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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

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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.

Stoic Ethics

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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 most positivistic, this philosophy means that to attribute moral responsibility to people is simply to attribute to them the power, in the causal situation, of assenting or dissenting.

Although there are reflections of Stoical philosophy in the Meditations, the work itself is not a philosophic treatise. It is a record of the reflections of a philosophically tempered ruler, a person with moral sensitivity and intellectual awareness who never gave up the practice of examining his ideas, his motives, and his actions with the intention of refining himself. He is a generous and thoughtful man in his book, an honest man with a sense of his errors—but throughout the work, Marcus Aurelius seems to be sustained by a strengthening spirit, the fire, or pneuma, which is the cosmic principle of the universe. Whether or not the work was intended to be read by anyone other than the writer, the Meditations remains an intensely personal philosophic journal by one of the greatest of the Stoics.

The book begins with expressions of gratitude: to his grandfather Verus for having taught him to refrain from passion, to his father for having inspired in him manlike behavior, to his mother for teaching him to be religious and to “content myself with a spare diet,” and to his great-grandfather for having encouraged him to acquire a good education. Other friends and teachers are remembered in charming fashion. Marcus Aurelius shows gratitude for having been taught to be humble as a prince while at the same time maintaining a sense of his responsibilities in public matters. He thanks the gods “That I was not long brought up by the concubine of my father; that I preserved the flower of my youth. That I took not upon me to be a man before my time, but rather put it off longer than I needed.”

Understanding and Meditation

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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 because nature is the means by which people and God are united, whatever people find disagreeable is no true evil. He believed in both the justice and intelligence of the creative force in the universe and regarded it as inconceivable that nature would be so constituted as to allow both the good and the bad to happen to good and bad people “equally and promiscuously.”

His advice to himself was to spend each moment as if it were the last moment of his life. If death comes, he argues, it brings people into the company of the gods—or it brings extinction—and in either case, a rational person should not be disturbed. In any event, what one loses at the moment of death is nothing more than the present moment—and it does not seem proper to complain about losing a moment of one’s life. Thus he writes: “The time of a man’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to corruption.” However, what of it? For one who by the use of philosophy allows the spirit to discipline the self, all things that happen are accepted contentedly, and one is assured by the conviction that “nothing that is according to nature can be evil.”

The Stoic Ideal

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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

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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 communicating the most serious of thoughts ever reminds us of the presence of the living thinker, a lover of humanity, action, and nature. Such an aphorism as “That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bee” creates a pleasant image, expresses a sentiment, fixes an idea, and rounds out an argument. Again, reflecting on anger, he writes, “To them that are sick of the jaundice, honey seems bitter; and to them that are bitten by a mad dog, the water terrible; and to children, a little ball seems a fine thing. And why then should I be angry?”

One’s heroes reveal much about a person. Marcus Aurelius writes: “Alexander, Caius, Pompeius; what are these to Diogenes, Heraclitus, and Socrates? These penetrated into the true nature of things; into all causes, and all subjects: and upon these did they exercise their power and authority. However, as for those, as the extent of their error was, so far did their slavery extend.” With Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher takes precedence over the soldier and emperor.

Throughout all of his actions and reflections, Marcus Aurelius was sustained by an unconquerable faith. He wrote that neither time nor place can limit an individual’s efforts to be a true person, and he regarded true personhood as made possible by reflection on God’s ways as shown in the course of nature and by calm acceptance of all circumstances. Not to accept nature, for him, was not to accept law, and not to accept law was to be a fugitive from God. Yet to live in accordance with nature and to accept all things, to act as directed by reason, not passion—this was not a burdensome life, but a happy one: “How happy is man in this his power that hath been granted unto him: that he needs not do anything but what God shall approve, and that he may embrace contentedly, whatsoever God doth send unto him?”

For the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, the answer was clear—and the assurance of his self-reliant faith is alive in his words: “Herein doth consist happiness of life, for a man to know thoroughly the true nature of everything; what is the matter, and what is the form of it: with all his heart and soul, ever to do that which is just, and to speak the truth.”


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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 tutor Fronto.

Farquharson, Arthur Spenser Loat. Marcus Aurelius: His Life and His World. 2d ed. New York: William Salloch, 1951. A fine biography, especially with regard to Marcus Aurelius’s birth, childhood, and education. Contains one of the few discussions of his home life. Situates the Meditations within Stoic philosophy and the literature of the age.

Guevara, Antonio de. The Diall of Princes. 1619. Translated by Thomas North. London: Alsop, 1619. Reprint. The Scholar’s Library, No. 1. London: Philip Allan, 1919. A loosely organized historical romance by a sixteenth century Spanish courtier and bishop. Founded on the life and character of Marcus Aurelius, yet viewed from a Renaissance perspective, the book was written to put before the emperor Charles V the model of antiquity’s wisest and most virtuous prince. Not essential reading, but interesting.

Hadot, Pierre. The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. This eminent scholar discerns the Meditations as spiritual exercises practiced in accordance with the Stoic method, particularly as espoused by Epictetus. Spirited and engaging, clear and accessible to the general reader, the book includes a fascinating concordance of the many quotations and literary allusions in the Meditations.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. “The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.” Translated and edited by George Long. In Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, edited by Charles W. Eliot. 2d ed. New York: Collier and Son, 1937. Long’s translation of Marcus Aurelius’s work is accompanied by his brief and interesting life of the author. His companion essay, “The Philosophy of Antoninus,” includes a useful explanation of Stoicism and traces its progress and decline in the Roman world.

Watson, Paul Barron. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. 1884. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971. A detailed and eloquent biography, suitable for the general reader. Though the book centers on his career as a ruler, the final chapter relates the events of his life to the philosophy embraced in the Meditations.

Wenley, R. M. Stoicism and Its Influence. Our Debt to Greece and Rome series. New York: Cooper Square, 1963. A rich exposition of Stoic doctrines and a defense of the importance of Stoicism against historians of philosophy who have tended to dismiss it. Discussions of Marcus Aurelius are sprinkled liberally throughout the text.

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