(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, at once emperor and philosopher, man of history and vulnerable man, created a personal record of his thoughts, the Meditations, that reveals much of the man and his world. He was a stoic (one who may suffer but who refuses to be moved by suffering) in that he survived the treacherous debaucheries of Lucius; Aurelius Verus, with whom he shared his empire, the rebellious uprisings of powerful tribes; famine and flood; the deaths of his children—except one, who became a tyrant—and the threat of Christianity. He may have tolerated faithlessness in his wife, but this lack of fidelity, on which he makes no comment, may have been nothing more than a rumor.

Stoicism and Nature

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Marcus Aurelius, a stoic in his personal life, was also a Stoic, heir to the philosophic tradition initiated by Zeno of Citium and expanded and continued by Chrysippus of Soloi, Panaetius of Rhodes, Posidonius, Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. What is central to Stoicism is not a stonelike stubbornness in a world of suffering but a strengthening faith in the way of nature. Nature is one, the substance of God. God is a divine fire that periodically consumes all things. However, although the divine conflagration turns all things and persons to fire—thus effectively uniting all in the purest form possible—things and persons will exist in the next cycle of existence; the cycles of existence and conflagration will succeed each other forever. Virtue for humankind is in willing to be in harmony with the way of nature. Pleasure and pain are irrelevant, if the only good is nature’s way and obedience to that way. Thus, the stoical attitude is the consequence of a dedication to the Stoical ideal; it is not itself the essence of that ideal.

So conceived, Stoicism can be recognized as close in spirit to Daoism, the philosophy and religion of ancient China, in which obedience to the Dao, the “way” of the universe, is the highest virtue. Like Daoism, Stoicism involves the belief that nature, because it is the matter of God, works only toward the good—although the Chinese did not identify the cosmic power as fire or as God. Finally, to fix the idea of...

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Stoic Ethics

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The Stoic ethics is not complicated; it is more an expression of dedication to nature’s way and to the control of the self than it is a specific guide to the complexities of life. The wise person, the one who becomes the ideal Stoic, is one who wills to control the self in those respects in which control is possible: desiring, believing, and responding. The ideal Stoic also, like the Epicurean, refuses to be affected, in desires or attitudes, by matters beyond the individual’s control or unworthy of concern.

Nevertheless, although the ethics of Stoicism is not complicated, problems develop in connection with the metaphysical ground of the ethics. If all nature tends toward the good, and if all events are causally determined—as the Stoics believed—how is it possible for people to err and how can they be held responsible for their actions? The Stoics were unanimous in giving assent to the claim that people are morally responsible and that their responsibility involves their freedom, and they were generally united in adhering to a strict determinism. The answer that won most favor among the Stoics and that seems to be influential in the thinking of Marcus Aurelius is that although, causally speaking, events could not be other than they are, in the act of assenting or dissenting, people play a critical role in the course of events; and it is in that moment of assent or dissent that people show their freedom and acquire their responsibility. At its...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Understanding and Meditation

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Within a few pages of the beginning of the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes that nothing is more important than understanding “the true nature of the world, whereof thou art a part,” and he gives himself sober counsel:These things thou must always have in mind: What is the nature of the universe, and what is mine in particular: This unto that what relation it hath: what kind of part, of what kind of universe it is: And that there is nobody that can hinder thee, but that thou mayest always both do and speak those things which are agreeable to that nature, whereof thou are a part.

Again, in book 6, Marcus Aurelius writes:He that seeth the things that are now, hath seen all that either was ever, or ever shall be, for all things are of one kind; and all like one unto another. Meditate often upon the connection of all things in the world; and upon the mutual relation that they have one unto another. For all things are after a sort folded and involved one within another, and by these means all agree well together.

To “meditate often”—this was both the duty and the practice of Marcus Aurelius. Even in the midst of war, while waiting for the next day’s battle, he reflected on the “connection of all things” and attempted to understand the relation of himself, a part, to that nature of which he was a part.

He concerned himself with the problem of evil and considered whether death is evil. His conclusion was that...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

The Stoic Ideal

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

It may sometimes seem that the ideal Marcus Aurelius constructed is beyond reach: In his regard for community, for other men, for the way of nature in all its manifestations, he constructed a moral pattern for himself (and, by implication, for others) that few people could hope to attain. He enjoins himself always to keep his thoughts on worthy matters, to think only of that which he would be happy to reveal were he asked to state his thoughts; he charges himself never to act against his will, or against community, or without examination of what he proposes to do; and he vows soberly to “let thy God that is in thee to rule over thee” so that his life might be so ordered that were he to die, he would be ready.

This Stoic ideal is so carefully considered and presented as the product of personal meditations that it carries with it no hint of moral pride or arrogance. Indeed, if Marcus Aurelius ever supposed he was successful in meeting the ideal, there is no sign of it in his book. The nobility of his character is revealed in the testimony from those who knew him—together with the spirit of the Meditations—a philosophic, universe-accepting, strenuous spirit forever exploring nature for intimations of divine intention.

Marcus Aurelius’s determination “to stand in no need, either of other men’s help or attendance, or of that rest and tranquillity, which thou must be beholding to others for” resembles American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for self-reliance. Here again is no insensitive stubbornness but a sign of a faith in the way of nature.

Common Law

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Marcus Aurelius argued that if reason is common to humankind, then reason’s law is common law, and from common law can be derived the commonweal that makes the world a city and all people fellow citizens of it. He placed great faith in reason because he regarded it as an expression of the great ordering breath of God that pervades all nature. The concern for other human beings fills the Meditations, and the spirit is much like that of the Christianity that Marcus Aurelius never understood.

To live according to nature, to disdain rest and tranquillity, to be ready for death, to take misfortune as nothing evil, to be persistent in one’s efforts to live like a human, to be happy as one who has faith in the purposes of God and nature, to live with the gods and to give allegiance to the god within, to honor reason and to use it as the divine in humanity whereby one both recognizes and participates in the community of all humanity, to regard happiness as the consequence of “good inclinations of the soul, good desires, good actions”—this is the genteel, impassioned Stoical philosophy that emerges from the pages of the Meditations. The common conception of Stoicism as a philosophy of endurance is destroyed in the face of the fact that Marcus Aurelius’s Stoicism is well balanced, sympathetic, strenuous, idealistic, and demanding—a call to people to use their highest powers and to control their passions.

Much of the delight of the work comes not from its philosophy—although the Stoicism developed by Marcus Aurelius is in every respect admirable—but from the author’s sprightly style, which while...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Arnold, E. Vernon. Roman Stoicism. Reprint. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958. A series of easy-to-follow lectures by a classical scholar. Four chapters discuss the thought of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, which receives ample treatment.

Birley, Anthony. Marcus Aurelius: A Biography. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1966. Rev. ed. London: Batsford, 1987. In this well-researched study, Birley aims to disinfect the image of Marcus Aurelius of numerous historical fictions. Includes an illuminating profile of the philosopher-ruler’s early education as revealed through correspondence with his...

(The entire section is 454 words.)