style of exaggeration, that we may infer from what took place in a single nation that myriads of martyrs were made in the habitable earth. The nation which he alludes to is Gallia; and he then proceeds to give the letter of the churches of Vienna and Lugdunum. It is probable that he has assigned the true cause of the persecutions, the fanaticism of the populace, and that both governors and emperor had a great deal of trouble with these disturbances. How far Marcus was cognizant of these cruel proceedings we do not know, for the historical records of his reign are very defective. He did not make the rule against the Christians, for Trajan did that; and if we admit that he would have been willing to let the Christians alone, we cannot affirm that it was in his power, for it would be a great mistake to suppose that Antoninus had the unlimited authority, which some modern sovereigns have had. His power was limited by certain constitutional forms, by the senate, and by the precedents of his predecessors. We cannot admit that such a man was an active persecutor, for there is no evidence that he was,12 though it is certain that he had no good opinion of the Christians, as appears from his own words.13 But he knew nothing of them except their hostility to the Roman religion, and he probably thought that they were dangerous to the state, notwithstanding the professions false or true of some of the Apologists. So much I have said, because it would be unfair not to state all that can be urged against a man whom his contemporaries and subsequent ages venerated as a model of virtue and benevolence. If I admitted the genuineness of some documents, he would be altogether clear from the charge of even allowing any persecutions; but as I seek the truth and am sure that they are false, I leave him to bear whatever blame is his due.14 I add that it is quite certain that Antoninus did not derive any of his Ethical principles from a religion of which he knew nothing.15

There is no doubt that the Emperor's Reflections or his Meditations, as they are generally named, is a genuine work. In the first book he speaks of himself, his family, and his teachers; and in other books he mentions himself. Suidas notices a work of Antoninus in twelve books, which he names the “conduct of his own life;” and he cites the book under several words in his Dictionary, giving the emperor's name, but not the title of the work. There are also passages cited by Suidas from Antoninus without mention of the emperor's name. The true title of the work is unknown. Xylander who published the first edition of this book (Zürich, 1558, 8vo. with a Latin version) used a manuscript, which contained the twelve books, but it is not known where the manuscript is now. The only other complete manuscript which is known to exist is in the Vatican library, but it has no title and no inscriptions of the several books. … The other Vatican manuscripts and the three Florentine contain only excerpts from the emperor's book. All the titles of the excerpts nearly agree with that which Xylander prefixed to his edition. … This title has been used by all subsequent editors. We cannot tell whether Antoninus divided his work into books or somebody else did it. If the inscriptions at the end of the first and second books are genuine, he may have made the division himself.

It is plain that the emperor wrote down his thoughts or reflections as the occasions arose; and since they were intended for his own use, it is no improbable conjecture that he left a complete copy behind him written with his own hand; for it is not likely that so diligent a man would use the labour of a transcriber for such a purpose, and expose his most secret thoughts to any other eye. He may have also intended the book for his son Commodus, who however had no taste for his father's philosophy. Some careful hand preserved the precious volume; and a work by Antoninus is mentioned by other late writers besides Suidas.

Many critics have laboured on the text of Antoninus. The most complete edition is that by Thomas Gataker, 1652, 4to. The second edition of Gataker was superintended by George Stanhope, 1697, 4to. There is also an edition of 1704. Gataker made and suggested many good corrections, and he also made a new Latin version, which is not a very good specimen of Latin, but it generally expresses the sense of the original and often better than some of the more recent translations. He added in the margin opposite to each paragraph references to the other parallel passages; and he wrote a commentary, one of the most complete that has been written on any ancient author. This commentary contains the editor's exposition of the more difficult passages, and quotations from all the Greek and Roman writers for the illustration of the text. It is a wonderful monument of learning and labour, and certainly no Englishman has yet done anything like it. At the end of his preface the editor says that he wrote it at Rotherhithe near London in a severe winter, when he was in the seventy-eighth year of his age, 1651, a time when Milton, Selden and other great men of the Commonwealth time were living; and the great French scholar Saumaise (Salmasius), with whom Gataker corresponded and received help from him for his edition of Antoninus. The Greek text has also been edited by J. M. Schultz, Leipzig, 1802, 8vo.; and by the learned Greek Adamantinus Coraïs, Paris, 1816, 8vo. The text of Schultz was republished by Tauchnitz, 1821.

There are English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish translations of M. Antoninus, and there may be others. I have not seen all the English translations. There is one by Jeremy Collier, 1702, 8vo., a most coarse and vulgar copy of the original. The latest French translation by Alexis Pierron in the collection of Charpentier is better than Dacier's, which has been honoured with an Italian version (Udine, 1772). There is an Italian version (1675) which I have not seen. It is by a cardinal. “A man illustrious in the church, the Cardinal Francis Barberini the elder, nephew of Pope Urban VIII., occupied the last years of his life in translating into his native language the thoughts of the Roman emperor, in order to diffuse among the faithful the fertilizing and vivifying seeds. He dedicated this translation to his soul, to make it, as he says in his energetic style, redder than his purple at the sight of the virtues of this Gentile” (Pierron, Preface).

I have made this translation at intervals after having used the book for many years. It is made from the Greek, but I have not always followed one text; and I have occasionally compared other versions with my own. I made this translation for my own use, because I found that it was worth the labour; but it may be useful to others also and therefore I determined to print it. As the original is sometimes very difficult to understand and still more difficult to translate, it is not possible that I have always avoided error. But I believe that I have not often missed the meaning, and those who will take the trouble to compare the translation with the original should not hastily conclude that I am wrong, if they do not agree with me. Some passages do give the meaning, though at first sight they may not appear to do so; and when I differ from the translators, I think that in some places they are wrong, and in other places I am sure that they are. I have placed in some passages a †, which indicates corruption in the text or great uncertainty in the meaning. I could have made the language more easy and flowing, but I have preferred a ruder style as being better suited to express the character of the original; and sometimes the obscurity which may appear in the version is a fair copy of the obscurity of the Greek. If I should ever revise this version, I would gladly make use of any corrections which may be suggested. I have added an index of some of the Greek terms with the corresponding English. If I have not given the best words for the Greek, I have done the best that I could; and in the text I have always given the same translation of the same word.

The last reflection of the Stoic philosophy that I have observed is in Simplicius' Commentary on the Enchiridion of Epictetus. Simplicius was not a Christian, and such a man was not likely to be converted at a time when Christianity was grossly corrupted. But he was a really religious man, and he concludes his commentary with a prayer to the Deity which no Christian could improve. From the time of Zeno to Simplicius, a period of about nine hundred years, the Stoic philosophy formed the characters of some of the best and greatest men. Finally it became extinct, and we hear no more of it till the revival of letters in Italy. Angelo Poliziano met with two very inaccurate and incomplete manuscripts of Epictetus' Enchiridion, which he translated into Latin and dedicated to his great patron Lorenzo de' Medici in whose collection he had found the book. Poliziano's version was printed in the first Bâle edition of the Enchiridion, a.d. 1531 (apud And. Cratandrum). Poliziano recommends the Enchiridion to Lorenzo as a work well suited to his temper, and useful in the difficulties by which he was surrounded.

Epictetus and Antoninus have had readers ever since they were first printed. The little book of Antoninus has been the companion of some great men. Machiavelli's Art of War and Marcus Antoninus were the two books which were used when he was a young man by Captain John Smith, and he could not have found two writers better fitted to form the character of a soldier and a man. Smith is almost unknown and forgotten in England his native country, but not in America where he saved the young colony of Virginia. He was great in his heroic mind and his deeds in arms, but greater still in the nobleness of his character. For a man's greatness lies not in wealth and station, as the vulgar believe, nor yet in his intellectual capacity, which is often associated with the meanest moral character, the most abject servility to those in high places and arrogance to the poor and lowly; but a man's true greatness lies in the consciousness of an honest purpose in life, founded on a just estimate of himself and everything else, on frequent self-examination, and a steady obedience to the rule which he knows to be right, without troubling himself, as the emperor says he should not, about what others may think or say, or whether they do or do not do that which he thinks and says and does.



It has been said that the Stoic philosophy first showed its real value when it passed from Greece to Rome. The doctrines of Zeno and his successors were well suited to the gravity and practical good sense of the Romans; and even in the Republican period we have an example of a man, M. Cato Uticensis, who lived the life of a Stoic and died consistently with the opinions which he professed. He was a man, says Cicero, who embraced the Stoic philosophy from conviction; not for the purpose of vain discussion, as most did, but in order to make his life conformable to the Stoic precepts. In the wretched times from the death of Augustus to the murder of Domitian, there was nothing but the Stoic philosophy which could console and support the followers of the old religion under imperial tyranny and amidst universal corruption. There were even then noble minds that could dare and endure, sustained by a good conscience and an elevated idea of the purposes of man's existence. Such were Paetus Thrasea, Helvidius Priscus, Cornutus, C. Musonius Rufus,16 and the poets Persius and Juvenal, whose energetic language and manly thoughts may be as instructive to us now as they might have been to their contemporaries. Persius died under Nero's bloody reign, but Juvenal had the good fortune to survive the tyrant Domitian and to see the better times of Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian.17 His best precepts are derived from the Stoic school, and they are enforced in his finest verses by the unrivalled vigour of the Latin language.

The two best expounders of the later Stoical philosophy were a Greek slave and a Roman emperor. Epictetus, a Phrygian Greek, was brought to Rome, we know not how, but he was there the slave and afterwards the freedman of an unworthy master, Epaphroditus by name, himself a freedman and a favourite of Nero. Epictetus may have been a hearer of C. Musonius Rufus, while he was still a slave, but he could hardly have been a teacher before he was made free. He was one of the philosophers whom Domitian's order banished from Rome. He retired to Nicopolis in Epirus, and he may have died there. Like other great teachers he wrote nothing, and we are indebted to his grateful pupil Arrian for what we have of Epictetus' discourses. Arrian wrote eight books of the discourses of Epictetus, of which only four remain and some fragments. We have also from Arrian's hand the small Enchiridion or Manual of the chief precepts of Epictetus. There is a valuable commentary on the Enchiridion by Simplicius, who lived in the time of the emperor Justinian.18

Antoninus in his first book (i. 7), in which he gratefully commemorates his obligations to his teachers, says that he was made acquainted by Junius Rusticus with the discourses of Epictetus, whom he mentions also in other passages (iv. 41; xi. 34. 36). Indeed the doctrines of Epictetus and Antoninus are the same, and Epictetus is the best authority for the explanation of the philosophical language of Antoninus and the exposition of his opinions. But the method of the two philosophers is entirely different. Epictetus addressed himself to his hearers in a continuous discourse and in a familiar and simple manner. Antoninus wrote down his reflections for his own use only, in short unconnected paragraphs, which are often obscure.

The Stoics made three divisions of philosophy, Physic …, Ethic …, and Logic … (viii. 13). This division, we are told by Diogenes, was made by Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic sect and by Chrysippus; but these philosophers placed the three divisions in the following order, Logic, Physic, Ethic. It appears however that this division was made before Zeno's time and acknowledged by Plato, as Cicero remarks (Acad. Post. i. 5). Logic is not synonymous with our term Logic in the narrower sense of that word.

Cleanthes, a Stoic, subdivided the three divisions, and made six: Dialectic and Rhetoric, comprised in Logic; Ethic and Politic; Physic and Theology. This division was merely for practical use, for all Philosophy is one. Even among the earliest Stoics Logic or Dialectic does not occupy the same place as in Plato: it is considered only as an instrument which is to be used for the other divisions of Philosophy. An exposition of the earlier Stoic doctrines and of their modifications would require a volume. My object is to explain only the opinions of Antoninus, so far as they can be collected from his book.

According to the subdivision of Cleanthes Physic and Theology go together, or the study of the nature of Things, and the study of the nature of the Deity, so far as man can understand the Deity, and of his government of the universe. This division or subdivision is not formally adopted by Antoninus, for as already observed, there is no method in his book; but it is virtually contained in it.

Cleanthes also connects Ethic and Politic, or the study of the principles of morals and the study of the constitution of civil society; and undoubtedly he did well in subdividing Ethic into two parts, Ethic in the narrower sense and Politic, for though the two are intimately connected, they are also very distinct, and many questions can only be properly discussed by carefully observing the distinction. Antoninus does not treat of Politic. His subject is Ethic, and Ethic in its practical application to his own conduct in life as a man and as a governor. His Ethic is founded on his doctrines about man's nature, the Universal Nature, and the relation of every man to everything else. It is therefore intimately and inseparably connected with Physic or the nature of Things and with Theology or the Nature of the Deity. He advises us to examine well all the impressions on our minds … and to form a right judgment of them, to make just conclusions, and to inquire into the meanings of words, and so far to apply Dialectic, but he has no attempt at any exposition of Dialectic, and his philosophy is in substance purely moral and practical. He says (viii. 13), “Constantly and, if it be possible, on the occasion of every impression on the soul, apply to it the principles of Physic, of Ethic and of Dialectic:” which is only another way of telling us to examine the impression in every possible way. In another passage (iii. 11) he says, “To the aids which have been mentioned let this one still be added: make for thyself a definition or description of the object … which is presented to thee, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell thyself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved.” Such an examination implies a use of Dialectic, which Antoninus accordingly employed as a means towards establishing his Physical, Theological and Ethical principles.

There are several expositions of the Physical, Theological, and Ethical principles, which are contained in the work of Antoninus; and more expositions than I have read. Ritter (Geschichte der Philosophie, iv. 241) after explaining the doctrines of Epictetus, treats very briefly and insufficiently those of Antoninus. But he refers to a short essay, in which the work is done better.19 There is also an essay on the Philosophical Principles of M. Aurelius Antoninus by J. M. Schultz, placed at the end of his German translation of Antoninus (Schleswig, 1799). With the assistance of these two useful essays and his own diligent study a man may form a sufficient notion of the principles of Antoninus; but he will find it more difficult to expound them to others. Besides the want of arrangement in the original and of connection among the numerous paragraphs, the corruption of the text, the obscurity of the language and the style, and sometimes perhaps the confusion in the writer's own ideas,—besides all this there is occasionally an apparent contradiction in the emperor's thoughts, as if his principles were sometimes unsettled, as if doubt sometimes clouded his mind. A man who leads a life of tranquillity and reflection, who is not disturbed at home and meddles not with the affairs of the world, may keep his mind at ease and his thoughts in one even course. But such a man has not been tried. All his Ethical philosophy and his passive virtue might turn out to be idle words, if he were once exposed to the rude realities of human existence. Fine thoughts and moral dissertations from men who have not worked and suffered may be read, but they will be forgotten. No religion, no Ethical philosophy is worth anything, if the teacher has not lived the “life of an apostle,” and been ready to die “the death of a martyr.” “Not in passivity (the passive affects) but in activity … the evil and the good of the rational social animal, just as his virtue and his vice lie not in passivity, but in activity” (ix. 16). The emperor Antoninus was a practical moralist. From his youth he followed a laborious discipline, and though his high station placed him above all want or the fear of it, he lived as frugally and temperately as the poorest philosopher. Epictetus wanted little, and it seems that he always had the little that he wanted and he was content with it, as he had been with his servile station. But Antoninus after his accession to the empire sat on an uneasy seat. He had the administration of an empire which extended from the Euphrates to the Atlantic, from the cold mountains of Scotland to the hot sands of Africa; and we may imagine, though we cannot know it by experience, what must be the trials, the troubles, the anxiety and the sorrows of him who has the world's business on his hands with the wish to do the best that he can, and the certain knowledge that he can do very little of the good which he wishes.

In the midst of war, pestilence, conspiracy, general corruption and with the weight of so unwieldy an empire upon him, we may easily comprehend that Antoninus often had need of all his fortitude to support him. The best and the bravest men have moments of doubt and of weakness, but if they are the best and the bravest, they rise again from their depression by recurring to first principles, as Antoninus does. The emperor says that life is smoke, a vapour, and St. James in his Epistle is of the same mind; that the world is full of envious, jealous, malignant people, and a man might be well content to get out of it. He has doubts perhaps sometimes even about that to which he holds most firmly. There are only a few passages of this kind, but they are evidence of the struggles which even the noblest of the sons of men had to maintain against the hard realities of his daily life. A poor remark it is which I have seen somewhere, and made in a disparaging way, that the emperor's reflections show that he had need of consolation and comfort in life, and even to prepare him to meet his death. True that he did need comfort and support, and we see how he found it. He constantly recurs to his fundamental principle that the universe is wisely ordered, that every man is a part of it and must conform to that order which he cannot change, that whatever the Deity has done is good, that all mankind are a man's brethren, that he must love and cherish them and try to make them better, even those who would do him harm. This is his conclusion (ii. 17): “What then is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing and only one, Philosophy. But this consists in keeping the divinity within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man's doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens and all that is allotted, as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came; and finally waiting for death with a cheerful mind as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements, of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements [himself]? for it is according to nature; and nothing is evil that is according to nature.”

The Physic of Antoninus is the knowledge of the Nature of the Universe, of its government, and of the relation of man's nature to both. He names the universe …, “the universal substance,” and he adds that “reason” governs the universe. He also (vi. 9) uses the terms “universal nature” or “nature of the universe.” He (vi. 25) calls the universe “the one and all, which we name Cosmus or Order”. … If he ever seems to use these general terms as significant of the All, of all that man can in any way conceive to exist, he still on other occasions plainly distinguishes between Matter, Material things …, and Cause, Origin, Reason …, …20 This is conformable to Zeno's doctrine that there are two original principles … of all things, that which acts … and that which is acted upon. … That which is acted on is the formless matter … : that which acts is the reason …, God, who is eternal and operates through all matter, and produces all things. So Antoninus (v. 32) speaks of the reason … which pervades all substance …, and through all time by fixed periods (revolutions) administers the universe. … God is eternal, and Matter is eternal. It is God who gives form to matter, but he is not said to have created matter. According to this view, which is as old as Anaxagoras, God and matter exist independently, but God governs matter. This doctrine is simply the expression of the fact of the existence both of matter and of God. The Stoics did not perplex themselves with the insoluble question of the origin and nature of matter.21 Antoninus also assumes a beginning of things, as we now know them; but his language is sometimes very obscure. I have endeavoured to explain the meaning of one difficult passage. (vii. 75, and the note.)

Matter consists of elemental parts … of which all material objects are made. But nothing is permanent in form. The nature of the universe, according to Antoninus' expression (iv. 36), “loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be. But thou art thinking only of seeds which are cast into the earth or into a womb: but this is a very vulgar notion.” All things then are in a constant flux and change: some things are dissolved into the elements, others come in their places; and so the “whole universe continues every young and perfect.” (xii. 23.)

Antoninus has some obscure expressions about what he calls “seminal principles”. … He opposes them to the Epicurean atoms (vi. 24), and consequently his “seminal principles” are not material atoms which wander about at hazard, and combine nobody knows how. In one passage (iv. 21) he speaks of living principles, souls … after the dissolution of their bodies being received into the “seminal principle of the universe.” Schultz thinks that by “seminal principles Antoninus means the relations of the various elemental principles, which relations are determined by the deity and by which alone the production of organized beings is possible.” This may be the meaning, but if it is, nothing of any value can be derived from it. Antoninus often uses the word “Nature” … and we must attempt to fix its meaning. The simple etymological sense … is “production,” the birth of what we call Things. The Romans used Natura, which also means “birth” originally. But neither the Greeks nor the Romans stuck to this simple meaning, nor do we. Antoninus says (x. 6): “Whether the universe is [a concourse of] atoms or Nature [is a system], let this first be established that I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature.” Here it might seem as if nature were personified and viewed as an active, efficient power, as something which, if not independent of the Deity, acts by a power which is given to it by the Deity. Such, if I understand the expression right, is the way in which the word Nature is often used now, though it is plain that many writers use the word without fixing any exact meaning to it. It is the same with the expression Laws of Nature, which some writers may use in an intelligible sense, but others as clearly use in no definite sense at all. There is no meaning in this word Nature, except that which Bishop Butler assigns to it, when he says, “The only distinct meaning of that word Natural is Stated, Fixed or Settled; since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent agent to render it so, i. e. to effect it continually or at stated times, as what is supernatural or miraculous does to effect it at once.” This is Plato's meaning (De Leg. iv.715), when he says, that God holds the beginning and end and middle of all that exists, and proceeds straight on his course, making his circuit according to nature (that is, by a fixed order); and he is continually accompanied by justice who punishes those who deviate from the divine law, that is, from the order or course which God observes.

When we look at the motions of the planets, the action of what we call gravitation, the elemental combination of unorganized bodies and their resolution, the production of plants and of living bodies, their generation, growth, and their dissolution, which we call their death, we observe a regular sequence of phaenomena, which within the limits of experience present and past, so far as we know the past, is fixed and invariable. But if this is not so, if the order and sequence of phaenomena, as known to us, are subject to change in the course of an infinite progression,—and such change is conceivable,—we have not discovered, nor shall we ever discover, the whole of the order and sequence of phaenomena, in which sequence there may be involved according to its very nature, that is, according to its fixed order, some variation of what we now call the Order or Nature of Things. It is also conceivable that such changes have taken place, changes in the order of things, as we are compelled by the imperfection of language to call them, but which are no changes; and further it is certain, that our knowledge of the true sequence of all actual phaenomena, as for instance, the phaenomena of generation, growth, and dissolution, is and ever must be imperfect.

We do not fare much better when we speak of Causes and Effects than when we speak of Nature. For the practical purposes of life we may use the terms cause and effect conveniently, and we may fix a distinct meaning to them, distinct enough at least to prevent all misunderstanding. But the case is different when we speak of causes and effects as of Things. All that we know is phaenomena, as the Greeks called them, or appearances which follow one another in a regular order, as we conceive it, so that if some one phaenomenon should fail in the series, we conceive that there must either be an interruption of the series, or that something else will appear after the phaenomenon which has failed to appear, and will occupy the vacant place; and so the series in its progression may be modified or totally changed. Cause and effect then mean nothing in the sequence of natural phaenomena beyond what I have said; and the real cause, or the transcendent cause, as some would call it, of each successive phaenomenon is in that which is the cause of all things which are, which have been, and which will be for ever. Thus the word Creation may have a real sense if we consider it as the first, if we can conceive a first, in the present order of natural phaenomena; but in the vulgar sense a creation of all things at a certain time, followed by a quiescence of the first cause and an abandonment of all sequences of Phaenomena to the laws of Nature, or to any other words that people may use, is absolutely absurd.22

Now, though there is great difficulty in understanding all the passages of Antoninus, in which he speaks of Nature, of the changes of things and of the economy of the universe, I am convinced that his sense of Nature and Natural is the same as that which I have stated; and as he was a man who knew how to use words in a clear way and with strict consistency, we ought to assume, even if his meaning in some passages is doubtful, that his view of Nature was in harmony with his fixed belief in the all-pervading, ever present, and ever active energy of God. (ii. 4; iv. 40; x. 1; vi. 40; and other passages. Compare Seneca, De Benef. iv. 7. Swedenborg, Angelic Wisdom, 349-357.)

There is much in Antoninus that is hard to understand, and it might be said that he did not fully comprehend all that he wrote; which would however be in no way remarkable, for it happens now that a man may write what neither he nor anybody can understand. Antoninus tells us (xii. 10) to look at things and see what they are, resolving them into the material …, the causal …, and the relation …, or the purpose, by which he seems to mean something in the nature of what we call effect, or end. The word Cause … is the difficulty. There is the same word in the Sanscrit (hétu); and the subtle philosophers of India and of Greece, and the less subtle philosophers of modern times have all used this word, or an equivalent word, in a vague way. Yet the confusion sometimes may be in the inevitable ambiguity of language rather than in the mind of the writer, for I cannot think that some of the wisest of men did not know what they intended to say. When Antoninus says (iv. 36), “that everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be,” he might be supposed to say what some of the Indian philosophers have said, and thus a profound truth might be converted into a gross absurdity. But he says, “in a manner,” and in a manner he said true; and in another manner, if you mistake his meaning, he said false. When Plato said, “Nothing ever is, but is always becoming” …, he delivered a text, out of which we may derive something; for he destroys by it not all practical, but all speculative notions of cause and effect. The whole series of things, as they appear to us, must be contemplated in time, that is in succession, and we conceive or suppose intervals between one state of things and another state of things, so that there is priority and sequence, and interval, and Being, and a ceasing to Be, and beginning and ending. But there is nothing of the kind in the Nature of Things. It is an everlasting continuity. (iv. 45; vii. 75.) When Antoninus speaks of generation (x. 26), he speaks of one cause … acting, and then another cause taking up the work, which the former left in a certain state and so on; and we might perhaps conceive that he had some notion like what has been called “the self-evolving power of nature;” a fine phrase indeed, the full import of which I believe that the writer of it did not see, and thus he laid himself open to the imputation of being a follower of one of the Hindu sects, which makes all things come by evolution out of nature or matter, or out of something which takes the place of deity, but is not deity. I would have all men think as they please, or as they can, and I only claim the same freedom which I give. When a man writes anything, we may fairly try to find out all that his words must mean, even if the result is that they mean what he did not mean; and if we find this contradiction, it is not our fault, but his misfortune. Now An toninus is perhaps somewhat in this condition in what he says (x. 26), though he speaks at the end of the paragraph of the power which acts, unseen by the eyes, but still no less clearly. But whether in this passage (x. 26) he means that the power is conceived to be in the different successive causes …, or in something else, nobody can tell. From other passages however I do collect that his notion of the phaenomena of the universe is what I have stated. The deity works unseen, if we may use such language, and perhaps I may, as Job did, or he who wrote the book of Job. “In him we live and move and are,” said St. Paul to the Athenians, and to show his hearers that this was no new doctrine, he quoted the Greek poets. One of these poets was the Stoic Cleanthes, whose noble hymn to Zeus or God is an elevated expression of devotion and philosophy. It deprives Nature of her power and puts her under the immediate government of the deity.

“Thee all this heaven, which whirls around the earth,
Obeys and willing follows where thou leadest.—
Without thee, God, nothing is done on earth,
Nor in the aethereal realms, nor in the sea,
Save what the wicked through their folly do.”

Antoninus' conviction of the existence of a divine power and government was founded on his perception of the order of the universe. Like Socrates (Xen. Mem. iv. 3, 13, &c.), he says that though we cannot see the forms of divine powers, we know that they exist because we see their works.

“To those who ask, Where hast thou seen the gods, or how dost thou comprehend that they exist and so worshipest them? I answer, in the first place, that they may be seen even with the eyes; in the second place, neither have I seen my own soul and yet I honour it. Thus then with respect to the gods, from what I constantly experience of their power, from this I comprehend that they exist and I venerate them.” (xii. 28, and the note. Comp. Aristotle de Mundo, c. 6; Xen. Mem. i. 4, 9; Cicero, Tuscul. i. 28, 29; St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, i. 19, 20; and Montaigne's Apology for Raimond de Sebonde, ii. c. 12.) This is a very old argument which has always had great weight with most people and has appeared sufficient. It does not acquire the least additional strength by being developed in a learned treatise. It is as intelligible in its simple enunciation as it can be made. If it is rejected, there is no arguing with him who rejects it: and if it is worked out into innumerable particulars, the value of the evidence runs the risk of being buried under a mass of words.

Man being conscious that he is a spiritual power or an intellectual power, or that he has such a power, in whatever way he conceives that he has it—for I wish simply to state a fact—from this power which he has in himself, he is led, as Antoninus says, to believe that there is a greater power, which as the old Stoics tell us, pervades the whole universe as the intellect23 … pervades man. (Compare Epictetus' Discourses, i. 14; and Voltaire à Made. Necker, vol. lxvii. p. 278, ed. Lequien.)

God exists then, but what do we know of his Nature? Antoninus says that the soul of man is an efflux from the divinity. We have bodies like animals, but we have reason, intelligence as the gods. Animals have life …, and what we call instincts or natural principles of action: but the rational animal man alone has a rational, intelligent soul. … Antoninus insists on this continually: God is in man,24 and so we must constantly attend to the divinity within us, for it is only in this way that we can have any knowledge of the nature of God. The human soul is in a sense a portion of the divinity, and the soul alone has any communication with the deity, for as he says (xii. 2): “With his intellectual part alone God touches the intelligence only which has flowed and been derived from himself into these bodies.” In fact he says that which is hidden within a man is life, that is the man himself. All the rest is vesture, covering, organs, instrument, which the living man, the real25 man, uses for the purpose of his present existence. The air is universally diffused for him who is able to respire, and so for him who is willing to partake of it the intelligent power, which holds within it all things, is diffused as wide and free as the air. (viii. 54.) It is by living a divine life that man approaches to a knowledge of the divinity.26 It is by following the divinity within …, that man comes nearest to the deity, the supreme good, for man can never attain to perfect agreement with his internal guide. … “Live with the gods. And he does live with the gods who constantly shows to them that his own soul is satisfied with that which is assigned to him, and that it does all the daemon … wishes, which Zeus hath given to every man for his guardian and guide, a portion of himself. And this daemon is every man's understanding and reason.” (v. 27.)

There is in man, that is in the reason, the intelligence, a superior faculty which if it is exercised rules all the rest. This is the ruling faculty …, which Cicero (De Natura Deorum, ii. 11) renders by the Latin word Principatus, “to which nothing can or ought to be superior.” Antoninus often uses this term, and others which are equivalent. He names it (vii. 64) “the governing intelligence.” The governing faculty is the master of the soul. (v. 26.) A man must reverence only his ruling faculty and the divinity within him. As we must reverence that which is supreme in the universe, so we must reverence that which is supreme in ourselves, and this is that which is of like kind with that which is supreme in the universe. (v. 21.) So, as Plotinus says, the soul of man can only know the divine, so far as it knows itself. In one passage (xi. 19) Antoninus speaks of a man's condemnation of himself, when the diviner part within him has been overpowered and yields to the less honourable and to the perishable part, the body, and its gross pleasures. In a word, the views of Antoninus on this matter, however his expressions may vary, are exactly what Bishop Butler expresses, when he speaks of “the natural supremacy of reflection or conscience,” of the faculty “which surveys, approves or disapproves the several affections of our mind and actions of our lives.”

Much matter might be collected from Antoninus on the notion of the Universe being one animated Being. But all that he says amounts to no more, as Schultz remarks, than this: the soul of man is most intimately united to his body and together they make one animal, which we call man; so the Deity is most intimately united to the world or the material universe, and together they form one whole. But Antoninus did not view God and the material universe as the same, any more than he viewed the body and soul of man as one. Antoninus has no speculations on the absolute nature of the deity. It was not his fashion to waste his time on what man cannot understand.27 He was satisfied that God exists, that he governs all things, that man can only have an imperfect knowledge of his nature, and he must attain this imperfect knowledge by reverencing the divinity which is within him, and keeping it pure.

From all that has been said it follows that the universe is administered by the Providence of God …, and that all things are wisely ordered. There are passages in which Antoninus expresses doubts, or states different possible theories of the constitution and government of the Universe, but he always recurs to his fundamental principle, that if we admit the existence of a deity, we must also admit that he orders all things wisely and well. (iv. 27; vi. 1; ix. 28; xii. 5, and many other passages.) Epictetus says (i. 6) that we can discern the providence which rules the world, if we possess two things, the power of seeing all that happens with respect to each thing, and a grateful disposition.

But if all things are wisely ordered, how is the world so full of what we call evil, physical and moral? If instead of saying that there is evil in the world, we use the expression which I have used, “what we call evil,” we have partly anticipated the Emperor's answer. We see and feel and know imperfectly very few things in the few years that we live, and all the knowledge and all the experience of all the human race is positive ignorance of the whole, which is infinite. Now as our reason teaches us that everything is in some way related to and connected with every other thing, all notion of evil as being in the universe of things is a contradiction, for if the whole comes from and is governed by an intelligent being, it is impossible to conceive anything in it which tends to the evil or destruction of the whole. (viii. 55; x. 6.) Everything is in constant mutation, and yet the whole subsists. We might imagine the solar system resolved into its elemental parts, and yet the whole would still subsist “ever young and perfect.”

All things, all forms, are dissolved and new forms appear. All living things undergo the change which we call death. If we call death an evil, then all change is an evil. Living beings also suffer pain, and man suffers most of all, for he suffers both in and by his body and by his intelligent part. Men suffer also from one another, and perhaps the largest part of human suffering comes to man from those whom he calls his brothers. Antoninus says (viii. 55), “Generally, wickedness does no harm at all to the universe; and particularly, the wickedness [of one man] does no harm to another. It is only harmful to him who has it in his power to be released from it as soon as he shall choose.” The first part of this is perfectly consistent with the doctrine that the whole can sustain no evil or harm. The second part must be explained by the Stoic principle that there is no evil in anything which is not in our power. What wrong we suffer from another is his evil, not ours. But this is an admission that there is evil in a sort, for he who does wrong does evil, and if others can endure the wrong, still there is evil in the wrong doer. Antoninus (xi. 18) gives many excellent precepts with respect to wrongs and injuries, and his precepts are practical. He teaches us to bear what we cannot avoid, and his lessons may be just as useful to him who denies the being and the government of God as to him who believes in both. There is no direct answer in Antoninus to the objections which may be made to the existence and providence of God because of the moral disorder and suffering which are in the world, except this answer which he makes in reply to the supposition that even the best men may be extinguished by death. He says if it is so, we may be sure that if it ought to have been otherwise, the gods would have ordered it otherwise. (xii. 5.) His conviction of the wisdom which we may observe in the government of the world is too strong to be disturbed by any apparent irregularities in the order of things. That these disorders exist is a fact, and those who would conclude from them against the being and government of God conclude too hastily. We all admit that there is an order in the material world, a Nature, in the sense in which that word has been explained, a constitution …, what we call a system, a relation of parts to one another and a fitness of the whole for something. So in the constitution of plants and of animals there is an order, a fitness for some end. Sometimes the order, as we conceive it, is interrupted and the end, as we conceive it, is not attained. The seed, the plant or the animal sometimes perishes before it has passed through all its changes and done all its uses. It is according to Nature, that is a fixed order, for some to perish early and for others to do all their uses and leave successors to take their place. So man has a corporeal and intellectual and moral constitution fit for certain uses, and on the whole man performs these uses, dies and leaves other men in his place. So society exists, and a social state is manifestly the Natural State of man, the state for which his Nature fits him; and society amidst innumerable irregularities and disorders still subsists; and perhaps we may say that the history of the past and our present knowledge give us a reasonable hope that its disorders will diminish, and that order, its governing principle, may be more firmly established. As order then, a fixed order, we may say, subject to deviations real or apparent, must be admitted to exist in the whole Nature of things, that which we call disorder or evil as it seems to us, does not in any way alter the fact of the general constitution of things having a Nature or fixed order. Nobody will conclude from the existence of disorder that order is not the rule, for the existence of order both physical and moral is proved by daily experience and all past experience. We cannot conceive how the order of the universe is maintained: we cannot even conceive how our own life from day to day is continued, nor how we perform the simplest movements of the body, nor how we grow and think and act, though we know many of the conditions which are necessary for all these functions. Knowing nothing then of the unseen power which acts in ourselves except by what is done, we know nothing of the power which acts through what we call all time and all space; but seeing that there is a Nature or fixed order in all things known to us, it is conformable to the nature of our minds to believe that this universal Nature has a cause which operates continually, and that we are totally unable to speculate on the reason of any of those disorders or evils which we perceive. This I believe is the answer which may be collected from all that Antoninus has said.28

The origin of evil is an old question. Achilles tells Priam (Iliad, 24, 527) that Zeus has two casks, one filled with good things, and the other with bad, and that he gives to men out of each according to his pleasure; and so we must be content, for we cannot alter the will of Zeus. One of the Greek commentators asks how must we reconcile this doctrine with what we find in the first book of the Odyssey, where the king of the gods says, Men say that evil comes to them from us, but they bring it on themselves through their own folly. The answer is plain enough even to the Greek commentator. The poets make both Achilles and Zeus speak appropriately to their several characters. Indeed Zeus says plainly that men do attribute their sufferings to the gods, but they do it falsely, for they are the cause of their own sorrows,

Epictetus in his Enchiridion (c. 27) makes short work of the question of evil. He says, “As a mark is not set up for the purpose of missing it, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the Universe.” This will appear obscure enough to those who are not acquainted with Epictetus, but he always knows what he is talking about. We do not set up a mark in order to miss it, though we may miss it. God, whose existence Epictetus assumes, has not ordered all things so that his purpose shall fail. Whatever there may be of what we call evil, the Nature of evil, as he expresses it, does not exist; that is, evil is not a part of the constitution or nature of Things. If there were a principle of evil … in the constitution of things, evil would no longer be evil, as Simplicius argues, but evil would be good. Simplicius (c. 34, [27]) has a long and curious discourse on this text of Epictetus, and it is amusing and instructive.

One passage more will conclude this matter. It contains all that the emperor could say (ii. 11): “To go from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of providence? But in truth they do exist, and they do care for human things, and they have put all the means in man's power to enable him not to fall into real evils. And as to the rest, if there was anything evil, they would have provided for this also, that it should be altogether in a man's power not to fall into it. But that which does not make a man worse, how can it make a man's life worse? But neither through ignorance, nor having the knowledge, but not the power to guard against or correct these things, is it possible that the nature of the Universe has overlooked them; nor is it possible that it has made so great a mistake, either through want of power or want of skill, that good and evil should happen indiscriminately to the good and the bad. But death certainly and life, honour and dishonour, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good and bad men, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.”

The Ethical part of Antoninus' Philosophy fellows from his general principles. The end of all his philosophy is to live conformably to Nature, both a man's own nature and the nature of the Universe. Bishop Butler has explained what the Greek philosophers meant when they spoke of living according to Nature, and he says that when it is explained, as he has explained it and as they understood it, it is “a manner of speaking not loose and undeterminate, but clear and distinct, strictly just and true.” To live according to Nature is to live according to a man's whole nature, not according to a part of it, and to reverence the divinity within him as the governor of all his actions. “To the rational animal the same act is according to nature and according to reason.”29 (vii. 11.) That which is done contrary to reason is also an act contrary to nature, to the whole nature, though it is certainly conformable to some part of man's nature, or it could not be done. Man is made for action, not for idleness or pleasure. As plants and animals do the uses of their nature, so man must do his. (v. 1.)

Man must also live conformably to the universal nature, conformably to the nature of all things of which he is one; and as a citizen of a political community he must direct his life and actions with reference to those among whom, and for whom, among other purposes, he lives.30 A man must not retire into solitude and cut himself off from his fellow men. He must be ever active to do his part in the great whole. All men are his kin, not only in blood, but still more by participating in the same intelligence and by being a portion of the same divinity. A man cannot really be injured by his brethren, for no act of theirs can make him bad, and he must not be angry with them nor hate them: “For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.” (ii. 1.)

Further he says: “Take pleasure in one thing and rest in it, in passing from one social act to another social act, thinking of God.” (vi. 7.) Again: “Love mankind. Follow God.” (vii. 31.) It is the characteristic of the rational soul for a man to love his neighbour. (ix. 1.) Antoninus teaches in various passages the forgiveness of injuries, and we know that he also practised what he taught. Bishop Butler remarks that “this divine precept to forgive injuries and to love our enemies, though to be met with in Gentile moralists, yet is in a peculiar sense a precept of Christianity, as our Saviour has insisted more upon it than on any other single virtue.” The practice of this precept is the most difficult of all virtues. Antoninus often enforces it and gives us aid towards following it. When we are injured, we feel anger and resentment, and the feeling is natural, just and useful for the conservation of society. It is useful that wrong doers should feel the natural consequences of their actions, among which is the disapprobation of society and the resentment of him who is wronged. But revenge, in the proper sense of that word, must not be practised. “The best way of avenging thyself,” says the emperor, “is not to become like the wrong doer.” It is plain by this that he does not mean that we should in any case practise revenge; but he says to those who talk of revenging wrongs, Be not like him who has done the wrong. Socrates in the Crito (c. 10) says the same in other words, and St. Paul (Ep. to the Romans, xii. 17). “When a man has done thee any wrong, immediately consider with what opinion about good or evil he has done wrong. For when thou hast seen this, thou wilt pity him and wilt neither wonder nor be angry.” (vii. 26.) Antoninus would not deny that wrong naturally produces the feeling of anger and resentment, for this is implied in the recommendation to reflect on the nature of the man's mind who has done the wrong, and then you will have pity instead of resentment: and so it comes to the same as St. Paul's advice to be angry and sin not; which, as Butler well explains it, is not a recommendation to be angry, which nobody needs, for anger is a natural passion, but it is a warning against allowing anger to lead us into sin. In short the emperor's doctrine about wrongful acts is this: wrong doers do not know what good and bad are: they offend out of ignorance, and in the sense of the Stoics this is true. Though this kind of ignorance will never be admitted as a legal excuse, and ought not to be admitted as a full excuse in any way by society, there may be grievous injuries, such as it is in a man's power to forgive without harm to society; and if he forgives because he sees that his enemies know not what they do, he is acting in the spirit of the sublime prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The emperor's moral philosophy was not a feeble, narrow system, which teaches a man to look directly to his own happiness, though a man's happiness or tranquillity is indirectly promoted by living as he ought to do. A man must live conformably to the universal nature, which means, as the emperor explains it in many passages, that a man's actions must be conformable to his true relations to all other human beings, both as a citizen of a political community and as a member of the whole human family. This implies, and he often expresses it in the most forcible language, that a man's words and actions, so far as they affect others, must be measured by a fixed rule, which is their consistency with the conservation and the interests of the particular society of which he is a member, and of the whole human race. To live conformably to such a rule, a man must use his rational faculties in order to discern clearly the consequences and full effect of all his actions and of the actions of others: he must not live a life of contemplation and reflection only, though he must often retire within himself to calm and purify his soul by thought,31 but he must mingle in the work of man and be a fellow labourer for the general good.

