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...
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