Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1255
Although the Greek philosopher Zeno is generally given the credit for creating the school of philosophy called Stoicism, its greatest fame arises from the popularity and widespread influence of the utterances of two later figures: Epictetus, a slave, and Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome. Of the two, Marcus, born four years before the death of Epictetus in 125, has probably achieved the greater fame; and this fame results almost entirely from his Meditations, one of the most famous philosophical books ever conceived.
For the average reader, however, there is a disturbing characteristic in the work, which is obscure and often seemingly unrelated; there are passages that suggest that the book has traveled through time in a disorganized, even careless, form. One widely accepted suggestion to account for this difficulty is the possibility that Marcus intended his writings to be read by no one else, that he recorded his thoughts only for himself. It is certain that the Meditations was written during the period between Marcus’s accession to the imperial rank in 161 and his death in 180; it is equally certain that the various books were composed during rigorous military campaigns and trying political crises. Although these facts explain in part the irregularity of the book, other scholars feel that there is clear evidence of the emperor’s design to publish at least parts of the work.
If this is so, and if Marcus did not merely keep a private journal, then the reason for the present form of the Meditations probably lies in errors and misunderstandings by copyists and later editors of the text. In either event, the book contains two generally different styles side by side: a nearly casual, sometimes aphoristic, way of writing, and a more literary, more carefully planned, technique. Throughout the twelve books that make up the whole, there are passages that read like admonitions addressed by the author to himself; in contrast to these are sections that sound as if Marcus were offering philosophical advice to the Romans or to humanity in general. Despite these irregularities, and in spite of the absence of an organized system of thought, a careful reading reveals that the emperor presents to the world some of the wisest suggestions for leading the good life and some of the most effective expressions of the tenets of later Stoicism to be found anywhere.
To say, however, that Marcus can be given credit for profound original thinking is going too far. Meditations was not written in a vacuum. It rephrases and reinterprets much of that which is usually considered the best of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. The author acknowledges his debt to his teachers and his wise forbears; his quotations from, and references to, the leading thinkers of his and earlier times prove his wide reading and careful study, which colors his injunction to throw aside one’s books and to live one’s philosophy.
Perhaps the fact that Marcus did live by his philosophy, one that was tested by almost continually difficult circumstances, is one of the chief charms of his book. There is very little in the Meditations that the emperor probably did not find occasion to think of in relation to his own life. Much of practical philosophic value can be found here. His advice at the opening of book 2, for example, to begin each day with the thought that one will meet during that day men (and women) who are arrogant, envious, and deceitful, but to remember that these men are so because of their ignorance of the good and the right, is surely a sound practical application of the Platonic idea that evil is only the absence of knowledge.
Many readers have found the Meditations their surest guide to living by Stoic principles. Although happiness must surely come by the pursuit of Stoic virtue, duty is the greatest good in the Stoic view. The word “duty” appears rarely in the book, but the emperor’s conviction that a person must face squarely his or her responsibilities is implicit in almost every paragraph. Often a note of Roman sternness appears, as in the beginning of paragraph 5 of book 2: Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts.
To achieve true virtue, the emperor says, one must live in accord with both kinds of nature: the nature of humankind and the nature of the universe. The book departs from a commonly held view of the philosopher as an isolated dreamer in its insistence that one must live wisely with one’s fellows. One should not be a hermit. Since each individual partakes of the same divinity that informs all people, each must live and work with others; certainly such is the divine intention, and this, then, is one’s social duty. The duty one has to the universe is to perceive the informing intelligence that pervades and guides it. Here Marcus is close to pantheism.
With this foundation in mind, the reader can understand the emperor’s notion of evil as something that cannot harm or disturb the great plan of the universe; it is simply ignorance and harms only the doer. Thus, no one can be harmed by a force from the outside. Injury comes from within. The advice of the Meditations, along with that of other Stoic writings, is to accept calmly what cannot be avoided and to perform to the best of one’s ability the duties of a human being in a world of humans. Since one cannot understand the workings of the great force that rules the universe, one must do what can be done in his or her own sphere.
Although he believes the world to be divinely guided, Marcus has no illusions about life; therefore, he scorns fears of death. Life is full of trouble and hardship, and no one should be sorry to leave it. In paragraph 14 of book 2, the author says that however long or short a person’s life, a person loses at death only the present moment. No one possesses the past or the future; furthermore, since the progress of time is simply a revolution, and all things have been and will be the same, one loses nothing by an early death. This passage displays something of the occasional coldness of the emperor’s thought, but it is one of many sections devoted to the consolation for the hard facts of existence.
Regardless of the varied character of the writing and the thinking in these paragraphs, it is clear that a reasonably consistent philosophy inspired them. The statement that one rarely comes to grief from not knowing what is in another’s soul, that true misery results from not understanding what lies within oneself, is of a piece with the rest of the book.
Some readers have found in Marcus a basically Christian spirit and believe that, in many passages, the Meditations somewhat foreshadows later religious writings. Considerable doubt exists as to his feeling about the Christians or the extent of his responsibility for their persecution during his reign, but there is little question that a great deal of his thinking is closely allied with that of later spiritual leaders. The readership and influence of Meditations, written by perhaps the greatest pagan ruler who ever lived, is as wide as those of other works of its kind, and far greater than those of most.
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