A man should have an object or purpose in life, that he may direct all his energies to it; of course a good object. (ii. 7.) He who has not one object or purpose of life, cannot be one and the same all through his life. (xi. 21.) Bacon has a remark to the same effect, on the best means of “reducing of the mind unto virtue and good estate; which is, the electing and propounding unto a man's self good and virtuous ends of his life, such as may be in a reasonable sort within his compass to attain.” He is a happy man who has been wise enough to do this when he was young and has had the opportunities; but the emperor seeing well that a man cannot always be so wise in his youth, encourages himself to do it when he can, and not to let life slip away before he has begun. He who can propose to himself good and virtuous ends of life, and be true to them, cannot fail to live conformably to his own interest and the universal interest, for in the nature of things they are one. If a thing is not good for the hive, it is not good for the bee. (vi. 54.)

One passage may end this matter. “If the gods have determined about me and about the things which must happen to me, they have determined well, for it is not easy even to imagine a deity without forethought; and as to doing me harm, why should they have any desire towards that? For what advantage would result to them from this or to the whole, which is the special object of their providence? But if they have not determined about me individually, they have certainly determined about the whole at least; and the things which happen by way of sequence in this general arrangement I ought to accept with pleasure and to be content with them. But if they determine about nothing—which it is wicked to believe, or if we do believe it, let us neither sacrifice nor pray nor swear by them nor do anything else which we do as if the gods were present and lived with us—but if however the gods determine about none of the things which concern us, I am able to determine about myself, and I can inquire about that which is useful; and that is useful to every man which is conformable to his own constitution … and nature. But my nature is rational and social; and my city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome; but so far as I am a man, it is the world. The things then which are useful to these cities are alone useful to me.” (vi. 44.)

It would be tedious, and it is not necessary to state the emperor's opinions on all the ways in which a man may profitably use his understanding towards perfecting himself in practical virtue. The passages to this purpose are in all parts of his book, but as they are in no order or connection, a man must use the book a long time before he will find out all that is in it. A few words may be added here. If we analyse all other things, we find how insufficient they are for human life, and how truly worthless many of them are. Virtue alone is indivisible, one, and perfectly satisfying. The notion of Virtue cannot be considered vague or unsettled, because a man may find it difficult to explain the notion fully to himself or to expound it to others in such a way as to prevent cavilling. Virtue is a whole, and no more consists of parts than man's intelligence does, and yet we speak of various intellectual faculties as a convenient way of expressing the various powers which man's intellect shows by his works. In the same way we may speak of various virtues or parts of virtue, in a practical sense, for the purpose of showing what particular virtues we ought to practise in order to the exercise of the whole of virtue, that is, as much as man's nature is capable of.

The prime principle in man's constitution is social. The next in order is not to yield to the persuasions of the body, when they are not conformable to the rational principle, which must govern. The third is freedom from error and from deception. “Let then the ruling principle holding fast to these things go straight on and it has what is its own.” (vii. 55.) The emperor selects justice as the virtue which is the basis of all the rest (x. 11), and this had been said long before his time.

It is true that all people have some notion of what is meant by justice as a disposition of the mind, and some notion about acting in conformity to this disposition; but experience shows that men's notions about justice are as confused as their actions are inconsistent with the true notion of justice. The emperor's notion of justice is clear enough, but not practical enough for all mankind. “Let there be freedom from perturbations with respect to the things which come from the external cause; and let there be justice in the things done by virtue of the internal cause, that is, let there be movement and action terminating in this, in social acts, for this is according to thy nature.” (ix. 31.) In another place (ix. 1) he says that “he who acts unjustly acts impiously,” which follows of course from all that he says in various places. He insists on the practice of truth as a virtue and as a means to virtue, which no doubt it is: for lying even in indifferent things weakens the understanding; and lying maliciously is as great a moral offence as a man can be guilty of, viewed both as showing an habitual disposition, and viewed with respect to consequences. He couples the notion of justice with action. A man must not pride himself on having some fine notion of justice in his head, but he must exhibit his justice in act, like St. James's notion of faith. But this is enough.

The Stoics and Antoninus among them call some things beautiful and some ugly, and as they are beautiful so they are good, and as they are ugly so they are evil or bad. (ii. 1.) All these things good and evil are in our power, absolutely some of the stricter Stoics would say; in a manner only, as those who would not depart altogether from common sense would say; practically they are to a great degree in the power of some persons and in some circumstances, but in a small degree only in other persons and in other circumstances. The Stoics maintain man's free will as to the things which are in his power; for as to the things which are out of his power, free will terminating in action is of course excluded by the very terms of the expression. I hardly know if we can discover exactly Antoninus' notion of the free will of man, nor is the question worth the inquiry. What he does mean and does say is intelligible. All the things which are not in our power … are indifferent: they are neither good nor bad, morally. Such are life, health, wealth, power, disease, poverty and death. Life and death are all men's portion. Health, wealth, power, disease and poverty happen to men indifferently to the good and to the bad; to those who live according to nature and to those who do not.32 “Life,” says the emperor, “is a warfare and a stranger's sojourn, and after fame is oblivion.” (ii. 17.) After speaking of those men who have disturbed the world and then died, and of the death of philosophers such as Heraclitus and Democritus who was destroyed by lice, and of Socrates whom other lice (his enemies) destroyed, he says: “What means all this? Thou hast embarked, thou hast made the voyage, thou art come to shore; get out. If indeed to another life, there is no want of gods, not even there. But if to a state without sensation, thou wilt cease to be held by pains and pleasures, and to be a slave to the vessel which is as much inferior as that which serves it is superior: for the one is intelligence and deity; the other is earth and corruption.” (iii. 3.) It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live according to nature. (xii. 1.) Every man should live in such a way as to discharge his duty, and to trouble himself about nothing else. He should live such a life that he shall always be ready for death, and shall depart content when the summons comes. For what is death? “A cessation of the impressions through the senses, and of the pulling of the strings which move the appetites and of the discursive movements of the thoughts, and of the service to the flesh.” (vi. 28.) Death is such as generation is, a mystery of nature. (iv. 5.) In another passage, the exact meaning of which is perhaps doubtful (ix. 3), he speaks of the child which leaves the womb, and so he says the soul at death leaves its envelope. As the child is born or comes into life by leaving the womb, so the soul may on leaving the body pass into another existence which is perfect. I am not sure if this is the emperor's meaning. Butler compares it with a passage in Strabo (p. 713) about the Brachmans' notion of death being the birth into real life and a happy life to those who have philosophized; and he thinks that Antoninus may allude to this opinion.33

Antoninus' opinion of a future life is nowhere clearly expressed. His doctrine of the nature of the soul of necessity implies that it does not perish absolutely, for a portion of the divinity cannot perish. The opinion is at least as old as the time of Epicharmus and Euripides; what comes from earth goes back to earth, and what comes from heaven, the divinity, returns to him who gave it. But I find nothing clear in Antoninus as to the notion of the man existing after death so as to be conscious of his sameness with that soul which occupied his vessel of clay. He seems to be perplexed on this matter, and finally to have rested in this, that God or the gods will do whatever is best and consistent with the university of things.

Nor I think does he speak conclusively on another Stoic doctrine, which some Stoics practised, the anticipating the regular course of nature by a man's own act. The reader will find some passages in which this is touched on, and he may make of them what he can. But there are passages in which the emperor encourages himself to wait for the end patiently and with tranquillity; and certainly it is consistent with all his best teaching that a man should bear all that falls to his lot and do useful acts as long as he lives. He should not therefore abridge the time of his usefulness by his own act. Whether he contemplates any possible cases in which a man should die by his own hand, I cannot tell, and the matter is not worth a curious inquiry, for I believe it would not lead to any certain result as to his opinion on this point. I do not think that Antoninus, who never mentions Seneca, though he must have known all about him, would have agreed with Seneca when he gives as a reason for suicide, that the eternal law, whatever he means, has made nothing better for us than this, that it has given us only one way of entering into life and many ways of going out of it. The ways of going out indeed are many, and that is a good reason for a man taking care of himself.34

Happiness was not the direct object of a Stoic's life. There is no rule of life contained in the precept that a man should pursue his own happiness. Many men think that they are seeking happiness when they are only seeking the gratification of some particular passion, the strongest that they have. The end of a man is, as already explained, to live conformably to nature, and he will thus obtain happiness, tranquillity of mind and contentment. (iii. 12; viii. 1, and other places.) As a means of living conformably to nature he must study the four chief virtues, each of which has its proper sphere: wisdom, or the knowledge of good and evil; justice, or the giving to every man his due; fortitude, or the enduring of labour and pain; and temperance, which is moderation in all things. By thus living conformably to nature the Stoic obtained all that he wished or expected. His reward was in his virtuous life, and he was satisfied with that. Some Greek poet long ago wrote:

For virtue only of all human things
Takes her reward not from the hands of others.
Virtue herself rewards the toils of virtue.

Some of the Stoics indeed expressed themselves in very arrogant, absurd terms, about the wise man's self sufficiency; they elevated him to the rank of a deity.35 But these were only talkers and lecturers, such as those in all ages who utter fine words, know little of human affairs, and care only for notoriety. Epictetus and Antoninus both by precept and example laboured to improve themselves and others; and if we discover imperfections in their teaching, we must still honour these great men who attempted to show that there is in man's nature and in the constitution of things sufficient reason for living a virtuous life. It is difficult enough to live as we ought to live, difficult even for any man to live in such a way as to satisfy himself, if he exercises only in a moderate degree the power of reflecting upon and reviewing his own conduct; and if all men cannot be brought to the same opinions in morals and religion, it is at least worth while to give them good reasons for as much as they can be persuaded to accept.


  1. M. Cornelii Frontonis Reliquiae, Berlin, 1816. There are a few letters between Fronto and Antoninus Pius.

  2. Eusebius (v. 5) quotes Tertullian's Apology to the Roman Senate in confirmation of the story. Tertullian, he says, writes that letters of the emperor were extant, in which he declares that his army was saved by the prayers of the Christians; and that he “threatened to punish with death those who ventured to accuse us.” It is possible that the forged letter which is now extant may be one of those which Tertullian had seen, for he uses the plural number “letters.” A great deal has been written about this miracle of the Thundering Legion, and more than is worth reading. There is a dissertation on this supposed miracle in Moyle's Works, London, 1726.

  3. Orosius, vii. 14, says that Justinus the philosopher presented to Antoninus Pius his work in defence of the Christian religion, and made him merciful to the Christians.

  4. See the Martyrium Sanctorum Justini, &c., in the works of Justinus, ed. Otto, vol. ii. 559. “Junius Rusticus Praefectus Urbi erat sub imperatoribus M. Aurelio et L. Vero, id quod liquet ex Themistii Orat. xxxiv. Dindorf. p. 451, et ex quodam illorum rescripto, Dig. 49. 1. 1, § 2.” (Otto.) The rescript contains the words “Junium Rusticum amicum nostrum Praefectum Urbi.” The Martyrium of Justinus and others is written in Greek. It begins, “In the time of the wicked defenders of idolatry impious edicts were published against the pious Christians both in cities and country places, for the purpose of compelling them to make offerings to vain idols. Accordingly the holy men (Justinus, Chariton, a woman Charito, Paeon, Liberianus, and others) were brought before Rusticus, the praefect of Rome.”

    The Martyrium gives the examination of the accused by Rusticus. All of them professed to be Christians. Justinus was asked if he expected to ascend into heaven and to receive a reward for his sufferings, if he was condemned to death. He answered that he did not expect: he was certain of it. Finally, the test of obedience was proposed to the prisoners: they were required to sacrifice to the gods. All refused, and Rusticus pronounced the sentence, which was that those, who refused to sacrifice to the gods and obey the emperor's order, should be whipped and beheaded according to the law. The martyrs were then led to the usual place of execution and beheaded. Some of the faithful secretly carried off the bodies and deposited them in a fit place.

  5. Conyers Middleton, An Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers, &c. p. 126. Middleton says that Eusebius omitted to mention the dove, which flew out of Polycarp's body, and Dodwell and Archbishop Wake have done the same. Wake says “I am so little a friend to such miracles that I thought it better with Eusebius to omit that circumstance than to mention it from Bp. Usher's Manuscript,” which manuscript however, says Middleton, he afterwards declares to be so well attested that we need not any further assurance of the truth of it.

  6. Orosius (vii. 12) speaks of Trajan's persecution of the Christians, and of Pliny's application to him having led the emperor to mitigate his severity. The punishment by the Mosaic law for those who attempted to seduce the Jews to follow new gods, was death. If a man was secretly enticed to such new worship, he must kill the seducer, even if the seducer were brother, son, daughter, wife, or friend. (Deut. xiii.)

  7. The Martyrium Ignatii, first published in Latin by Archbishop Usher, is the chief evidence for the circumstances of Ignatius' death.

  8. We have the evidence of Justinus (ad Diognetum, c. 5) to this effect: “the Christians are attacked by the Jews as if they were men of a different race and are persecuted by the Greeks; and those who hate them cannot give the reason of their enmity.”

  9. And in Eusebius, E. H. iv. 8, 9. Orosius (vii. 13) says that Hadrian sent this rescript to Minucius Fundanus proconsul of Asia after being instructed in books written on the Christian religion by Quadratus a disciple of the Apostles and Aristides an Athenian, an honest and wise man, and Serenus Granius. In the Greek text of Hadrian's rescript there is mentioned Serenius Granianus, the predecessor of Minucius Fundanus in the government of Asia.

    This rescript of Hadrian has clearly been added to the Apology by some editor. …

  10. Eusebius (E. H. iv. 12) after giving the beginning of Justinus' First Apology, which contains the address to T. Antoninus and his two adopted sons, adds “the same emperor being addressed by other brethren in Asia honoured the Commune of Asia with the following Rescript.” This Rescript, which is in the next chapter of Eusebius (E. H. iv. 13), is in the sole name of Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus Armenius, though Eusebius had just before said that he was going to give us a Rescript of Antoninus Pius. There are some material variations between the two copies of the Rescript besides the difference in the title, which difference makes it impossible to say whether the forger intended to assign this Rescript to Pius or to M. Antoninus.

    The author of the Alexandrine Chronicum says that Marcus being moved by the entreaties of Melito and other heads of the church wrote an Epistle to the Commune of Asia in which he forbade the Christians to be troubled on account of their religion. Valesius supposes this to be the letter or rescript which is contained in Eusebius (iv. 13), and to be the answer to the apology of Melito of which I shall soon give the substance. But Marcus certainly did not write this letter which is in Eusebius, and we know not what answer he made to Melito.

  11. Eusebius, iv. 26; and Routh's Reliquiae Sacrae, vol. i. and the notes. The interpretation of this Fragment is not easy. Mosheim misunderstood one passage so far as to affirm that Marcus promised rewards to those who denounced the Christians; an interpretation which is entirely false. Melito calls the Christian religion “our philosophy,” which began among barbarians (the Jews), and flourished among the Roman subjects in the time of Augustus, to the great advantage of the empire, for from that time the power of the Romans grew great and glorious. He says that the emperor has and will have as the successor to Augustus' power the good wishes of men, if he will protect that philosophy which grew up with the empire and began with Augustus, which philosophy the predecessors of Antoninus honoured in addition to the other religions. He further says that the Christian religion had suffered no harm since the time of Augustus, but on the contrary had enjoyed all honour and respect that any man could desire. Nero and Domitian, he says, were alone persuaded by some malicious men to calumniate the Christian religion, and this was the origin of the false charges against the Christians. But this was corrected by the emperors who immediately preceded Antoninus, who often by their Rescripts reproved those who attempted to trouble the Christians. Hadrian, Antoninus' grandfather, wrote to many and among them to Fundanus the governor of Asia. Antoninus Pius when Marcus was associated with him in the empire wrote to the cities, that they must not trouble the Christians; among others to the people of Larissa, Thessalonica, the Athenians and all the Greeks. Melito concluded thus: We are persuaded that thou who hast about these things the same mind that they had, nay rather one much more humane and philosophical, wilt do all that we ask thee.—This apology was written after a.d. 169, the year in which Verus died, for it speaks of Marcus only and his son Commodus. According to Melito's testimony, Christians had only been punished for their religion in the time of Nero and Domitian, and the persecutions began again in the time of M. Antoninus and were founded on his orders, which were abused as he seems to mean. He distinctly affirms “that the race of the godly is now persecuted and harassed by fresh imperial orders in Asia, a thing which had never happened before.” But we know that all this is not true, and that Christians had been punished in Trajan's time.

  12. Except that of Orosius (vii. 15), who says that during the Parthian war there were grievous persecutions of the Christians in Asia and Gallia under the orders of Marcus (praecepto ejus), and “many were crowned with the martyrdom of saints.”

  13. See xi. 3. The emperor probably speaks of such fanatics as Clemens (quoted by Gataker on this passage) mentions. The rational Christians admitted no fellowship with them. “Some of these heretics,” says Clemens, “show their impiety and cowardice by loving their lives, saying that the knowledge of the really existing God is true testimony (martyrdom), but that a man is a self-murderer who bears witness by his death. We also blame those who rush to death, for there are some, not of us, but only bearing the same name who give themselves up. We say of them that they die without being martyrs, even if they are publicly punished; and they give themselves up to a death which avails nothing, as the Indian Gymnosophists give themselves up foolishly to fire.” Cave in his Primitive Christianity (ii. c. 7) says of the Christians: “They did flock to the place of torment faster than droves of beasts that are driven to the shambles. They even longed to be in the arms of suffering. Ignatius, though then in his journey to Rome in order to his execution, yet by the way as he went could not but vent his passionate desire of it: O that I might come to those wild beasts, that are prepared for me; I heartily wish that I may presently meet with them; I would invite and encourage them speedily to devour me, and not be afraid to set upon me as they have been to others; nay should they refuse it, I would even force them to it;” and more to the same purpose from Eusebius. Cave, an honest and good man, says all this in praise of the Christians; but I think that he mistook the matter. We admire a man who holds to his principles even to death; but these fanatical Christians are the Gymnosophists whom Clemens treats with disdain.

  14. Dr. F. C. Baur in his work entitled Das Christenthum und die Christliche Kirche der drei ersten Jahrhunderte, &c., has examined this question with great good sense and fairness, and I believe he has stated the truth as near as our authorities enable us to reach it.

  15. In the Digest, 48, 19, 30, there is the following excerpt from Modestinus: “Si quis aliquid fecerit, quo leves hominum animi superstitione numinis terrerentur, divus Marcus hujusmodi homines in insulam relegari rescripsit.”

  16. I have omitted Seneca, Nero's preceptor. He was in a sense a Stoic and he has said many good things in a very fine way. There is a judgment of Gellius (xii. 2) on Seneca, or rather a statement of what some people thought of his philosophy, and it is not favourable. His writings and his life must be taken together, and I have nothing more to say of him here. The reader will find a notice of Seneca and his philosophy in “Seekers after God,” by the Rev. F. W. Farrar. Macmillan and Co.

  17. Ribbeck has laboured to prove that those Satires, which contain philosophical precepts, are not the work of the real, but of a false Juvenal, a Declamator. Still the verses exist, and were written by somebody who was acquainted with the Stoic doctrines.

  18. There is a complete edition of Arrian's Epictetus with the commentary of Simplicius by J. Schweighaeuser, 6 vols. 8vo. 1799, 1800, There is also an English translation of Epictetus by Mrs. Carter.

  19. De Marco Aurelio Antonino … ex ipsius Commentariis. Scriptio Philologica. Instituit Nicolaus Bachius, Lipsiae, 1826.

  20. I remark, in order to anticipate any misapprehension, that all these general terms involve a contradiction. The “one and all,” and the like, and “the whole,” imply limitation. “One” is limited; “all” is limited; the “whole” is limited. We cannot help it. We cannot find words to express that which we cannot fully conceive. The addition of “absolute” or any other such word does not mend the matter. Even the word God is used by most people, often unconsciously, in such a way that limitation is implied, and yet at the same time words are added which are intended to deny limitation. A Christian martyr, when he was asked what God was, is said to have answered that God has no name like a man; and Justin says the same (Apol. ii. 6), “the names Father, God, Creator, Lord and Master are not names, but appellations derived from benefactions and acts.” (Compare Seneca, De Benef. iv. S.) We can conceive the existence of a thing, or rather we may have the idea of an existence, without an adequate notion of it, “adequate” meaning coextensive and coequal with the thing. We have a notion of limited space derived from the dimensions of what we call a material thing, though of space absolute, if I may use the term, we have no notion at all; and of infinite space the notion is the same, no notion at all; and yet we conceive it in a sense, though I know not how, and we believe that space is infinite, and we cannot conceive it to be finite.

  21. The notions of matter and of space are inseparable. We derive the notion of space from matter and form. But we have no adequate conception either of matter or of space. Matter in its ultimate resolution is as unintelligible as what men call mind, spirit, or by whatever other name they may express the power which makes itself known by acts. Anaxagoras laid down the distinction between intelligence … and matter, and he said that intelligence impressed motion on matter, and so separated the elements of matter and gave them order; but he probably only assumed a beginning, as Simplicius says, as a foundation of his philosophical teaching. Empedocles said “The universe always existed.” He had no idea of what is called creation. Ocellus Lucanus (1, § 2) maintained that the Universe … was imperishable and uncreated. Consequently it is eternal. He admitted the existence of God; but his Theology would require some discussion. On the contrary, the Brachmans, according to Strabo (p. 713, ed. Cas.), taught that the universe was created and perishable; and the creator and administrator of it pervades the whole. The author of the book of Solomon's Wisdom says (xi. 17); “Thy Almighty hand made the world of matter without form,” which may mean that matter existed already. …

  22. Time and space are the conditions of our thought; but time infinite and space infinite cannot be objects of thought, except in a very imperfect way. Time and space must not in any way be thought of, when we think of the Deity. Swedenborg says, “The natural man may believe that he would have no thought, if the ideas of time, of space, and of things material were taken away; for upon those is founded all the thought that man has. But let him know that the thoughts are limited and confined in proportion as they partake of time, of space, and of what is material; and that they are not limited and are extended, in proportion as they do not partake of those things; since the mind is so far elevated above the things corporeal and worldly.” (Concerning Heaven and Hell, 169.)

  23. I have always translated the word [nous], “intelligence” or “intellect.” It appears to be the word used by the oldest Greek philosophers to express the notion of “intelligence” as opposed to the notion of “matter.” I have always translated the word [lógos] by “reason,” and [logikós] by the word “rational,” or perhaps sometimes “reasonable,” as I have translated [noerós] by the word “intellectual.” Every man who has thought and has read any philosophical writings knows the difficulty of finding words to express certain notions, how imperfectly words express these notions, and how carelessly the words are often used. The various senses of the word [lógos] are enough to perplex any man. Our translators of the New Testament (St. John, c. i.) have simply translated [o lógos] by “the word,” as the Germans translated it by “das Wort;” but in their theological writings they sometimes retain the original term Logos. The Germans have a term Vernunft, which seems to come nearest to our word Reason, or the necessary and absolute truths, which we cannot conceive as being other than what they are. Such are what some people have called the laws of thought, the conceptions of space and of time, and axioms or first principles, which need no proof and cannot be proved or denied. Accordingly the Germans can say “Gott ist die höchste Vernunft,” the Supreme Reason. The Germans have also a word Verstand, which seems to represent our word “understanding,” “intelligence,” “intellect,” not as a thing absolute which exists by itself, but as a thing connected with an individual being, as a man. Accordingly it is the capacity of receiving impressions (Vorstellungen …), and forming from them distinct ideas (Begriffe), and perceiving differences. I do not think that these remarks will help the reader to the understanding of Antoninus, or his use of the words νουs and λόγοs. The Emperor's meaning must be got from his own words, and if it does not agree altogether with modern notions, it is not our business to force it into agreement, but simply to find out what his meaning is, if we can.

    Justinus (ad Diognetum, c. vii.) says that the omnipotent, all-creating, and invisible God has fixed truth and the holy, incomprehensible Logos in men's hearts; and this Logos is the architect and creator of the Universe. In the first Apology (c. xxxii.) he says that the seed … from God is the Logos, which dwells in those who believe in God. So it appears that according to Justinus the Logos is only in such believers. In the second Apology (c. viii.) he speaks of the seed of the Logos being implanted in all mankind; but those who order their lives according to Logos, such as the Stoics, have only a portion of the Logos …, and have not the knowledge and contemplation of the entire Logos, which is Christ. Swedenborg's remarks (Angelic Wisdom, 240) are worth comparing with Justinus. The modern philosopher in substance agrees with the ancient; but he is more precise.

  24. Comp. Ep. to the Corinthians, i. 3. 17, and James iv. 8, “Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you.”

  25. This is also Swedenborg's doctrine of the soul. “As to what concerns the soul, of which it is said that it shall live after death, it is nothing else but the man himself, who lives in the body, that is, the interior man, who by the body acts in the world and from whom the body itself lives” (quoted by Clissold, p. 456 of “The Practical Nature of the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, in a Letter to the Archbishop of Dublin (Whately),” second edition, 1859; a book which theologians might read with profit). This is an old doctrine of the soul, which has been often proclaimed, but never better expressed than by the “Auctor de Mundo,” c. 6, quoted by Gataker in his “Antoninus,” p. 436. “The soul by which we live and have cities and houses is invisible, but it is seen by its works; for the whole method of life has been devised by it and ordered, and by it is held together. In like manner we must think also about the deity, who in power is most mighty, in beauty most comely, in life immortal, and in virtue supreme: wherefore though he is invisible to human nature, he is seen by his very works.” Other passages to the same purpose are quoted by Gataker (p. 382) Bishop Butler has the same as to the soul: “Upon the whole then our organs of sense and our limbs are certainly instruments, which the living persons, ourselves, make use of to perceive and move with.” If this is not plain enough, he also says: “It follows that our organized bodies are no more ourselves, or part of ourselves than any other matter around us.” (Compare Anton. x. 38.)

  26. The reader may consult Discourse V. “Of the existence and nature of God,” in John Smith's “Select Discourses.” He has prefixed as a text to this Discourse, the striking passage of Agapetus, Paraenes. § 3: “He who knows himself will know God; and he who knows God will be made like to God; and he will be made like to God, who has become worthy of God; and he becomes worthy of God, who does nothing unworthy of God, but thinks the things that are his, and speaks what he thinks, and does what he speaks.” I suppose that the old saying, “Know thyself,” which is attributed to Socrates and others, had a larger meaning than the narrow sense which is generally given to it. (Agapetus, ed. Stephan. Schoning, Franeker, 1608. This volume contains also the Paraeneses of Nilus.)

  27. “God who is infinitely beyond the reach of our narrow capacities.” Locke, Essay concerning the Human Understanding, ii. chap. 17.

  28. Cleanthes says in his Hymn:

    “For all things good and bad to One thou formest,
    So that One everlasting reason governs all.”

    See Bishop Butler's Sermons. Sermon XV. “Upon the Ignorance of Man.”

  29. This is what Juvenal means when he says (xiv. 321)—

    Nunquam aliud Natura aliud Sapientia dicit.
  30. See viii. 52: and Persius, iii. 66.

  31. Ut nemo in sese tentat descendere, nemo.—Persius, iv. 21.

  32. “All events come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked: to the good and to the clean and to the unclean,” &c. Ecclesiastes, ix. v. 2; and v. 3: “This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all.” In what sense “evil” is meant here seems rather doubtful. There is no doubt about the Emperor's meaning. Compare Epictetus, Enchiridion, c. i., &c.; and the doctrine of the Brachmans (Strabo. p. 713, ed. Cas.). …

  33. Seneca (Ep. 102) has the same, whether an expression of his own opinion, or merely a fine saying of others employed to embellish his writings, I know not. After speaking of the child being prepared in the womb to live this life, he adds, “Sic per hoc spatium, quod ab infantia patet in senectutem, in alium naturae sumimur partum. Alia origo nos expectat, alius rerum status.” See Ecclesiastes, xii. 7; and Lucan, i. 457:

              “Longae, canitis si cognita, vitae
    Mors media est.”
  34. See Plinius, H. N. ii. c. 7; Seneca, De Provid. c. 6.; and Ep. 70: “Nihil melius aeterna lex,” &c.

  35. J. Smith in his Select Discourses on “the Excellency and Nobleness of True Religion” (c. vi.) has remarked on this Stoical arrogance. He finds it in Seneca and others. In Seneca certainly, and perhaps something of it in Epictetus; but it is not in Antoninus.

Henry Dwight Sedgwick (essay date 1921)

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SOURCE: “Two Pagan Criticisms” and “The Roman Attitude toward Christianity” in Marcus Aurelius, Yale University Press, 1921, pp. 198-206, 207-18.

[In the following excerpt, Sedgwick explores two contemporary admonishments directed at Aurelius and explains the reasons why Christians were generally held in low esteem by Romans.]

In this chapter I shall refer to the criticisms that have been made upon Marcus Aurelius. But, first, as a fitting prologue to an apology, I will begin with some favorable testimonies of Dio Cassius (150-235?), Herodianus (165-255?), and such other historians of the ancient world as have spoken of him, in order to make it plain at the very first that outside of certain special criticisms there is nothing but eulogy. Dio Cassius uses these phrases: “Always so pure, honorable, and religious-minded” (LXXI, 30); “He refrained from all wrongdoing” (do. 34); “All that he did was done for virtue's sake, and nothing from pretense” (do. 34); “Most of his life he spent in acts of beneficence” (do. 34); “He governed better than anyone who has ever been in power” (do. 34). He owed much to education, but more to his natural disposition, for before he was under his famous teachers “he set his soul stalwartly toward virtue” (do. 35).

Herodian says: “He made every virtue his business” (I, 2); “He was the only king who has proved his philosophy, not by words, but by his sober, righteous, and godly life and character” (do. 2). When he died he “left a longing for him in the hearts of living men and an immortal memory of his virtue unto generations yet to come.” And, at the news, “every man, whether in the army or civil life, was weighed down by grief; not a soul in the whole Empire but received the news with tears, they called him their noble father, their good Emperor, their gallant leader, their wise and temperate king. And none spoke false” (do. 4).

Eutropius (fourth century): “Without a doubt a most noble man … whom it is easier to wonder at than to praise”; “He restored the fortunes of the commonwealth by his virtue and his gentleness.”

Sextus Aurelius Victor (fourth century): “He had all the virtues and a celestial mind”; “Had it not been for him the whole Roman State would have toppled over in a single fall”; “On his death Rome was upset by the public grief, the Senators put on mourning and met with tears in the Senate chamber. … No one doubted that he had gone to heaven; however hard it might be to believe in the ascension of Romulus, everybody believed in that of Marcus.” And Julius Capitolinus, the biographer, who is so ready to tell evil, speaks of his sanctitas, tranquillitas, and pietas, and tells how “everybody loved him, the old men loved him as a son, the young men as a father, those more of his own age as a brother, and all spoke of him under these several names.” And, “on the day of his funeral no one thought he was to be lamented, for all were sure that he had been lent by the gods and had gone home to them. And everybody, all ages, every rank and class, paid him honors as a god, and anyone who might by hook or crook get his picture and did not have it in his house, was thought to be a sacrilegious wretch.” And the chronicler adds that “even in his day in many a house a statuette of Marcus Aurelius stood among the household gods; and that there were men who said that Marcus had foretold them in dreams of the future and had foretold truly.”

I cite these scattered bits from these various writers, as evidence of the special place which Marcus held, and continued to hold for centuries, in the popular imagination, a place personal to himself, quite distinct from his position as one of the Antonines, who, taken together, represented to succeeding generations a golden age like that of the poets, (as our friend Fronto says,) illud a poetis saeculum aureum memoratum; for, I repeat, outside of certain definite reproaches, all the world is in agreement that Marcus Aurelius far transcended the moral measure of ordinary men.

Of these reproaches, which are three in number, the first two are of the same kind, but the third comes from quite a different and alien source, and must be dealt with by itself. The first two had better be set forth in the form adopted by the most illustrious, as well as the most just and sympathetic, of the ancient critics, who, in presenting the two reproaches, follows some traditional criticism rather than his own opinion, and by his explanation and argument quite takes their sting away. I refer to what that strange, wayward genius, the Emperor Julian, whom we call the Apostate, has said in his satire The Caesars. The story is this:

Romulus, himself deified, gives a banquet in heaven to celebrate the feast of the Saturnalia, to which he invites the gods and the Roman Emperors. The gods come first and take their places. Silenus, the wag, who serves as the mouth-piece of satire, sits beside the young and laughter-loving Bacchus, and makes jibes and jests at the Emperors as they arrive, one by one, Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, and so on. Caligula no sooner appears than he is seized by the Furies, and hurled headlong to Tartarus; Nero, also. Then follow Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, and all the while, Silenus cracks his jokes at their expense. At last “the pair of brothers enter, Marcus and Lucius; Silenus looks cross for he can find nothing to jeer at or make fun of, especially as to Marcus. And yet Silenus pries in meddlesome fashion, charging that Marcus had not done as he should in regard to his wife and his son, in that he mourned for Faustina more than was becoming, considering she had not been a model of decorum …, and as to his son, in that he put it in his power to destroy the State, although he had a son-in-law of high character who would have managed the commonwealth more wisely and taken better care of Commodus than he himself had done. Nevertheless with all his meddlesome investigation into these matters, Silenus revered the greatness of Marcus's virtue.” Other Emperors follow, and, at the request of Hercules, Alexander the Great is also admitted.

After the feast Jupiter announces a contest of merit. The great warriors, Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Trajan are bid step forward. Saturn turns to Jupiter and says he is surprised to see that fighting Emperors are called forth, but no philosopher. Jupiter answers, “I like philosophers just as much; call up Marcus Aurelius.” Marcus is called and comes forward, “with an aspect of great seriousness, contracting his eyes and eyebrows from pain; his beauty wears a neglected look, for his person is simple and unadorned, his beard very long, his dress plain and modest, and his body from lack of nourishment is diaphanous, translucent, as if there were a very pure and radiant light within.” He is admitted within the sacred enclosure.

It is then settled that each contestant shall speak on his own behalf, for a certain length of time to be determined by the water-glass. Mercury ignores a suggestion by Silenus that Trajan and Alexander may mistake the contents of the glass and drink it up, and announces that each contestant is to proclaim what he has achieved. Caesar, Alexander, Augustus, and Trajan (as was to be expected) boast of their victories; Constantine, also, boasts of his. When Marcus began to speak, Silenus whispered to Bacchus, “Now we shall hear what paradoxes and wonderful opinions this Stoic will utter.” But Marcus looking at Jupiter and the other gods said: “Jupiter, ye Gods, there is no need for me to make a speech, nor labor in this contest. If you did not know all about my life, it would be proper for me to tell it to you; but since you know, and nothing is hid from you, you yourselves will estimate me according to my worth.”

“For Marcus seemed a wonderful person in everything, and in this respect exceptionally wise, [such is the reflection of the Emperor Julian,] in that he knew, as the poet says,

When it was time to speak and
When it was best to keep silent.”

The gods did not vote at once, but asked to hear from the candidates not only their achievements but what each thought was the end and purpose of life. The goddess Fortune interrupts to complain that none of the candidates, except Augustus, had acknowledged their debt to her. But Mercury proceeded with the questioning, and asked Alexander the Great what he believed to be the noblest thing and what he had striven for. Alexander answered, “To conquer the whole world.” Trajan, “I strove for the same things as Alexander, only with greater moderation.” Silenus is beginning to quiz Trajan, when Bacchus breaks in: “Go to glory, you jeer at them all and don't let them speak for themselves. But stop your nonsense about them now, and see what you can say against Marcus. He seems to me a man, to quote Simonides, ‘four square and beyond the reach of blame.’” Mercury turned to Marcus and asked, “And what do you think, Marcus, is the end of life?” Marcus answered quietly and soberly, “To imitate the gods.” The irrepressible Silenus questions him, “Tell me, what did you use to think was the way to imitate the gods?” Marcus answered, “To have as few needs as possible, and to do good to as many as I could.” “But surely,” said Silenus, “you needed something?” Marcus answered, “I needed nothing, but perhaps my body had some little needs.” To this question, also, Marcus was judged to have answered well. Silenus was at a loss, but at last returned to the points in which he thought Marcus had not done rightly or reasonably, as to his wife and son, in that he had enrolled her among the deities and that he had entrusted the Empire to him. Marcus answered: “In this also I imitated the gods; for I obeyed Homer who says,

Surely whatsoever man is good and sound of mind
Loves his own wife and cherishes her.

And as to my son, I have Jupiter's own reasoning, for he said to Mars, ‘Long ago I would have smitten you with my thunderbolt, were it not that I love you because you are my son.’ Besides I never thought that my son would be so bad. And though his youth, assailed on all sides by strong temptations, swaying to and fro, was borne down to the worse, he was not bad when I entrusted the State to him; he turned out to be bad after he had received it. Therefore, as to my wife I acted in accordance with the vehement love of god-like Achilles, and as to my son I followed the example of almighty Jupiter; and besides I did no novel thing. It is the custom to bequeath the succession to one's sons, and all fathers pray that it may be so. And I am not the first to do honor to a wife; I did as many others have done. Perhaps it would not be wise to initiate such practices, but it would border close on injustice to debar nearest relations from doing what had been done over and over again. But I forget myself, I have made too long a defence before you, O Jupiter and ye Gods, who have knowledge of this already. So please excuse my over zeal.” When the decision of the gods was announced Marcus had received a majority of the votes.

In his satire the Emperor Julian reports the only two reproaches that the ancient world cast at Marcus, that he did wrong to give to Faustina divine honors and to bequeath the Empire to Commondus. On both these points Julian's defence seems to me an adequate plea in mitigation; but I think he should have gone farther, and, as lawyers say, demurred to the indictment. As to Faustina, I will merely repeat what I have already said, that there is no contemporary evidence of her misbehaving as a wife, and that historians today, who concern themselves with the matter, such as Professor Bury and Mr. Thomas Nelson Jerome, wholly reject the accusation. As to Commodus, I will amplify Julian's defence; and, in order to do this, it becomes pertinent to quote the nearest contemporary account of what took place on Marcus's death.

It will be remembered that Marcus's other sons had died, Titus, Aurelius, Aelius, Antoninus, Annius Verus, and Hadrian, and only Commodus was left, a beautiful boy, with golden hair. Marcus used to call him “my fellow soldier” and carry him in his arms to show him to the men. He had spared no pains on his education; and had he not a right to expect that his own self-denial and consecration to duty had found a lodgment in his son's heart, and in maturer years would exert beneficent influences? Commodus was naturally as free from taint as any man; Dio Cassius himself reports this. The stories told of his boyhood by Julius Capitolinus belong to the same category as the scandals he tells of Faustina. And when Silenus, presenting the chief traditional reproach, complains that Marcus bequeathed the Empire to Commodus, he must have forgotten that Marcus had already created him Augustus, and had conferred not only the consulship but also the tribunician power, chief among the imperial prerogatives, and that he had done so in compliance with the express request of the Senate: Commodo imperium justum rogamus. Progeniem tuam robora. Commodo Antonino tribuniciam potestatem rogamus. The Senate had been thoroughly scared by Cassius's rebellion, they feared that unless the succession of Commodus was solidly established, ambitious soldiers might start up on all sides and snatch at the crown. At that time the Senate certainly did not believe evil of Commodus. The horrible wickedness that he did afterwards confused public memory and made sundry persons think, as wiseacres do, that they had already perceived in his father's lifetime that he was bad. The army also accepted him at once, and at first (for a very short time, it must be admitted) he acted in accordance with his father's plans and proposed to continue the war and conquer the land from the Danube to the Baltic Sea. I mention this as a bit of evidence to show that not until after his accession did Commodus's wicked character reveal itself. Very soon, however, fighting on the northern borders became irksome. “Fawning Parasites, placing their Felicity in Belly-cheere, and Brutish Lusts, did oftsoones put him in mind of the Delices of Rome.” I repeat, I am not concerned with his weakness, but with the general opinion and expectation of the time. To Rome he decided to go. When it was known at Rome that he was coming, all the people were delighted, full of hope in their young Emperor, for they expected him to take after his father. (I quote Herodian.) He was welcomed and cheered all along his journey. When he came near Rome, nobles and commons went out to meet him, and strewed flowers in his path, and when they saw him they burst into acclamations, for he was very beautiful in his youthful prime, most noble to look at, with his well-made body, his strength, his handsome face, the glitter in his eye, and his hair shining in the sunlight like skeins of gold.

Such was Commodus at the time of his accession. It would hardly have been wise policy on Marcus's part to revoke all the prerogatives of sovereignty from Commodus and confer them on his son-in-law Pompeianus, an old general of foreign birth, who had married Lucilla after the death of Lucius Verus, and by that very act prompt and prick on to rebellion half a dozen rivals in the army or in the Senate who held themselves as good as he. With such a father as Marcus and such a grandfather as Antoninus Pius, no man would have believed it wise to set aside the appointed heir and put a stranger in his place. This reproach is founded on the wisdom that comes after the event.

The third reproach proceeds from a wholly different source, and requires a more elaborate explanation.


Modern Christian scholars blame Marcus Aurelius for what they term the persecutions that took place in his reign. They look back upon the Early Church, as Don Quixote looked back on the Golden Age, as a time of innocence, simplicity, brotherly love, and knowledge of the truth, “Dichosa edad, dichosos siglos aquellos! (that happy age, those happy times!)” Let it be granted that the picture of the early Christian community as painted in the beginning of the Book of Acts might still serve to depict life as it was among the simpler congregations, and that the majority of those early Christians were worthy of all admiration. Justin Martyr, an honest witness, in his memorial addressed to the Emperor Antoninus says: “Before we became Christians we delighted in debauchery, now we rejoice in purity of life; we used to practise magic rites and sorcery, but now we are dedicated to the good, unbegotten, God; we used to value money and possessions above everything, but now we bring together all that we own and share with everyone that needs. We used to hate one another, and kill one another, and, because of a difference of custom or nationality, we would not admit strangers within our doors, but now since the coming of Christ we all live together. We pray for our enemies; we try to win over those who hate us unjustly, so that by living in accordance with the noble precepts of Christ they may become partakers with us in the same joyful hopes of obtaining our reward from God, the Lord of all.” (Apol. XIV.) Aristides of Athens, in his petition to Antoninus, says even more.

