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
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 Stoicism, it is helpful to distinguish between Stoicism and Epicureanism. Although both the Stoics and the Epicureans fostered a life of moderation in which the passions would be controlled by will and reason, the Epicureans regarded pleasure as the highest good. Contrary to common belief, they did not endorse a program of wine, women, and song but rather a life of moderation in which the desire for peace and contemplation would take precedence over the desire for gratification of the senses. For the Stoics, virtue itself was the highest good, although it was generally believed that a modest kind of happiness would be the virtuous person’s natural reward. Although there are other important differences, one can come to understand the essential distinction between Stoicism and Epicureanism by realizing that for the Stoics, virtue was the highest good, and for the Epicureans, happiness was the highest good and virtue only the means.
In Stoicism, particularly in the later philosophy as exemplified in the Meditations, the ethical elements received more emphasis than the metaphysical. The early philosophy was a pantheistic materialism—because it held that God is fire, and all nature is God—but later Stoics were not interested in developing these ideas, and insofar as fire was mentioned it was in a metaphorical, rather than a metaphysical, way.
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...
(The entire section is 3,037 words.)