Nevertheless Justin and Aristides are advocates and state their case as forcibly as they can. An opposing advocate might concede all this as to the genuine disciples of Christ, and yet he could also point to differences in dogma and mutual criticisms between disagreeing sects, (and produce witnesses, too,) as signs that brotherly love among Christians was not universal; he might submit that not all of the goodly fellowship endured to the end, but that some apostatized and some betrayed their fellows. He might also dispute the claim that Christians had knowledge of the truth. But let us grant that though Christianity could not free poor humanity from all frailty and wrongdoing, it did so then more than it does now, that it made many men and women kind, pure, and true, and some heroic, and that Justin's description of his fellow Christians, on the whole, is true. The gravamen of the modern Christian accusation against Marcus Aurelius does not lie in the fact that the Christians were innocent and good, but that he, the persecutor, was innocent and good. Their condemnation seems almost to indicate a fear lest this lack of understanding and sympathy in a man whom all the world, themselves excepted, regards as tender-hearted and prone to mercy, should cast a shadow of reproach upon the Christians of that generation. For it might be thought, by some indifferent person, that the fault did not lie exclusively with the Emperor. Some such notion may have passed through the minds of those early Christian apologists, Melito, Bishop of Sardis, and Tertullian, who say that only the wicked Emperors such as Nero and Domitian persecuted the Christians, and that under the good Emperors, Marcus included, there were no persecutions, and so evade the dilemma. On the other hand, Melito and Tertullian may have spoken out of ignorance. But let us assume that the Christians were innocent and good; yet it cannot be contended that they were law-abiding, and therefore I take exception to the word persecution. However heroic, however admirable, the Christians may have been, the application of the word persecution to the customary enforcement of the criminal law, does violence to the ordinary use of language. The law was cruel, the society from which it issued was brutalized, the public opinion on which it was based was wholly erroneous, all this may be granted; but it does not alter the fact that the proceedings against the Christians, of which the modern apologists complain, (for they would scarcely hold an Emperor responsible for an outbreak of mob violence in Smyrna, let us say, or Lyons,) were, according to the Roman constitution, conducted with due process of law. The charge against Marcus Aurelius is that he suffered the criminal law to take its course.

The result was tragic enough, and not for the Christians only. The early Christians were a very fortunate people. They had the greatest of human possessions, the belief in a personal God and a passionate love for him. “Blessed are ye,” their God had said, “when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven” (St. Matt. v, 11-12). And they did rejoice exceedingly: “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” But the obverse of this picture has no rejoicing. In the Meditations there is this pathetic passage: “If a man stand beside a spring of clear fresh water and utter curses upon it, the spring does not stop welling up pure water for him to drink; and if he should throw mud into it and filth, it will quickly scatter them away, purify them, and not be one whit less clear and fresh. How then shall I possess myself of a spring and not a mere cistern?” (M. A [Meditations of Aurelius] . VIII, 51.) A very little rearrangement of history might, it would seem, have permitted Marcus Aurelius to listen with a sympathetic, if not a credulous, ear to some Christian preacher repeating the words spoken beside Jacob's well to the woman of Samaria? “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (St. John iv, 13-14). … Of course it would have been impossible for a man educated as Marcus Aurelius had been, to accept the religious beliefs of this heroic martyr, but it might have been possible for him to learn that a man, not a Roman, unlettered, ignorant of philosophy, whose lot in life perhaps had been to be a slave, to hew wood and draw water, could be a hero. This, then, is the other side of the tragedy, that the Emperor, living in the midst of a society in which so much was cruel and vulgar, haunted by dim apprehensions of greater evils to come, and with personal sorrows thick at his heart, did not know that there was a great company of persons, scattered here and there in many parts of the Empire, who cherished ideals as pure as his own, many of whom were joyfully giving their lives for the very ends for which he was spending his,—to bring their wills into harmony with the divine will,—and that in what he could see nothing but low superstition (M. A. I, 6), gross habits (M. A. III, 16), and fanatical obstinacy (M. A. VIII, 48; XI, 3), there was really the same heroic self-consecration to which he had dedicated his own life. Marcus Aurelius could not, humanly speaking, have become a Christian; his spiritual task was not to follow the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, but to set before the world the example of a man who, without the support of a supernatural creed, lived as if he were walking in the sight of a personal god.

It is now time to set before the reader the various causes which not only prevented educated Roman gentlemen, bred upon the cosmopolitan doctrines of Stoicism, from obtaining an inkling of the goodness and innocence of the Christians, but also filled their minds with all manner of evil thoughts concerning them. For it is beyond question that not only the common people, but also the most educated Romans, those farthest from the reach of prejudice, did believe the grossest calumnies. To show what those calumnies were, it will be best to cite contemporary evidence. I quote from a charming little book written at or about this time, by a distinguished advocate at the Roman bar, Minucius Felix, in which, under the guise of a discussion between two friends, Octavius, a Christian, and Caecilius, a pagan, the author presents his brief on behalf of the new religion that he himself has adopted.

The two friends, Octavius and Caecilius, together with the teller of the tale, who is to act as umpire, go down from Rome to Ostia for a holiday. The courts are not sitting, and the leisure class has left town to enjoy the vintage season after a hot summer. The friends walk along the bank of the Tiber till they reach the sea; here they sit upon a breakwater that serves to protect bathers, and, after watching boys skip sea shells over the rippling waters, they fall into a religious argument. The pagan begins by deploring the attack that has been made upon the gods by “certain fellows belonging to a sect whose case is hopeless, proscribed, and desperate. They have gathered together from the lowest dregs of the people a number of ignorant men and credulous women, always ready to believe anything, and have formed a rabble of impious conspirators. At their nocturnal gatherings, at their solemn fasts, and barbarous meals, not sacred rites but crimes constitute their bond of union. It is a people that lurks in darkness and shuns the light. … Ill weeds grow apace. These vicious habits are spreading day by day. The abominable secret haunts where these impious wretches hold their meetings are increasing in number all over the world. These execrable conspirators must be rooted out. They recognize one another by secret signs and marks! After the briefest acquaintance they love one another! A kind of religion of sensuality prevails amongst them; they call themselves promiscuously brothers and sisters, and under the cloak of these names are guilty of the most beastly offences. … The details of the initiation of novices are as horrible as they are well known. A baby, wrapped up in dough to deceive the unwary, is brought to the would-be novice, who, misled by the coating of dough, is induced to deal what are apparently harmless blows, and secretly stabs it to death. Then—shame on them!—they thirstily lick up the child's blood and eagerly dissect his limbs. This victim is their bond of union. Complicity in the crime is their pledge of mutual silence. Such rites are more abominable than any acts of sacrilege. What takes place at their banquets is also well known. Everybody talks about them everywhere, and the oration of our distinguished friend from Cirta confirms it. On a fixed day they assemble together, children, sisters, mothers, people of both sexes and of all ages. After much feasting, a dog fastened to the lamp is coaxed by some pieces of meat thrown to it, to spring violently beyond the length of its chain. The lamp, which would have been an inconvenient witness, is overturned and extinguished. After this, riot and indecency reign supreme. I purposely omit much: what I have already said is too much, and all or most of it is shown to be true by the very atmosphere of secrecy which surrounds this impious religion” (Octavius, IX, X).

The defender of the faith, Octavius, admits that before he had become a Christian he, too, believed all this. “I believed that the Christians worshipped monsters, ate the flesh of infants, and practised incest at their feasts.” And he explains the stories as the invention of evil demons (do. XXVIII). “The story of our incestuous banquet is a monstrous lie, invented by a league of demons to injure us in order that our reputation for chastity should be sullied by charges of infamous and disgusting practices, and that before people had learned the truth, they should be induced to shun us, owing to the terror inspired by these unspeakable insinuations. So, too, your friend Fronto [for he was the orator from Cirta who in a public oration had repeated these calumnies against the Christians] has not given his evidence like a man who asserts a known fact, but after the manner of orators, who scatter abuse broadcast” (do. XXXI). It is useless to continue the story further.

From this book of Minucius Felix we learn that these slanders were believed by men of the highest education, position, and character, even publicly asserted by Fronto. Octavius was right; everybody told these stories everywhere. An apologist from Athens, Athenagoras, in his petition to Marcus Aurelius, admits at the outset that “common report charges us with three crimes, atheism, feasting on human flesh, and incest.” Even the Epistle from the church at Lyons and Vienna to their brethren in Asia and Phrygia (a.d. 177), which describes the horrible punishments inflicted in Lyons, states that the pagan servants of the denounced Christians, under fear of torture, accused their masters of the “feasts of Thyestes” and “the incests of Oedipus,” referring to the grandson of Tantalus, who unwittingly ate his own son, and to the wretched king who, also in ignorance, married his own mother. And in another defence of Christianity, again in the form of a dialogue, this time between a Christian and a Jew, Justin Martyr asks the Jew: “Do you, like others, believe that we eat men, and when we meet after our feast put out the lights and wallow in promiscuous bestiality?” (Dial. with Trypho, X). And, with equal directness, Tertullian, a generation later in his Apology, says: “We are called the wickedest wretches on account of our sacrament of killing babies and making food of them, and on account of incest after the banquet, because the dogs overturn the lamps (our panders of darkness in good truth!) and help on the shamelessness of our impious lusts!” (Apol. VII.) All this I quote because it is necessary to relate the facts as they were presented to that sad, solitary, lover of justice and mercy, who instinctively drew back from this strange, innovating, oriental sect with the same disdain that he showed toward all that he understood to be degrading.

Such then was the universally accepted report. Let us now glance at the causes which kicked up so thick a dust of calumnies that, in spite of innocence, of godly lives, of memorial and apology, Romans of every class, the most educated as well as the mob, believed them with so pitiable a confidence. The attitude of the educated was based on contempt, as we know from the expressed opinions of a tolerably long list of men high in office, proconsuls and governors, a class of which scholars have said, “we can find among them examples occasionally of cruelty, occasionally of rapacity, but never of incompetence.” These men looked upon the Christian dogmas, that a Jew crucified as a criminal is God, that after being dead he became alive again, as the tenets of a debased superstition, and proofs of an irrational mind. The first of these Romans to come upon the Christian dogmas was Gallio, Seneca's brother, governor of Achaia, who treated them with contempt. (Acts xviii, 12-17.) The second was Festus, governor of Judaea, who said to King Agrippa, in explaining the nature of the accusation against Paul: “There is a certain man left in bonds by Felix: about whom, when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, desiring to have judgment against him. … Against whom when the accusers stood up, they brought none accusation of such things as I supposed: but had certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive” (Acts xxv, 15-19). And when, at the hearing in the presence of King Agrippa, Paul declared that Jesus was raised from the dead and had spoken to him from heaven, Festus exclaimed, “Paul, thou art beside thyself … ; much learning doth make thee mad” (Acts xxvi, 24). These mystical doctrines, which to the converts seemed doubly sacred because they were beyond the reach of a mind untouched by grace, were to the Romans sheer lunacy. Some fifty years later Tacitus, who at one time was a provincial governor, speaks of the Christian belief as a “pernicious superstition” (superstitio exitiabilis). Suetonius, who had served as secretary to the Emperor Hadrian, calls it a “malignant superstition” (superstitio malefica). Pliny, governor of Bithynia, uses the word “madness” (amentia) and the phrase a “degraded and gross superstition” (superstitio prava et immodica). The men who entertained these opinions were, as we see, of the highest rank, and some famous in literature. The Christians were well aware of this attitude of intellectual disdain. From Justin Martyr we learn that the Romans still employed the same word to describe Christian belief that Festus used to Paul; he says, “For this belief the people accuse us of madness …” (Apol. XIII). Minucius Felix says it was considered a “vain and crazy superstition” (superstitio vana et demens). This was the attitude of the educated Roman official; very much the attitude that British rulers in Egypt would take toward the Mahdi or some wild prophet from the desert. The proconsul Vigellius Saturninus, in the course of the trial of The State vs. Speratus et al., held at Carthage (a.d. 180), also uses the same word “madness”. Another word that the Gentiles applied to Christian dogma in St. Paul's time was [mōría], which our authorized version translates as foolishness (I Cor. i, 21, 23). That word, too, was employed over a hundred years later, in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. At Pergamum, in the province of Asia, the proconsul who presided at the trial in State vs. Carpos et al., says to the prisoners, “Don't talk foolishness” … ; and again, in the course of the trial, he remarks that he has already “allowed them to talk a great deal of nonsense” … Such was the opinion of all these highly trained civil servants. To them this passionate, irrational religion was a species of frenzy, possible only for uneducated, superstitious, minds of the lowest social classes.

The origin of the infamous calumnies is not quite so plain. But calumny is like a spark that needs but tinder to create a blaze. Here the fuel was ready. In the beginning, the early Christians were mostly Jews, and shared in the unpopularity of that race. Gibbon says of them, “The sullen obstinacy with which they maintained their peculiar rites and unsocial manners seemed to mark them out a distinct species of men, who boldly professed, or who faintly disguised, their implacable hatred to the rest of human kind” (Decline and Fall, etc., Chap. XV). And not only were the first converts to Christianity disliked by the Romans because they were Jews, but they were also hated by their fellow Jews. It was the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, who raised the clamor that caused Jesus to be crucified, who stoned Stephen, and laid in wait to kill Paul, drove him from city to city, and haled him before magistrates. They regarded Christians as apostates, renegades, and traitors. When Paul arrived in Rome, the chief of the Jews said to him “as concerning this sect, we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts xxviii, 22). And Justin records that in the Jewish revolt under Hadrian, “Barchochebas, the ringleader, commanded that Christians should be dragged to cruel tortures, unless they would deny Jesus to be Christ, and blaspheme him” (Apol. XXXI). In their synagogues they used to curse the Christians, and those in authority sent out traducers and wrote letters to all nations, accusing Christians of all possible abominations, and in this way poisoned the public mind.

Such slanders found their opportunity in the secret meetings of the early disciples, in their communion rites, and in their kiss of peace; the grosser they were the more readily were they listened to, believed, and repeated. When the terrible conflagration in Nero's reign burned down a great part of Rome, and suspicion pointed to Nero, he tried to divert that suspicion to the Christians, knowing they had none to speak up for them, or perhaps the Jews accused them; and as they were not only detested, so Tacitus says, for their abominations (flagitia) but were also believed to hate the whole human race, Nero's cry was taken up and great numbers of the poor wretches were put to death with horrible tortures (Annals, XV, 44). And various causes contributed, each its share, to load the Christians with obloquy; one cause affected one group of people, another cause affected another group. Christian proselytizers broke up families. When a wife or daughter became converted, her heart went out to her new friends, and was lost to her husband or parents. Various traders, busied about the manufacture of images or some one of the many trades that ministered to the maintenance of pagan worship, felt a falling off in their business, and conceived bitter ill will against those who wrought their pecuniary losses. In Rome itself there was perhaps one added cause of suspicion against the new sect, for their liturgy, preaching, and propaganda were in Greek, which, however well known to the educated class, was an alien tongue to the populace and might well appear to conceal that which the speakers did not wish to be understood by eavesdroppers. Besides this, the Christians held themselves aloof, as superior persons, from their fellows. They would not go to the circus or the games, for they judged circus and games to be wicked; they would not be present at festivals, for all festivals were accompanied by pagan rites; they would not accept public office, and sought to evade military service; they would not illuminate their houses when all the world else was rejoicing; they would not take oaths required in business dealings. In short they constituted a world apart and would not mix with other men. Moreover, the Christians quarrelled among themselves and in consequence of the misbehavior of certain Gnostic sects (so the Christian historian Eusebius says) “a certain impious and most absurd suspicion was spread abroad among the unbelievers respecting us, as of persons who had unlawful commerce with mothers and sisters and made use of execrable food” (Eccles. Hist. IV, 7). From some such causes, and in some such way, the evil reputation of Christians sprang up and reached its height in the time of Marcus Aurelius.

Henry Ebel (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: “Matthew Arnold and Marcus Aurelius,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. III, No. 1, Winter, 1963, pp. 555-66.

[In the following essay, Ebel critiques an essay on Aurelius written by Matthew Arnold, finding it ambiguous, full of shifts and twists, but clearly revealing Arnold's sense of affinity with Aurelius.]

In 1863 Matthew Arnold had, in his own later words, “been thinking much of Marcus Aurelius and his times.”1 One result of his thinking was an essay entitled “Marcus Aurelius”—a review of George Long's rendering of the Meditations. A careful examination of this essay indicates how deeply involved Arnold in fact became with the Stoic Emperor and his times and how central this involvement was in the development of his thought.


Arnold's essay begins with a defense of “Christian morality” against certain strictures of John Stuart Mill, who had compared it unfavorably, in On Liberty, to “the best morality of the ancients.” No, Arnold insists, “Christian morality has not failed to supply to human life” the aids characteristic of all “systems of morality.” Indeed, “it has supplied them far more abundantly than most of its critics imagine,” and even the Imitation of Christ is “full of passages”—“moral precepts, and moral precepts of the best kind”—which “are equal to the best ever furnished by the great masters of morals—Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.”2 And Arnold goes on:

But moral rules, apprehended as ideas first, and then rigorously followed as laws, are, and must be, for the sage only. The mass of mankind have neither force of intellect enough to apprehend them clearly as ideas, nor force of character enough to follow them strictly as laws. The mass of mankind can be carried along a course full of hardship for the natural man, can be borne over the thousand impediments of the narrow way, only by the tide of a joyful and bounding emotion. It is impossible to rise from reading Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius without a sense of constraint and melancholy, without feeling that the burden laid upon man is well-nigh greater than he can bear. Honour to the sages who have felt this, and yet have borne it! Yet even for the sage this sense of labour and sorrow in his march towards the goal constitutes a relative inferiority; the noblest souls of whatever creed, the pagan Empedocles as well as the Christian Paul, have insisted on the necessity of an inspiration, a living emotion, to make moral action perfect; an obscure indication of this necessity is the one drop of truth in the ocean of verbiage with which the controversy on justification by faith has flooded the world. But, for the ordinary man, this sense of labour and sorrow constitutes an absolute disqualification; it paralyses him; under the weight of it, he cannot make way towards the goal at all. The paramount virtue of religion is that it has lighted up morality; that it has supplied the emotion and inspiration needful for carrying the sage along the narrow way perfectly, for carrying the ordinary man along it at all.

(p. 2)

Indeed, the man who rises from his Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius with “a sense of constraint and melancholy, [a] feeling that the burden laid upon man is well-nigh greater than he can bear,” is experiencing almost precisely the emotions that Arnold, a decade earlier, had feared “Empedocles on Etna” would inspire in its readers: “the suffering [that] finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.”3 But even more significantly, Arnold's phrase concerning “the tide of a joyful and bounding emotion,” with its key word “joy,”4 carries us forward, first, to Arnold's poem of mission and duty, “Obermann Once More”:

And yet men have such need of joy!
And joy whose grounds are true;
And joy that should all hearts employ
As when the past was new.(5)

—and then (coming, as it does, in conjunction with “the pagan Empedocles” and “the Christian Paul,” and with Arnold's tangential dismissal of the controversy over justification by faith) to St. Paul and Protestantism, and Arnold's “religious” works of the 1870's. I believe we are justified in suspecting, even at this point, that Arnold is sounding the central chords of his thought.

Arnold goes on in his essay:

Even the religions with most dross in them have something of this virtue; but the Christian religion manifests it with unexampled splendour. “Lead me, Zeus and Providence,” says the prayer of Epictetus, “whithersoever I am appointed to go; I will follow without wavering; even though I turn coward and shrink, I shall have to follow all the same.” The fortitude of that is for the strong, for the few; even for them, the spiritual atmosphere with which it surrounds them is bleak and grey. But [in words of the Old and New Testaments there is] the ray of sunshine … the glow of a divine warmth; the austerity of the sage melts away under it, the paralysis of the weak is healed; he who is vivified by it renews his strength; “all things are possible to Him [sic];” “he is a new creature.”

(pp. 2-3).

Arnold has by now introduced two systems of personification, from both of which he himself remains aloof. On the one hand we have “the mass of mankind,” “the ordinary man,” “the weak”; on the other, we have “the sage,” “the noblest souls of whatever creed,” “the strong,” “the few.” And Arnold's apparently dispassionate arrangement of these two categories of mankind is the basis for his similarly aloof contraposition of pagan and Christian morality (with the palm awarded to the latter). This aloofness gains interest when we notice an inconsistency: Marcus Aurelius has dropped altogether from the scene and Arnold is speaking, merely, of the “fortitude” of Epictetus and the “austerity of the sage”—contrasting this hard coldness to the “sunshine” and “glow” of Judæo-Christian religion. Yet earlier in the same paragraph Arnold has clearly bracketed Marcus Aurelius with Epictetus as one whose writings leave the reader with a “sense of constraint and melancholy,” and whose “sense of labour and sorrow in his march towards the goal constitutes a relative inferiority.” Our sense that the inconsistency is significant, that Arnold's aloofness is perhaps not so thoroughgoing after all, is soon confirmed. For Arnold now contrasts the “warmth” and “emotion” of a saying of Jesus to the colder rationality of a similar saying of Epictetus, and praises “Christian morality in general” for the way in which it propounds its maxims “with an inspiration which wonderfully catches the hearer and makes him act upon it,” and delivers some parenthetical remarks on John Stuart Mill (p. 3). Then suddenly, in what is syntactically but not logically the beginning of a new paragraph and section of his essay, he writes: “That which gives to the moral writings of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius their peculiar character and charm, is their being suffused and softened by something of this very sentiment whence Christian morality draws its best power” (p. 3). Were the writer anyone but Arnold we might be tempted to say that he has tried to escape, by stylistic hit-and-run tactics and devious paragraphing, from a comparison he is unable to carry through. In Arnold's writing, however—and to this Culture and Anarchy bears pre-eminent witness—the man himself is too deeply involved in his prose, too “committed,” for us to be certain that he is not also tricking himself.


In a discussion which for precision and fineness is reminiscent of the lectures On Translating Homer, Arnold now examines Long's translation (pp. 3-6). And he goes on to say:

The man whose thoughts Mr. Long has thus faithfully reproduced, is perhaps the most beautiful figure in history. He is one of those consoling and hope-inspiring marks, which stand for ever to remind our weak and easily discouraged race how high human goodness and perseverance have once been carried, and may be carried again. … Marcus Aurelius was the ruler of the grandest of empires; and he was one of the best of men. Besides him, history presents one or two other sovereigns eminent for their goodness, such as Saint Louis or Alfred. But Marcus Aurelius has, for us moderns, this great superiority in interest over Saint Louis or Alfred, that he lived and acted in a state of society modern by its essential characteristics, in an epoch akin to our own, in a brilliant centre of civilization. … Marcus Aurelius thus becomes for us a man like ourselves, a man in all things tempted as we are. … Neither Alfred nor Saint Louis can be morally and intellectually as near to us as Marcus Aurelius.

(pp. 6-7)

We are instantly alerted, here, by a profound shift in emphasis: the man from whose writings one could not rise “without a sense of constraint and melancholy” has become a “consoling and hope-inspiring” figure for a race whose weakness and discouragement is now apparently congenital, and not to be attributed to its choice of literature. But a shift of an even more significant kind has taken place. Whereas Arnold, in setting up the two systems of personification discussed above, used the third person singular and plural exclusively (“the mass of mankind,” “he,” “the ordinary man,” “the sage,” “the weak”), we are now confronted with one of these systems in the first person plural: “our weak and easily discouraged race,” “us moderns,” “an epoch akin to our own,” “a man like ourselves, a man in all things tempted as we are,” “as near to us as Marcus Aurelius.” Remembering Arnold's propensity for using a collective noun or pronoun when he really means something akin to “I,” we may suspect at this point, not that a crude substitution of the first person singular would bring out what Arnold “really means,” but simply that the shift is more than superficial: that Arnold has moved some steps closer to his subject not only in his formal argument (by declaring Marcus Aurelius a “modern”), but in the subtleties of feeling that underlie that argument.

Having discussed the Emperor's account of his education (p. 8), Arnold indicates the extent to which Marcus Aurelius's contemporaries and successors recognized his unexampled goodness (pp. 8-9), and goes on to defend him on two counts: that “he persecuted the Christians, and he had for his son the vicious and brutal Commodus” (p. 9). Arnold begins his defense of Marcus Aurelius on the first of these counts with great firmness and certainty—his prose at this point moves with an almost Augustan tread—tracing those “prejudices” which made it impossible for “a Roman of Marcus Aurelius's time” to view early Christianity with the benefits of nineteenth-century hindsight, prejudices which make it absurd to imagine “Trajan, or Antoninus Pius, or Marcus Aurelius, fresh from the perusal of the Gospel, fully aware of the spirit and holiness of the Christian saints, ordering their extermination because they loved darkness rather than light” (p. 9).6 He goes so far as to suggest that the Christians may, to some extent, have brought the Emperor's persecution on themselves; that they really did have faults of their own,

faults especially likely to strike such an observer as Marcus Aurelius. … Who can doubt that among the professing Christians of the second century, as among the professing Christians of the nineteenth, there was plenty of folly, plenty of rabid nonsense, plenty of gross fanaticism; who will even venture of affirm, that, separated in great measure from the intellect and civilization of the world for one or two centuries, Christianity, wonderful as have been its fruits, had the development perfectly worthy of its inestimable germ?

(pp. 10-11)

What follows now is one of the most uncomfortable twists of thought in the essay. Continuing this line of argument through four more sentences, and bringing it to what is stylistically a strong and full conclusion, Arnold then proceeds, within the same paragraph, to answer himself in what is in effect another voice. I have marked with a double asterisk what seems to me to be the curious turning-point in the argument:

Who will venture to affirm, that, by the alliance of Christianity with the virtue and intelligence of men like the Antonines, of the best product of Greek and Roman civilisation, while Greek and Roman civilisation had yet life and power, Christianity and the world, as well as the Antonines themselves, would not have been gainers?7 That alliance was not to be; the Antonines lived and died with an utter misconception of Christianity; Christianity grew up in the Catacombs, not on the Palatine. Marcus Aurelius incurs no moral reproach by having authorised the punishment of the Christians; he does not thereby become in the least what we mean by a persecutor. ** One may concede that it was impossible for him to see Christianity as it really was;—as impossible as for even the moderate and sensible Fleury to see the Antonines as they really were;—one may concede that the point of view from which Christianity appeared something anti-civil and anti-social, which the State had the faculty to judge and the duty to suppress, was inevitably his. Still, however, it remains true that this sage, who made perfection his aim and reason his law, did Christianity an immense injustice, and rested in an idea of State-attributes which was illusive. And this is, in truth, characteristic of Marcus Aurelius, that he is blameless, yet, in a certain sense, unfortunate; in his character, beautiful as it is, there is something melancholy, circumscribed, and ineffectual.


Sensitized by Arnold's abrupt shift in tone, our ears should tingle at his mention of “the State” and perk at the phrase “an idea of State-attributes which was illusive.” If my own ear does not fail me, then the idea of Marcus Aurelius “rest[ing] in an idea of State-attributes which was illusive” is not quite apt here, seems to go beyond the matter, evidence, and argument at hand; and we have had a glimpse of Arnold's continuing (and here obtrusive) concern with a theme that will be central to Culture and Anarchy. The adjective “ineffectual” (on which Arnold will insist again in a moment) seems similarly intrusive. To say that in the Emperor's character there is something “melancholy” and “circumscribed” is to echo (without much further substantiation) the opening of the essay, in which Marcus Aurelius was bracketed with Epictetus. Even this is admissible, however, compared with Arnold's use of “ineffectual” to characterize the man who was the caretaker of the Roman Empire for nineteen years, who performed this task to the utmost of his considerable abilities, and who seemed to his contemporaries a virtual incarnation of goodness—unless we are to dissociate the man from his “character,” and say that the “character” could have effected what the man did not. In the end, the “certain sense” in which Marcus Aurelius is “unfortunate,” “melancholy,” “circumscribed,” and “ineffectual” is Arnold's own sense, and not that of the surface argument of his essay.

Arnold carries his thought into the subsequent paragraph (pp. 11-12), which constitutes his defense of Marcus Aurelius “for having such a son as Commodus.” Here we notice the uncomfortable movement of successive sentences begun with “But” and “Still” (a paragraph later this movement is complicated even further with an initial “Yet”), the generally choppy and hesitant movement of the prose, the mechanical use of conjunctions and prepositions. The paragraph concludes:

Still one cannot help wishing that the example of Marcus Aurelius could have availed more with his only son; one cannot but think that with such virtue as his there should go, too, the ardour which removes mountains, and that the ardour which removes mountains might have even won Commodus; the world ineffectual again rises to one's mind; Marcus Aurelius saved his own soul by righteousness, and he could do no more. Happy they, who can do this! but still happier, who can do more!

(pp. 11-12)

—and once again, the adjective “ineffectual” does not rise to the mind with quite the buoyancy Arnold attributes to it. Here, too, there is an undercurrent of thought and feeling at work, whose tendencies become even more evident when Arnold's argument once again turns upon itself: “Yet, when one passes from his outward to his inward life, when one turns over the pages of his Meditations … all disposition to carp and cavil dies away, and one is overpowered by the charm of a character of such purity, delicacy, and virtue” (p. 12).

Thus the sense of “constraint and melancholy” which Arnold first applied to the writings of Marcus Aurelius, and which he then shifted to the Emperor's “character” (though the Meditations are our only evidence for the inner workings of that character) and “substantiated” with biographical evidence, is here, at last, segregated from the writings altogether!


Arnold now works out, once more, a thought which strikingly prefigures his “religious” writings,8 and then embarks on a major attempt at pulling together the increasingly ambiguous strands of his essay. He picks up the imagery of “light” and “sunshine” which has played over his essay like a metaphor seeking its métier,9 and codifies it thus:

I have said that it is by its accent of emotion that the morality of Marcus Aurelius acquires a special character, and reminds one of Christian morality. The sentences of Seneca are stimulating to the intellect; the sentences of Epictetus are fortifying to the character; the sentences of Marcus Aurelius find their way to the soul. I have said that religious emotion has the power to light up morality; the emotion of Marcus Aurelius does not quite light up his morality, but it suffuses it; it has not power to melt the clouds of effort and austerity quite away, but it shines through them and glorifies them; it is a spirit, not so much of gladness and elation, as of gentleness and sweetness; a delicate and tender sentiment, which is less than joy and more than resignation. He says that in his youth he learned from Maximus, one of his teachers, “cheerfulness in all circumstances as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity;” and it is this very admixture of sweetness with his dignity, which makes him so beautiful a moralist.

(pp. 13-14)10

Arnold has now elaborated and juxtaposed the two elements of the central metaphor of Culture and Anarchy: sweetness and light. In Culture and Anarchy the metaphor will be closely associated with Hellenism—“Hellenism, and human life in the hands of Hellenism … are full of what we call sweetness and light”11—encountering, and striving to pierce, clouds of darkness and confusion. And the genesis of the metaphor here gains interest when, elsewhere in Arnold's essay, we find something very like the Hellenism of Culture and Anarchy. Having stressed the “modernity” of Marcus Aurelius and his times (a theme first touched upon in the 1857 lecture “On the Modern Element in Literature”),12 Arnold goes on to say, in a passage which I have hitherto only paraphrased: “The vices and foibles of the Greek sophist or rhetorician, the Græculus esuriens, are in everybody's mind; but he who reads Marcus Aurelius's account of his Greek teachers and masters, will understand how it is that in spite of the vices and foibles of individual Græculi, the education of the human race owes to Greece a debt which can never be overrated” (p.8). In a rudimentary form, we have here the idea of Hellenism working in the best endeavors of Roman culture, much as Arnold will soon see it striving even in the deleteriously Hebraized culture of nineteenth-century England. Sweetness, light, and Hellenism: to adapt a term from Shakespeare studies, there is a potential cluster of metaphors in this essay whose coupling is soon to take place.

Arnold's drawing-together of his metaphor serves to introduce a virtual prose poem in which he hymns his subject: “gentleness … sweetness … a delicate and tender sentiment … sweetness … beautiful … a delicate penetration … a sympathetic tenderness …” (p.14); a few lines further on we learn that “it is when his strain passes to directly moral subjects that his delicacy and sweetness lend to it the greatest charm” (p.14); and a quotation is introduced with an admonition to “those who can feel the beauty of spiritual refinement” (p.14). If this, too, seems to go somewhat beyond the matter at hand, if Arnold seems to sweep away with unpremeditated passion the perilous structure of qualification and counter-qualification he has erected, with its irreconcilable ambiguities, we will not at this point be surprised.


The conclusion of Arnold's essay is in sight. Having illustrated his subject's “sweetness” and “resolute thankfulness” with a number of passages from the Meditations (pp.15-16), as well as his striving after a character he wished to attain, his “sense of shortcoming” (pp.16-17), and his compensatory lack of illusion concerning “the spectacle afforded to him by his fellow-creatures” (p.18), Arnold enters upon a finale which again has many of the elements of a prose poem. Here Marcus Aurelius emerges as “the especial friend and comforter of all those scrupulous and difficult, yet pure and upward-striving souls, in those ages most especially, that walk by sight not by faith, that have no open vision; he cannot give such souls, perhaps, all they yearn for, but he gives them much; and what he gives them, they can receive” (pp.18-19). And Arnold's argument undergoes a final reversal:

Yet no: it is not on this account that such souls love him most; it is rather because of the emotion which gives his voice so touching an accent, it is because he, too, yearns as they do for something unattained by him. What an affinity for Christianity had this persecutor of the Christians! the effusion of Christianity, its relieving tears, its happy self-sacrifice, were the very element, one feels, for which his spirit longed; they were near him, he touched them, he passed them by.


Arnold's conclusion is as memorable, as magnificently poised, as that of the Preface to the first Essays in Criticism: “We see him wise, just, self-governed, tender, thankful, blameless; yet, with all this, agitated, stretching out his arms for something beyond,—tendentemque manus ripæ ulterioris amore” (p.19).—Yet it is not Marcus Aurelius who stretches his arms, who “yearns,” but the “souls” who live “in those ages … that walk by sight not by faith,” who love him because they feel that “he, too, yearns as they do for something unattained by him”; it is not Marcus Aurelius who “yearns” but Arnold himself, the Arnold of “Dover Beach” and “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” the Arnold of “Obermann Once More” (with its flat, weak, and unconvincing ending), the Arnold who, within a few years, will undertake the mission of imbuing the world with a joy which he himself cannot feel. And Arnold's sense of affinity with Marcus Aurelius is at the heart of the ambiguous and revealing essay occasioned by Mr. Long's translation from the Greek.13


  1. Matthew Arnold, “Pagan and Christian Religious Sentiment,” The Cornhill Magazine, IX (April, 1864), 424.

  2. Matthew Arnold, “Marcus Aurelius,” The Victoria Magazine, II (November, 1863), 2. Hereafter, page-references to this essay are given in parentheses in the body of my text.

  3. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. R. H. Super, Vol. I: On the Classical Tradition (Ann Arbor, 1960), 2-3.

  4. “Joy” recurs again, with great significance for Arnold's development, in his essay “Pagan and Christian Religious Sentiment,” p. 434: “That is where the sentiment of a religion of sorrow has such a vast advantage over the sentiment of a religion of pleasure, in its power to be a general, popular, religious sentiment, a stay for the mass of mankind, whose lives are full of hardship. It really succeeds in conveying far more joy, far more of what the mass of mankind are so much without, than its rival.”

  5. Matthew Arnold, New Poems (London, 1867), p. 234. The immediately preceding stanza (“The millions suffer still, and grieve, And what can helpers heal With old-world cures men half believe For woes they wholly feel?”), together with this one, should be compared with the sentences I have quoted from “Pagan and Christian Religious Sentiment,” note 4.

  6. Here, as elsewhere in his essay, Arnold seems partly to be engaged in a wrestle with Mill's On Liberty—not the section directly critical of Christianity, but Mill's discussion of Marcus Aurelius as a supremely wise and good man who erred on the side of suppression. Thus, Mill had written in Chapter II of On Liberty (London, 1859), pp. 49-50: “Inasmuch then as the theology of Christianity did not appear to [Marcus Aurelius] true or of divine origin; inasmuch as this strange history of a crucified God was not credible to him, and a system which purported to rest entirely upon a foundation to him so wholly unbelievable, could not be foreseen by him to be that renovating agency which, after all abatements, it has in fact proved to be; the gentlest and most amiable of philosophers and rulers … authorized the persecution of Christianity.”

  7. Compare Mill, On Liberty, p. 50: “It is a bitter thought, how different a thing the Christianity of the world might have been, if the Christian faith had been adopted as the religion of the empire under the auspices of Marcus Aurelius instead of those of Constantine.”

  8. That “Christianity uses language very liable to be misunderstood when it seems to tell men to do good … that ‘their Father which seeth in secret may reward them openly.’ The motives of reward and punishment have come, from the misconception of language of this kind, to be strangely over-pressed by many Christian moralists, to the deterioration and disfigurement of Christianity” (p. 13). We are not too far, here, from the idea that St. Paul sometimes “Orientalizes,” and that Oriental metaphors can harden into dogma.

  9. Systems of morality provide a powerful aid to human life “in its days of languor and gloom as well as in its days of sunshine and energy” (p. 1); the paramount virtue of religion is “that it has lighted up morality” (p. 2); the spiritual atmosphere with which the fortitude of the strong and the few surrounds them “is bleak and grey” (p. 2); and so forth.

  10. But Arnold never becomes conscious of the unintended metaphorical continuity between his description of the spiritual effect of sentences from the Old and New Testaments—“the austerity of the sage melts away under it, the paralysis of the weak is healed; he who is vivified by it renews his strength” (p. 3)—and: “[Marcus Aurelius's] account of his education … is a refreshing and consoling picture, a priceless treasure …” (p. 8).

  11. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. J. Dover Wilson (Cambridge, 1960), p. 134.

  12. In this lecture Arnold had argued at length that “in the age of Pericles we have, in spite of its antiquity, a highly-developed, a modern, a deeply-interesting epoch.” Of the Roman world he concluded that we do not find in it “a commensurate literature,” or anything to match the “enduring interest of Greek literature, and, above all, of Greek poetry,” but that it too was “a highly modern, a deeply significant, an interesting period—a period more significant and more interesting, because fuller, than the great period of Greece” (The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, I, 28-37). A part of the letter Arnold wrote to his sister “K” from Nimes, on 22 May 1859 (Unpublished Letters of Matthew Arnold, ed. Arnold Whitridge [New Haven, 1923], pp. 44-45), offers a bridge between this lecture and “Marcus Aurelius”; and shows incidentally how dramatic a shift of conviction Arnold underwent before writing “Pagan and Christian Religious Sentiment.”

  13. To F. W. H. Myers (1843-1901) must go the credit for first firmly amalgamating Arnold to the Stoic tradition. In his obituary essay “Matthew Arnold” (Fortnightly Review, N.S. XLIII [1888], 722-724) Myers insists that Arnold's excursion into religion was no “wanton divergence” but a bold attempt at “carrying over the prestige and beauty of both Old and New Testament into the Stoic camp. …” But Myers concludes that “by no arts, no flexibility, could he pour Christian wine into Stoic bottles; by no unction, no optimist temper, could he identify the religion of renunciation with the religion of hope.” It is in this essay that we find Myers's famous sentence: “[Arnold] has been treated as a flippant and illusory Christian, instead of as a specially devout and conservative Agnostic.” William Robbins, in The Ethical Idealism of Matthew Arnold (Toronto, 1959), p. 75, quotes this sentence as an “epigrammatic remark” which was “one of the shrewdest” tributes paid to Arnold after his death. But the “remark” is imbedded in a remarkably shrewd essay.

Brand Blanshard (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “Marcus Aurelius” in Four Reasonable Men, Wesleyan University Press, 1984, pp. 3-53.

[In the following excerpt, Blanshard analyzes Aurelius's Stoic philosophy and discusses problems with its ways of dealing with emotion, pain, death, and pleasure.]


No one would now deny that reasonable living requires the control of emotion by thought. Unfortunately the Stoics tried not merely to control feeling but to annihilate it. Anger, fear, grief, pity were for them not the allies but the enemies of reason, and it was better to get rid of them altogether than to try to tame and harness them. That so extreme an attitude should be regarded as conformable to human nature is not easy to sympathize with or to understand. It is true that anger often leads to the unleashing of tongue and fists and to vindictive forms of punishment, which the Stoics rejected in principle. But, as McDougall pointed out, anger is sometimes essential, as in putting the fear of the law into those who would take advantage of others. As to fear, it is what such people ought to feel, and the fear of illness, extreme pain, and death are at least eminently natural, even though the Stoics found it easy to show that they were often groundless. It is hardest of all to go along with the Stoics about such emotions as grief and pity. When Anaxagoras was told that his son had died, his detached comment was: “I never supposed that I had begotten an immortal.” The scholar Anthony Birley remarks that what we call “natural affection” was “a quality which the Roman upper-classes lacked—in fact, as Fronto pointed out to Lucius, there was no word for it in Latin.”1 Pity too was an emotion to be avoided. In Seneca's De Clementia elaborate distinctions are drawn between clemency, as a rational disposition to be moderate in imposing punishments, and pity, which is set down as a feeble emotional flinching at the sight of suffering. “The sage will console those who weep, but without weeping with them. … He will feel no pity. … His countenance and his soul will betray no emotion as he looks upon the withered legs, the tattered rags, the bent and emaciated frame of the beggar.”2 He will help the beggar as a suffering human being; but he will not share the suffering himself.

Marcus read Seneca and the other Stoics, and seems to have given a formal assent to this inhuman theory of emotion as disease. He aims at freedom from “passions that estrange from reason's dictates” (2.5); he holds that “to be vexed or angry or afeared, is to make oneself a runaway” (10.25) from the life of reason. But the eyes that peer through this iron mask are those of a warmhearted human being, even while he is preaching his ruthless doctrine. In recounting with characteristic gratitude what he owed to one of his teachers, Sextus, he records: “From Sextus, kindliness; … the universal cordiality, which made his society more agreeable than any flattery, … avoiding all display of anger or emotion, and showing a perfect combination of unimpassioned yet affectionate concern” (1.9). His “whoops of blessing” over his teachers, his “affectionate concern” about his friends shown in the letters to Fronto, his desolation at the loss of his children, and his love for Faustina, apparently maintained through life and death, are not the behavior of a man with a stone where his heart should be.


Better known than their attitude toward the emotions is the Stoics' attitude toward pain. Here they faced a supreme test, and they met it, if not with complete wisdom, at least with extraordinary courage. Pain they regarded as an affair of the body; but if intense, it could subvert the equanimity and control of the mind. They did not deny its reality like the present-day Christian Scientists; it was an obtrusively existent bodily evil; but it could be mitigated by prudent strategy. Marcus's main concern about it was that it should not reach and distort his soul, his higher faculties. “In sickness or pain remind yourself that it cannot demean or vitiate your pilot understanding; it does not impair it on the universal or the social side. In most cases you may find support in the saying of Epicurus, that ‘pain cannot be past bearing or everlasting, if only you bear in mind its limits, and do not let fancy supplement them’” (7.64). Again, “the soul can maintain its own unclouded calm, and refuse to view [pain] as evil. For every judgment or impulse or inclination or avoidance is within, and nothing evil can force entrance there” (8.28).

Such philosophic considerations do not seem very powerful as analgesics, and a sharp toothache can end abruptly the profoundest philosophizing. Nevertheless Marcus had hold of an important truth when he said that in the presence of pains we should “not let fancy supplement them.” Pain is a puzzle. Consider that a football player can receive a serious injury and not even be aware of it until after the game is over. What does that say about pain? Surely this, that the mere direction of attention can make a great difference; that when attention is strongly focused in another direction, what would normally arouse intense pain may cause none at all. Surgical operations have been successfully performed under the hypnotic suggestion that they will be painless. On the other hand, persons who go to a dentist with the expectation of intense pain and concentrate on the first prick of the anesthetic needle as its herald are far more likely to experience it. Marcus was surely right in maintaining that the power of thought over pain, though its exact laws are unknown, is much greater than is generally supposed. He went so far as to say: “If you are pained by anything without, it is not the thing [that] agitates you, but your own judgment concerning the thing; and this it is in your own power to efface” (8.47). To be sure, this is Sparta speaking, not Athens. It is a doctrine for heroes, but hardly for plain persons with normal nerves.

The tragedy of Stoicism is that in its very dedication to man's highest faculty, reason, it developed an inhuman scorn for his lower experiences. It made one or two helpful suggestions, as we have seen, for countering pain, but its main suggestion was that of Keble to Pusey about dealing with doubt: put it down by main force. The Stoic heroes were men like Posidonius, who once when he was ill and in much pain was called upon by Pompey in the hope of hearing a lecture on philosophy. When Pompey found the philosopher in such extremities, he saluted him and started to leave, expressing his disappointment that he was not able to hear him lecture. “But you are able,” was the reply, “nor can I allow that bodily pain should cause so great a man to come to me in vain.” Whereupon Posidonius poured out a discourse with his usual eloquence, only pausing occasionally when interrupted by paroxysms of pain to exclaim, “You are making no impression, pain! …”3 Marcus thanks Providence for having introduced him to the works of Epictetus, the knowledge of which he regarded as one of the chief blessings of his life. He must have been familiar with the story of how the slave Epictetus was once being beaten by a sadistically cruel master. He warned his master that continuing might break his leg. The man did go on and did break the leg. Epictetus merely remarked, “I told you you would do so,” but refused to descend to his master's level of anger or abuse, holding that, being what he was, he was bound to act in accordance with his nature. “Not to do likewise,” Marcus observed, “is the best revenge” (6.6).


For most people the greatest of evils is probably not illness or pain, but death. The Meditations are thickly strewn with reflections on the transiency of life and the imminence of death; Marcus seems almost obsessed by them. “A free man thinks of nothing less than death,” said Spinoza;4 but to this Marcus is a conspicuous exception. What is interesting about his thought of death is not so much his conception of it, which followed that of other Stoic philosophers, but his inward attitude toward it. The event itself was prosaic enough—earth to earth, dust to dust, oblivion. It was clear that the body dissolved away; the soul too, though invisible, was material, a sort of fiery ether, and was presumably reabsorbed into the cosmic ether. Personality ceased. Marcus obviously did not like this conclusion and hints at the possibility of some kind of survival. “Death, in a universe of atoms, is dispersion; but if all is a unity, death is either extinction or transmutation” (7.32). But what such “transmutation” meant remained a mystery.

Death was in effect a dreamless sleep. Was there anything to be feared in that? Marcus thought not. We knew what it was like; we had spent many nights in it, and before our births many thousands of years in it. Peace and repose deserved welcome rather than fear. Among the pagan philosophers, who for the most part took death as the end, the alternative was the continuance of one's old personality, as Socrates thought; but the idea that this continued life might be one of penance and torture seems not to have entered their heads. It is strange that the introduction of endless terror should have been contributed by Christianity, which, ignoring the doctrine that God is love, consigned all who lacked faith to unending misery. Untroubled by such nightmares, Marcus took death as he tried to take other events, with equanimity. “Dying after all is but one among life's acts; there too our business is ‘to make the best of it’” (6.2). By this he did not mean that we should take it lightly. As an important and certain event, we should prepare for it. He thought, for example, that our higher faculties, those of judgment, analysis, and inference, were the first to go, and that it was prudent, therefore, to make our plans regarding death and its consequences early, while yet those powers were fresh (3.1). On this point of the early decline of the higher powers, Marcus has, I think, been proved wrong: the life of the athlete is a short one, while much of the best work of philosophers has been done in later years. Marcus spoke with more authority when he held that the thought of death was a good medicine for pride. One can hardly be the first man in the civilized world without strong temptations to self-glorification. But “Death put Alexander of Macedon and his stable boy on a par” (6.24). It is the archdemocrat, with no trace of respect for persons.

There is much in the Meditations about how we should live in light of the transiency of life. We do not know when “time's winged chariot,” which is never far behind us, will catch up, and this should lead us to sit down and order our “priorities.” Dr. Johnson grimly remarked that nothing so concentrated the mind as the knowledge that one was to be hanged a day or two later. Johnson himself was terrified of death; Marcus was not; but still he mused on the transiency of life again and again. “He who realizes that at any moment he may be called on to leave the world and to depart from among men, commits himself without reserve to do justice in all his actions, to Nature in all that befalls. To what will be said or thought of him, to what will be done against him, he does not give a thought; but is content with two things only—to be just in his dealings and glad at his apportioned lot” (10.11). Men should so order their affairs as to be ready at any time for their discharge from service. The last of Marcus's jottings is: “Serenely take your leave; serene as he who gives you the discharge” (12.36). And he fortified this serenity by the curiously cogent and simple argument of Epicurus to prove that we never meet death at all: while we are here, it is not, and when it is here, we are not.

Bacon, in his little essay “Of Death,” criticizes the Stoics for making too much of death. It is well, he holds, to think about it enough to make one's peace with it, but not so constantly as to cast a long shadow of morbidity over one's life. Life is for achieving certain great goods, and what is most important about them is their goodness, not the time they last. Death haunts the Meditations and accounts for much of its pervasive melancholy.

Is it permitted us to leave life when we will? According to the Western religious tradition, God has “fixed his canon 'gainst self-slaughter,” and suicide commonly brings not only disapproval from others but a taint of the macabre that may hang about a family. Things were otherwise in ancient Rome. Life was cheaper and death more familiar; it was called for by the crowds at gladiatorial shows; the rate of infant deaths was appalling; and people were far more helpless against disease. Furthermore death did not bear the eschatological terror that it bore for Jonathan Edwards' “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” If death was repose, the Stoic teachers felt that one had a right to it if for any reason life had hopelessly lost its savor or become a crushing burden to others. Stoicism laid stress on this right to part with life when it had become a liability, and held in admiration, not in contumely, those who exercised that right. Zeno, the founder of the sect, Cleanthes, his successor, Cato the younger, a symbol of probity and courage to the Romans, and Seneca the moralist were all Stoics, and all ended their own lives at the time and in the way that seemed to them fitting. Marcus himself seems to have hastened the end when he saw it was inevitable. Needless to say, he was not in favor of playing fast and loose with life, throwing it away romantically or impulsively; that would clearly be against reason. But sometimes reason approved. “The cabin smokes—so I take leave of it. Why make ado? But so long as there is no such notice to quit, I remain free, and none will hinder me from doing what I will; that is, to conform to the nature of a reasonable social being” (5.29).


Was life for the Stoic, then, all a matter of grim and military self-control, with no place for spontaneous happiness or pleasure? If these things were taken as ends, after the manner of the fashionable Epicureans, the Stoics did repudiate them. But in order to understand their view, one needs to see that there is a difference between pleasure and happiness: pleasure is the satisfaction of the short-range impulses like hunger, thirst, sex, the seeing of a play, the winning of a game; happiness attends the satisfaction of the long-range endeavors of a life, finding oneself through a vocation, developing a system of thought, raising a family, intercourse with other minds. For a creature endowed with reason, that is, with ability to see what was important and what was not, the deliberate pursuit of the satisfactions of the moment was a prostitution of its powers. Not that one was never to relax in the enjoyment of these things; but man was a being who lived on various levels; pleasure of a sensual kind is something shared with the animals, and belonged on the lower levels of one's constitution. It was the teaching of Zeno that virtue was self-sufficient for happiness, and of Seneca that “Pleasure [or, as we should say, happiness] is the companion, not the guide, of our course.” “We do not love virtue because it gives us pleasure, but it gives us pleasure because we love it.”5

Marcus Aurelius took a similar view. To follow reason was to gain the happiness of peace within and a lasting self-respect. “In the constitution of the reasoning being I perceive no virtue in mutiny against justice; in mutiny against pleasure I see self-control” (8.39). And self-control brought the highest happiness. In line with this conviction that man was a stratified creature with reason at the top, Marcus accepted unprotestingly the extreme view of the Stoics that virtue was an affair of all or nothing. Either an act conformed to reason and was therefore perfectly right, or it did not, and then it fell into the dark region where all acts are black. This was not wholly without evidence. If you use your reason to add 7 and 5, there is only one right answer, and if you say 11, you are just as truly wrong as if you say 1,000. So Marcus and his school refused, at least formally, to recognize degrees of virtue, although of course he did not treat others or administer justice in accordance with this theory. Aurelius was obviously a better man and a better ruler than Nero, even though both fell short of perfection. Indeed the Stoics would have been nearer the truth if they had said that all rightness is a matter of degree. A respected former teacher of mine, Professor H. A. Prichard, said he doubted whether he had ever done a right act in his life, and though he was a very good man, this was quite possibly true. A right act depends, in part at least, upon its consequences in the way of intrinsic values, and such consequences extend so far into the future that one can never be sure one has exhausted them or therefore where the action lies on the ethical scale. Probability, as Butler said, is the guide of life.


What would the perfect Stoic be like? He would be the famous “passionless sage,” whose inward life was untouched by the seductions of pleasure or the assaults of pain. He would not be ambitious for wealth or reputation or power or property, for these were unnecessary to the health of the inward man and might prove more distracting than helpful. Anger, envy, jealousy, and malice would be cut off by his understanding that human nature is what it is, and that aberrations will only be worsened by retorts in kind.

A man so minded, and committed finally to the pursuit of virtue, is indeed a priest and minister of gods, true to that inward and implanted power, which keeps a man unsoiled by pleasure, invulnerable by pain, free from all touch of arrogance, innocent of all baseness, a combatant in the greatest of all combats, which is the mastery of passion, steeped in justice to the core, and with his whole heart welcoming all that befalls him as his portion. … He forgets not his bond of brotherhood with every rational creature; nor that the law of man's nature implies concern for all men; and that he must not hold by the opinion of the world, but of those only who live conformably to nature


The Stoic, it must be admitted, sounds at times like the Pharisee who was concerned with nothing but his own inward purity and conformity to law. He was not a good Samaritan, melting with sympathy for suffering, and Christian love remains a blank in Roman ethics. But it did have its own substitute. Marcus wrote of the “bond of brotherhood with every rational creature,” by which he meant that among men there was a network of rights and duties constructed by reason. If I prize a book for the illumination it gives me or a statue for the beauty I find in it, then I must admit, if I am reasonable, that a like illumination or a like experience of beauty in someone else is also to be prized; it is the quality of the experience that makes it good, not the fact that it is mine or yours. If wisdom and beauty are good in my own life, then it is my rational duty to grant they are the same in other's lives; and it is the rational right of others to demand that I do so. And these reciprocal relations of rights and duties do not hold between you and me merely; they hold between all men everywhere. Here in bud is the idea of a world city with a world citizenship, an international brotherhood that knows no fences of nation, sex, or race. “You are part of a social whole, a factor necessary to complete the sum; therefore your every action should help to complete the social life. Any action of yours that does not tend, directly or remotely, to this social end, dislocates life and infringes its unity. It is an act of sedition …” (9.23). “Socially, as Antoninus, my city and country is Rome, as a man, the world” (6.44). It is hardly possible to overrate the importance of this idea. It carries in germ the conception of the brotherhood of men as rational beings, of a United Nations appealing to a common reason, of world law, of a world city or state.


Marcus carried much farther this notion of a world community bound together by reason. The whole universe was such a community. Every event that happens issues from converging lines of causation that run back into the infinite past, and every event will contribute to forming an indefinite future. And Marcus believed, truly I think, that the connection of causality is not just one of uniform sequence, or B always following A, though for no intelligible reason. “Subsequents follow antecedents by bond of inner consequence; it is no merely numerical sequence of arbitrary and isolated units, but a rational interconnexion” (4.45). That implies that the world is an intelligible whole, whether we succeed in understanding it or not; indeed that has been the postulate of the great tradition of rationalism in philosophy. Marcus was an emphatic determinist. “Whatever befalls was fore-prepared for you from all time; the woof of causation was from all eternity weaving the realisation of your being, and that which should befall it” (10.5). “Does aught befall you? It is well—a part of the destiny of the universe ordained for you from the beginning; all that befalls was part of the great web” (4.26).

Now if the world is a system of this sort, there are no rifts in nature, no miracles, no luck good or bad, no accidents, nothing that with sufficient knowledge would not be predictable. Such determinism was for Marcus a ground for general compassion. If you destroyed yesterday a picture or a reputation, and in doing so did what you could have avoided, what the indeterminist says to you is: “You did what was wrong, what you knew to be wrong, and what you need not have done. What ground for compassion do you leave me?” The determinist says: “Poor fellow, given your nature and nurture, I knew you only did what you had to do. There but for the grace of genes go I.”

William James once said in his whimsical way that the best attitude to take toward free will and determinism was to claim freedom for yourself and count everyone else as determined. One can then say of the rest of the world, Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner. This is an incoherent position, and it certainly sounds inconsistent for the Stoics to urge determinism while insisting that the passionless sage is free. To this, however, Marcus had an answer. Suppose that what a man wants above all is to behave reasonably; suppose that at a certain point his reason makes the right act clear, and he does it. Did he act freely or not? The answer is, Yes and No. The self that wanted to act reasonably was the highest self, the rational and distinctively human self. It looks forward, sees the greatest good, and is irresistibly drawn to it. Is he determined? Yes, for his choice had been appointed by a rational insight. Is he free? Yes, for his choice issued from his highest self; he has done what that self wanted to do. A self thus acting from rational insight is acting freely. When the mathematician is making his deductions, and his thought is caught up and carried along by logical necessity to a valid conclusion, is he thinking freely? Yes again, though he is under the constraint of the necessity he is following. This is at once a paradox of the rationalist system and its solution, not only for Marcus but for such great successors as Spinoza and Hegel.

It will be clear by now that Marcus Aurelius did have a system of thought, its parts fairly firmly cemented together. But in the one small book he has left us, this system must be read between the lines, developed from stray hints, and woven together from cryptic aphorisms, detached and incomplete sentences, and even exclamations. He was not a philosopher at all in the sense that the other three masters in this book were philosophers. He was a thinker of the intuitive, the Emersonian type. It is said that Emerson in his later years was lecturing on a summer's day when a breeze came in at the window and scattered the leaves of his manuscript on the floor. He leaned down, shuffled them together as they came, without noticing page numbers, and went peacefully on. His utterances did not need to follow any one sequence; they stood on their own feet; why worry? The Meditations is that sort of whole. Marcus was a Roman, not greatly drawn to discursive thought, but fascinated by the problems of action, of dealing with people, of adjustment to work, of maintaining serenity and reasonableness in a whirl of exacting business. He was not one of the “intellectual athletes” whom Arnold admired from a distance and distrusted; he was a moralist whom people read to imbibe more courage and quiet of mind. His book, said one of his admirers, Renan, was “the most human of all books.” It may not have seemed so from our discussion. Let us try to get a more balanced view of it by turning to some of the practical musings that are typical of both the book and the man.


Getting Things Done. Marcus advises himself: “seldom and only when driven to it, to say or write, ‘I have no time’; and not to indulge the tendency to cry off from duties arising out of our natural relations with those about us, on the pretext of press of business” (1.12); “nowhere to be in a hurry or to procrastinate”; “no bustle, complete order, strength, consistency” (1.15, 16, Farquharson). Marcus felt the need, if he were to make decisions wisely, to bring all his powers to bear on a problem; this he could not do in an atmosphere of hurry; so he strove for the inner peace that would enable him to contemplate things clearly.

Serenity. He recognized that many men, to secure this inner peace, need to “seek retirement in country house, on shore or hill”; but such withdrawal was not necessary to one who was master of his own mind. If you attain such mastery, “at what hour you will, you can retire into yourself. Nowhere can man find retirement more peaceful and untroubled than in his own soul; specially he who hath stores within. … Ever and anon grant yourself this retirement, and so renew yourself” (4.3). Marcus could quietly retire into himself amid the roar of the Colosseum and conduct business as if he were at home.

Simplicity. Marcus's serenity was due in part to his insistence on simplicity, the trimming away of superfluities. Arnold translates from the Meditations: “The greatest part of what we say or do being unnecessary, if a man takes this away, he will have more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly, on every occasion a man should ask himself: ‘Is this one of the unnecessary things?’ Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts, for thus superfluous acts will not follow after.”6

Optimism. The courts of most Roman emperors were sinks of depravity, and even Marcus was surrounded by a motley set of characters. Without being blind to their faults, he had his own way of getting on with them. “At dawn say to yourself first: ‘I shall meet inquisitive, ungrateful, insolent, treacherous, slanderous men.’” But he reminds himself at once of the principle of which Socrates had persuaded him, that these men at least meant well in the sense that they were trying to live up to such light as they had: “all these qualities come from their ignorance of good and evil.” And if a person has his redeeming qualities, why not attend to them rather than to his shortcomings. He tells himself: “think of the good qualities of those around you, when you want to cheer yourself up: the energy of one, the modesty of another, the generosity of another, and so on. For there is nothing so cheering as the images of the virtues shining out in the character of one's contemporaries. …”7 And something of the Rembrandt eye shows itself at times: “The old woman and the old man will have an ideal loveliness, as youth its ravishing charm, made visible to eyes that have the skill” (3.2).

Pride and Humility. Lecky, the historian of Roman morals, writes: “Take away pride from the ancient Stoic or the modern Englishman, and you would have destroyed the basis of many of his noblest virtues. …”8 One of the most striking things about Marcus was his curious absence of pride—curious because pride was endemic to the people whose boast was civis Romanus sum, and all the more curious in a man who, as head of the civilized world, was greeted on every side with adulation. He knew the danger of pride, even of pride in virtue, and was on his guard against it. “Be just and temperate and a follower of the gods; but be so with simplicity, for the pride of modesty is the worst of all” (12.27).9 The only achievement that would have given him genuine pride was reasonableness, but that was an ideal of impossible difficulty, which incited both constant striving and constant failure. “If any one can convince and show me that some view or action of mine is wrong, I will cheerfully change: I seek the truth, which never yet hurt any man. What hurts is persisting in self-deceit and ignorance” (6.21).

The fact is that, as boy and man, he had a singularly docile and teachable spirit; he was the antithesis of an Alexander, a Danton, or a Napoleon. In his correspondence with Fronto, he records receiving in the same post two letters from the master, one of them citing a humiliating list of blunders he had made in a recent essay, the other a letter of unqualified praise. “… I swear to you …,” he writes, “that the first letter gave me the greater pleasure and that as I read it I exclaimed several times ‘How lucky I am!’”10 He felt lucky in having a master who would frankly put him in his place on his knowledge of Greek. This is an odd reaction of schoolboy to teacher, though there is no reason to doubt its sincerity. On the other hand, his conquest of the things that would turn most people's heads, such as fame or wealth, seemed to him of so little value that he could hardly be called humble about them; he scorned them. He had the greatest fame of any man then living. But he writes: “does some bubble of fame torment you? Then fix your gaze on swift oblivion, on the gulf of infinity this way and that, on the empty rattle of plaudits and the undiscriminating fickleness of professed applause, on the narrow range within which you are circumscribed. The whole earth is but a point, your habitation but a tiny nook thereon …” (4.3). Or was it wealth that was the magnet and source of pride? For that too he cared little or nothing. He delighted in getting back into the woolen tunic of the farmer; in Alexandria he walked the streets in the clothes of the plain citizen; he asked his mother, who was one of the wealthiest women in Rome, to give her fortune not to him but to his sister. He was one of those for whom the forfeiture of fame and wealth seemed hardly humility at all, since they were not things he prized.

Anger and Resentment. The Stoic is the most military of moralists, in that he demands the most inflexible self-control, the most iron courage in the face of peril, poverty, or pain. There is one emotion for which the military man has been not so much admired as indulged, namely anger or resentment, particularly if his honor is involved; failure to feel and act on this emotion has often been read as cowardice. It was with great difficulty that the practice of dueling for offended pride or honor was finally put down; in England it required the execution of the successful duelist and in America the death of Alexander Hamilton to stop the practice. It is the more surprising, therefore, to find that Marcus, himself a military man, considered anger and resentment signs of weakness. “When any one does you a wrong, set yourself at once to consider, what was the point of view, good or bad, that led him wrong. As soon as you perceive it, you will be sorry for him, not surprised or angry” (7.26). “In fits of anger remind yourself that true manliness is not passion, but gentleness and courtesy, the more masculine as well as the more human: this it is, and not irritation or discontentment, that implies strength and nerve and manhood; the absence of passion gives the measure of its power. Anger, like grief, is a mark of weakness; both mean being wounded, and wincing” (11.18). Or more briefly: “Another's error—let it lie” (9.20).

Thus true courage lay in the control of anger and resentment, not in giving them free rein. This was the result partly of Marcus's determinism, partly of his conviction that the wrongdoer was acting in ignorance of his own and others' good. He insisted that “before the eye of god man should not ever cherish resentment or indignation. How can it be an evil for you, to follow the present authorisation of your own [rational] nature, and to accept the seasonable course of Nature? Have you not been set here as an instrument for the advantage of the universe?” (11.13.) It followed, again, that punishment of a vindictive kind was wrong. Punishment of course was necessary, but it must be inflicted only for the sake of deterrence or reform.

The Self. Marcus constantly stressed the fact that the self was invincible, inaccessible, inviolable. And he went so far as to identify the self with reason: “your true self—your understanding” (12.3). When he said that anger and fear and laziness and drunkenness cannot touch the self, he did not mean to deny that these things may destroy men utterly. He meant that so long as this highest part of us retains its clearness of vision, so long as the reason which enables us to understand why men make such fools of themselves is doing its work, then things are not in the saddle and riding mankind; the self remains in command. Impulses are directed toward ends; thought can provide them with the proper ends or, by redirecting attention, deny them their ends until they wither away. Strength of will, as James would put it, lies in control of attention. Far more largely than we realize, the moulding power is intelligence; “for the motions of reason and mind are self-determinant, and refuse subordination to the motions of sense or impulse, both of which are animal in kind. The intellect claims primacy, and will not be brought into subjection; and justly so, for its function is to use all the rest” (7.55).11


These are a few of the maxims with which the Meditations swarm. They do not, as we have said, make an ordered whole, though they lie within the larger framework of the Stoic system. Without subjecting this system to any formal examination, we can see two large flaws in it that stand out clearly in the light of modern knowledge.

First is its defective view of human nature, which is part of the nature to which the Stoics held we should conform. It is not true that man is a junction of two alien elements at war with each other, the animal and the human. The human rests on, continues, and crowns the animal nature. Man is more rightly conceived as a set of impulses, each one of them rooted in our animal past, but each endowed with a cognitive, an emotional, and a conative side. Self-realization is a legitimate aim, but it consists in developing these drives in the fullest and most harmonious way. The truly great of the world—the Leonardos, the Goethes, the Einsteins—are neither Puritans nor sybarites; they are persons of powerful impulses directed to ends that their nature appoints. It is the business of reason to envisage and harmonize the ends of these passions and impulses, to encourage, not suppress them.

Let us not always say
“Spite of this flesh today
I strove, made head, gained ground upon the whole!”
As the bird wings and sings,
Let us cry “All good things
Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!”

Second, just as the Stoics misconceived the human nature that we must conform to, so they misconceived cosmic nature. “I am in harmony with all, that is a part of thy harmony, great Universe. … All is fruit for me, which thy seasons bear, O Nature!” (4.23). At this even the devoted Renan exclaims, “Ah, this is too much resignation, dear master!”12 And surely he is right. What nature brings may be causally, even logically necessitated, but what is necessitated is not therefore good. Nature, seen in the large, certainly does not look like the product of perfect justice and goodness. The plague that Marcus's men brought back from the east and spread in Rome—was that a gift for which thanks are due to a benevolent nature? If nature can produce animals mighty as the elephant, which lives on plants, why does it also produce tigers, leopards, and crocodiles, which must tear other animals to pieces if they are to have breakfast? “In sober truth,” says Mill in a masterly essay on Nature,

nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature's every day performances. Killing, the most criminal act recognized by human laws, Nature does once to every being that lives; and in a large proportion of cases, after protracted tortures such as only the greatest monsters whom we read of ever purposely inflicted on their living fellow-creatures.13

If following nature means acting as nature does, rather than using her laws to defeat her indifference toward us and our ends, we are worshiping an illusion.


But probably the criticism most commonly brought against Marcus is not such incoherence of thought, but, strangely enough, a charge of gross cruelty. His attitude in matters religious was tolerant and in some ways so close to that of the Christians that one would expect some sign of sympathy with them. The fact is that there is not only no sign of such sympathy, but on the contrary clear evidence of his persecuting them. It was in his reign that Justin Martyr was put to death, that the aged Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was burned at the stake, and that scores of Christians in Gaul and on the Danube were also executed. Is there any extenuation for such conduct?

It does not seem at first that there could be. Nevertheless historians have commonly dealt gently with Marcus for these tragedies, and when the circumstances are brought to light, his responsibility for them does wear a different aspect. During his reign the empire was swarming with religious sects, many of them fanatical, many of them hostile both to Roman religion and to Roman rule. The emperors and the Senate had worked out a policy toward such sects that was on the whole singularly tolerant; indeed the Romans accepted in their own pantheon many of the gods of their conquered peoples. Roman religion and theology were very elastic structures, and the attitudes of eminent men ranged all the way from the materialism of Lucretius to the pagan fundamentalism of Julian the Apostate. Marcus himself was tolerant of nearly everything but intolerance. Religion was part of the state; the emperor was at once secular head and the high priest of the Roman people. A rule established by Trajan asked of his subjects the same recognition of the Roman deities that the Romans had accorded to those of their provinces. If such recognition was refused, it was taken as a refusal to accept the Roman governance, and the recusant was found guilty of treason. This decree was followed by the succeeding emperors, including the Antonines. “The charge against Marcus Aurelius,” says Henry Dwight Sedgwick, “is that he suffered the criminal law to take its course.”14

Unfortunately the one thing that the Romans inflexibly insisted on was something the Christians would not, or could not, do. They refused to cast incense on pagan altars or do anything else that signified acceptance of the Roman deities. It might be thought that in virtue of all they had in common with Marcus, he could grant them exemption, and one can only believe that if he had known them for what they were, he would have found a way of doing so. But this he did not know. Apparently all the information that came to him, directly or indirectly, was adverse to them. Two of his old tutors, Rusticus and Fronto, became provincial governors, and both reported of the Christians most unfavorably. The reputation of the sect with the common people also worked against them. Their services were often held in private houses, which inflamed a pervasive Roman suspicion about conspiracies; they claimed in their meetings to be eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their god, which was easily misread by outsiders; they were rumored to consume the flesh of infants; and since some of their meetings were held at night, admittedly in an atmosphere of what they described as general love, rumors of sexual orgies began to float about them. Furthermore, they were largely Jews, and the Jews had long been troublesome subjects for the Romans; fifty years before Marcus's birth the Roman general Titus had thought it necessary to raze the Hebrew temple at Jerusalem. The Jews' unhappy role as scapegoats was already beginning. When Marcus came home from the east in triumph and his soldiers brought with them a plague that destroyed a large part of the citizenry, the superstition-ridden people, needing to lodge the blame somewhere, fixed upon an obscure Eastern sect whose members refused service in the army and espoused such strange beliefs as that their leader, known to have been put to death, was still alive and would return to assume lordship over the whole earth.

The judges who served on the bench in the Christians' cases would have preferred to save the lives of the accused. When St. Paul was first brought before a Roman tribunal, the judge was Gallo, brother of the famous Seneca, who thought both the charges and the defense so absurd that he “drave them from the judgment seat” (Acts, 18:16). Festus, governor of Judaea, was reluctant to punish Paul and took his case to the court of King Agrippa, but when he heard Paul's explanation of his creed, he said: “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad” (Acts, 26:24). Incidentally, in both these cases the accusations were brought not by Romans but by Jews, who naturally regarded the Christians as apostates; so the little community was surrounded by misapprehension and enmity. Both Tacitus and Pliny later served as Roman governors, and Suetonius as secretary to the emperor Hadrian; all in their official capacity observed the Christians; all had much the same impression of them; all reported that their belief was a “malignant,” “mad,” or “gross” superstition.15

When men as able as these sent in such unanimous reports, it was difficult for a distant emperor to do anything but what Marcus did. The Christians were given an opportunity not given to other offenders—they could go free if they repented. What distressed Marcus was that they so automatically refused to repent. “O for the soul ready, when the hour of dissolution comes,” he exclaimed, “for extinction or dispersion or survival! But such readiness must proceed from inward conviction, not come of mere perversity like the Christians', but of a temper rational and grave …” (11.3). Such evidence as he had pointed to a spirit of group resistance to the official Roman obeisance to the gods, a spirit so inflexible as to be unmoved even by imminent martyrdom. But of course the tragedy remains that the man perhaps nearest to Christianity in the pagan world should have persecuted a group that he would have admired if he had understood them. He is a vivid illustration of his own teaching that a man may do wrong out of an ardent but uninstructed desire to do right.


In criticizing Marcus for this or any other shortcoming, it should be borne in mind that for much of his life he was something of an invalid. In his youth he was a vigorous horseman and ballplayer, and courted rough conditions; he even speaks lightly about finding a scorpion in his bed. But he was never physically strong, and his scorn of giving in to pain or weakness, combined with continual overwork, wreaked havoc on his health. There is more, no doubt, than fiction in Pater's reference to “one of those pitiless headaches, which since boyhood had been the ‘thorn in his side,’ challenging the pretensions of his philosophy to fortify one in humble endurances.”16 During much of his rule as emperor, Marcus suffered from pain in his chest and his stomach, the latter due probably to ulcers brought on by strain, and from a sleeplessness so constant that he had to fight off permanent low spirits.

Fortunately he had the greatest of living physicians, Galen, as his doctor. Cassius Dio records: “He ate very little food, and that always at night. He could not take anything in the daytime, except some of the medicine called theriac.17 This was a medicine containing opium prescribed for him by Galen, which assuaged the pain and helped him to sleep; indeed he took it so often as to become dependent on it. Some historians have tried to find traces in the Meditations of his having become an addict like De Quincey, but their argument does not carry conviction. As the long campaign on the Danube dragged itself out, his longing for Italy increased. He confessed how hard it was to get up in the morning, and exhorted himself to face the new day like a Roman and a soldier. The book that has given so much consolation and strength to others was written by a man himself sorely overburdened.


What is it, in the end, that gives Marcus Aurelius and his book so lasting a radiance in human history? Not, certainly, the acuteness or originality of his thought; he would not have cut an impressive figure in a passage at arms with Socrates, and if set an examination on epistemology in a modern university, with its stress on linguistic nuances and the manipulation of symbols, he would have flunked flatly and serenely. Nor was he a great general or man of action like Caesar, whose effortless adequacy to every situation has made him unique. Neither as a thinker, then, nor as a man of action was Aurelius in or near the first rank.

His greatness lies in a simple fact: he made perhaps the noblest recorded effort to live by the light of reason. Reason for him meant two things: on the one hand the network of necessary linkages that held the world together, on the other hand philosophy, the practice of tracing those connections and bearing them in mind. To enter the tent of Marcus Aurelius is to see the commonplaces of life—its worries, its temptations to revenge, its impatience with stupidity, its complaint over the unfairness of fate, its petty prides, its ill-grounded fears, its ambitions for power, reputation, and wealth—against the background of human history and destiny as a whole. Most people, not excluding philosophers, hold high principles in private, which they tend to forget when they argue their bills with their plumbers or pronounce an opinion about the mayor or the mail service. Marcus lived his principles.

“What then can be his escort through life? One thing and one thing only, Philosophy” (2.17, Farquharson). “To be loyal to philosophy under whatsoever circumstances, and not join the babel of the silly and the ignorant, is a motto for all schools alike” (9.41). He attempted to treat things and people in practice as his philosophy revealed them to be. He had mastered the potent secret that anger, fear, and malice are responses to objects largely of our own making, that we can reconstruct these objects by understanding them, and that when they are so remoulded there is little or nothing left for the emotions to respond to, and they wither on the vine. Understand the man you hate, see him in the light of those causal laws that rule the world, and he becomes an object not of vengeance but of compassion. Be not puffed up: “A little while and your place will know you no more …” (12.21). “Spend your brief moment then according to nature's law, and serenely greet the journey's end, as an olive falls when it is ripe, blessing the branch that bare it and giving thanks to the tree which gave it life” (4.48).

Reason opened to Marcus Aurelius the freedom of a larger world where he felt emancipated from the pettiness and fickleness of his own impulsive life. “In the universe Asia and Europe are but corners; ocean a drop; Athos a grain; the span of time, a moment in eternity” (6.36). He tried not to live in two worlds, but to see them as one, to bring the breadth of his intellectual vision to bear on himself, on the people around him, and on the daily duties of a great office. If his place is unique in history, it is because he set himself a transcendent aim and came heroically near to reaching it.


  1. Birley, p. 126.

  2. W. E. H. Lecky is translating here from De Clementia 2.6, 7, in his History of European Morals. 2 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, 1882), 1:190. See his valuable account of Stoicism generally.

  3. W. L. Davidson, The Stoic Creed (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1907), p. 149, following Cicero's Tusculan Disputations 2.61.

  4. Spinoza, Ethics, 4.67.

  5. Seneca, De vita beata, chaps. 8 and 9, cited from Lecky, 1:186-87.

  6. Arnold, Essays in Criticism, p. 365

  7. Birley, trans., p. 301, of Meditations, 2.1 and 6.48.

  8. Lecky, 1:154.

  9. Ibid., p. 251 n. Translation by Lecky.

  10. Cited by Birley, p. 89.

  11. Meditations, 7:55, slightly emended for clarity.

  12. Ernest Renan, Marcus Aurelius. The Origins of Christianity, Book 7 (London: Mathieson & Co., n.d.), p. 154.

  13. J. S. Mill, “Nature,” in Three Essays on Religion (London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1875), pp. 28-29.

  14. H. D. Sedgwick, p. 209. He devotes three chapters to discussion of Marcus's dealings with the Christians.

  15. Ibid., pp. 215 ff.

  16. Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean (New York: Boni & Liveright, Modern Library, n.d.), pp. 178-79.

  17. Cassius Dio 71.6, quoted by Birley, p. 246. …

Erich Segal (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “The Noblest Roman of Them All,” in The Yale Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, March, 1988, pp. 287-92.

[In the following essay, Segal reviews Marcus Aurelius: A Biography, by Anthony Birley, also commenting on Aurelius's life and times.]

It was a golden age. Gibbon regarded it as the time when “the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.”

In the second century a.d., the Roman Empire extended over nearly two million square miles. One city ruled the entire world. Egypt, Sicily, and North Africa were merely its “farms” (as a contemporary man of letters, Aelius Aristides, expressed it). Roman prosperity was enhanced by luxuries as diverse as Irish metals and “the perfumes of Arabia” (and even its oil, though it was still only being used by scholars to burn at midnight). Education was more widespread and accessible than at any previous time, and the rate of literacy was without precedent. The aggregate wealth of the empire had never been greater, nor its distribution among the strata of society more equitable.

This was also the period in which the Roman senate first ratified meaningful legislation to elevate the status of women. New cities were rising where villages that had formed around army posts stood, not only in Western Europe (Strasbourg and Vienna, for example) but also in more easterly corners like Singidunum (Belgrade) and Aquincum (Budapest). North Africa was more urbanized than it is today. Trade with China flourished along the overland route through Parthia and Tibet and across the Gobi Desert. It was also an age of intellectual flowering, the closest approximation to a renaissance in classical antiquity.

This was the epoch Walter Pater celebrated in Marius the Epicurean and T. S. Eliot described as the point in the history of Western culture when “religion became morals, religion became art, religion became science and philosophy.” Ptolemy was gazing at the stars, Galen inside the microcosm of man. Except for the rebellious British and the intractable Germans, life for the average citizen was relatively peaceful. It was the high note of a great civilization, whose diapason sounded the prelude to its downfall.

Marcus Aurelius (121-180) stands not merely as the last and greatest of the five “good emperors”—his predecessors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius—but at the end of an extraordinary era. In a very real sense, he was the noblest Roman of them all. His famous Meditations (Greek title: “To Himself”), the most important literary work by a Roman emperor since Julius Caesar, evince a deeply religious devotion to the Stoic creed by which he lived. His expressions of piety are so profound that, pagan though he was, his book was widely read and enthusiastically endorsed by early Christian leaders.

The characters in the drama of his life come close to defying credibility. Imagine for a moment John F. Kennedy as emperor/author, with Winston Churchill as his English tutor, Baron Philippe de Rothschild as his French tutor, and Albert Schweitzer as his personal physician. Sound improbable? Mutatis mutandis, it is the true story of Marcus Aurelius's childhood. For his Latin tutor was M. Cornelius Fronto, who, despite his different rhetorical style, was the second century's closest equivalent to Cicero. (Details can be found in Edward Champlin's excellent study, Fronto and Antonine Rome.) His Greek tutor, the orator Herodes Atticus, was a fabulously rich man of letters and an astoundingly generous benefactor of many civic projects. He built the Odeon in Athens and supplied marble for both the Panathenaic stadium and the stands in the stadium at Delphi. He also built a complete water system for Olympia; the authorities declined his further offer of a marble stadium. Herodes' greatest regret was that his plans for building a canal through the isthmus at Corinth went unrealized.

The emperor's personal physician was none other than Galen, the pioneering diagnostician and author of the most important medical treatises written between the time of Hippocrates and of Harvey. Moreover, he was preeminent in a society that has the dubious distinction of being the first to overpay physicians. Specialists (coryphaei) were known to have charged the modern equivalent of two thousand dollars for a house call. As if the drama of Marcus's life were not already piquant, there is evidence that two of his illustrious tutors, who were always vying for their pupil's affections, once faced each other in an important lawsuit. We do not know the outcome, but letters have been preserved in which Marcus asks Fronto not to sully Herodes' reputation with ad hominem remarks.

Beyond doubt the problem facing any potential biographer of Marcus Aurelius is that the hero himself, even more than his supporting cast, was simply too good to be true. Mark Antony's remark in Julius Caesar epitomizes the historiographical challenge: “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” That is why there are so many books about Nero and so few about Marcus Aurelius.

But Anthony Birley, professor of ancient history at the Victoria University of Manchester, is fully up to this daunting task and provides us with a vivid, richly documented account of the “parfit gentil” emperor's storybook life. With a few reservations, the author seems to agree that Marcus was indeed as noble as he is reputed to have been. Solemn and scholarly as a boy, he developed into a conscientious and clement ruler who steadfastly endeavored to live up to the rigorous, ascetic principles he duly recorded in his private notebooks. Indeed, some historians have criticized Marcus for being priggish. Perhaps he was a bit too serious. We have a letter from Fronto chiding his erstwhile pupil for taking a book to the stadium to read while the crowds watched the action. If this be a sin, it is certainly a venial one. Marcus Aurelius was not perfect, but sanctimony was not his principal failing.

One of the chief tenets of Stoic ethics was the pursuit of virtue as an end in itself. Emotion was to be avoided, even in the direst calamities: “Endure and abjure,” as Epictetus put it. Marcus's life certainly tested these principles. The many hardships he was forced to suffer included wars (ironically, this man of peace spent nearly half his reign away from Rome on military campaigns); continued bouts of ill health; the deaths of five sons and several daughters; a disastrous outbreak of plague throughout the empire; and, not least, a serious rebellion.

Then there was the matter of his wife Faustina's alleged infidelities. While it is true that most ancient biographers seemed to have regarded the inclusion of “spicy details” as almost a donnée of the genre—one thinks not only of Suetonius but of Gibbon's famous, elegant reference to the many concubines and still more numerous books of Gordian the Younger: “Both the one and the other were designed for use rather than for ostentation”—Birley is perhaps overcautious in dismissing all the scurrilous gossip about Faustina. But the very fact that the empress's adulterous affairs are so often mentioned obliges the author to make a final semicapitulation in the epilogue: “A few escapades would not have been enough to destroy the memory of thirty years of marriage.” One seemed more than enough for Madame Bovary. But this is a minor point. Marcus may indeed have been too busy to notice—or too stoic to be troubled. His biographer in the Historia Augusta says as much: the emperor has so much sanctitas, tranquillitas, and pietas that no amount of calumny could sully his reputation.

The chapter on the Meditations is especially rewarding. For it points out—in contrast to the widely held critical view—that the imagery of Marcus's interior monologues is not without relevance to his external circumstances. The effect of seeing the great Danube, to which the Tiber was a mere brook by comparison, inspires a torrent of river imagery in his prose. And when he speaks of the “battlefield of life” as “a network of nerves, veins and arteries,” it is clear that he has watched his personal physician working at the dissecting table.

Birley everywhere has an eye for lively detail. For example, he gives us the endearing picture of the renowned Galen treating the emperor's young son for tonsillitis, as well as an account of how Marcus auctioned off items from the palace—artwork, clothes, even tableware—in order to finance his protracted campaign against the Germans. The event became more curious after the wars were over, when some purchasers were allowed to return their items for a full refund.

It has long puzzled historians that so noble and humane a man as Marcus Aurelius should have countenanced the most virulent attacks upon the Christian population since the time of Nero. Eusebius describes the massacres at Lyons and Vienne, where “the saints” were literally thrown to the lions, in horrific detail. And these incidents were by no means unique. On the other hand, we have Fronto's almost pathologically distorted account of a Christian “love feast”: “After a lot of banqueting, when the festivities have warmed up and a passion for incestuous lust and drunkenness has flared up,” the lights go out and the orgies begin.

Did Marcus credit this sort of twisted fantasy? And, in any case, should he have tolerated such savagery against the alleged orgiasts? This is a question not easily answered by saying that respect for the law would have prevented him from intervening. He was, after all, the supreme ruler of the empire; he could have changed the law. Perhaps a more plausible excuse is that he was so busy he could not keep track of everything going on throughout his massive domain.

One of the most important achievements of this excellent book is its graphic portrayal of how difficult a task it was to govern the huge Roman Empire. Even taking into account the vast resources of the state bureaucracy, the burden was overwhelming. As Birley shows, a Roman emperor's duties encompassed those of a modern head of state, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Chief Executive Officer of Exxon, the Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. And, of course, he was His Majesty, Monarch of the Realm.

Perhaps the Roman Empire would have crumbled of its own weight—mole ruit sua, as Horace described the fate of “immense power with commensurate prudence.” But a single serious, one might say tragic, flaw in Marcus Aurelius precipitated the end. Unlike the other “good emperors,” who all selected the most qualified leader to succeed them regardless of consanguinity, Marcus inexplicably willed the empire to his own son, Commodus. Furthermore, he named Commodus co-emperor and shared all imperial power with him. Marcus could not have made a more disastrous choice. After his father's death, Commodus began a series of atrocities that make the reign of Caligula seem like the teddy bears' picnic. How could so wise a man have made such an egregious error of judgment? Some say he was a doting father (which is not untrue); others argue that he had no acceptable alternative. Birley argues that by elevating his son to that high position during his own lifetime, Marcus hoped he might somehow instill in him the virtues he so patently lacked:

If [Marcus] himself died with a youthful and untried heir, there would be civil war. He must have hoped that by giving Commodus the powers of co-emperor, making him known to the armies and surrounding him with tried and trusted advisors, he could avert another armed rebellion at his death.

But there is no more appropriate comparison between Marcus and his heir than Hamlet's words: “So excellent a king, that was to this / Hyperion to a satyr.” Marcus Aurelius was not only too good to be true, he was also too virtuous to be a politician.

Visitors to Rome are familiar with the famous bronze equestrian statue of Marcus which now stands in the Piazza del Campidoglio. It had been moved around the city several times before 1538, when Pope Paul III ordered it to be placed in the current site. Perhaps it is no mere accident that for a long time the statue was thought to represent Constantine the Great. For in his own way, Marcus was the first truly “Christian” emperor.

Judith Perkins (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “The ‘Self’ as ‘Sufferer’,” in Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 85, No. 3, July, 1992, pp. 265-72.

[In the following essay, Perkins contends that Aurelius's obsession with suffering and death indicates that he never gained the self-mastery he sought.]

The early Roman Empire provides little evidence for the personal religious feelings of its inhabitants; only a few texts reflect what we would call individual testimony of personal religious experience. The works of second-century authors which in fact display such religious feelings often offend modern sensibilities.1 Commentators have described Aelius Aristides' Orationes sacrae, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius as neurotic or pathological.2 In a recent book, for example, Charles A. Behr introduced a discussion of Aristides with the deprecatory comment: “peculiar and unpleasant though his personality may seem to us today.”3 The same offense, moreover, is ascribed to all three men, the basis of their relationship with the divine; both came to understand their pain as profitable. Aristides' relationship with Asclepius, however, lasted only as long as his illness did. For Ignatius, death did not end transcendent control; he looked forward to a continuing existence with the divine and an enduring earthly community built around sufferers.

It is of particular interest that both these discourses, despite the many differences between their authors' social positions, construct a body facing pain as a subject. This similarity suggests that in the discourse of the second century a new conception of human subjecthood was gaining ground—the subject as sufferer. The emphasis on pain in Ignatius and Aristides ought not to be dismissed as evidence of individual pathology, but recognized as an indication of a discursive project, namely, the construction of a subject centered on pain and suffering.4

The emperor Marcus Aurelius, Aristides' contemporary, has left a text that represents a similar subject. The presence of this work strengthens the hypothesis that observes a discursive shift. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius attended to the same topics as Aristides and Ignatius did—suffering and death.5 Like them, this discursive focus has also earned him the label “pathological.”6 Since this epithet has now been heard so often, one may suspect that if there is pathology, it belongs to the culture rather than to the psychology of any individual.

Recently Robert Newman has explained the popularity of the genre of meditatio in late antiquity: “When personal instead of civic virtue became the chief aim of Stoic philosophy, the meditatio became the chief ethical tool.”7 The meditatio form allowed Stoics to prepare themselves for the proper assessment of life's vicissitudes by reflecting on them beforehand. An assessment of external events as well as their own emotions, attachments, and desires was central to the Stoics' system. Stoicism was premised on a belief that a natural order, a logos, permeates the universe and is the universe. The Stoic ideal was to live in conformity with this order, “with Nature,” as it was often put. Stoic morality was, in essence, a “morality of consent.”8 The Stoic sapiens was one who recognized the natural order, identified with it, and approved it. Such recognition was possible because of the human intellect (recognized variously by Marcus Aurelius as the nous, a piece of the divine, a daemon).9 This intellect allowed Stoics to objectify and distance from themselves all human and earthly distractions and thus to focus on the beauty of the divine world order, on Nature, and to recognize that only virtue—that is, identification with this order—actually matters.

Marcus Aurelius wrote the Meditations as part of his effort to examine his life and to see things as they really are, as Epictetus had counseled Stoics to do (Diss. 1.1.25). This text was written during what must have been a difficult period, the last years of Marcus Aurelius's life when he was involved in almost continual military campaigns to beat back incursions into Roman territories. During this period, nevertheless, he took the time to write these philosophic exhortations to himself, to rouse his intellect to do its work of seeing things plainly (note his repeated instruction to himself—“always remember”).10

The Meditations seems to have provided Marcus Aurelius with an aid for approaching the Stoic goal that Apollonius had taught him: “to look to nothing else even for a moment save Reason alone; and to remain ever the same, in the throes of pain, on the loss of a child, during a lingering illness” (Meditations 1.8). Marcus Aurelius's list of troubles parallels those besetting Aristides, but Marcus turned to reason, rather than the transcendent, to master them.

The Meditations emphasized the areas particularly threatening Marcus Aurelius's Stoic equanimity; the text returned repeatedly to anger, the ephemerality of fame, and especially death. The text frequently recalled Marcus to the proper attitude toward death: “Despise not death, but welcome it, for Nature wills it like all else. For dissolution is but one of the processes of Nature” (Meditations 9.3). Marcus quoted Epictetus with approval:

A man while fondly kissing his child, says Epictetus, should whisper in his heart: “Tomorrow peradventure thou wilt die.” Ill-omened words these! Nay, said he, nothing is ill omened that signifies a natural process. Or is it ill-omened also to talk of ears of corn being reaped.

(Meditations 11.34)

Marcus insisted that death is a good: “Death is a release from impressions of sense, and from impulses that make us their puppets” (Meditations 6.28).

The frequent repetition of this lesson, however, betrays Marcus Aurelius's difficulty in learning it.11 He dwelt, for example, on the irony that physicians, astrologers, and philosophers, all of whom dealt professionally with the avoidance of death's pangs, died despite their professional interest (Meditations 4.48). He rehearsed in several guises the monotonous catenation of death: “One closed a friend's eyes and was then himself laid out, and the friend who closed his, he too was laid out—and all this in a few short years” (Meditations 4.48). At another point, he recollected that all legendary figures were now alike in death; he ended a list of the illustrious dead with the names of Augustus, Hadrian, and Antoninus (Meditations 4.33). R. B. Rutherford has commented: “The next term in the series is unspoken but obvious.”12 His own death seems to have been constantly on his mind, and he repeatedly offered himself proof for the naturalness of death:

Pass then through this tiny span of time in accordance with Nature, and come to journey's end with good grace, just as an olive falls when it is fully ripe, praising the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.

(Meditations 4.48)

Rutherford noted that “no subject in the Meditations is treated with such fascination, such endless variation” as death.13

The effect of this repeated textual attention to death, however, is not a sense of the author's peaceful acceptance, but rather a feeling that death held a smothering omnipresence for him. Marcus Aurelius insisted repeatedly that the knowledge that one conformed with nature provided an anodyne for the brevity of life; he wrote, for example, “All that thy seasons bring, O Nature, is fruit for me” (Meditations 4.23). His continual return to the topic, however, seems akin to probing an aching tooth with the tongue to see if it still hurts. He found that it still did. It was a central tenet of Hellenistic philosophy that reason could master the pain of life's vicissitudes and the melancholy of death. But Marcus Aurelius's text suggests that in the discursive climate of the second century even the reason of the emperor, supported by every material and social benefit, was barely adequate to the task.

Marcus Aurelius's rejection of the body in the Meditations only exacerbates the sense of melancholy pervading his work.14 His contempt for the body has often been said to be more Platonic than Stoic.15 As Epictetus had, Marcus Aurelius saw the body as nothing but a corpse (Meditations 4.41). He counseled himself, “as one already dying disdain the flesh: it is naught but gore and bones and a network compact of nerves and veins and arteries” (Meditations 2.2). He pictured the body after death, which was just a bagful of stink and filthy gore (Meditations 8.37). His sketch of bathing—usually held as one of the chief pleasures of ancient life—conveyed the depth of his disgust: “As the process of bathing appears to you—oil, sweat, muck, greasy water, all that is disgusting—such is every part of life and all material things in it” (Meditations 8.24). Indeed, Marcus Aurelius seemed disgusted by all bodily activities. He asked rhetorically “What kind of men they are—eating, sleeping, copulating, excreting and so on” (Meditations 10.19). All of life's material treasures when seen aright were also contemptible in his eyes:

Seeds of decay in the underlying material of everything—water, dust, bones, reek. Again, marble but nodules of earth, and gold and silver but dross, garments merely hair-turfs, and purple only blood. And so with everything else.

(Meditations 9.36)

It is not possible to read much joy in such descriptions. Rather, Marcus Aurelius sketched a life that made departure easy. The implied lesson in many of his vignettes is whether death can be so terrible if such is life:

All that we prize so highly in our lives is empty and rotten and paltry and we but as puppies snapping at each other, as quarrelsome children now laughing and anon in tears. But faith and modesty and justice and truth.

(Meditations 5.33)

The abstractions listed in this quotation named the virtues that supposedly made life bearable. Life in the aggregate otherwise had little to recommend it:

An empty pageant, a stage play; flocks of sheep, herds of cattle; a tussel of spearsmen; a bone flung among a pack of curs; a crumb tossed into a pond of fish; ants, laden and labouring; mice, scared and scampering away; little marionettes, dancing and jerking on their strings.

(Meditations 7.3)16

Marcus Aurelius was devoted to his philosophic code; his text leaves no doubt of that. He believed that “everything that befalls justly befalls” (Meditations 4.10), but his difficulty in maintaining this code is evident in the repetitions of the text itself. The impression that remains with his reader is the sheer joylessness with which he held the Stoic belief that in the last analysis nothing but reason mattered. Pain and death are not unnatural and therefore not evil (Meditations 6.13). This austere answer must serve, Marcus Aurelius insisted. He did puzzle, however, over what happens after death. The intellect was divine, but this did not necessarily imply immortality. John Rist has pointed out that Marcus Aurelius examined a number of approaches to this topic, considering the possibilities of extinction, reassimilation into the logos, or being scattered into atoms (Meditations 6.24), but that he tended toward extinction (Meditations 8.5) with the possibility that the soul might exist for some limited period (Meditations 4.21).17

Although on the surface, Marcus Aurelius's text is quite different from those of Aristides and Ignatius, it is very much the same in one sense. All three texts constructed a subject focused on suffering and death. The discursive response to death and pain of the Meditations was situated in the mainstream of the Hellenic philosophic tradition; Marcus Aurelius's self-mastery entailed the submission of his desires, fears, and emotions to the domination of his reason. Within this model, an individual's reason scanned the body only to reject the body's fears and desires as either unreal or unimportant. The Meditations do not share the resolution offered by the other two texts, namely, to turn the body over to the divine. Perhaps it is this difference, the turn away from the body, that contributes to the sense of the impersonal nature of this text, even though it was addressed “To Himself.”

Earlier texts from Marcus Aurelius's hand display a different self-representation. A number of the emperor's early letters survive among the correspondence of Fronto,18 an eminent orator and rhetorician as well as Marcus Aurelius's tutor. These letters reveal a young man, serious, devoted to his studies, and openly loving to his teacher and family. They also show that at this point he shared the kind of fixed attention to the body seen in Aristides' work.

The correspondence between Fronto and Marcus has been labeled hypochondriacal,19 but I would suggest that this mistakes the function of the body in the letters. Discussion of body symptoms comprises the entire text of some of the letters. By discussing their bodies Marcus Aurelius and Fronto signaled the personal nature of their communication. They communicated their affection by opening their bodies to each other. We again see how the body functioned as a privileged medium for talking about the self. Many of the letters of Marcus Aurelius and Fronto focused quite narrowly on the body in pain. One short letter from Fronto reads in its entirety:

I have been troubled, my Lord, in the night with widespread pains in my shoulder and elbow and knee and ankle. In fact, I have not been able to convey this news to you in my own writing.20

One of Marcus Aurelius's letters shared a similar focus. The whole letter, except for its valediction, reads:

This is how I have passed the last few days. My sister was seized suddenly with such pain in the privy parts that it was dreadful to see her. Moreover, my mother, in the flurry of the moment, inadvertently ran her side against the corner of the wall, causing us as well as herself great pain by the accident. For myself, when I went to lie down I came upon a scorpion in my bed; however I was in time to kill it before lying down upon it. If you are better, that is a consolation. My mother feels easier now, thank the gods.21

In this correspondence, talking about the personal and talking about the body at risk seem to have become conflated.

In another exchange, Marcus Aurelius frightened Fronto, who believed that the symptoms being enumerated belonged to Marcus and was relieved when he learned they were really Marcus Aurelius's daughter's (reflecting an attitude not unlike Aristides' attitude regarding the slave children). Marcus Aurelius's letter began:

Thank the gods we seem to have some hopes of recovery. The diarrhea is stopped, the feverish attacks got rid of; the emaciation is extreme, and there is still some cough. You understand, of course, that I am telling you about our little Faustina.22

For the young Marcus Aurelius, the body and its workings, even its excretions, caused little if any contempt. What happened to make the author of the Meditations disgusted to such an extent at bodily functions? One can only suggest age, experience, and a rigorous turn to philosophy. In another letter, Marcus described his desire to live a life that was more completely informed by higher principles: “Time and time again does your pupil blush and is angry with himself, for that twenty-five years old as I am, my soul has drunk nothing of nobler doctrines and purer principles.”23 Marcus Aurelius went to the traditional philosophical wells to drink his nobler doctrines; through these, he was taught to master his self and his body under the direction of his reason. His Meditations shows that he had taken his lessons to heart and portray his determined retreat from a sense of his “self” as a body experiencing the pain of being.

Marcus Aurelius, buttressed by every material and political advantage, maintained his adherence to traditional modes of self-mastery. The history of the following centuries, however, suggests that many would abandon the answers that Hellenic philosophy offered or would graft them onto new stocks. My contention is that the kind of subjecthood forged in the texts I have examined in this article would provide the basis for the new political, social, and religious unities that would follow. From many different perspectives, the discourse of the early empire had begun to represent the human subject as a body in pain, focused on suffering and death. Despite the various particularities seen in the writings of Aelius Aristides, Ignatius of Antioch, and Marcus Aurelius, each author represented a subjectt focused on his own suffering body and approaching death. Two of the texts depicted a response to this “self” that involved relinquishing control and regulation to the divine. The Meditations, however, represented the more traditional reliance on self-mastery. Although written by an emperor who was in better health than Aelius Aristides and not under sentence of death as Ignatius of Antioch was, this text is, nevertheless, the least joyful of the three.


  1. … See André Jean Festugière's valuable study, Personal Religion Among the Greeks (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954). Festugière offers Aristides as a “remarkable example of personal religion” (p. 98) and does not belong to the category of those scholars offended by Aristides.

  2. Charles A. Behr (Aelius Aristides and the Sacred Tales [Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1968]) characterizes Aristides as “neurotic” (p. 45) and “pathological” (p. 161). On Ignatius, see G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?” Past and Present 26 (1963) 23. For Marcus Aurelius, see Georg Misch, A History of Autobiography in Antiquity (trans. E. W. Dickes; 2 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951) 2. 487.

  3. R. B. Rutherford, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Study (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). For Aristides, see Behr, Aelius Aristides and the Sacred Tales; and idem, trans., P. Aelius Aristides: The Complete Works (Leiden: Brill, 1981-86).

  4. Joly's dating of the letters (Le dossier d'Ignace d'Antioche, 114) would make the two chronologically closer and strengthen this point.

  5. For an English translation of the Meditations, except where otherwise specified, I have used The Communings with Himself of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Emperor of Rome, Together with his Speeches and Sayings (trans. C. R. Haines; LCL; New York: Putnam's, 1924). See also Anthony Richard Birley, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (rev. ed.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987); P. A. Brunt, “Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations,” JRomS 64 (1974) 1-20; John M. Rist, “Are You a Stoic? The Case of Marcus Aurelius,” in Ben F. Meyer and E. P. Sanders, eds., Jewish and Christian Self-Definition (3 vols.; London: SCM, 1982) 3. 23-45; Rutherford, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius; E. G. Whitehorne, “Was Marcus Aurelius a Hypochondriac?” Latomus 36 (1977) 413-21.

  6. Misch, A History of Autobiography, 487.

  7. Robert Newman, “Cotidie Meditare: Theory and Practice of the Meditatio in Imperial Stoicism,” ANRW 1.36.3 (1989) 1473-1517.

  8. For this phrase, see Festugière, Personal Religion Among the Greeks, 107. See also Elizabeth Asmis, “The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius,” ANRW 1.36.3 (1989) 2228-52.

  9. Rist, “Are You a Stoic?” 32.

  10. Brunt, “Marcus Aurelius,” 3.

  11. Brunt (ibid., appendix 2, pp. 19-20) lists citations for the theme of death. In his helpful study, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Rutherford examines several related themes; he notes that Brunt's list indicates that sixty-two—one out of every eight—chapters of the Meditations are concerned with death (p. 244).

  12. Rutherford, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, 163.

  13. Ibid., 167.

  14. On the melancholy of the Meditations, see Birley, Marcus Aurelius, 222. P. A. Brunt (review of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Study, by R. B. Rutherford, JRomS 80 [1990] 218-19) rejects the general pessimism of the Meditations; he suggests instead that Marcus Aurelius's sense of his own imperfections was the cause for the gloom. Brunt describes the Meditations as the “only document to tell us what it was like to be a man struggling to live by Stoic principles” (p. 219). This is precisely my point, namely, the new difficulty of living out these precepts.

  15. Asmis, “The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius,” 2247.

  16. This translation is taken from Rutherford, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, 149.

  17. Rist, “Are You a Stoic?” 33; Rutherford, The Mediations of Marcus Aurelius, 248.

  18. The text of the correspondence between Fronto and Marcus Aurelius is found in Marcus Cornelius Fronto, Epistulae (ed. M. P. J. van den Hout; Leiden: Brill, 1954). The translation is taken from The Correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto (trans. C. R. Haines; LCL; 2 vols.; New York: Putnam's, 1919-1920). For the dating of the letters, see Edward Champlin, Fronto and Antonine Rome (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980) appendix A. See also Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Library of Early Christianity 5; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986) 34, 81-82.

  19. Bowersock, Greek Sophists, 72. Whitehorne (“Was Marcus Aurelius a Hypochondriac?”) argues that the letters reflect Fronto's hypochondria rather than that of Marcus Aurelius and gives a list of Fronto's complaints (p. 415 nn. 13-16). According to Whitehorne, fifty-five of Fronto's letters refer to illness; thirty percent of all his letters refer to his own illnesses, while eight percent refer to the illnesses of others. Marcus Aurelius has fifty-four letters that mention illness; of these twenty-seven reply to Fronto's complaints. Twenty percent of the references are to Marcus Aurelius's own health.

  20. Fronto Ad M. Caesar 4.9 (LCL, 2. 187).

  21. Fronto Ad M. Caesar 5.23 (LCL, 1. 196). Both Bowersock (Greek Sophists, 72) and Whitehorne (“Was Marcus Aurelius a Hypochondriac?” 417-19) discuss this letter.

  22. Fronto Ad M. Caesar 4.11 (LCL, 1. 202).

  23. Fronto Ad M. Caesar 4.13 (LCL, 1. 217). Edward Champlin (“The Chronology of Fronto,” JRomS 64 [1974] 144) argues that this letter refers to jurisprudence, not philosophy. Birley (Marcus Aurelius, 222) points out, however, that the letter must suggest some “inner crisis” and dissatisfaction with himself, as well as a need for higher things. This letter is dated to 146 CE.

James A. Francis (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Marcus Aurelius: Rational Asceticism and Social Conservatism” in Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995, pp. 21-52.

[In the following excerpt, Francis contends that Aurelius's practice of asceticism was cerebral and notably unconcerned with the physical.]

In the second century, asceticism ascended to the very apex of Roman society. In contrast to the philosophy-hating tyrannies of Nero and Domitian, Marcus Aurelius ruled with the reputation of a philosopher-king1 and, to a certain extent, that of an ascetic. Although much has been written examining the precise nature of the emperor's philosophical tenets, the character of his asceticism has remained ill-defined and in need of detailed study.2

Paradoxically, Aurelius's reputation and that of the entire Antonine period make this task more difficult. Gibbon's characterization set the tone for most of modern scholarship: “But his life was the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind.” It is not surprising that immediately after his description of Aurelius, Gibbon penned his famous phrase that the Antonine age was “the most happy and prosperous” in human history.3 Most biographies written about the emperor remain colored by this “Golden Age” Tendenz. Concomitant with this romanticization of the age is the denigration or dismissal of any phenomenon contrary to it, including religiosity, mysticism, miracle working, and asceticism.4 As a result, no satisfactory general framework of the emperor's life and thought exists; it must be built up by examining the Meditations in the broader intellectual and social context of their author's life and times.5

Aurelius's asceticism, based upon Stoic principles of psychology, reason, and nature, was profoundly cerebral and markedly deemphasized the physical. At the same time and deriving from the very same principles, Aurelius's social views were equally profound in their conservatism and traditionalism. This presents a seeming contradiction. Though purporting to value ascetical ideals highly, Stoic Romans would have no sympathy with ascetics who were perceived as a threat to the social order. As the espousal of Stoic principles had long been fashionable among the Roman ruling class, Aurelius's attitudes may be taken as representative of that class as a whole. Philosophic principles thus generated both a reverence for asceticism and a justification for the status quo. In doing so, Stoicism drew a clear line at which sympathy for commonly held ideals stopped and the demand for social conformity began.

Aurelius presents a unique case, particularly worthy of study. First of all as emperor, he offers a perspective both of his own aristocratic class and of that intangible entity, the Roman “state,” insofar as the perspective of the state can be defined. Second, in preserving for posterity his own musings to himself in the Meditations, the emperor allows a glimpse into the workings of his own thoughts, values, and inner contradictions.6 In addition, E. R. Dodds has argued that the man himself displays an intensity of ascetical feeling, of the unreality of the world, of desolation and even resentment against the physical, uncommon in the classical world.7 The accuracy of this extreme thesis is questionable. Yet, with the exception of Dodds, Aurelius's asceticism has simply been noted in scholarship, but not discussed in any specific way.


Aurelius himself describes some elements of ascetical practice at the opening of the Meditations:

Simplicity in manner of life far removed from the habits of the rich (I.3);

To be long-suffering and have few wants, to work with my own hands and mind my own business (I.5);

To desire a plank-bed covered with a pelt and whatever else that belongs to the Greek method of education. …


These passages occur in the catalogue of the emperor's teachers and the description of his education. While it is safe to say that the virtues of simplicity and hard work continued into adult life, the physical asceticism described (such as the plank-bed) belong to Aurelius's youth, as a form of training or exercise in his early upbringing. The lines quoted from I.6 follow his mention of “composing dialogues as a boy,” (…), and underscore the context of youthful practice. This concords with other evidence. The Historia Augusta states that at the age of twelve Aurelius dressed in a rough philosopher's cloak and slept on the ground.8 These practices were meant to give the youth the bodily endurance (tolerantia) of a philosopher, the propaideutic physical discipline necessary to begin the study of philosophy. The overall impression is the same as in Musonius Rufus's On Askesis, where physical discipline is a mere preliminary to the development of the true asceticism of the mind or soul. Seneca, too, had recommended that a few days should be regularly devoted in the education of a youth for him to live in poverty. The object is apatheia, teaching that physical want, should it befall him, is nothing to be feared since such deprivation cannot harm the soul.9 So it appears that for Aurelius the purpose and value of his early physical asceticism was also only as a propaideutic, a temporary exercise directed toward a higher goal and not an end in itself.

It would be incorrect to put too much weight on the philosophical and ascetical bent of Aurelius's education. Nothing appears out of the mainstream, much less radical, for an aristocratic Roman youth.10 Five of Aurelius's teachers mentioned in the first book of the Meditations were not only senators, but consulars. Much of what the emperor learned was not concerned with philosophy, but rather with the proper conduct of a prince in society. This is particularly obvious in his veneration for Antoninus Pius and the lessons learned from him (I.16). If for no other reason, the weight of Aurelius's social class and responsibility, as well as that of his eventual high office, would have tempered any excess of philosophical or ascetical zeal.11

References to the adult emperor offer no evidence of continued ascetical practice beyond the training of his youth. Cassius Dio mentions that Aurelius took very little food, and that only at night (LXXII.6.3f.) But the context of this comment is the emperor's frail health, with no mention of either philosophy or asceticism. Fronto admonishes him for being too serious and disagreeable, reading books at banquets and the theater (ad M.C. IV.12.5). Dio states that the emperor wore himself out and destroyed his health from his excessive devotion to business and duty (LXXII.24.2, 36.2).12 This is certainly self-sacrifice, but does it reflect a deliberate pursuit of physical asceticism? The sources do not mention specific practices or philosophic principles. The impression, rather, is that Aurelius simply worked himself to death.13

In a similar vein, HA M.A. XV.1 also mentions his habit of attending to business at the games, but this too is in a context describing Aurelius's devotion to work and attention to the details of government. No sort of Stoic disgust at the brutality or inhumanity of the spectacle is suggested. Suetonius had said the same of Julius Caesar for the same reasons (Aug. 45.1).14HA M.A. XXIII.4-5 does relate an anecdote that when the emperor recruited Roman gladiators to fight in the Marcomannic Wars, there was talk that he sought to deprive the people of their amusement and thus force philosophy upon them. The import of the tale is perhaps that the emperor, and philosophers generally, were widely regarded as prudes, but scarcely more than that. The emperor sought to repair his image by seeing to it that lavish games were provided by wealthy benefactors. This and the controversial S.C. de pretiis gladiatorum minuendis offer clear and specific evidence that Aurelius did not hesitate to promote the spectacles, especially when his own popularity was at stake.15 The only comment the emperor himself makes in this regard is not that the circus is disgusting, but rather simply tedious (VI.46).

Some minor passages have also been taken as an indication of Aurelius's physical asceticism. There is, for instance, the emperor's lack of ostentation and avoidance of wearing the purple (Med. I.17.3 and Dio LXXII.35.5). Yet other Antonine emperors, most particularly Pius, were just as frugal and unostentatious for reasons having nothing to do with philosophy. Economy in the imperial household was one concern; another was the practice of imperial civiltas, an emperor's deliberate presentation of himself as mere “first citizen,” which was particularly popular among the more constitutionally minded and conservative of the Antonines. Aurelius himself states that he learned this sort of moderation from Pius (Med. I.16, 17.3; VI.30).16 The emperor also practiced sexual restraint, even as a youth (Med. I.17.2, 6). Yet his decision to abstain until the appropriate age and not to surrender to passion, even when the opportunity presented itself, is certainly in conformity with the moderate opinions of Musonius and Epictetus. Though Aurelius may have been more rigorous than was common in the practice of his day, his sexual continence conformed to the professed ideals of the Roman aristocracy—ideals that had been “on the books” since Augustus's moral legislation.17

Philosophy made Aurelius overly serious and demanding. A comment from the HA is telling: “Because Marcus appeared harsh both in military matters and in all parts of his life on account of his philosophical regimen, he was bitterly criticized. Yet, he replied either by word or letter to those who spoke ill of him.” It is clear that he was concerned with what others thought of him in this regard, despite his own protests to the contrary.18


Except for a period of training in his youth, Aurelius's life was not characterized by rigorous physical practices of asceticism.19 It did, however, involve an amount of austerity and self-discipline that appeared more than ordinary to his contemporaries. It would be incorrect to say that there were no elements of asceticism in his life, but it remains to define his ascetical gravitas in positive terms.

The most obvious aspect of Aurelius's asceticism is precisely that it is not physical. Its focus is the mind, rather than the body; it is primarily internal.20 In this regard, Epictetus had been quite insistent.

Whatever discipline that is applied to the body by those exercising it … may in fact be a form of askesis, if in some way it tends toward desire and aversion. …

(Epict. Diss. III.xii.16.)

The position and character of the layman is this: he never searches for help or harm from within himself, but from things outside of himself. The position and character of the philosopher is this: he searches for all help or harm from within himself

(Ench. 48.1).

If you should allow your askesis to turn outward towards things that are not proper objects of moral choice, you will have neither your desire successful in its aims nor your aversion on a sure footing.

(Epict. Diss. III.xii.5)

It would be appropriate to refer to this sort of discipline as the “asceticism of reason.” This is consistent with the Stoic emphasis on intention as the determiner of the morality of a given act. Physical asceticism, like most if not all acts, is morally neutral in itself and, therefore, can be vicious if undertaken for the wrong reasons.21 This emphasis results in a devaluation of an individual's acts as an accurate representation of character. A striking example occurs in a brief comment Aurelius makes regarding Socrates, the archetypal philosophic hero. The philosopher's noble death, skill at disputation, and endurance of privation are insufficient to determine the good of his character. Rather, it is necessary to view the nature of his soul. The determination rests on his possession of a catalogue of Stoic virtues: justice, piety, endurance of evil, acquiescence in fate, apatheia.22 If this could be said of Socrates, it holds true for anyone.

The predominance of intention, of mind, naturally carries with it ramifications for the valuation of the body.23 The nature of this view of the body is twofold. While Stoic psychology placed complete emphasis on will and reason, the Stoic view of nature and acceptance of the “natural” prevented it from setting the body in strict opposition to the mind. The flesh is indisputably natural, so that the duty of the wise man is not so much to vanquish, much less reject, his corporeal nature as to accept its reality and power and bring it under the command of reason. The same is true of all other aspects of human personality and life. Stoic doctrine was not strictly “dualist.”24 The body is not the enemy; it is simply unimportant. It is wrong to give the body and its desires attention beyond the measure prescribed by nature, but it is equally unnatural to disregard them entirely. At times, Aurelius states the position exactly.

If it is to the advantage of your rational nature, keep hold of it; if to your animal nature, simply say so and quietly maintain your decision—only see to it that you make a sound judgment.


Let the ruling … and lordly part of your soul be unmoved by smooth or rough movements in the flesh. Let it not mingle with them but circumscribe itself, sealing off these feelings within their proper areas. When, however, they do issue forth into the intellect in virtue of that other sympathetic connection, as happens in an integrated organism,25 then you must not try to resist the sensation, natural as it is, and do not let the ruling reason … then add its own estimate as to whether it is good or bad.


Side by side with this view, however, there also exists an apparent disgust with the physical that Aurelius makes no attempt to reconcile.

Just as bathing appears to you: oil, sweat, filth, greasy water, everything revolting, so is every part of life and everything we encounter.


The rot that is the substance of everything: water, dust, bones, stench. Again, marble is but calloused earth; gold and silver are sediment; clothing is animal hair; the purple is blood; and so for everything else. The puny soul is just the same, changeable from this to that.


E. R. Dodds has emphasized Aurelius's disgust with the physical world and his expressions of desolation and alienation.26 The reality of these sentiments in Aurelius's mind, and the depth of their intensity, is beyond question, but their meaning and significance remain open to discussion. On the surface, at least, the emperor appears to be truly of two minds.27

J. M. Rist has suggested a more refined explanation of Aurelius's attitude toward the physical, attributing its origin to Heraclitus's teachings, appropriated either directly by Aurelius or indirectly through their influence on the development of Stoic doctrine.28 Aurelius's feelings of disgust are not with the physical per se, but rather with physical reality as the most persistent, tangible reminder of the necessity of change and decay—Heraclitan flux. The same is true for fame, reputation, adulation, and the simple recognition of the passage of time. In the emperor's own words:

Adopt a scientific approach to the way all things change, one into another; pay close attention and exert yourself in this area, for nothing so produces greatness of mind. Such a one has put off the body and, understanding that he must almost at once leave all these things behind and depart from among men, has devoted his entire self both to justice in his own actions and to the dictates of universal nature in whatever else comes to pass.

(X.11; cf. II.14f.; III.10)

By devoted study of the passing nature of all things, the individual divests himself of the body. This is not to say that one escapes the body as a prison; rather, the individual is confronted with the reality of his own mortality, that the Heraclitan flux applies even to the self. The object is not to “flee the body” nor is it to “flee the world.” This realization is rather a spur to ethical action in society and to a resigned acceptance of fate.29

This distinction between mind and body introduces a subject vital both to the understanding of the Meditations themselves and of Aurelius's concept of asceticism—the “spiritual exercise.”30 P. Hadot has outlined the process by which Aurelius moves from pessimism to optimism regarding life and the world by the repetition of fundamental Stoic dogmas.31 This constitutes the fundamental spiritual exercise in Stoic philosophy, and the Meditations is essentially a handbook of such exercises. The exercise begins with pessimism, the necessity of seeing things the way they are: “dust, stench, sediment, blood.” Clarity of vision and reason are the fundamentals of “greatness of mind.” The purpose of the exercise is not, however, to stop here. It is only through this clear, if unattractive, vision of stark reality that the individual may see that all things are but part of nature and subject to the same universal laws, most especially those of change, decay, and death. The mind expands, and what initially appeared repulsive or depressing is now seen in a cosmic perspective as holding no cause for revulsion or fear. Optimism arises as the final phase of the exercise when all is seen to be a manifestation of the rational order of nature and, therefore, necessary and good. Thus it is that Aurelius's most positive statements refer to the grandeur and beauty of nature and the reasoned order of the cosmos, while his most negative deal with the narrow particulars of life and the world. The object of the exercise is to change the individual soul, that is, to correct one's initial, instinctive perceptions and thoughts by the continuous application of the principles and truths of philosophy. This is the asceticism of reason at work—the careful, deliberate, and repeated exertion to discipline and correct the internal attitudes and perceptions of the mind.

Nor is the soul exempt from this process: “The rot that is the substance of everything: water, dust, bones, stench. … The puny soul is just the same, changeable from this to that” (IX.36). The soul is also a physical entity for Aurelius, and no matter how far he spiritualizes its qualities it cannot leave the body after death, much less be immortal.32 It cannot be set up as the complete antithesis of the body.

For Aurelius, then, the body remains an unimportant, morally neutral instrument. It is natural; its reality must be accepted, but merely disciplining or depriving it would have no effect on the mind or soul. The asceticism of reason is, in effect, a one-way street. Discipline flows from the mind to the body, seldom the reverse. An asceticism that concentrated on the body would, therefore, be pointless. Two important points emerge. Because the body is natural, it cannot be a source or locus of evil. In addition, the body is neutral; it cannot be a battleground in the struggle for virtue. Its actions are ultimately unimportant. Virtue exists solely in the state of mind and motivation.

The asceticism of reason is, therefore, a discipline of mind and motivation: “Annihilate imagination. Block impulse. Quench desire. Keep ruling reason … in control” (IX.7; cf. VII.29; VIII.29, 49; XII.25). Its privation is internal: “Therefore casting away everything else, hold on to these few things. Recall that each man lives but a short time, a brief moment; the rest has either been lived or lies in an unknown future” (III.10).33 As such, it is the product of education, indeed, of higher education as it was known in the ancient world. It requires a carefully honed and discerning reason. It is most definitely not for the common man. This is just the opposite of the Christian practice, as Galen (129?-199), Aurelius's contemporary and court physician, noted:

Just as now we see the people called Christians drawing their faith from parables [and miracles], and yet sometimes acting in the same way [as those who philosophize]. For their contempt of death [and of its sequel] is patent to us every day, and likewise their restraint in cohabitation. For they include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabiting all through their lives; and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophers.34

What amazed Galen was that the unlettered multitude could perform acts of virtue without education, or perhaps more correctly, with a false education not based on reason. As will be seen below, this rather sympathetic view can also allow a much harsher verdict. Here it is important to note that among educated pagans asceticism was purely a matter of education, philosophy, and reason. Any practices not founded on this basis were suspect, be they of the Christians or of other pagans like Lucian's Peregrinus and Alexander, who made equally irrational appeals to the unlettered and the gullible.35

Resignation, at a most profound level, is to be found everywhere in the Meditations. The asceticism of reason produces little in the way of external actions and, in some respects, negates the entire idea of effective action itself. This is seen in two related concepts: apatheia (VI.16), which can be described as detachment from one's internal states, and ataraxia (IX.31), a separation from external circumstances.36 At one point in the Meditations, Aurelius gives this as the very definition of philosophy:

What then can accompany man in his sojourn of life? One thing and one thing only—philosophy. And this lies in keeping the daimon within free from insult and injury; master of pleasures and pains; doing nothing aimlessly, deceptively, or hypocritically; independent of another's action or inaction. Furthermore, this lies in accepting whatever happens and is allotted to one as coming from that same source from which he himself came, and above all in awaiting death with an amiable attitude as nothing other than the loosing of those elements from which every living thing is composed.

(II.17; cf. III.4 and Epict., Ench. 12.2)

Apatheia has a rational basis for “the universe is transformation and life is opinion.” By virtue of Providence, all that happens is good; therefore all perturbation comes from within, from the opinion or attitude of the mind (IV.3; cf. II.15; IV.7; XII.22).

Even in regard to the gods, true piety consists in praying, not that something happen or not happen, but to be free of the desire or fear of the event in either case (IX.40).37Apatheia lies not in the suppression of emotion, not even if such emotion has an irrational basis, but of irrational reaction to such emotion.38 The internal state of the philosopher, his psychological reactions, are carefully circumscribed by reason. When confronted with passion or distress, the wise man must first resignedly accept his condition and then, by applying his reason, not act on his feelings. The discipline required is to accept passively the decrees of fate: “At all times and in all places it lies with you to be piously content with your present circumstance” (VII.54), or again: “Accept without arrogance; let go without struggle” (VIII.33).

Some examples of ataraxia have already been seen in Aurelius's opinions regarding fame, reputation, and adulation. Again, the rational basis for this detachment is the passing nature of all things.39 Life must be lived according to reason; if this results in social isolation, or even death, this too must be borne with equanimity (X.15; cf. III.4 ad fin.; VI.59; VII.62; VIII.52f.; IX.34). Above all, one must never desert the post in life assigned by fate (VII.45; X.25; cf. Epict., Ench. 22 and Plato, Apology 28E). Virtue lies in the acceptance and performance of duty, in acquiescence rather than action or change. This often entails merely resigning oneself to the presence of stupid and evil men, without hope of changing them (IX.20, 42; cf. V.17; VII.29; IX.38; and Dio LXXII.34.3f.). These forms of detachment offer another reason for the deemphasis of the physical in Aurelius's asceticism. Focus centers on the achievement of apatheia, inner detachment. Through the practice of ataraxia, external events and circumstances become unimportant. Again Aurelius illustrates: “Wherever it is possible to live, there one can live rightly; it is possible to live in palace, hence it is possible to live rightly even in a palace” (V.16). Physical surroundings, even the opulence of the imperial residences, are no hindrance to the achievement of the true asceticism of apatheia. As with physical rigor, material deprivation or its opposite need not have any impact on the mind. The practice of voluntary poverty would be pointless.40

Asceticism in the Meditations is decidedly passive. It offers no impetus to action beyond that of discerning personal morality and performing one's appointed duty. Moreover, this concept of asceticism draws clear boundaries as to the unacceptable. Stoic apatheia would have little tolerance for displays of enthusiasm or extremism. Excesses of emotion or display would reflect irrationality. The concept of ataraxia would make the physical privations of Christian, Cynic, and Pythagorean asceticism appear ludicrous.


Another characteristic of this view of asceticism is that it conveys no extraordinary authority, moral or otherwise, on its practitioner. Aurelius does not make his own experience a paradigm for the instruction of humanity. In this, he is simply following Stoic doctrine as it had developed from the time of Panaetius (c. 185-109 b.c.), whose psychology carried to the extreme the Stoic emphasis upon motivation as the determiner of the morality of a given act. By insisting on absolute purity of motive, Panaetius banished the true Stoic sage into the realm of the hypothetical. The ordinary individual (… “the one making progress”) was left only to strive toward virtue by the performance of his duty (… officia) as a rational and social being.41 The “holy man” does not exist for Aurelius, nor for his Stoic contemporaries, and one can only assume a very negative reaction if such a one presented himself to the emperor or other like-minded individuals.42

One passage in the Meditations might be taken to indicate otherwise: “Therefore such a man, now no longer putting off being among the best, is a kind of priest … and servant of the gods, utilizing that which is set within him” (III.4). The reference to priesthood is, first of all, a simile. … It is simply descriptive, not a claim to spiritual authority. The wise man is like a priest because he attends to the cult, or cultivation, of his particular god. For the wise man, this is his own daimon within, his ruling reason …, which is a part of the divine reason of the cosmos. Every human being has this divine spark, so the philosopher is not unique in its possession, but only in its cultivation. This passage goes on to state that the cultivation or use of the deity within produces a whole catalogue of Stoic virtues. Exactly the same effect results from the right use of reason and from following nature.43 The cultivation of the daimon generates internal moral virtue, not external miraculous power. Here lies another motive for the suspicion of self-styled holy men, wonderworkers, and theatrical ascetics: cion of self-styled holy men, wonderworkers, and theatrical ascetics: their works are outside the “normal” course of relations with the divine. From this it is a short step to adduce a sinister source for such extraordinary feats.44

A worthwhile comparison can be made with the later development of Neoplatonism in the writings of Porphyry. His mentor Plotinus's guardian spirit is no mere daimon, but a god himself (Vit. Plot. 10). Porphyry states that it is the Supreme God himself who is established within the inward parts of the philosopher (de Abst. II.52). His comments regarding the philosopher as priest go far beyond Aurelius. The simile is gone. The philosopher is a priest, and not just of any particular god, but of the Highest God. He is knowledgeable in all things pleasing to the Supreme Divinity (de Abst. II.49f.) and thus can claim ultimate religious and philosophical authority.45 In comparison, Aurelius's simile is feeble indeed. Elsewhere in the Meditations, Aurelius accepts with resignation the fact that those closest to the gods in life meet with the same fate of oblivion in death as the rest of humanity.46

Though Aurelius's pursuit of philosophy endowed him with no special personal authority, it is possible that it colored his exercise of authority as emperor. An obvious place to look is in the field of politics, law, and society, where the emperor's views could find their most direct application.

At first glance, the Meditations suggest that the emperor's beliefs would have a positive impact. Justice or the obligation to social activity or “conduct becoming a rational, political being” is mentioned more than one hundred times.47 In addition to this general concern is the Stoic doctrine of the unity of humanity, which finds its locus classicus in IV.4: “If this is so, we are citizens; if so, we share in some political entity; if so, the universe is like a state—for to what other political entity can one say that the whole human race belongs?” (cf. IV.3; VII.9). Humanity is united by its common reason into a commonwealth with common laws. Finally, there are Aurelius's comments regarding his own political education, invoking the names of Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, and Brutus and ideals such as equality of rights, equity, freedom of speech, and liberty.48

The meaning behind the emperor's words is another matter. Despite Aurelius's repeated emphasis on the performance of social acts, he gives no concrete examples of the sort of acts of which he is speaking. Given the nature of the Meditations, it may be that Aurelius had no need to remind himself of the specific acts he had in mind.49 In either case, he assumes them. The key point is that the definition of “acts becoming a social being” is not contained in Aurelius's philosophy. It must be provided from the outside, from the prevailing norms of society. Rather than providing a critique of society, Aurelius's Stoicism provides a philosophical justification for the status quo. If the path of virtue lies in the performance of duty and acceptance of the decrees of fate, the wise man will not seek to alter or abandon either his society or his position within it. Seneca had already said as much, adducing the Stoics as an example: “The philosopher (sapiens) will not upset accepted customs (publicos mores), nor turn public attention to himself by some novel manner of life (Ep. 14.14, cf. 73.1).50 This conclusion is consistent with the almost complete emphasis on the internal dynamics of the personality mentioned earlier. Stoic morality and ethics were essentially individual concerns. Justice, social activity, and political conduct are meant to be guides for individual action, not items on a social agenda.51 When Aurelius addresses the point directly, he must admit that Platonopolis cannot be built (IX.29).

As for the unity of mankind and the world state, scholars have already made short shrift of the practical import of these ideas.52 One further observation should be added. Aurelius's cosmopolitanism, in comparison with Epictetus's for example, gives particular emphasis to reason and law.53 This emphasis has the ability to transform this benign, philanthropic doctrine into a potent weapon. Those who do not conform to the mores of the world state can be branded irrational (i.e., insane or malevolent) or outlaws (i.e., traitors to the state). When theory is brought down to the level of reality, the world state of the Stoics does not possess its own laws, but can only appropriate them from the customs and codes of existing society.

The political ideals mentioned by Aurelius bring up the question of law and legislation. Here scholarly opinion differs sharply. At the extreme are the generalizations of E. V. Arnold, who attributes the “humanity” of the whole of Antonine legislation to Stoic influence, whether or not those identified with the legislation were professed Stoics.54 P. Noyen is more specific, arguing that laws such as the S.C. Orfitianum and the Constitutio divi Marci ad Aufidium Victorinum bear the personal mark of Aurelius's philosophical beliefs. He describes the former law as “revolutionary and progressively feministic” and the latter “the culmination of legislation in favor of the destitute.”55 Such views are not only exaggerated; they are fundamentally incorrect.

Noyen limits himself entirely to Aurelius's laws. His thesis lacks context. If these laws bear the imprint of Aurelius's own Stoicism, they must be shown to be significantly different from the laws of other emperors. M. Hammond, in surveying the entire Antonine era, emphasizes the continuity of “humane” legislation throughout the second century and, in some cases, even under the principate as a whole.56 G. R. Stanton, arguing directly against Noyen, notes that Aurelius's legislation is equal in volume to that of his predecessor, and in many cases simply develops existing laws of Hadrian or Pius. Specifically he notes that the S.C. Orfitianum was of only indirect benefit to women. The earlier S.C. Tertullianum under Hadrian or Pius actually did more.57 Aurelius was, in fact, no innovator but rather continued the trends of the second-century imperial administration.58

A unique perspective on this problem comes from the studies of W. Williams who, independently of the issues discussed here, searched for signs of individuality in the imperial constitutions from Hadrian to Commodus. Of the laws which, in Williams's view, carry marks of Aurelius's personal intervention, only two coincide with those Noyen lists as bearing the emperor's philosophical stamp; while Williams finds no evidence of Aurelius's intervention in the pieces of legislation Noyen considers to be most characteristic of the emperor's personal philosophic influence.59

Aurelius's legal acta simply do not demonstrate any particular Stoic humanitas. In certain instances even the opposite is true, especially when property rights and civil order were at issue. For example, Ulpian cites and summarizes the generalis epistula of Aurelius and Commodus on hunting down fugitive slaves. The emperors command unyielding measures in retaining captured runaways and strictly limit the rights of citizens when encountering slave-catchers (Dig. XI.4.1.2 ad fin.-5). Ulpian also notes a senatorial oration by Aurelius on the topic, stressing the same fierceness and disregard for others' rights when recovering this human property (Dig. XI.4.3). It is repeatedly specified that these rules are part of a general tightening of laws and procedures regarding slaves under Aurelius and Pius. The treatment of Christians offers another example. Here too, the emperor was once portrayed as mild and benevolent. Although it is probable that Aurelius did not pursue active, systematic persecution, it has become clear that he, at the least, embraced Trajan's policy of punishing confessed Christians. At the same time, when public order was threatened—as at Lyon in Eus., HE V.1—he could countenance severe measures.60 It has even been suggested that the first surviving treatise attacking Christianity, Celsus's True Doctrine, was inspired by Aurelius and served as an exposition of his policy.61

Despite the repeated emphasis on society and social acts in the Meditations, despite all the references to politics and political ideals, there is no evidence of any positive social impact brought about specifically by Aurelius's philosophical beliefs. The Stoicism of this period, and any ascetical concepts attached to it, remain inward-looking, detached, conservative, a technique for “surviving” the world rather than reforming it.


The conservative nature of Stoicism, and its dependence upon surrounding society for the norms to which the “social animal” must adhere, imply severe consequences for those who would not conform. Aurelius is uncharacteristically harsh in his description:

The soul of a man does violence to itself most especially when it becomes, as far as it can, an abscess and tumor, as it were, on the universe.


If he is a stranger to the universe who has no understanding of the things that are in it, no less is he a stranger who has no understanding of what occurs in it. He is a fugitive, who flees the rational law of society; a blind man, who shuts the eyes of his understanding; a beggar, who is in need of another and does not have of himself all that is required for living; an abscess on the universe, who rebels and severs himself from the reason of our common nature because he is displeased at what happens, for this same nature brought this about which also bore you; a part cut off from the body politic, who cuts his own soul off from that of all rational beings, which is but one soul.


What specific acts could be so heinous as to make someone a festering sore on the world, a cancer in the cosmos, a stranger to the universe, a universal fugitive, blind, a cringing beggar, a social amputee? Aurelius, unfortunately, does not say. It is clear, however, how closely these words resemble the accusations made against the Christians of antisocial behavior, obstinacy, insanity, inhumanity, and treason.62 This is precisely the point. What this line of reasoning offered was a philosophical justification for persecuting any individual or group perceived to be a threat to the social order either by society as a whole or by those who ruled it. The criteria for judging the case can only be taken from the norms of the surrounding society. Epictetus had already admitted this:

Our duties … are, in general, measured by our social relationships. … In this way, therefore, you will discover the duty … owed to and expected from your neighbor, your fellow-citizen, your commanding officer, if you accustom yourself to examining your relationships with them.

(Ench. 30; cf. Epict. Diss. II.x)63

Add to this Aurelius's own emphasis on submission, especially to the decrees of fate.64 Anyone who is unaccepting of his lot, discontented with his fate, is a rebel and outcast. This is the automatic verdict on the demagogue, the reformer, and the sectarian. As the lives of such dissidents as these were often characterized by conspicuous practices of physical asceticism, such practices were suspect by association. In addition, the radical ascetic, whose discipline was both physical and extreme, could be for these very reasons branded “irrational” by Stoic standards, and subjected to the penalties of those who refuse to acknowledge reason and submit to fate.

In Med. X.25, Aurelius repeats this theme, and connects it with the concept of law: “He who flees his master is a runaway slave, but the law is master and he who breaks the law is also a runaway.” As the emperor makes clear in the following line, by law he means fate and the inexorable bonds of one's lot. Yet by drawing this analogy, Aurelius cannot but bring up ideas of social order, crime, and punishment, subjects on which he held strong opinions, as indicated by his treatment of runaway slaves. It is but a short step from the law of fate to the law of the State: “The end of rational creatures is to obey the reason and law of that most ancient of cities and governments [i.e., the universe]” (II.16). Since Posidonius, the emphasis in Stoicism had been moving from the simple following of nature to joining in the organization of nature.65 The State, therefore, can be seen as the enforcer of the laws of nature, the guardian of the rational order. Certainly, such a view is consistent with Rome's own view of her purpose in the world and her role in history.

No amount of personal virtue or asceticism can make up for “antisocial” behavior. In one sentence, an answer is given to the Christians who demanded to know why the empire would persecute those of blameless life. As J. M. Rist has noted, people are to be valued only according to their possession of reason; if fools get what they deserve, that is no cause for pity. Stoicism, not only in spite of but actually because of its belief in the unity of humanity, the power of reason, and the supremacy of nature, can be quite harsh and inhumane to modern sensibilities.66

There is evidence that this line of thinking was directly applied to the Christians, even by Aurelius himself.67 There once was a locus classicus in Aurelius's comments regarding readiness for death: “This readiness must come from one's own judgment, and not from mere obstinacy [like the Christians], but with deliberation, and dignity, and—if it is to serve as an example—without theatrics” (…, XI.3).68 The specific mention of the Christians is now held to be an interpolation.69 Yet the point is still worth noting. Willingness to face death—which perhaps can be viewed as the ultimate form of asceticism—is meaningless if it springs from mere obstinacy. This is consistent with the Stoic emphasis on the motivation of an act and Aurelius's comments regarding avoidance of display. The emperor, and those like him, could turn a hard face to martyrdom.70 The issue of obstinacy is further illumined by Galen: “One might more easily teach novelties to the followers of Moses and Christ than to the physicians and philosophers who cling fast to their schools” (de Puls. III.3). Galen's complaint is against those who accept dogma over logic and empiricism. The Jews and Christians offer the best example of this form of irrationality.71 Likewise Epictetus: “If then one can develop such an attitude toward these things through madness and even through habit, as the Galileans do, can nothing be taught by reason and demonstration?” (Epict. Diss. IV.vii.6).

The connection with reason appears again in another disputed passage: “Yet to have a mind directing them … toward what appears to them to be their duties … also belongs to those who do not believe in the gods, who betray their country, and who do all manner of things behind closed doors” (Med. III.16). The mention of treason, atheism, and secret abominations is clearly reminiscent of the stock accusations against the Christians. Whether Aurelius actually had the Christians in mind at this point is less important than the general pattern of his thought.72 The mere possession of reason is no proof against antisocial behavior. The characteristic of the good man is submission, as Aurelius's next statement makes clear: “If then everything else is also common to all these types of people I have mentioned, the one thing remaining unique to the good man is to love and embrace whatever befalls and is spun for him by fate.”

Aurelius's thought begins with the Stoic concept of the “commonwealth of reason.” Citizenship depends upon the performance of social acts, that is, obeying the law. The law is fate. Social behavior, therefore, lies in accepting one's lot. Those who do not submit are fugitives and outlaws who believe neither in the state, the gods, nor the norms of society. What could be a more complete, practical description of fate than state, gods, and society put together? To question one is to become an outlaw. Christian ascetics questioned all three. So did Cynics.73 The emperor's own thinking demonstrates how the progression could be made from a seemingly detached philosophical ideal to slanders and accusations. The process has its own logic. This also explains the similarity between the accusations made against Christians, Cynics, Epicureans, goetes, etc. Deviance is perceived first, and the most obvious evidence of such deviance would be the practice of radical physical asceticism. By failing to comply with certain social norms, it follows that such persons believe in no norms, no laws, and no gods. The emperor could have had any or all such persons in mind when he wrote.74

In this light, one of the emperor's comments is particularly revealing. Among the lessons Aurelius learned from Rusticus was: “Not to display oneself as a man keen to impress others with a reputation for asceticism or beneficence” (I.7).75 The only occurrence of a form of the word askesis in the Meditations is negative in context.76 In the first place, not making a display of one's qualities is certainly consistent with both Stoic teaching and with traditional Roman sobrietas and gravitas.77 Second, Seneca had already advised that a philosopher conform to outward fashion and decorum, avoiding all ascetical display, lest he make the name “philosopher” less popular than it already was.78 Conspicuous asceticism was regarded with suspicion in and of itself.

There is another less obvious, but for the purposes of this study more important, aspect of asceticism revealed here. Diognetus, who introduced Aurelius to “the Greek method of education,” also taught him “to disbelieve the tales of miracle mongers … and goetes about incantations and the exorcisms of daimones” (I.6). Some form of ascetical display could be expected of the magician or religious charlatan to impress crowds, woo the rich and powerful, and obtain contributions. Epictetus was himself aware of the problem: “Training exercises … must not be performed which are opposed to nature and aberrant, since then we who call ourselves philosophers would be in no way different from wonderworkers” … (III.xii.1). Commonly such quacks either posed as philosophers or embroidered their “medicine shows” with philosophical doctrine. The comparison one modern scholar has made to medieval palmers and friars is most apt.79 One who made too much of a show, who gained an ascetical “reputation” or popular following, could lay himself open to the charge of goeteia.80 A conspicuous rise in one's fortunes could be enough. Philostratus says that the sophist Hadrian the Phoenician was so favored in imperial circles that many believed he must have been a goes to gain such a position (VS 590). In his Apology, the same accusation is made against Apuleius by the relatives of a wealthy widow whom he had the good fortune to marry. Significantly, Apuleius maintains that he is simply a learned, curious man, interested in philosophy.81 Galen stated that he did not go bragging about his cures and treatments, lest other physicians and philosophers label him a goes and soothsayer (… de Praecog. 10.15).

It seems fair then to adduce the suspicious connection between asceticism and goeteia as another motive for the avoidance of physical asceticism or ascetic display in Aurelius. Not that the emperor would lay himself open to such a charge; rather, the point is that such display had clear and unsavory connotations that a cultivated, philosophic gentleman would naturally avoid. An active interest in philosophy required discernment and care both against false doctrine and for personal reputation. So fine was the line between learning and quackery, “fakiry” and “fakery” so to speak, in both the popular mind and in everyday social reality. It is no accident that the teacher who warned Aurelius away from magicians and charlatans was the same one who first introduced him to philosophy. Interest in one could lead to the other too easily in a vulnerable mind. Philostratus's comment regarding the charge made against Dionysius of Miletus of improving his students' memories by “Chaldean arts” is appropriate: “Who of those counted among the wise would be so unthinking of his reputation that, by practicing goeteia among his pupils, he would also taint what he taught them properly?” (VS 523).82 That the emperor had direct experience with philosophical posturing and pretension is clear.83


The Meditations reveal important evidence regarding asceticism and society in the second century. Asceticism is seen as a cerebral process of self-discipline. It is not defined primarily in terms of the physical, which Stoicism regards with a decided indifference, but rather in terms of the internal workings of the mind: motivation, attitude, and emotional response. As a discipline, it requires philosophical education and decorous moderation. It is a matter of “deportment,” of producing a virtuous man according to the canons of tradition, classical paideia.84 Rather than reflecting any sort of radicalism, asceticism—in Aurelius's Stoic sense—was a vehicle for conforming to traditional standards of moral behavior.

For those who would not conform, Aurelius's philosophy also provided a justification for persecution. By its equation of reason, nature, and fate, and the necessity of taking its prescriptions for social behavior from the mores of its surrounding society, Stoicism could condemn dissent from prevailing norms as irrational, antisocial, and inhuman. Persons such as Cynic philosophers, prophets of new cults, miracle-working holy men, and the foolhardy atheistic followers of a “crucified sophist”85 were thus perceived as clear and present dangers to the fabric of society itself. This was Lucian's verdict on Peregrinus and Celsus's on the Christians, while Philostratus endeavored to save Apollonius of Tyana from precisely this sort of accusation.

In writing of the end of Aurelius's reign, Dio made his famous comment that Rome descended from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust (LXXII.36.4). In one respect, although not one Dio intended, the process was already under way. Aurelius is both a critical Stoic thinker and a man whose thought is subject to the play of old ideas and prejudices.86 Twice Aurelius urges himself to be a Roman (II.5; III.5). In the final analysis, it is a combination of Stoicism and Romanitas that best describes the emperor's character and beliefs.87 Stoicism, stripped of its earlier radical nature, provided a justification for the status quo both of the society of the Roman Empire and of the inherited culture of classical civilization.88 The practical application of Stoic principles: the way one behaved as a social being, how one submitted to fate, the manner of demonstrating social reason, all had to be taken from the attitudes and values of the surrounding society.

A parallel exists between the individual and society. Just as Aurelius was forced to admit the intractability of the physical and irrational side of human nature, so the social and political status quo also had to be accepted as a decree of fate. The most that could ever be done was to allow reason to maintain all the elements of both the individual personality and the social fabric in their proper place.89 By the time of Aurelius, Stoicism had become the philosophical justification for Romanitas. The emperor's philosophical beliefs neither led him to question established principles of policy nor offered him any guidance in determining the objective content of his actions. It probably never occurred to him that any such examination would be necessary.90 Aurelius's outlook offered a strong defense for a political and social structure that was particularly conservative by nature.91 Far from embracing any movement sympathetic to its own ascetical bent, Roman Stoicism presented a clear case for attacking those perceived as a threat to the social order.


  1. Among pagan sources, both Dio (LXXI.1.1) and the Historia Augusta title Aurelius “the philosopher.” HA M.A. I.1: “A man who pursued philosophy all of his life and who surpassed all rulers in the purity of his life”; HA M.A. XXVII.7: “The saying of Plato was always on his lips, that nations flourished if either the philosophers ruled or the rulers pursued philosophy”; cf. XVI.5, XIX.12. Even Christians readily attribute the title to Aurelius: Justin, 1 Apol. I; Athenagoras, Leg. I; and Melito in Eus., HE IV.26.9-11, where also Nero and Domitian are singled out specifically as the only emperors who persecuted, while Aurelius is described as holding opinions “both more philanthropic and philosophic” than even the beneficent Hadrian and Pius.

  2. For bibliography, see R. Klein, ed., Marc Aurel., Wege der Forschung 50 (Darmstadt, 1979), 503-29, and F. H. Sandbach, The Stoics, 2d ed. (Bristol, 1989), 179-82. Establishing a detailed definition of Aurelius's philosophy, beyond matters that touch upon asceticism, would both be redundant and lie outside the scope of this work. Much more so would any discussion of his “personal commitment” to his beliefs. This question is controversial and, I believe, unanswerable given the nature of the sources. The Meditations is not a diary, and any discussion would be based on subjective modern views of what Stoicism or the emperor ought to have been. On this, see P. A. Brunt, “Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations,” JRS 64 (1974): 1-20; P. Hadot, “La Physique comme exercice spirituel ou pessimisme et optimisme chez Marc Aurèle,” Revue de théologie et philosophie 22 (1972): esp. 239; and R. B. Rutherford, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Study (Oxford, 1989), 8-21. Recent attempts to read personal motivations, engendered by Stoicism, into the historical record include P. Noyen, “Marcus Aurelius the Greatest Practician of Stoicism,” Antiquité Classique 24 (1955): 372-83; and M. Józefowicz, “Les idées politiques dans la morale stoïcienne de Marc Aurèle,” Eos 59 (1971): 241-54. Such attempts are well refuted by G. R. Stanton, “Marcus Aurelius, Emperor and Philosopher,” Historia 18 (1969): 570-87; and Brunt, “Marcus Aurelius.” A prudent, well-balanced treatment is given by J. M. Rist, “Are You a Stoic? The Case of Marcus Aurelius,” in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, ed. B. F. Meyer and E. P. Sanders (Philadelphia, 1982), 3:23-45.

  3. E. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library (New York, 1932), 69f., 73f.

  4. Though revised, A. Birley, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography, 2d ed. (New Haven, 1987), still tends to romanticize the emperor. The works of Noyen and Józefowicz are positively apologetic. Ernst Renan, Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique (Paris, 1882), most severely disparaged the “superstitious” and “credulous” tendencies of the times in contrast to Aurelius's example of enlightened rationality. Most recently, this opinion has reappeared in Rutherford, 182, 216ff. On the fallacies of the “rationalism vs. superstition” dichotomy in the period, see R. MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven, 1981), 70-79, and R. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York, 1987), 64f., 76-261 passim. A more balanced view of the age of Aurelius may be found in A. S. L. Farquharson, Marcus Aurelius: His Life and his World, ed. D. A. Rees (New York, 1951), 1-12.

  5. Pertinent studies include the articles by Stanton, Brunt, and Rist cited above. Other important works are: J. Rist, Stoic Philosophy (Cambridge, 1969); P. A. Brunt, “Stoicism and the Principate,” PBSR 43, n.s. 30 (1975): 7-35; E. V. Arnold, Roman Stoicism (Cambridge, 1911), though the reader needs to be cautious of his sources and generalizations; and E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge, 1965), also with a word of caution. R. B. Rutherford's literary study of the Meditations is useful in its descriptions of the broader context of Aurelius's writing, but is often diffuse on topics discussed here and, I believe, simply incorrect in its analysis and conclusions regarding the emperor's asceticism and supposed “world hatred.” See P. A. Brunt's authoritative review in JRS 80 (1990): 218-19; and M. T. Griffin, CR, n.s. 41 (1991): 42-44, who though less critical rightly notes that historians will find fault with Rutherford's work. The specific difficulties in both Dodds and Rutherford will be discussed below.

  6. Dodds, Pagan and Christian, 8 n. 1: “The personal character of his notebooks makes them better evidence for ‘the feelings of the individual man in his solitude’ than the letters of Seneca, the essays of Plutarch or the sermons of Epictetus, all of which were designed for a public audience.” This is safe to say, but must not be overstated. Hadot, “La Physique,” argues throughout that the Meditations are a traditional form of Stoic “spiritual exercise” that certainly reflect Aurelius's chosen system of belief but actually give precious little insight into the personal and individual character of the man.

  7. Dodds, Pagan and Christian, 8, 21, 27f.

  8. HA M.A. II.6. It is also stated that Aurelius's mother soon forced him to modify this discipline, persuading him to sleep instead on a couch strewn with skins—obviously reflecting Med. I.6. No citation of the Historia Augusta must go for long without some mention of the innumerable problems surrounding this document. The HA is a collection of imperial biographies from the period 117 to 284 c.e. As a whole, the work is notoriously tendentious, unreliable, and—in the biographies of the later or little known emperors—outright fictitious. The date(s) of composition and authorship remain in dispute. The reader is directed to T. D. Barnes, The Sources of the Historia Augusta, Collection Latomus 155 (Brussels, 1978) and R. Syme, Historia Augusta Papers (Oxford, 1983). By way of apology, it should be noted that the biography of Aurelius is considered to be one of the more factual (Syme, 35) and that here the HA is cited simply to amplify material from other, more reliable sources with which it agrees.

  9. Musonius Rufus IV, Lutz 52-56. Seneca, Ep. 18.5-7; see Arnold, 337f., 360-64. J. Perkins, “The ‘Self’ as Sufferer,” Harvard Theological Review 85 (1992): 271f., perceives this same distinction between Aurelius's practice as a youth and adult, which she attributes to his deliberate rejection of the new and growing concern with the body in the second century in favor of traditional mental self-discipline. Her insightful and stimulating analysis avoids the pitfalls of “world hatred” theories.

  10. So Farquharson, Life and World, 60, suggests that Aurelius's early inclination to self-discipline was probably not motivated either by specifically Stoic or even generally philosophic principles.

  11. The five consulars were Cornelius Fronto, Herodes Atticus, Iunius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus, and Claudius Severus. On this point and on “princely” education, see E. Champlin, Fronto and Antonine Rome (Cambridge, Mass., 1980), 119; also Farquharson, Life and World, 13-23, 33-54. There is debate on the philosophical versus the rhetorical character of Aurelius's education and personal interests; see birley, Marcus Aurelius, 69ff., 95ff. (chaps. 4 and 5, passim), and Champlin, Fronto, 31, 33, 106f., 121f.

  12. Dio LXXII.36.2 states that Aurelius was, at one time, physically vigorous but made himself frail. The word askesis is used, but the text gives no indication that this refers to practices of rigorous physical asceticism. Dio first mentions lack of leisure suggesting that askesis here should be taken to mean “assiduous exertion.” In the immediately preceding section, Dio speaks of Aurelius's sedulous pursuit of learning in rhetoric and philosophy, so that E. Cary, in the Loeb edition, translates the passage: “As a result of his close application and study he was extremely frail in body.” Perhaps echoing Dio, HA M.A. III.7f. states that Aurelius ruined his health as a youth by his devotion to his studies, specifically law. The precise meaning of Dio LXXII.36.2 can certainly be debated. The essential point remains, however, that if Dio is speaking of physical asceticism here, this would be the only passage to suggest extreme practice on the part of the adult emperor.

  13. Rutherford, 120, makes an unwarranted assumption in implying that the emperor's frail health resulted from his rigorous practice of physical asceticism.

  14. Aurelius may have simply been following the advice of Epictetus: “There is no need, for the most part, to go to public shows. If there should be such an occasion, however, show that you have concern for nothing other than yourself, that is, only wish for those things to happen which do happen and only for him to win who does win. Thus you will not be impaired. Refrain completely from shouting, laughing at anyone, or from great excitement. After leaving, do not speak a great deal about what happened, but only as much as contributes to your own betterment. Otherwise, it would appear that you had been absorbed in the spectacles” (Ench. 33.10).

  15. For the text of the S.C., see J. H. Oliver and R. E. Palmer, “Minutes of an Act of the Roman Senate,” Hesperia 24 (1955): 320-49.

  16. See Farquharson, Life and World, 76ff.

  17. Rutherford, 119, takes the points discussed here: Aurelius's diet, civiltas, and sexual restraint, as evidence of his “extravagant asceticism.” The foregoing discussion establishes that this is not the case.

  18. HA M.A. XXII.5-6. D. Magie in the Loeb edition notes at this passage that the emperor's critics were in the consilium principis itself. On Aurelius's concern for his reputation, see HA M.A. III.4, 6; VII.1.

  19. So Perkins, 271f., rightly observes that in rejecting physical practices of asceticism in favor of internal discipline, Aurelius “maintained his adherence to traditional modes of self-mastery.”

  20. “The belief that underlies all others is that he should devote himself entirely to the intellect.… Nothing matters except the intellect; and its activities are wholly within our power. The intellect is a deity, δαίμων, that has emanated from the universal deity; as such, it must be worshipped and kept pure by the individual, acting as a priest,” E. Asmis, “The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius,” ANRW II.36.3 (1988): 2236. For further elucidation of philosophical concepts and technical terms in the Meditations, the reader may consult Farquharson's commentaries on the specific passages in his Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

  21. Rist, Stoic Philosophy, 97-111; Brunt, “Stoicism,” 12. So also B. L. Hijmans. … Notes on Epictetus' Educational System, Wejsgerige teksten en studies 2 (Assen, 1959), 55, notes that for Epictetus “to act virtuously without the right state of mind is no virtue at all,” and traces the source of this opinion back to Democritus. Arguing that intention is not the sole determiner of morality: I. G. Kidd, “Stoic Intermediates and the End for Man,” CQ, n.s. 5 (1955): 181-194 = Problems in Stoicism, ed. A. A. Long (London, 1971), 150-72; see also his “Moral Actions and Rules in Stoic Ethics,” in The Stoics, ed. J. M. Rist (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1978), 247-58.

  22. VII.66: “Whether he could content himself with being just towards men and pious towards the gods, and not become rashly irritated at wickedness or thrall to another's ignorance, nor take as foreign anything allotted by the universe or suffer it as unbearable, nor turn his mind over to his paltry flesh in sympathy with its passions.” This is, perhaps, the most concise description of Stoic virtue found in the Meditations. The same themes appear repeatedly throughout, for example, II.16; III.4; IV.31; VII.54ff.; IX.20, 28, 40, 42; X.11, 15; XII.27. Regarding this judgment on Socrates, see Rutherford, 217 n. 112.

  23. This is stated most emphatically by Arnold, 286: “Virtue is a state of mind, a disposition of the soul; it is not an act. Hence the bent of the mind (inclinatio), its aim (intentio), its desire is everything; the performance through the organs of the body is nothing” (citing Sen., Ep. 95.57; De Ben. II.31.1; Cic., De Fin. III.9.32; Epict. Diss. I.29.1, 2).

  24. See Chapter 1, pages 12-19. Such broad conceptual terms as “dualism” are notoriously difficult to define precisely, and are used most often without such definition at all. To have utility as a concept, “dualism” should require not only a distaste for physical or bodily reality, but also its clear opposition to the intellectual or spiritual. It should also imply a moral distinction: the physical is a source or locus of evil, the mind or soul of good. This opposition and moral distinction exists nowhere in the Meditations. So also Dodds, Pagan and Christian, 13: “The visible cosmos as a whole could only be called evil in contrast with some invisible Good Place or Good Person outside and beyond the cosmos: radical dualism implies transcendence. Stoicism recognized no such place or person: it was a one-storey system” (citing S. Pétrement, Le Dualisme dans L'histoire de la philosophie et des religions [Paris, 1946], 105).

  25. … the meaning is unclear and the translation above is literal. Farquharson, Meditations, 2:664, suggests that the “one” sympathetic connection is that of the mind down to the body, and the “other” is that of the body up to the mind. Thus, though the mind seals itself off from descending to the physical / emotional level, feelings are still able to travel up to the mind; the human being is a unity and there can be no complete severing of mind from body.

  26. See above, notes 6 and 7. Aurelius is, for Dodds, a prime example of the individual in an “Age of Anxiety.” This thesis has not found general acceptance. For example, R. Lane Fox, 64ff., gives a succinct and powerful critique: “Anxious individuals can be found in any age with a personal literature. … To sum up an age by a single emotion is to focus on a few individuals and to simplify even those few … and their written theories on the age-old problems of evil and its origins were neither distinctively ‘anxious’ nor new to the Antonine age.” On the difficulties with Dodds's work in general, see R. C. Smith and J. Lounibos, eds., Pagan and Christian Anxiety: A Response to E. R. Dodds (Lanham, Md., 1984).

  27. Dodds himself admits this, Pagan and Christian, 21: “He fought against the exclusive dominion of such thoughts with all the strength of his Stoic religion, reminding himself that his existence was part and parcel of the great Unity”; cf. 27f., 80f. Rutherford, 29-39, 227-47, endeavors to resurrect Dodds's view of Aurelius but fails to take sufficient account of the contrary views expressed in the Meditations themselves, and of the insights of Rist and Hadot, which will be discussed presently. Instead, Rutherford speaks in a general, subjective, impressionistic manner about Aurelius's feelings of “enslavement” to and “hatred” of the body (242), concomitant with the emperor's “extreme asceticism” (227), and in distinction to the views of Epictetus (246)—ignoring his own caveat (228) on comparing the two because of differences in circumstance, genre, and audience.

  28. For Aurelius's use of Heraclitan imagery and language, see Rist, “Are You a Stoic?” 36-39, and Asmis, 2246-49. On Heraclitan influence on Stoicism in general: A. A. Long, “Heraclitus and Stoicism,” Philosophia 5-6 (1975-76): 133-56. Rist considers Long's arguments on this point exaggerated. See also Arnold, 258f. who sees a particularly Roman flavor in Aurelius's opinions on the body.

  29. “This resolute benignity in the presence of change and death is not gained without severe discipline of the body and its passions and the mind with its shifting imaginings,” Farquharson, Life and World, 137.

  30. Fundamental to the study of this subject is P. Hadot, “La Physique”; his later works collected in Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique, 2d ed. (Paris, 1987); and “Les Pensées de Marc Aurèle,” Bulletin de l'Association Guillaume Budé 1 (1981): 183-91. Earlier and more controversial is P. Rabbow, Seelenführung: Methodik der Exercitien in der Antike (Munich, 1954); more recently, see R. J. Newman, “Cotidie Meditare: Theory and Practice of the Meditatio in Imperial Stoicism,” ANRW II.36.3 (1989): 1473-1517, on Aurelius, 1506-15.

  31. See Hadot, “La Physique,” 228-34. Hijmans, 78-91, outlines a similar process … in Epictetus.

  32. Rist, Stoic Philosophy, 269ff. I would disagree, however, with Rist's calling Aurelius a dualist, for the reasons stated above in note 25. The division of the individual into mind / reason, soul, and body is simply a commonplace bit of reasoning in ancient philosophy. It is the conclusions drawn from this division, the attitude toward each of the parts, e.g., whether they are “good” or “evil,” that defines dualism in any specific and useful way.

  33. Dodds, Pagan and Christian, 27f., suggests that the introjection into the self of feelings of resentment against the world, such as those found in Aurelius, results either in the mental torment of moral self-reproach or in physical acts of self-punishment. The asceticism of reason can certainly be described as the former. The more intriguing point is that the alternative results in the practice of that sort of intensely physical asceticism that would become so popular little more than a century after Aurelius's death. In Dodds's view, the reasoned, cerebral self-searching of the emperor and the harsh physical excess of the desert monk are but two sides of the same coin, i.e., an introvert and extrovert manifestation of some common reality. The suggestion is intriguing in itself, without one's necessarily subscribing to “world hatred” as its cause. This thesis merits full consideration from psychological, philosophical, and religious perspectives, well beyond the scope of this present work.

  34. Citation from Galen's lost commentary on Plato's Republic in P. Kraus and R. Walzer, eds., Plato Arabus, vol. 1, Galeni compendium Timaei Platonis aliorum dialogorum synopsis quae extant fragmenta, ed. P. Kraus and F. Rosenthal (London, 1943), 99; trans. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians (London, 1949), 15; discussed on 65-74. Walzer notes that the Christians' success with the multitude lay precisely in the appeal of myth and exhortation and in avoiding difficult philosophical questions. Though the results may be admirable, they are vitiated by a method that appeals to emotion and faith rather than reason. The “irrationality” of the Christians, in this narrow sense, is a constant refrain in pagan objections to the new faith. This criticism is voiced by Galen himself: “If I had in mind people who taught their pupils in the same way as the followers of Moses and Christ teach theirs—for they order them to accept everything on faith—I should not have given you a definition,” Kraus and Walzer, Plato Arabus, 1:20; trans. Walzer, Galen, 15; discussed on 48-56 and passim.

  35. See Chapter 3.

  36. For a philosophical discussion of these terms, see M. Pohlenz, Die Stoa: Geschichte einer geistigen Bewegung, 4th ed., with corrections, additions, and index by H.-J. Johann (Göttingen, 1970), 1:141-53.

  37. Cf. Epict., Ench. 14.2: “Whoever wants to be free, let him neither wish for anything nor avoid anything that is under the control of others.”

  38. As Aurelius states, sensation is not to be resisted. It is, after all, simply natural (V.26). I would refine Rist's comment, Stoic Philosophy, 25-27, 195, that apatheia is the suppression not of all emotion, but only of irrational emotion. Emotion is, by definition, irrational (or arational) though in some cases emotions may also have irrational, that is, logically unfounded, causes. Aurelius would not resist even these emotions themselves, but rather apply reason to avoid either being swept away by their very real power or acting while in the flush of passion. Hence Clement of Alexandria's contention that Christians aim to experience no desire at all, while pagans merely attempt to resist it (Strom. III.7.57); see P. R. L. Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York, 1988), 31f.

  39. X.11; II.14f; III.10. An excellent statement on the transitoriness of life occurs in IV.32-36.

  40. On the issue of wealth and the practice of philosophy, Arnold, 320f., notes that no subject would be easier on which to find conflicting Stoic views. In general, he characterizes the position in practice as “he who feels the need of wealth least, can best make use of it.” Again, focus is on internal attitude; the justification of wealth lies in the intention of using it well. See Cic., de Off. I.68 and Epict. Diss. IV.ix.2. Rist, Stoic Philosophy, 189f. comments on a “notorious” proposition of Panaetius, mentioned in Diogenes Laertius 7.128, that virtue alone is insufficient to secure happiness, but that health, property, and strength are required as well. Material want can be a constant distraction to the mind, and a certain amount of substance is necessary to secure the otium needed to pursue philosophy. See also Dio Chrysostom, Or. 20.11-18, 26 …, where he argues that true withdrawal is within the mind and that physical surroundings are neither a help nor a hindrance to one determined to live philosophically.

  41. Rist, Stoic Philosophy, 186ff., 197; Arnold, 101f., 302. See below, page 43.

  42. Lucian expresses precisely this reaction to Peregrinus and Alexander, while evidence for such a reaction against Apollonius of Tyana is found in Philostratus's Life of Apollonius. See Chapters 3 and 4.

  43. For a succinct explanation of Aurelius's equation of nature, fate, God, reason, and the daimon, with citations from Meditations, see Brunt, “Marcus in his Meditations,” 15.

  44. Hence Philostratus's concern to portray Apollonius as a devout worshiper of the traditional gods, as opposed to a goes conjuring up daimones; see Philostr., VA V.12; VIII.7.2, 9; and Chapter 4, page 97.

  45. Cf. Apollonius's own claims to religious authority, Chapter 4, pages 108-12.

  46. XII.5: “How could the gods, having arranged all things artfully and benevolently towards men, have overlooked this one thing: that some men who were particularly good and had, so to speak, the closest relations with the divine—having become intimate with divinity through pious acts and worship—should, once dead, never again come into being but be utterly extinguished.”

  47. Brunt, “Marcus in his Meditations,” 7.

  48. … (I.14). There is also a certain irony in Aurelius's mention of these names of antityrannical heroes of the Roman past. Stoicism, by his day, no longer offered a platform for rebellion or revolution. It had become so entrenched in the imperial status quo that an emperor could feel safe in mentioning the names of those who plotted against his predecessors; see Brunt, “Stoicism,” 29f.

  49. Stanton, “Emperor and Philosopher,” 579, holds that Aurelius's references to social acts are nebulous because they lie purely in the realm of theory and carry no effective practical import. Against this view Brunt, “Marcus in his Mediations,” 6, argues that Aurelius knew quite well what actions were required of him in his position and would not have bothered to elaborate upon them in writing. This latter view is, in my mind, the more correct. Aurelius assumes the definition of social acts from the commonplace accepted norms of his society.

  50. Brunt, “Stoicism,” 32: “The historian can note that what the Stoics supposed to be right, what they could conscientiously devote or sacrifice their lives to doing, was largely settled by the ideas and practices current in their society, and that a Helvidius or a Marcus was inspired by his beliefs not to revalue or reform the established order, but to fulfill his place within that order, in conformity with notions that men of their time and class usually accepted, at least in name, but with unusual resolution, zeal and fortitude.”

  51. Rist, Stoic Philosophy, 92: “Throughout our investigation of Stoicism we find a concern for the individual case, and in ethics with the individual per se.” See also his “Stoic Concept of Detachment,” 264ff.

  52. Brunt, “Stoicism,” 16 n. 49: “It is a misunderstanding to ascribe to this metaphysical doctrine political or practical import.” Stanton, “Emperor and Philosopher,” 579: “For in his view the task of the citizen of the universe is to work from observation to theory and not from theory to practice.”

  53. G. R. Stanton, “The Cosmopolitan Ideas of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius,” Phronesis 13 (1968):192.

  54. Arnold, 402: “This legislation is not entirely the work of professed Stoics; it is nevertheless the offspring of Stoicism.” Concomitant with such a view is an overstatement of Stoic ideals and their practical effects: “The practical statesmen who set about to recreate Roman law on the principle of substituting everywhere human rights for class privileges were men thoroughly imbued with the Stoic spirit, whether or not they were avowed disciples of this philosophy” (281). Such statements are particularly surprising since Arnold elsewhere agrees that Stoicism, by this time, has lost its moral vitality and had settled into a conventional respectability (303).

  55. Noyen, 375ff.; cf. “Divus Marcus, princeps prudentissimus et iuris religiosissimus,” Revue internationale des droits de l'antiquité, 3d ser., 1 (1954): 349-71. Noyen admits that his motivation in this study is to come to a judgment about Aurelius's personality; that is, did he practice what he preached? On the fallacy of such an approach, see above, note 2. For the laws themselves, see Paul., Sent. IV.10; Ulp., Reg. XXVI.7; Inst. III.4; Dig. XXXVIII.17.9 (Gaius), 17.6 (Paul.), 17.7 (Paul.); Dig. XXIII.2.59 (Paul.); Dig. XXXVII.7.9 (Tryph.); Dig. (Ulp.).

  56. M. Hammond, The Antonine Monarchy, Papers and Monographs of the American Academy in Rome 19 (Rome, 1959), 331 and nn. 18-21.

  57. Stanton, “Emperor and Philosopher,” 571, 571 n. 6, and 573-75. For the S.C. Tertullianum: Inst. III.3.2; cf. Dig. XXXIV.5.9.1, XXXVIII.17.2.9 (Pius); Zonaras 12.1.

  58. G. R. Stanton, “Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Commodus: 1962-1972,” ANRW II.2.2 (1975): 500f., wherein he cites the opinions of J. Bleicken, Senatsgericht und Kaisergericht: Eine Studie zur Entwicklung des Prozeβrechtes in führen Prinzipat, Abhandlungen der Akad. der Wiss. in Göttingen, Philol.-Hist. Klasse, Folge 3:53 (Göttingen, 1962), 118-20; R. P. Duncan-Jones, “The Purpose and Organization of the Alimenta,PBSR 32 (1964), 123-46; P. D. A. Garnsey, Social Status and Legal Privilege in the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1970), passim; A. R. Hands, Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome (London, 1968), 111-15; and H.-G. Pflaum, “Tendences politiques et administratives au IIe siècle de notre ère,” Revue des études latines 42 (1964): 112-21.

  59. W. Williams, “Individuality in the Imperial Constitutions. Hadrian and the Antonines,” JRS 66 (1976): 67-83. The two examples of legislation coinciding with Noyen are on insanity: Dig. I.18.14, and on the status of freedmen: Dig. Williams's criteria pertain to the style of the documents. He argues that Aurelius's hand (rather literally) manifests itself in four characteristic traits: (1) painstaking attention to detail, (2) insistence on obvious or trivial points, (3) linguistic purism, and (4) attitudes expressed toward the Greeks. On the basis of these criteria, Williams is careful to conclude that some (Williams's emphasis) constitutions demonstrate the personal intervention of the emperor. On the emperor's personal involvement in framing law generally, see the more detailed study of F. Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (Ithaca, N.Y. 1977), chap. 5, 203-72.

  60. See below, esp. note 68.

  61. M. Sordi, “Le polemiche intorno al cristianesimo nel II secolo e la loro influenza sugli sviluppi della politica imperiale verso la Chiesa,” Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia 16 (1962): 17ff.

  62. See J. Beaujeu, La religion romaine à l'apogée de l'Empire, vol. 1, La politique religieuse des Antonins (96-192) (Paris, 1955), 358, and Rist, “Stoic Concept of Detachment,” 260-66. On the persecution of the Christians in general, see P. Keresztes, “The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church I. From Nero to the Severi,” ANRW II.23.1 (1979): 247-315, with bibliography.

  63. See Chapter 1, pages 18-19.

  64. Stanton, “Cosmopolitan Ideas,” 187-91. Stanton derives Aurelius's emphasis on submission from his cosmopolitan ideas. The unity of humanity under reason creates a “type of state” with a common law (IV.4). The prime moral imperative is submission to reason and the decrees of fate (i.e., obeying the law). There is a clear unity to Aurelius's thought, connecting his psychology to his ethics and politics. Taken together, they offer a strong logical argument for social and political conservatism.

  65. See M. Laffranque, Poseidonios d'Apamée: Essai de mise au point, Publ. de la Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines de Paris, serie “Recherches” 13 (Paris, 1964), 477-79.

  66. Rist, “Concept of Detachment,” 260-66.

  67. In regard to actual persecution in Aurelius's reign, sources are found in Eus., HE IV.9, 13, 26.3-11; and V.1 (the martyrs of Lyon), esp. V.1.45. Most scholars hold that Aurelius's policy cannot be established as any different from that of Trajan legally, and that most persecution during the period was the result of local agitation and mob violence; see Stanton, “Marcus, Lucius, and Commodus,” 528-32, where scholarship from 1962 to 1972 is reviewed, and Keresztes, “The Imperial Roman Government.” Note especially P. A. Brunt, “Marcus Aurelius and the Christians,” in Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, ed. C. Deroux, Collection Latomus 154 (Brussels, 1979), 1:484-98; also T. D. Barnes, “Legislation Against the Christians,” JRS 58 (1968): 32-50; F. Millar, Emperor in the Roman World, 559f.; M. Hammond, 211f.; and R. Lane Fox, 423. On the specific issue of Aurelius's deliberate role in persecution: P. Keresztes, “Marcus Aurelius a Persecutor?” Harvard Theological Review 61 (1968): 321-41; M. Sordi, “I nuovi decreti di Marco Aurelio contro i cristiani,” Studi Romani 9 (1961): 365-78, and “Le polemiche intorno.” The issue of the Christians is discussed in specific detail in regard to Celsus's True Doctrine in Chapter 5.

  68. Philostratus would later put a similar sentiment into the mouth of Apollonius; see VA VII.31.

  69. Brunt, “Marcus and the Christians,” 483ff. The argument is accepted by Rist, “Are You a Stoic?” 26 and 26 n. 15. A complete discussion of the issue is found in Birley, Marcus Aurelius, 263ff. (appendix 4). …

  70. This attitude would, of course, not be limited to Christians. It is safe to say that the emperor would have shared Lucian's disdain for Peregrinus's theatrical suicide. D. Clay, “Lucian of Samosata: Four Philosophical Lives (Nigrinus, Demonax, Peregrinus, Alexander Pseudomantis),” ANRW II.36.5 (1992): 3416f. and nn. 18f., stresses the importance of the word “theatrics” … in Lucian in terms equally applicable to Aurelius. His preferred translation of “solemn farce” would suit the passage in the Meditations as well.

  71. Trans. Walzer, Galen, 14; see also 37-45, 48-56. A stimulating discussion of Galen's attitude toward the Christians may be found in R. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, 1984), 68-93.

  72. The majority of scholars hold that the passage does not refer specifically to the Christians: Farquharson, Meditations, 2:587; Brunt, “Marcus and the Christians,” 494ff.; Birley, Marcus Aurelius, 265. A notable exception is Rist, “Are You a Stoic?” 26 and n. 15.

  73. Cynicism will be discussed in the next chapter in relation to Lucian and Peregrinus. A certain at least perceived relation existed between Christians and Cynics. Aelius Aristides compares the Cynics to “the impious in Palestine” (Or. 3.671 in Behr = Or. 46 in Dindorf, 2:402). Lucian relates that Peregrinus spent a few years as a Christian before his embrace of Cynicism (Peregr. 11-16). Thus J. Bernays, Lucian und die Kyniker (Berlin, 1879), 36 n. 20: “Es wird sehr begreiflich, dass ein Jude oder Christ die pseudepigraphische Maske des Kyon wählte.” Christian sources, however, usually view Cynicism negatively. The Cynic Crescens is Justin's opponent in 2 Apol. 3, 10. Hippol., Refut. 8.13 draws an unfavorable comparison between Cynics and Encratites; significantly, his complaint is that both are puffed up with pride because of their asceticism. Tatian, Orat. ad Graec. 19, again defames Crescens and holds him responsible for Justin's death. In 25, Tatian unleashes a general denunciation of the Cynics, specifically insulting Peregrinus's physical appearance and the Cynic “habit.” Interestingly Tertullian, ad Mart. 4.5, speaks favorably of Peregrinus's “philosophical martyrdom.”

  74. In persecution trials, the fundamental issue lay in returning to Roman mores, to societal discipline and tradition. Slanders of immorality were irrelevant to the essential grounds of the trial and were simply ignored upon recantation; this appears among the earliest evidence of legal proceedings against the Christians in Pliny, Ep. X.96.5-7. See R. Lane Fox, 426f. and S. Benko, “Pagan Criticism of Christianity During the First Two Centuries a.d.,” ANRW II.23.2 (1980): 1074. Roman magistrates sought worshipers of the gods, not martyrs. Their aim was to reestablish social norms first, to punish only as a last resort. It can also be said that, if the “pattern” of social deviancy is considered as a whole, a reversion to norms in one area would lead to a reversion in the others. If Christianity was a crime, it was because it stood for a complex of deviant behaviors. Thus, sacrificing to the gods or saluting the emperor's genius would suffice as evidence that the accused now accepted the whole social order. The acta of Christian martyrs offer abundant evidence of these “loyalty tests,” for example, on sacrifice: A. Carp. et al. 9 (Greek), 2 (Latin); A. Pionius 4, 7, 9; on swearing by the emperor's genius: A. Polycarp 9; A. Scillitan. Mart. 3; A. Apollon. 3; and on caerimonia in general: A. Cypr. 3. For the texts, see H. A. Musurillo, ed., Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford, 1972).

  75. There is, I believe, a specific connection in Aurelius's mind between asceticism … and beneficence or philanthropy. … In both cases, the issue is that of an act performed for the sake of drawing public attention to the doer. The latter term carries connotations of public benefaction and philotimia, acts of public largesse meant specifically to enhance the social standing and reputation of the benefactor. So also ascetic display can be used for the sake of attention and reputation. As will be seen in Chapter 3, Lucian constantly refers to Peregrinus's ascetical acts as performed “for the sake of notoriety.” … The very publicity of such actions and the adulation they inspire are sufficient to make them ethically suspect in Aurelius's eyes.

  76. Instead of askesis Aurelius refers to the physical disciplines of his youth as “the Greek method of education” … (I.6); see above, note 8.

  77. Epict., Ench. 47: “And should you ever wish to undertake training … for physical endurance, do so for yourself and not for others to see”; cf. Epict. Diss. III.xii.16-17. On the dangers of pride in moral achievement, Med. III.6.2, XII.27. Rist, “Are You a Stoic?” 26f., notes that posturing in any form is objectionable, but posing as a “moral athlete” is particularly undesirable, being merely a more sophisticated form of the crude lust for fame; see Med. VI.16.2. Even on the level of practical affairs and the traditional stuff of philotimia, doing what is necessary is more important than establishing a reputation as a benefactor, Med. I.16; cf. Epict., Ench. 24.4.

  78. Sen., Ep. 5.2: “I admonish you, however, that you do nothing conspicuous in your dress or way of life, in the manner of those who desire not to improve themselves but to gain notoriety. Eschew unkempt clothing, uncut hair, slovenly beard, outright scorn of money, a bed placed on the ground, and whatever other conceits this perverse way entails. The very name of philosophy, even when pursued unassumingly, is already held in enough contempt; what would happen if we began to dissociate ourselves from the conventional ways of men?”; see also 5.4.

  79. R. MacMullen, Enemies of the Roman Order: Treason, Unrest, and Alienation in the Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), 60: “They were to the ancient world what palmers and friars were to the medieval, a familiar sight everywhere, both suspect and sacred, but more rightly suspect, since the whole movement, like any vogue, drew in recruits who had the least suitable talents and motives.” …

  80. “The charge of magic is likely to be made by legitimate religious leaders against people who are viewed as threatening the social order but who have as yet done no other prosecutable criminal offense. For instance, Mathematici, Jews, and Christians could be seen as subversive by the Roman government, so it was logical to charge them with “magic” even though the charge might be factually groundless and impress us as absurd,” A. F. Segal, “Hellenistic Magic: Some Questions of Definition,” in Studies in Gnosticism and Hellenistic Religions: Presented to Gilles Quispel on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, ed. R. van Den Broek and M. J. Vermaseren (Leiden, 1981), 370. This adumbrates a major theme in the following chapters.

  81. Apuleius states that he is not only defending himself, but the good name of philosophy as well (Apol. 3). He mentions his long unkempt hair (4), and people's objections to his wallet and staff (peram et baculum, 25); that is, his philosopher's “habit.” Note that Apuleius phrases the accusation in terms of his outward appearance as a philosopher. As will be seen in the following chapters, Peregrinus affected the same appearance at Parium while Apollonius's garb formed one of the accusations in his trial before Domitian. The case of Apuleius will be further discussed in Chapter 4.

  82. It is worth comparing the use and frequency of the goeteia slander among such personalities as Dionysius, Hadrian the Phoenician, Apuleius, and Galen. Again, mere celebrity seems sufficient to draw down a rumor or accusation, not to mention professional and personal jealousy. In the cases of Hadrian and Apuleius, however, there appears to have been some real interest in magic on their part. As will be seen below, defining “magic” is no simple task—as evidenced by Apuleius himself in Apol. 25ff. Neither would it be easy in antiquity to draw clear lines between the professions of sophistry, philosophy, and medicine represented here and what we today would term “magic” or even “religion.”

  83. Med. IX.29: “How petty these politicians who, as they see it, play the philosopher. They are full of rubbish.” Galen, de Praecog. 11.8, reports that Aurelius observed that most contemporary philosophers were not only fond of money, but contentious, ambitious, envious, and malicious. Dio LXXII.35.1-2 states that as a result of the emperor's philosophical interest, great numbers pretended to pursue philosophy, hoping that they might be enriched by him. HA M.A. XXIII.9 makes a tantalizing comment about men “pretending to be philosophers” stirring up trouble “for both the state and private citizens,” but offers no specifics. On Galen's own low opinion of the philosophers current in Rome, see de Praecog. 1.13-15, 10.16. On the topic, see also Rutherford, 80-89.

  84. P. R. L. Brown, “The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity,” Representations 1, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 1-4. See also H. A. Marrou, A History of Education in the Ancient World, trans. G. Lamb (New York, 1956), 96-101, 217-26.

  85. See Lucian, Peregr. 13.

  86. Arnold, 217. G. W. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1969), 74f., makes a similar judgment about Galen and the sophists of the age.

  87. Rist, “Are You a Stoic?” 35; Birley, Marcus Aurelius, 98.

  88. “Stoicism had become an authorized doctrine rather than a developing philosophical system,” A. A. Long, Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics, 2d ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1986), 115.

  89. This parallel between the individual and society is noted by Brown, Body, 30f.: “Like society, the body was to be administered (by reason), not changed.”

  90. Brunt, “Stoicism,” 23f.

  91. An excellent exposition of the “culture” of Roman conservatism is given by C. N. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine, revised and corrected ed. (Oxford, 1944), 114-76.


AAR: American Academy of Religion

ANRW: W. Haase and H. Temporini, eds., Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt / Rise and Decline of the Roman World (Berlin and New York, 1972ff.).

CIL: Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum

CQ: Classical Quarterly

CR: Classical Review

GRBS: Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies

ILS: H. Dessau, ed. Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, 3 vols. in 5 (Berlin, 1892-1916)

JBL: Journal of Biblical Literature

JHS: Journal of Hellenic Studies

JRS: Journal of Roman Studies

JSOT: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament

JTS: Journal of Theological Studies

LSJ: H. D. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. revised and augmented by H. S. Jones, with a supplement by E. A. Barber et al. (Oxford, 1968).

PBSR: Papers of the British School at Rome

RE: A. Pauly, G. Wissowa, and W. Kroll, eds., Real-encyclopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft (Munich, 1893-1980).

SBL: Society of Biblical Literature

TAPA: Transactions of the American Philological Association

Vig. Chr.: Vigiliae Christianae

Pierre Hadot (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “A First Glimpse of the Meditations” and “The Meditations as Spiritual Exercises” in The Inner Citadel: The “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius, translated by Michael Chase, Harvard University Press, 1998, pp. 21-53.

[In the following excerpt, Hadot discusses the history of Aurelius's manuscript, the difficulties of assigning it to a particular genre, and the qualities Aurelius assigns to his ideal man.]


In our time, now that the printing and distribution of books are banal, everyday operations, we no longer realize to what extent the survival of any work of antiquity represented an almost miraculous adventure. If, after having been dictated or written onto relatively fragile materials, and then having been more or less disfigured by copyists' mistakes, a text managed to survive until the birth of printing, it was only because it had the good fortune not to be burned in one of the numerous library fires of antiquity, or else simply did not fall into useless pieces. The odyssey of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations seems to have been particularly risky.

In all probability, the Emperor wrote for himself and his own private use, rather than by dictation. At his death, the notes Marcus wrote in this way were saved and conserved by a family member, a friend, or an admirer. Was it ever published, that is to say, copied down and distributed to bookstores? It is difficult to say. Some scholars have thought that they recognize analogies between the Meditations and the speech which, according to the historian Cassius Dio, writing a few years after the Emperor's death, Marcus delivered before his soldiers on the occasion of the rebellion of Avidius Cassius.1 In fact, however, the analogies in expression are not very specific; these were formulas which were fairly widespread in the philosophical and literary tradition.

It does seem that, two centuries after Marcus, the philosopher Themistius knew of the existence of the work: he speaks of paraggelmata2 or “exhortations” written by Marcus. The historian Aurelius Victor and the Historia Augusta claim that Marcus, before leaving on his expedition to the Danubian front, had publicly set forth the precepts of his philosophy in the form of a series of exhortations.3 This is an interesting detail, for it reveals that the writing of the Meditations was linked in a confused way with the wars against the Germans, which is not completely false. Much later, in the fourteenth century, it would be imagined that the work was a book composed with a view to the education of Marcus' son Commodus.4 In any case, it seems that none of these authors had direct access to the book of which they were speaking.

It was not until the Byzantine tenth century that we find testimonies to the reading and copying of Marcus' works. The great Byzantine lexicon entitled the Souda, which dates from that period, contains several extracts from the Meditations, and specifies that Marcus Aurelius' work consists of twelve books.5 In addition, the bishop Arethas, in a letter of 907 addressed to Demetrius, metropolitan of Heraclea, speaks of a copy of the philosopher-emperor's work in his possession, which is readable but in poor condition. He has had it recopied, he writes, and can thus bequeath it to posterity in renewed condition.6 There are, moreover, several literal quotations from the Meditations in Arethas' works.7 In the Byzantine world, the Meditations were read throughout the following centuries.8

In the West, we do not find quotations from Marcus until the beginning of the sixteenth century: the De arte cabalistica of Johannes Reuchlin, published in 1517, contains quotations of two passages from the Meditations, probably taken from a manuscript in Reuchlin's possession.9 It was not until 1559 that a printed edition appeared, brought out by Andreas Gesner of Zurich. Based on a now-lost manuscript, this edition was accompanied by a Latin translation made by Xylander (Wilhelm Holzmann). Besides this edition, we have only one complete manuscript of the Emperor's works: the Vaticanus Graecus 1950, which dates from the fourteenth century.

We can thus surmise that it is only a matter of luck that we happen to know the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. We must admit, however, that in the case of a number of passages—fortunately not very numerous—the state of the text as we now possess it is less than satisfactory; and given the small number of manuscripts, it is difficult to improve upon the text. In order to reestablish the text with the highest degree of probability, therefore, we are sometimes reduced to making conjectures.

The text, is, in any event, rather difficult to understand, and the reader should not be surprised if he finds that the original translation I am proposing is sometimes rather different from other extant translations. Moreover, it is because my interpretation of the thought of Marcus Aurelius is based upon my way of translating the text that I have found it necessary to include lengthy quotations from his work.

Neither in the manuscripts nor in the first edition, moreover, is there any division of the work into chapters; and there are few paragraphs. The first editors and translators who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, worked with the first edition proposed a variety of divisions; but the modern numeration is that of the Latin translation by Thomas Gataker, published in Cambridge in 1652.10 Gataker's division, however, is in need of complete revision. Some chapters must be reunited, and, above all, many others must be subdivided, since a number of passages with very different subject matter have been unjustifiably grouped together. The reader should not be surprised, therefore, to encounter the divisions I have introduced into a particular text, which will seem different from those found in the other extant translations.


As we have seen, it was the edition of 1559 which revealed Marcus Aurelius to the West. The work quickly became a huge success, with editions of the Greek text, and translations into Latin and the various European languages, coming fast and furious. Soon, however, the following question arose: under which genre should the work be classified? In antiquity, a book's title allowed its readers to recognize immediately in which category it should be situated. Moreover, it was not usually the philosopher who gave the title to his writings: more often than not, the classes he had written entered his school's library without a title. Then, for convenience, his disciples and successors got the habit of referring to the work by the part of philosophy or the specific question with which it dealt—for example, Classes on Physics—sometimes accompanied by the name of the addressee (Nichomachean Ethics). No doubt Plato chose the titles of dialogues himself, but they are usually taken from the names of the protagonists of the discussion: Charmides, Phaedo, Philebus. A book's title was not then, as it is now, an invention of the author, by means of which he tries to show off his originality and attract the reader by the unusual nature of his formulations, as in The Bald Soprano, The Dancer and the Chatterton, The Cook and the Man-eater.11

It is highly likely that when Marcus was writing what we now call the Meditations, he had no idea of giving a title to these notes intended only for himself. In antiquity, moreover, as long as a book remained unpublished—through a public reading, for instance—it was almost always the case that the author did not give it a title. Thus, we find the physician Galen and the philosopher Plotinus entrusting their texts to friends, without providing them with titles.12 Their works, which they had given to their entourage, were in the state of what the ancients used to call hypomnēmata: that is to say, notes not yet quite revised for publication, and lacking a title. This is all the more true if, as is probably the case, Marcus' work was made up of a collection of strictly personal and private notes. When Arethas13 (ninth to tenth centuries), to whom we no doubt owe the preservation of our precious text, describes the condition of his manuscript, he merely designates it as “the very profitable book of the Emperor Marcus.” The fact that he does not give it a title may well lead us to believe that the manuscript did not bear one. Likewise, the epigram dedicated to Marcus' book, perhaps composed by Theophylactus Simocattes (seventh century), does not give any title.14 When Arethas wrote his scholia on Lucian, he quotes the work as follows: Marcus in “the ethical writings addressed to himself” (ta eis heauton Ethika). The Byzantine dictionary called the Souda15 says of Marcus: “He consigned the rule (agōgē) of his personal life in twelve books.” Finally, let us recall that Themistius, in the third century, made extremely vague allusions to some paraggelmata, or “exhortations” of Marcus Aurelius.

The Vatican manuscript gives no title to the Emperor's work. Some manuscript collections of extracts from it do bear the notice: ta kat' heauton, which could be translated: “Writing concerning Himself,” or “Private Writing.”

After the publication of the Greek text in 1559, various translations, corresponding to various theories and interpretations, were given to the work. Xylander's translation, which accompanied the Greek text in 1559, proposed the title De seipso seu vita sua (“On Himself or on His Life”). In the editions of Strasburg (1590) and of Lyon (1626), the title was De vita sua (“On his life”). When Meric Casaubon published his Graeco-Latin edition in London in 1643, he preferred the title De seipso et ad seipsum (“About Himself and to Himself”); but when the English translation appeared in 1634, he had entitled it Meditations concerning himselfe. Thomas Gataker, another English humanist of the same period, placed the following formula at the beginning of his Latin translation with commentary: De rebus suis sive de eis quae ad se pertinere censebat (“On His Private Affairs, or the Matters which He Thought Concerned Him”).

Thus, the work was to receive all kinds of titles, in all sorts of languages. In Latin: De officio vitae (“On the Duty of Life”); Pugillaria (“Tablets”); Commentaria quae ipse sibi scripsit (“Notes which He Wrote for Himself”). In French: Pensées morales (“Moral Thoughts”); Pensées (“Thoughts”); A moi-même (“To Myself”). In English: Conversations with Himself; Meditations; Thoughts; To Himself; Communings with Himself; and in German, Betrachtungen über sich selbst or mit sich selbst (“Reflections on Himself” or “with Himself”); Selbstbetrachtungen (“Reflections on Himself”); Wege zu sich selbst (“Paths toward Himself”).


Many historians and readers of the Meditations did not understand, and still do not understand, what Marcus Aurelius' intentions were in writing them down. Consequently, they have projected back upon him, in a totally anachronistic way, the prejudices and literary habits of their own time. The first editor, “Xylander” (Holzmann), noting that the text he was publishing lacked the fine structure of a dialogue by Plato or a treatise by Cicero, had already conjectured that the Meditations, in the state in which they existed in the manuscript he was editing, were only loose extracts from the works of Marcus Aurelius, and that the Emperor's book had come down to us mutilated, incomplete, and in utter disorder.16 It seemed to him inconceivable that Marcus could have left these obscure, disorderly texts to posterity, since in this period the systematic treatise was considered the perfect form of philosophical production.

Meric Casaubon, who translated Marcus Aurelius into English and Latin in the seventeenth century (1634 and 1643 respectively), seems to have been much better informed about the variety of literary genres in antiquity. In the Preface to his Latin translation, he reminds his readers that there then existed the literary genre of the aphorism—used, for example, by Theognis and Phocylides—which consisted in expressing one's thoughts in the form of short sayings; he added that Epictetus' Manual, as composed by Arrian, was presented entirely in this way. Moreover, he adds, if one is able to discern the real unities that make up the text, one will be better able to understand both the flow of ideas within each passage and the themes which often recur throughout the work.

Besides, Casaubon went on, we must not forget that Marcus was writing for himself, and was not seeking clarity, as an author would who was addressing himself to the public. This gives Casaubon17 the opportunity to criticize the custom that had arisen in his time of quoting Marcus' work by the title De vita sua (“On His Life”). True, he writes, some emperors—such as Augustus—did write books about their lives; but their subject was the acts and events of their public and private lives. With Marcus this is not the case; rather, as the Souda indicated, what we have is a writing dealing with “the rule of his own life.” Some editors had expressed this idea by means of the title De officio suo (“On His Duty”); but this did not render the specificity of the title Eis heauton, which, in order to be rendered with exactitude, must be translated as De seipso et ad seipsum (“About Himself and to Himself”). Thus, the work is a dialogue Marcus had with himself and about himself. Casaubon here reminds the reader that Solon was supposed to have written some “Instructions for Himself” (hypothēkas eis heauton); above all, he reminds the reader that, for the Platonists and the Stoics, the “self” was the soul or the spirit.

Thomas Gataker defines the specific character of the work even more precisely. He opposes the Discourses of Epictetus—transmitted to us by his disciple Arrian, who was thus their editor, just as the Evangelists were in the case of Christ—to the writings of Marcus, which emanated from his own notes. Gataker uses the word adversaria, meaning “that which is always in front of one,” or “the rough draft which one always has handy.” The Emperor's mind, says Gataker, was always devoted to philosophical occupations, and he developed the habit of writing down the thoughts that came to him in the course of his meditations, without feeling compelled to put them into any kind of order. They were arranged solely in accordance with the places and times in which he had either composed them himself, or encountered them in the course of his readings and conversations. This is shown, moreover, by such remarks as “In the Land of the Quades” and “At Carnutum,” placed at the beginning of Books II and III. This resulted in some inconsistencies and repetitions, and a style that is often elliptical or abrupt: sufficient to allow the Emperor to recall such-and-such an idea, but liable to lead to a great deal of obscurity. These were notes intended for Marcus' personal use.18

As early as the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, the philologist Caspar Barth,19 writing in 1624, emphasized that traces of organization, and sometimes even long chains of reasoning, could be found in Marcus' writings. Barth thus returned to the theory of Xylander, according to which the text, in the state in which it had been preserved, represented mere extracts (eclogai) taken from a vast systematic treatise on ethics which the Emperor was supposed to have composed.

In the eighteenth century, an analogous opinion was set forth by Jean-Pierre de Joly, who edited and translated the Meditations in 1742 and again in 1773. Marcus, said Joly, had composed a systematic treatise on ethics, written on tablets which were dispersed after his death; an editor then published them in their state of disorder. The task of the modern editor, then, was to rediscover the systematic order of the treatise; and this is what Joly attempted to do by publishing a systematic presentation of the Meditations, divided into thirty-five sections.20

In the twentieth century, A. S. L. Farquharson published, in 1944, an edition, English translation, and commentary on Marcus' text which was remarkable in every respect. He took up the hypothesis of Barth and Joly from another angle: for a period of ten to fifteen years, he thought, Marcus had accumulated materials of every variety with a view to the composition of “a work of consolation and of encouragement.” Indeed, certain meditations do show signs of highly conscientious literary composition. After the Emperor's death, it was perhaps a secretary who made a choice from among these notes. Their present disorder could be the result either of the fact that the secretary left them as they were, or that he introduced into them an order which does not satisfy us, or the fact that the text has been mutilated or disorganized by scribes through the course of the years. In any event, Marcus' intention was to write a handbook of useful advice for the philosophical life. In Farquharson's view, Marcus' Meditations can be compared to the Meditations of Guigues of Chartres, the well-known Religio Medici of Thomas Browne, and above all the Pensées of Pascal.21

The apparent lack of order of the Meditations did not disturb nineteenth-century readers at all. In the century of Romanticism, it was thought that the work was the Emperor's own “journal intime.” “It is probable,” wrote Renan,22 “that Marcus kept a private diary of his inner states starting from an early age. In it, he would inscribe in Greek the maxims to which he had recourse in order to fortify himself, reminiscences from his favorite authors, passages from those moralists who most impressed him, the principles which had sustained him throughout the day, and sometimes the reproaches which his scrupulous conscience thought it had to address to itself.” I should state right away that, if we understand by “diary” notes which one writes for oneself and which accumulate day after day, then we can indeed say, with G. Misch in his History of Autobiography,23 that the Emperor did write a “diary,” or, in the words of P. Brunt24 in his excellent study entitled “Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations,” a “spiritual diary.” If, however, we understand by “diary” a writing to which one consigns the outpourings of one's heart and spiritual states, then the Meditations are not a “diary,” and the fact that Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations does not allow us, as Renan claimed, to know whether or not the Emperor had an uneasy soul. Renan was too much inclined to imagine the philosopher-emperor as a kind of Amiel or Maurice de Guérin, expressing their worries and sufferings every day. Following Renan, twentieth-century historians have taken pleasure in the image of Marcus finding consolation from reality by exhaling his resignation, pessimism, or resentment into his Meditations.


We must try to imagine the state in which the first humanists discovered the manuscript containing the copy of Marcus Aurelius' book. They were faced with a work without a title, which began with a list of the examples or advice which Marcus had received from his parents, his teachers, his friends, and from the emperor Antoninus Pius, as well as a list of the favors which the gods had accorded to him. After this enumeration—in the manuscript, at any rate, which was used for the establishment of the editio princeps—one could read a note which was both geographical and chronological in nature: “Written in the land of the Quades, on the banks of the Gran.” Then there came a series of reflections, several pages long, which sometimes contained divisions, marked by a paragraph and by capital letters, which do not always correspond to our modern-day division of the work into chapters. At the beginning of what we now call chapter III, we find the following indication: “Written in Carnutum.” The reflections then begin again, and continue until the end of the work. In the Vaticanus, the books are not numbered: the most this manuscript contains is a two-line separation between what are today Books I and II; between today's Books II and III; between today's Book IV and Book V; between today's Book VIII and Book IX; and a dividing mark between today's Book XI and Book XII. This means that the divisions between Books III and IV; V and VI; VI and VII; VII and VIII; and IX and X are not indicated.

Who is responsible for remarks like “in the land of the Quades” or “in Carnutum?” Was it Marcus himself, who wanted to remind himself of the circumstances in which a specific group of notes had been written? Or was it some secretary responsible for preserving the Emperor's documents, who added a kind of tag to the package that had been entrusted to him? The first hypothesis is the more likely; but if so it is, I believe, something unique in the entire history of ancient literature, and well suited to show to what extent we are dealing with writings recorded day by day and linked, not perhaps to precise circumstances, but to the variations in the spiritual state of their author. Did such geographical indications exist among the other books, and did they then become lost? Or was the greater part of the book written at Carnutum? Was it Marcus himself who gave up supplying such indications? We do not know. Did the twelve books which we distinguish today correspond to twelve groups which represented, in the view of their author, sequences of thoughts having their own unity and different from one another? Or was this division purely accidental, due, for instance, to the form and dimensions of the physical materials of Marcus' writing? Again, were the books separated by an editor, either just after Marcus' death, or by Arethas, when he produced an edition of the text in the tenth century? We have seen that the breaks between books, at any rate in the Vaticanus, were faintly marked, if not nonexistent.

The contents of the work are rather disconcerting as well. After Book I, which presents an undeniable unity in its evocation of all those, gods and men, to whom Marcus is expressing his gratitude, the rest of the work is nothing but a completely incoherent series—at least in appearance—of reflections which are not even composed in accordance with the rules of the same literary genre. We encounter many very short sentences, often quite striking and well written, for example:

Soon you will have forgotten everything, and soon everyone will have forgotten you

(VII, 21).

Everything is ephemeral, that which remembers and that which is remembered

(IV, 35).

The best way to get even with them is not to resemble them

(VI, 6).

Alongside these short formulas, we find a certain number of longer developments, which vary in length from twenty to sixty lines; they may have the form of a dialogue with a fictitious interlocutor, or of one that Marcus carries out with himself. In them, Marcus exhorts himself to follow a specific moral attitude, or else he discusses certain general philosophical problems: if souls survive after death, for instance, where can they be located (IV, 21)? In most of these passages, whether they are long or short, Marcus' individuality can scarcely be discerned; most of the time, we have to do with exhortations addressed to a moral person. We also find, however, some passages in which Marcus speaks to himself as an Emperor (VI, 30, 1; VI, 44, 6); or in which he speaks of his attitude toward life at court (V, 16, 2; VI, 12; VIII, 9); about the way he must express himself in the Senate (VIII, 30); about his faults (V, 5, 1); or about his entourage (X, 36). He also evokes the people he has known in his life (VIII, 37, 1; X, 31, 1), in imaginatory exercises in the course of which, in order to prepare himself for death, he represents to himself the fragility of all things human, and the continuity of the processes of metamorphosis, which will not spare anyone in his entourage.

In addition to these various literary forms, we must also add two collections of quotations in Books VII (32-51) and XI (22-39). Borrowed from the tragedians, Plato, and Epictetus, they have obviously been chosen for their moral efficacy.

How, then, are we to define this work, which, by its multiple aspects and unusual tone, seems to be the only example of its genre in all of antiquity?


It's time to stop rambling. You will no longer reread the notes (hypomnēmatia) that you had taken, the great deeds of the ancient Greeks and the Romans, or the extracts from the works you had been putting aside until your old age

(III, 14).

Here we can catch a glimpse of the intellectual activity to which Marcus devoted himself all his life. Already in his youth, when still the student of Fronto, he assiduously copied out extracts from Latin authors.25 He must later have gone to the trouble of making up “for his old age” an anthology of edifying quotations, of which we can discover traces in some pages of the Meditations. He had also put together a historical collection: “the great deeds of the ancient Greeks and Romans.” Finally, Marcus also speaks of his “personal notes,” using the diminutive word hypomnēmatia. It has often been suggested that these notes should be identified with the Meditations.26 It is extremely difficult to give a definitive judgment on this point; nevertheless, with the help of other ancient parallels, we can at any rate imagine the way in which the Meditations were composed.

In the first place, it seems that, as he wrote the Meditations, Marcus decided to change completely the finality of his literary activity. In Books II and III, we find numerous allusions both to the imminence of death weighing upon Marcus, who was then engaged in the military campaigns of the Danube, and to the urgency of the total conversion he felt he was about to undergo, and the change in his literary activity which would be a necessary result of this:

Leave your books alone. Don't let yourself be distracted any longer; you can't allow yourself that any more

(II, 2, 2).

Throw away your thirst for reading, so that when you die, you will not be grumbling, but will be in true serenity, thanking the gods from the bottom of your heart

(II, 3, 3).

Marcus is no longer to disperse himself by gathering extracts from authors in the course of his readings, for he no longer has time to read. He is no longer, out of intellectual curiosity or speculative interest, to write great quantities of “note-cards,” as we would call them nowadays: rather, he is to write only in order to influence himself, and concentrate on the essential principles (II, 3, 3):

Let these thoughts be enough, if they are life-principles (dogmata) for you.

Marcus, then, is to keep on writing. From now on, however, he will write only efficacious thoughts: that is, those which totally transform his way of living.

As he wrote these texts, which were to become our Meditations, Marcus no doubt used these “note-cards” which he was afraid he would no longer have the time to reread; just as he no doubt had recourse to his collections of extracts in order to take from them the quotations from authors which he reproduced in several books of the Meditations.

Formally, then, Marcus' literary activity did not change. He continued to write down for himself all kinds of notes and reflections (hypomnēmata); but the finality of these intellectual exercises had become completely modified. From the point of view of the imminence of death, one thing counts, and one alone: to strive always to have the essential rules of life present in one's mind, and to keep placing oneself in the fundamental disposition of the philosopher, which consists essentially in controlling one's inner discourse, in doing only that which is of benefit to the human community, and in accepting the events brought to us by the course of the Nature of the All.

Thus, the Meditations belong to that type of writing called hypomnēmata in antiquity, which we could define as “personal notes taken on a day-to-day basis.” This was a very widespread practice, and on this point we have the remarkable testimony of Pamphila, a married woman who lived at the time of Nero in the first century a.d., who had published her hypomnēmata. In the introduction she had placed at the beginning of this collection—now unfortunately lost—she tells the reader that, during the course of thirteen years of married life, which “was not interrupted for a day nor even for an hour,” she noted down what she learned from her husband, from visitors who came to the house, and from the books she read. “I wrote them down,” she said, “in the form of notes (hypomnēmata), in no special order, and without sorting them out and distinguishing them according to their subject matter. Rather, I wrote them down at random, in the order in which each matter presented itself to me.” She could, she adds, have ordered them by subject matter with a view to their publication, but she found variety and the absence of a plan more pleasant and more graceful. All that she wrote under her own name was an overall introduction and, apparently, a few transitional passages. The notes she had gathered together dealt with the lives of philosophers, history, rhetoric, and poetry.27

In the following century, the Latin author Aulus Gellius also published his personal notes, under the title of Attic Nights. In his preface, he writes: “Whether I was reading a Greek or a Latin book, or whether I had heard someone say something worthy of being remembered, I jotted down what interested me, of whatever kind it was, without any order, and I then set it aside, in order to support my memory [this is the etymological meaning of hypomnēmata]”. The book he is now offering to the public, he adds, will preserve the same variety and disorder as his notes.28

At the beginning of his treatise On the Tranquillity of the Soul, Plutarch explains to the work's addressee that, since he was in a hurry to hand over his manuscript to the mail-courier who was just about to leave for Rome, he had not had the time to put together a well-written treatise, but had merely communicated to him the notes (hypomnēmata) that he had gathered together on this theme.29

It is probable that many educated people—and especially philosophers—were in the habit of making such collections of all kinds of notes for their personal use: both in order to inform themselves, and also in order to form themselves; that is, to ensure their spiritual progress. It was no doubt with this goal in mind that Plutarch had put together his collection on the tranquillity of the soul.

This, then, is the genre of writings among which we should place the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. It is important to emphasize, however, that in his case, most of these notes were exhortations to himself, or a dialogue with himself, usually composed with the utmost care.

Inner dialogue gave rise to a highly particular literary genre, of which we know only one written and published example: the Soliloquies of Augustine. For him the writer's ego is no longer situated—as is often the case with Marcus—at the level of Reason, exhorting the soul. Rather, Augustine's ego takes the place of the soul listening to Reason:

For a long time, I had [been] going over a thousand thoughts in my mind; indeed, for many days I had been ardently searching for myself and my good, and for that evil which I had to avoid, when suddenly I was told (was it I who was speaking, or someone, either outside me or within me, I do not know; that is precisely what I am trying with all my strength to find out); at any rate, I was told. …

What the voice tells Augustine is that he must write down what it is going to make known to him. He himself is to write, not dictate, for it is not fitting to dictate things so intimate: they demand absolute solitude.30

Let us pause for a moment and consider this extremely interesting remark. Throughout antiquity, authors either wrote themselves, or else they dictated their works. For instance, we know from Porphyry that Plotinus wrote his treatises by hand.31 There were many drawbacks to dictation, as was pointed out by that great user of secretaries, St. Jerome: “It is one thing to twirl one's pen around in its ink several times before one writes, and thus to write only that which is worthy of being retained; but it is another to dictate to a secretary everything that comes into one's head, for fear of falling silent, because the secretary is waiting.”32 Augustine, however, allows us to glimpse a wholly other point of view: it is only in the presence of ourselves, he implies, that we can reflect upon that which is most intimate to us. The presence of another, to whom one speaks or dictates, instead of speaking to oneself, makes inner discourse in some way banal and impersonal. This, in all probability, is why Marcus too wrote his Meditations in his own hand, as he also did in the case of the letters he wrote to his friends.33

Tiziano Dorandi34 has recently drawn attention to the variety of stages leading to the completion of a literary work in antiquity. As a first stage, the author might compose rough drafts, written on tablets of wax or of wood. Alternatively, he might, either at the outset or after this stage, compose a provisional version of his work. Then, in the third stage, came the definitive revision of the work, which was indispensable before its final publication. Now, Marcus was clearly writing only for himself, and we must imagine that he probably never envisaged this third stage. All our evidence points to the conclusion that Marcus, as he wrote down his thoughts from day to day, always remained at the first stage. He probably used tablets (pugillares), or some other medium useful for handwritten notes, such as leaves (schedae).35 At what point was this material copied and corrected by a scribe? Possibly during Marcus' lifetime, for his own personal use. It is also possible, however, and perhaps more probable, that it was after his death; and on this hypothesis we may imagine, without having recourse to the destruction postulated by Joly,36 that the tablets or leaves may not have been copied down in the precise order in which they were written. It is perhaps not irrelevant in this context that our Book I, which was in all probability written later and independently from the others, was placed at the beginning of the collection. Nevertheless, the essential part seems to be in order. Each book is characterized, at least in part, by a specialized vocabulary and by its emphasis on certain themes; this allows us to suppose that each book has its own unity, and was written during a period when the Emperor's attention was concentrated on a specific question.

Obviously, it is difficult, and even impossible, to obtain a clear idea of what really happened. We must, it would seem, be content with three certainties: first of all, the Emperor wrote for himself.37 Second, he wrote day by day, without attempting to write a unified work, destined for the public. This is to say that his works remained in the state of hypomnēmata or personal notes, perhaps written on a “mobile” kind of medium like tablets. In the third place, Marcus took the trouble to write down his thoughts, aphorisms, and reflections in a highly refined literary form, since it was precisely the perfection of the formulas which could ensure their psychological efficacy and persuasive force.

These characteristics suffice to distinguish the personal notes of Marcus Aurelius from those of Pamphila or of Aulus Gellius, or even from the “note-cards” assembled by Plutarch in order to compose his treatise on the tranquillity of the soul—as well as from the notes taken by Arrian at the classes of Epictetus. It seems, in fact, that unlike these other hypomnēmata, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius were spiritual exercises, practiced in accordance with a specific method. We must now explore what this means.



The Meditations have only one theme: philosophy. We can see this from passages such as the following:

What is it that can escort you in order to protect you in this life? Only one thing: philosophy. It consists in keeping your inner god free from pollution and from damage

(II, 17, 3).

Be careful of becoming “caesarized” … Keep yourself simple, good, pure, grave, natural, a friend of justice. Revere the gods, be benevolent, affectionate, and firm in accomplishing your duties. Fight in order to remain as philosophy has wished you to be

(VI, 30, 1-3).

For the ancients in general, but particularly for the Stoics and for Marcus Aurelius, philosophy was, above all, a way of life. This is why the Meditations strive, by means of an ever-renewed effort, to describe this way of life and to sketch the model that one must have constantly in view: that of the ideal good man. Ordinary people are content to think in any old way, to act haphazardly, and to undergo grudgingly whatever befalls them. The good man, however, will try, insofar as he is able, to act justly in the service of other people, to accept serenely those events which do not depend on him, and to think with rectitude and veracity (VII, 54):

Always and everywhere, it depends on you piously to be satisfied with the present conjunction of events,

to conduct yourself justly toward whatever other people are present, and

to apply the rules of discernment to the inner representation you are having now, so that nothing which is not objective may infiltrate its way into you.

Many of the Meditations present these three rules of life—or one or another of them—in a variety of forms. But these practical rules manifest a global attitude, a vision of the world, and a fundamental inner choice, which is expressed in a “discourse,” or in universal formulas which Marcus, following Epictetus,38 calls dogmata (Marcus Aurelius II, 3, 3; III, 13, 1; IV, 49, 6). A dogma is a universal principle which founds and justifies a specific practical conduct, and which can be formulated in one or in several propositions. Our word “dogma” has, moreover, retained something of this meaning, for instance in Victor Hugo: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: these are dogmas of peace and of harmony. Why should we make them seem frightening?”39

In addition to the three rules of life, then, the Meditations formulate, in every possible way, those dogmas which express, in discursive form, the indivisible inner disposition that manifests itself in the three rules of action.

Marcus himself gives us good examples of the relationship between general principles and rules of life. We have seen that one of the rules of life he proposes consists in consenting with serenity to events willed by Destiny, which do not depend on us. But he also exhorts himself, in the following terms (IV, 49, 6):

On the occasion of everything that causes you sadness, remember to use this “dogma”: not only is this not a misfortune, but it is a piece of good fortune for you to bear up under it courageously.

This dogma is deduced from the fundamental dogma of Stoicism, which is the foundation for all Stoic behavior: only moral good, or virtue, is a good, and only moral evil, or vice, is an evil.40 Marcus formulates this explicitly elsewhere (VIII, 1, 6):

What does happiness consist of? It consists of doing that which the nature of mankind desires. How shall we do this? By possessing those dogmas which are the principles of impulses and of action. Which dogmas? Those which pertain to the distinction of what is good from what is bad: there is no good for mankind but that which renders him just, temperate, courageous and free, and there is no evil for mankind, except that which brings about in him the contrary vices.

Marcus also employs the word theōrēma to designate the “dogmas,” inasmuch as every art entails principles, and consequently so too does that art of living called philosophy (XI, 5):

What art do you practice? That of being good. How can you practice this except by starting out from theorems, some of which concern the Nature of the All, and others of which deal with the constitution proper to mankind?

Dogmas, as Marcus says (VII, 2), run the risk of dying out, if one does not constantly reignite those inner images, or phantasiai, which make them present to us.

Thus, we can say that the Meditations—with the exception of Book I—are wholly made up of the repeated, ever-renewed formulation of the three rules of action which we have just seen, and of the various dogmas which are their foundation.


These dogmas, or foundational and fundamental rules, were the subject of demonstrations within the Stoic schools. Marcus learned such demonstrations from his Stoic teachers Junius Rusticus, Apollonius, and Sextus, to whom he renders homage in the first book of the Meditations. Above all, he read about them in the Discourses of Epictetus as collected by Arrian. In his Meditations, Marcus mentions “the large number of proofs by which it is demonstrated that the world is like a City,” or else the teachings he has received on the subject of pleasure and pain, and to which he has given his assent (IV, 3, 5, 6).

With the aid of these demonstrations, the dogmas imposed themselves upon Marcus with absolute certainty, and he usually restricts himself to formulating them in the form of a simple proposition, as he does in Book II, 1, 3. The nature of the good, he says there, is moral good (to kalon); while that of evil is moral evil (to aischron). This condensed form is sufficient to evoke the theoretical demonstration of which they were the subject, and it allows the inner disposition which was a result of his clear view of these principles—that is, the resolution to do good—to be reawakened within his soul. To repeat the dogmas to oneself, or write them down for oneself, is “to retreat,” as Marcus says (IV, 3, 1), “not to the countryside, the seashore, or the mountains,” but within oneself. It is there that one can find the formulas “which shall renew us.” “Let them be concise and essential,” Marcus continues, in order that their efficacy be complete. This is why, in order to be ready to apply the three rules of action, Marcus sometimes gathers together a series of chapter-heads (kephalaia), extremely brief in form, which constitute an enumeration of points which, by their very accumulation, can increase their psychic efficacy (II, 1; IV, 3; IV, 26; VII, 22, 2; VIII, 21, 2; XI, 18; XII, 7; XII, 8; XII, 26). I cannot quote these lists in their entirety, but I shall take one example (XII, 26) in which eight kephalaia, or fundamental points, provide a group of resources with a view to the practice of that rule of action which prescribes that we must serenely accept that which happens to us, but does not depend on our will:

If you are annoyed at something, it is because you have forgotten:

(1) that everything happens in accordance with universal Nature;

(2) that whatever fault was committed is not your concern;

(3) and, moreover, that everything that happens has always happened thus and will always happen thus, and is, at this very moment, happening thus everywhere;

(4) how close is the relationship between man and the whole human race: for this is no community of blood or of seed, but of the intellect.

You have also forgotten:

(5) that the intellect of each person is God, and that it has flowed down here from above;

(6) and that nothing belongs to any of us in the strict sense, but that our child, our body and our soul come from above;

(7) and that everything is a judgment-value;

(8) and the only thing each of us lives and loses is the present.

All the points presented here in the form of a laconic aide-mémoire, which does nothing but evoke demonstrations with which Marcus is familiar from elsewhere, can be found separated from one another throughout the Meditations: they are repeated, ruminated upon; but also explained and sometimes demonstrated. If we assemble these series of kephalaia (II, 1; IV, 3; IV, 26; VII, 22, 2; VIII, 21, 2; XI, 18; XII, 7; XII, 8; XII, 26) we can thus discover almost all the themes announced or developed in the Meditations. By connecting them to the most fundamental dogmas of Stoicism, we can present, in a structured form, the whole ensemble of doctrines which constitute the essential core of the Meditations.

From the absolutely primary principle according to which the only good is moral good and the only evil is moral evil (II, 1, 3), it follows that neither pleasure nor pain are evils (IV, 3, 6; XII, 8); that the only thing shameful is moral evil (II, 1, 3); that faults committed against us cannot touch us (II, 1, 3; XII, 26); that he who commits a fault hurts only himself (IV, 26, 3); and that the fault cannot be found elsewhere than within oneself (VII, 29, 7; XII, 26). It further follows that I can suffer no harm whatsoever from the actions of anyone else (II, 1, 3; VII, 22, 2).

From the general principles

1. only that which depends on us can be either good or evil; and

2. our judgment and our assent depend on us

(XII, 22),

it follows that the only evil or trouble there can be for us resides in our own judgment; that is to say, in the way we represent things to ourselves (IV, 3, 10; XI, 18, 11); and that people are the authors of their own problems (IV, 26, 2; XII, 8). Everything, therefore, is a matter of judgment (XII, 8; XII, 22; XII, 26). The intellect is independent of the body (IV, 3, 6), and things do not come inside us in order to trouble us (IV, 3, 10). If everything is a matter of judgment, every fault is in fact a false judgment, and proceeds from ignorance (II, 1, 2; IV, 3, 4; XI, 18, 4-5).

In the enumeration of kephalaia in Book XI (XI, 18, 2), Marcus tells himself:

Go higher up still, starting from the principle that if we reject atoms, it must be Nature which governs the All.

In the list in Book IV, he says:

Remember the disjunction: either providence or atoms.

These brief mentions of a principle, which it is assumed is known, allow us to glimpse that Marcus is here again alluding to teachings he has received, which placed face to face the Epicurean position (atoms) and the Stoic position (Nature and providence), to conclude in favor of the latter. I shall return to this point. For the moment, suffice it to say that from the dogma that affirms a unity and rationality of the world, many consequences may be drawn, to which Marcus alludes in his series of kephalaia. Everything comes from universal Nature and in conformity with the will of universal Nature (XII, 26)—even the malevolence of mankind (XI, 18, 24), which is a necessary consequence of the gift of liberty. Everything occurs in conformity with Destiny (IV, 26, 4): thus, it is in conformity with the order of the universe that all things undergo continuous metamorphosis (IV, 3, 11; XII, 21), but are also ceaselessly repeated (XII, 26), and that we must die (IV, 3, 4; XI, 18, 10). Universal Reason gives form and energy to matter that is docile, but without strength; this is why we must always and everywhere distinguish the causal (reason) and the material (XII, 8; XII, 18). It is from universal Reason that comes that reason which is common to all mankind and assures its relatedness, which is not a community of blood or of seed (II, 1, 3; XII, 26). This is why people are made for one another (II, 1, 4; IV, 3, 4; XI, 18, 1-2).

One last series of kephalaia can be grouped around the grandiose vision of the immensity of universal Nature, and the infinity of space and of time (IV, 3, 7; XII, 7). From this perspective, the whole of life seems to be of minuscule duration (VIII, 21, 2; IV, 26, 5; XII, 7); the instant seems infinitesimal (II, 14, 3; XII, 26); the earth seems like a point (IV, 3, 8; VIII, 21, 2); current fame and posthumous glory seem completely vain (IV, 3, 8; VIII, 21, 3; XII, 21; IV, 3, 7), all the more so since they can only be obtained from people who contradict themselves and each other (IV, 3, 8; VII, 21, 3), and whom one cannot respect, if one sees them as they really are (XI, 18, 3).

All these “dogmas” can, then, be deduced from more fundamental dogmas. Yet they all become crystallized around the three rules or disciplines of life, which we have distinguished. The discipline of thought, for example, obviously presupposes the dogmas which concern freedom of judgment; the discipline of action presupposes those which affirm the existence of a community of reasonable beings; and the discipline of consent to events presupposes the dogma of the providence and rationality of the universe. We can glimpse a similar grouping in IV, 3.

Lists of kephalaia or fundamental points: such is the first mode of formulation of dogmas in the Meditations. Yet these fundamental points are also taken up by themselves and frequently repeated throughout the course of the work. Thus the invitation, formulated in one of the series of kephalaia (XII, 8), to discern what is causal in each thing, is repeated eight times in isolated form, without any commentary or explanation, in the body of the Meditations (IV, 21, 5; VII, 29, 5; VIII 11; IX, 25; IX, 37; XII, 10; XII, 18; XII, 29). Likewise, the affirmation “All is judgment,” which figures in two lists of kephalaia (XII, 8 and XII, 26) is found twice by itself, either without commentary or accompanied by a very brief explanation (II, 15; XII, 22). Above all, the dogma according to which our troubles come only from our judgments, and that things do not penetrate within us (IV, 3, 10), recurs eighteen times in the course of the Meditations, sometimes repeated almost word for word, and sometimes in slightly different form (V, 19; VI, 52; VII, 2; VIII, 47; IX, 13; IX, 15; XI, 11; XI, 16; XII, 22; XII, 25; IV, 7; IV, 39, 2; V, 2; VII, 14; VII, 16; VIII, 29; VIII, 40; VIII, 49).

Let us now consider another theme which we have encountered in the series of kephalaia: that of the eternal repetition of all things both in universal Nature and in human history (XII, 26, 3). This, too, is a point which is dear to Marcus, and which he goes over indefatigably. It does not matter, he writes, whether one attends the spectacle of the world for a short or a long time, since the totality of being is present at each instant and in each thing. All things are thus homoeideis; that is, they have the same content, and therefore repeat themselves infinitely.

From all eternity, all things have identical contents, and pass through the same cycles

(II, 14, 1).

Everything is of the same kind, and of identical contents

(VI, 37).

From all eternity, all things are produced with identical contents, and for all infinity there will be other things of this kind

(IX, 35).

In a sense, a man of forty—if he is not devoid of intelligence—has seen all that has been and all that shall be, once he recognizes that all things have identical contents

(XI, 1, 3).

It would be tedious to cite other examples of the many repetitions which one finds all throughout the work. It suffices to note that most of the Meditations take up again—often in a highly elaborate and striking form—these various kephalaia and dogmas, the list of which Marcus gives us several times in the course of his work.

It is, however, not enough to “retreat,” returning frequently to these dogmas to reorient one's actions; after all, in the art of living, we must do nothing which is not in conformity “with the theorems of the art” (IV, 2). Rather, we must often return to their theoretical foundations. Marcus clearly explains this need, in a passage which has been misunderstood by many interpreters (X, 9). Within it, we must distinguish two different lines of thought. The first is a concentrated and brutal description of the unhappiness of the human condition, when it is not guided by reason:

Buffoonery and bloody struggles; torpor and agitation; the slavery of every day!41

Then there comes another thought, completely independent from the first, which has to do with the importance of theory:

All your fine sacred dogmas, which you think without founding them on a science of Nature, and then abandon: they will disappear rapidly. From now on, you must see and practice everything, so that that which is required by the present circumstances is accomplished, but, at the same time, the theoretical foundation of your actions is always present in an efficacious way, and that you always maintain within yourself—latent, but not buried—that self-confidence which is procured by science, applied to each particular case.

We must, then, not only act in conformity with the theorems of the art of living and the fundamental dogmas, but also keep present to our consciousness the theoretical foundations which justify them. This is what Marcus means by the “science of Nature,” because, in the final analysis, all of life's principles merge in the knowledge of Nature.42 Without this, the formulations of dogmas will become devoid of sense, no matter how often they are repeated.

This is why Marcus uses a third method of formulating dogmas. Here the technique involves reconstructing the arguments used to justify them, or even reflecting upon the difficulties to which they may give rise. For instance, Marcus alludes, without citing them, to all the proofs which demonstrate that the world is like a City (IV, 3, 5); and this formula entailed a quite specific attitude vis-à-vis events and other people. Elsewhere, however, he bases this formula on a complex series of rationalizations, and we can summarize the sorites he constructs as follows: a city is a group of beings subject to the same laws. Now, the world is a group of beings subject to the same laws: the law of Reason. Therefore, the world is a City (IV, 4). This reasoning was traditional in Stoicism; traces of it can be found, for example, in Cicero.43 Yet elsewhere, Marcus remarks that we must imbibe our spirit with the help of reasoning—that is, the linkages between representations (V, 16, 1)—and he proposes further demonstrations, one of which also has the form of a sorites.

This theoretical work does not, however, consist solely in reproducing a simple series of reasonings. It may take on several forms: either that of literary or rhetorical-sounding developments, or of more technical discussions concerning aporiai. The dogma according to which “Everything happens in conformity with universal Nature” (XII, 26, 1), for instance, is presented in what one might call a highly orchestrated manner in V, 8, as well as in VII, 9:

All things are linked together mutually, and their linkage is sacred. Nothing, so to speak, is foreign to anything else, for everything is coordinated and everything contributes to the order of one single world. One single world is the result of all things, and one single God penetrates throughout them all; there is one single substance, and one single law which is the Reason common to all intelligent beings; there is one truth.

This theme of the unity of the world, based on the unity of its origin, is often repeated in analogous terms (VI, 38; XII, 29); but it is also discussed critically, sometimes in schematic fashion, but at other times in a more diluted way, particularly in the numerous passages in which we find what Marcus calls the “disjunction”: either atoms (that is, Epicurean dispersion), or one Nature (Stoic unity; cf. IV, 27; VI, 10; VI, 44; VII, 75; VIII, 18; IX, 28; IX, 39; X, 6-7).

Many other major points are discussed in comparatively long developments: for instance, the mutual attraction that reasonable beings feel for one another, which explains that people are made for one another (IX, 9); or the dogma that nothing can constitute an obstacle for intellect or reason (X, 33).


As we have seen, practical conduct obeys three rules of life which determine the individual's relationship to the necessary course of Nature, to other people, and to his own thought. As in the case of his exposition of the dogmas, Marcus' exposition of these rules is highly structured. The three rules of life or discipline correspond to the three activities of the soul: judgment, desire, and impulse; and to the three domains of reality: our individual faculty of judgment, universal Nature, and human nature. …

We encounter this ternary model very frequently throughout the Meditations. I shall cite a few important passages:

Always and everywhere, it depends on you

—piously to rejoice in the present conjunction of events (2);

—to conduct yourself with justice toward whatever people are present (3);

—to apply the rules of discernment to your present representation (1), so that nothing nonobjective may infiltrate its way in

(VII, 54).

The following are enough for you:

—your present value-judgment (1), as long as it is objective;

—your present action (3), as long as it is accomplished in the service of the human community;

—your present inner disposition (2), as long as it finds its joy in every conjunction of events brought about by the external cause

(IX, 6).

Reasonable nature is indeed following its proper path

—if, with regard to its representations (1), it gives its assent neither to what is false, nor to what is obscure;

—if, it directs its impulses (3) only toward those actions which serve the human community;

—if it has desire (2) and aversion only for that which depends on us; while it joyfully greets all that which is granted to it by universal Nature

(VIII, 7).

Erase your representation (phantasia) (1);

Stop your impulse toward action (hormē) (3)

Extinguish your desire (orexis) (2);

Have your guiding principle (hēgemonikon) within your power

(IX, 7).

What must you practice?

One thing only:

—thought devoted to justice and actions accomplished in the service of the community (3);

speech which can never deceive (1);

—an inner disposition (2) which lovingly greets each conjunction of events, recognizing it as necessary, familiar, and flowing forth from so great a principle, and so great a source

(IV, 33, 3).

In addition to these explicit formulations, we find numerous allusions to the three disciplines, in various forms. Thus, Marcus lists as a triad of virtues: “truth,” “justice,” and “temperance” (XII, 15); or “unhurriedness in judgment,” “love of people,” and “the disposition to place oneself in the cortege of the gods” (III, 9, 2)—which correspond to the three rules of life. It sometimes happens that only two or even only one of the disciplines appears, as for instance in IV, 22:

To accomplish justice on the occasion of each impulse toward action, and, on the occasion of each representation, retain only that part of it which exactly corresponds to reality (here we can recognize the disciplines of action and of judgment).

In X, 11, 3:

He is content with two things: to accomplish the present action with justice, and to love the fate which has, here and now, been allotted to him.

And again, in VIII, 23:

Am I accomplishing some action? I accomplish it, relating it to the well-being of mankind. Is something happening to me? I greet it, relating what happens to me to the gods and to the source of all things, whence is formed the framework of events (here we recognize the disciplines of action and of desire).

Often, only one theme is evoked, as for instance the discipline of desire (VII, 57):

Love only the event which comes upon us, and which is linked to us by Destiny.

or the discipline of judgment (IV, 7):

Suppress the value-judgment (which you add), and the “I've been hurt” is also suppressed. Suppress the “I've been hurt,” and the harm is suppressed.

or, finally, the discipline of impulses (XII, 20):

In the first place: nothing at random, and nothing unrelated to some goal or end. Second, don't relate your actions to anything except an end or goal which serves the human community.

The Meditations, then, take up the various dogmas one by one, either briefly or in more developed form, and different chapters give longer lists of them than others. Likewise, they tirelessly repeat, either concisely or in more extended form, the formulation of the three rules of life, which can be found gathered together in their entirety in certain chapters. As we shall see, Book III attempts to give a detailed, ideal portrait of the good man, and the three rules of life, which correspond precisely to the good man's behavior, are set forth in great detail. On the other hand, we can also find the three rules of life—mixed together with other related exhortations—presented in a form so concise that it makes them almost enigmatic:

Erase this representation [discipline of judgment].

Stop dancing around like a puppet [discipline of action].

Circumscribe the precise moment of time.

Recognize what is happening to you or to someone else [discipline of the consent to Destiny].

Divide the object and analyze it into “causal” and “material.”

Think about your last hour.

As for the wrong committed by so-and-so: leave it right where the fault was committed

(VII, 29).

These three disciplines of life are the true key to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, for the various dogmas I have discussed crystallize around them. The dogmas affirming our freedom of judgment, and the possibility for mankind to criticize and modify his own thought, are linked to the discipline of judgment, while all the theorems on the causality of universal Nature are grouped around that discipline which directs our attitude toward external events. Finally, the discipline of action is fed by all the theoretical propositions concerning the mutual attraction which unites rational beings.

In the last analysis, we realize that behind their apparent disorder, we can discern a highly rigorous conceptual system in Marcus' Meditations. I shall now turn to a detailed description of its structure.


The Meditations do not just formulate the rules of life and the dogmas by which they are nourished; for it is not only reason which is exercised in them, but the imagination as well. For example, Marcus does not restrict himself to saying that life is short and that we all must soon die, by virtue of the laws of metamorphosis imposed by Nature. Instead, he brings to life before his eyes (VIII, 31)

the court of Augustus; his wife, his daughter, his descendants, his progeny, his sister, Agrippa, his relatives, his acquaintances, his friends Arius and Maecenas, his doctors, his sacrificers, the death of an entire Court …

Yet it is not only the disappearance of a court that he tries to represent to himself, but that of a whole generation (IV, 32):

For instance, imagine the time of Vespasian. You'll see all of that: people getting married, raising a family, falling ill, dying, going to war, celebrating festivals, doing business, working the fields; there'll be flatterers, arrogant or suspicious people, conspirators; there'll be people who desire the death of others; others who grumble about present events; there'll be lovers, misers, others who lust after consulate or kingship. That life of theirs: is it not true that it is nowhere now?

At other times, Marcus thinks of the great men of the past: Hippocrates, Alexander, Pompey, Caesar, Augustus, Hadrian, Heraclitus, Democritus, Socrates, Eudoxus, Hipparchus, and Archimedes. “All of them long dead!” he writes (VI, 47); “No more and nowhere!” (VIII, 5). By so doing, Marcus takes his place in the great literary tradition which, from Lucretius to François Villon,44 has evoked the famous dead: “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” “Where are they?” Marcus had already asked (X, 31, 2); “Nowhere; no matter where!”

Such imaginative exercises recur rather often in the Meditations (IV, 50; VI, 24; VII, 19, 2; VII, 48; VIII, 25; VIII, 37; IX, 30; XII, 27). It is by this means that Marcus attempts vigorously to place the dogma of universal metamorphosis before his eyes.

Life itself, however, is a kind of death, when it is not illuminated by virtue, by the practice of the rules of life, and by the knowledge of those dogmas which provide knowledge of things human and divine. This is what explains those descriptions of the vanity of human life—worthy of a Cynic—which we sometimes find in the Meditations, as in the following extraordinary passage (VII, 3):

The vain solemnity of a procession; dramas played out on the stage; troops of sheep or goats; fights with spears; a little bone thrown to dogs; a chunk of bread thrown into a fish-pond; the exhausting labor and heavy burdens under which ants must bear up; crazed mice running for shelter; puppets pulled by strings. …

And we have already encountered the following brief but striking note (X, 9):

Buffoonery and bloody struggles; torpor and agitation; the slavery of every day.


As we have seen throughout these analyses, the Meditations appear to be variations on a small number of themes. The result of this is the large number of repetitions they contain, which are sometimes almost verbatim. We have already encountered several examples of this, and the following ones can be added:

How could that which does not make a man worse, make life worse?

(II, 11, 4)

That which does not make a man worse than he is, does not make his life worse, either. …

(IV, 8).

All is ephemeral: that which remembers, and that which it remembers

(IV, 35).

Ephemeral … is he who remembers and that which he remembers

(VIII, 21, 2).

Nothing is so capable of producing greatness of soul

(III, 11, 2).

Nothing is so capable of producing greatness of soul

(X, 11, 1).

Many more examples could be cited, including long developments such as VIII, 34 and XI, 8, both of which are structurally parallel, and are devoted to the power which man has received from God to reunite himself with the All from which he has separated himself.

The advice on distinguishing within each thing “that which is causal” from “that which is material” is repeated almost ten times, with only very slight variations. Here we can recognize one of the fundamental structures of Stoic physics,45 and therefore—once again—the technical nature of the formulas Marcus uses. But Marcus does not merely repeat this distinction as if he were reproducing something he had learned in a Stoic school; for him, it has an existential meaning. To distinguish the causal element is to recognize the presence within oneself of the hēgemonikon, that is, the principle which directs all being. This is that principle of thought and judgment which makes us independent of the body, and the principle of liberty which delimits the sphere of “that which depends on us,” as opposed to “that which does not depend on us.”

Marcus does not say this; however, we can deduce it from the overall structure of his system. He is content merely to recommend to himself to apply this distinction, without ever giving an example which might help us to understand what this exercise might mean. The reason is that Marcus has no need of examples; he knows perfectly well what he's talking about. These formulas, which are repeated throughout the Meditations, never set forth a doctrine. Rather, they serve only as a catalyst which, by means of the association of ideas, reactivates a series of representations and practices, about which Marcus—since he is writing only for himself—has no need to go into detail.

Marcus writes only in order to have the dogmas and rules of life always present to his mind. He is thus following the advice of Epictetus, who, after having set forth the distinction between what does and does not depend on us—the fundamental dogma of Stoicism—adds:

It is about this that philosophers ought to meditate; this is what they should write down every day, and it should be the subject of their exercises

(I, 1, 25).

You must have these principles at hand (procheira) both night and day; you must write them down; you must read them

(III, 24, 103).

The Stoic philosophical life consists essentially in mastering one's inner discourse. Everything in an individual's life depends on how he represents things to himself—in other words, how he tells them to himself in inner dialogue. “It is not things that trouble us,” as Epictetus said (Manual, §5), “but our judgments about things,” in other words, our inner discourse about things. I will have a great deal to say later on about the Discourses of Epictetus, which were collected by his disciple Arrian. They depict Epictetus speaking with his students during his philosophy classes, and, as Arrian says in his brief preface, “When he spoke, he certainly had no other desire than to set the thoughts of his listeners in motion toward what is best … when Epictetus spoke these words, his audience could not help feeling just what this man wanted them to feel.”

Epictetus' speech, then, was intended to modify his audience's inner discourse. We are thus in the presence of two therapies: one was that of the word, practiced in a variety of forms, by means of striking or moving formulas and with the help of logical and technical rational processes, but also with the help of seductive and persuasive imagery. Another was the therapy of writing for oneself, which, for Marcus, consisted in taking up the dogmas and rules of action as they were stated by Epictetus—all the while addressing himself—and assimilating them, so that they might become the principles of his inner discourse. Therefore, one must constantly rekindle the “representations” (phantasiai) within oneself, in other words, those discourses which formulate dogmas (VII, 2).

Such writing exercises thus lead necessarily to incessant repetitions, and this is what radically differentiates the Meditations from every other work. Dogmas are not mathematical rules, learned once and for all and then mechanically applied. Rather, they must somehow become achievements of awareness, intuitions, emotions, and moral experiences which have the intensity of a mystical experience or a vision. This spiritual and affective spirituality is, however, quick to dissipate. In order to reawaken it, it is not enough to reread what has already been written. Written pages are already dead, and the Meditations were not made to be reread. What counts is the reformulation: the act of writing or talking to oneself, right now, in the very moment when one needs to write. It is also the act of composing with the greatest care possible: to search for that version which, at a given moment, will produce the greatest effect, in the moment before it fades away, almost instantaneously, almost as soon as it is written. Characters traced onto some medium do not fix anything: everything is in the act of writing. Thus, we witness a succession of new attempts at composition, repetitions of the same formulas, and endless variations on the same themes: the themes of Epictetus.

The goal is to reactualize, rekindle, and ceaselessly reawaken an inner state which is in constant danger of being numbed or extinguished. The task—ever-renewed—is to bring back to order an inner discourse which becomes dispersed and diluted in the futility of routine.

As he wrote the Meditations, Marcus was thus practicing Stoic spiritual exercises. He was using writing as a technique or procedure in order to influence himself, and to transform his inner discourse by meditating on the Stoic dogmas and rules of life. This was an exercise of writing day by day, ever-renewed, always taken up again and always needing to be taken up again, since the true philosopher is he who is conscious of not yet having attained wisdom.


It is not surprising to the modern reader that the Meditations were written in Greek. One might, however, wonder why the Emperor, whose mother tongue was Latin, chose to use Greek to write personal notes intended only for himself.

First of all, we must note that Marcus was completely bilingual, having studied Greek rhetoric with Herodes Atticus and Latin rhetoric with Fronto. More generally, the population of Rome was made up of the most diverse elements, who had converged upon the Empire's metropolis for a wide variety of reasons, and the two languages were in constant use. In the streets of Rome, the Greek doctor Galen could rub elbows with the Christian apologist Justin, or else with some Gnostic. All these figures taught in Rome and had students from the educated classes.46

Even in Rome, Greek was the language of philosophy. The rhetorician Quintillian, writing at the end of the first century a.d., notes that few Latin writers had ever dealt with philosophy: he cites only Cicero, Brutus, Seneca, and a few others. He could also have included the name of Lucretius. Be that as it may, in the first century a.d. Cornutus, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus all wrote in Greek, which allows us to infer that, from then on, educated Romans accepted that even in Rome, the official language of philosophy should be Greek.

One might have thought that Marcus would have preferred to talk to himself in Latin. As we have seen, however, the Meditations are not spontaneous effusions, but exercises carried out in accordance with a program which Marcus had received from the Stoic tradition, and in particular from Epictetus. Marcus was working with pre-existing materials, and painting on a canvas given him by someone else. This fact entails several consequences.

In the first place, this philosophical material was associated with a technical vocabulary, and the Stoics, in particular, were renowned for the technical nature of their terminology. Translators must, by the way, be aware of this peculiarity of Marcus' vocabulary, and pay the closest possible attention when they encounter such words as hypolēpsis (“value-judgment”); katalēptikos (“objective”; “adequate”); phantasia (“representation,” not “imagination”), hēgemonikon (“directing principle”); epakolouthēsis (“necessary but nonessential consequence”); and hypexairesis (“reserve clause”), to cite only a few examples. Such technicalities go to show that Marcus was no amateur, and that it was not the case that Stoicism was just “a religion” for him.47

It was difficult to translate these terms into Latin. It could be said that Lucretius, Cicero, and Seneca had done quite well when faced with the same kind of challenge. But the goal of these authors was popularization: they wanted to make Greek philosophy accessible to a Latin audience. Marcus' project was different: he was writing for himself. To translate or to adapt terminology would distract him from his goal. What is more, if they were translated into Latin, the technical terms of Greek philosophy would lose a part of their meaning. In the same way, when Aulus Gellius,48 a contemporary of Marcus who had studied philosophy at Athens, translates a passage from the Discourses of Epictetus as reported by Arrian, he feels obliged to transcribe technical Greek words, in order to explain his choice of the Latin words which he has chosen to correspond to them. Modern translators of Heidegger are often forced to do the same. In the final analysis, philosophy, like poetry, is untranslatable.

In any case, Marcus had no time to indulge in the literary work of translation. In the urgency of conversion and the imminence of death, he searched for immediate effects: words and phrases which would dissipate worry or anger immediately (IV, 3, 3). He felt the need to plunge back into the atmosphere of philosophical instruction, and to remember the exact phraseology of Epictetus, which supplied him with the themes upon which he developed his variations.


  1. Cassius Dio, LXXII, 24, 1; cf. A. S. L. Farquharson, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Oxford, 1968), vol. I, p. xiv.

  2. Themistius, Oratio 6 (Philadelphoi), 81c.

  3. Aurelius Victor, Book of the Caesars, 16, 9; Historia Augusta, Avidius Cassius, III, 6-7.

  4. Nicephoras Callistos Xanthopoulos, Ecclesiastical History, III, 31, in Migne's Patrologia Graeca, vol. 145, col. 960.

  5. Suidae Lexikon, ed. A. Adler (Stuttgart, 19672), vol. III, § 214, p. 328, 24.

  6. Arethae Scripta Minora, ed. L. G. Westerink (Leipzig [Teubner], 1968), vol. I, p. 305.

  7. Ibid., vol. II, p. 105, 5 (= Meditations, I, 7, 7); Scholia in Lucianum, ed. H. Rabe (Leipzig [Teubner], 1906), pp. 189, 207 (= Meditations, VIII, 25; 37).

  8. Cf. P. Meyer, “Des Joseph Bryennios Schriften, Leben und Bildung,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 5 (1896): 10, who points out several literal citations from Marcus in the writings of this fifteenth-century author.

  9. Ioannis Reuchlin, De arte cabalistica libri tres (Hagenau, 1517), p. xxxv verso (quoting Meditations, IV, 36, designated by the formula “in libro ad se ipsum tertio,” as well as VII, 23); p. xlviii verso (quoting IV, 28, 2, where the verb haploun is understood not in the sense of “to simplify oneself,” but “to get rid of,” “to free oneself”: explicare se). On the manuscript of Marcus used by Reuchlin, cf. L. Bergson, “Fragment einer Marc-Aurel-Handschrift,” Rheinisches Museum, 129 (1986): 157-169.

  10. Marci Antonini Imperatoris de rebus suis, sive de eis quae ad se pertinere censebat libri XII, commentario perpetuo explicati atque illustrati studio Thomae Gatakeri, Cambridge, 1652.

  11. Cf. P. Hadot, “Préface” to the Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques, published under the direction of Richard Goulet, vol. I (Paris, 1989), p. 10.

  12. P. Moraux, Galien de Pergame: Souvenirs d'un médicin (Paris, 1985), p. 153; L. Brisson, M.-O. Goulet-Cazé, et al., Porphyre, La Vie de Plotin, vol. I (Paris, 1982), p. 283.

  13. Arethae Scripta Minora, vol. I, p. 305.

  14. Anthologia Palatina, book XV, § 23, in The Greek Anthology, XII, 135: “If you want to vanquish sadness, open this blessed book and go over it carefully; with its help, you will easily persuade yourself of this oh so fruitful truth: whether past, present or future, pleasures and pains are naught but smoke.”

  15. Suidae Lexikon, ed. A. Adler (Stuttgart, 19672), § 214, vol. III, p. 328, 24.

  16. See Meric Casaubon's edition of Marcus Aurelius: Marci Antonini Imperatoris De seipso et ad seipsum libri XII (London, 1643), Prolegomena, pp. 12-14 (unnumbered pages), citing the second edition of the Editio princeps (1568).

  17. See Casaubon, pp. 2-3 of his notes, which are at the end of the work.

  18. Gataker, p. 24.

  19. Caspar Barthius, Adversariorum Commentariorum Libri LX (Frankfurt, 1624), Book I, ch. 2, pp. 22-24.

  20. J.-P. de Joly, Pensées de l'empereur Marc Aurèle (Paris, 17732), pp. xxxiv-xliii.

  21. Farquharson, pp. lxiv-lxvii.

  22. Renan, pp. 157-158.

  23. G. Misch, Geschichte der Autobiographie, I, 2 (Bern, 19512), p. 449.

  24. P. A. Brunt, “Marcus Aurelius in His Meditations,” Journal of Roman Studies, 64 (1974): 1.

  25. Fronto, Ad Marc. Caesar., II, 8, 3, p. 29, 2 Van den Hout = vol. I, p. 138 Haines.

  26. Brunt in Journal of Roman Studies, 64, p. 3 n. 12; R. B. Rutherford, Meditations, p. 29 n. 90.

  27. Cf. Photius, Library, vol. II, codex no. 175, pp. 170-171 Henry.

  28. Aulus Gellius, Preface, § 2.

  29. Plutarch, On the Tranquillity of the Soul, I, 464F.

  30. Augustine, Soliloquies, ed. and trans. P. de Labriolle, in Oeuvres de saint Augustin, 1st series, V, Dialogues philosophiques, II, Dieu et l'Ame (Paris, 1935), p. 25.

  31. Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, 8, 4.

  32. See E. Arns, La Technique du livre d'après saint Jérôme (Paris, 1953), pp. 47-48 (quoting the Patrologia latina, vol. 25, 1118A).

  33. Brunt in Journal of Roman Studies, 64: 1, quoting Cassius Dio, LXXII, 36, 2.

  34. T. Dorandi, “Den Autoren über die Schulter geschaut: Arbeitsweise und Autographie bei den antiken Schriftstellern,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 87 (1991): 11-33, especially pp. 29-33.

  35. On the meaning of this term, see Arns, Technique du livre, pp. 18-22.

  36. J.-P. de Joly, Pensées de Marc Aurèle, pp. xxxiv-xliii.

  37. Brunt, “Marcus Aurelius,” pp. 1-15; G. Cortasso, Il Filosofo, i libri, la memoria. Poeti e filosofi nei Pensieri di Marco Aurelio (Turin, 1989), pp. 60; 1a n. 11 (bibliography).

  38. Epictetus, Discourses, I, 3, 1; I, 18, 20; II, 16 (title); III, 10, 1.

  39. Victor Hugo, Quatre-vingt-treize, III, 2, 7.

  40. Stoïciens, pp. 48 (§§ 100-101)[= Diogenes Laertius, Lives, VII, 101-102], 271 [= Cicero, On Ends, III, 8, 27ff.]; SVF, vol. III, §§ 29-48; Epictetus, Discourses, IV, 1, 133.

  41. I am following here the division of the text proposed by Theiler, but I retain, with Dalfen, the reading mimos.

  42. Stoïciens, p. 97 [= Plutarch, On Stoic Self-Contradictions, 9, 1035Aff.] =SVF, vol. III, § 68.

  43. Cicero, On the Laws, I, 7, 33; I, 12, 33, carries out the same linkage between the idea of common law and that of the community among reasonable beings.

  44. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, III, 1024-1052; F. Villon, Ballade des dames du temps jadis, in Villon, Poésies complètes (Paris, Livre de poche, Lettres gothiques, 1991), p. 117. Cf. G. B. Conte, “Il trionfo della Morte e la galleria dei grandi trapassati in Lucrezio III, 1024-1053,” Studi italiani di filologia classica, NS, 37 (1965): 114-132, especially p. 131 n. 2.

  45. Stoïciens, p. 58 (§ 134) [= Diogenes Laertius, Lives, VII, 134]; SVF, vol. II, §§ 299-305.

  46. On the use of Greek in Rome, cf. Quintillian, Instit., I, 1, 12; I. Hadot, Arts libéraux et philosophie dans la pensée antique (Paris, 1984), p. 248.

  47. As is the view of J. M. Rist, “Are You a Stoic?” in Meyer and Sanders, eds., Jewish and Christian Self-Definition.

  48. Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, VII, 1, 7; VII, 2, 1.


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