New Video: Insights from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations

A 20 minute talk by Christopher Gill, professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, on the philosophical project and aims of Marcus Aurelius.

Questions covered include: what is at the core of Marcus philosophical project in writing his meditations? And how ‘Stoic’ was Marcus Aurelius? philosophical method? Includes discussion of key passages for understanding the aims of the Meditations as a whole.


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4 thoughts on “New Video: Insights from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations”

  1. From my understanding, the Stoics held that all humans, upon becoming adults, were ‘rational’ beings, although some people’s rationality was in a ‘better’ state than others. For example, even those people whose psychology was founded on what the Stoics would term ‘irrational’ belief sets (and hence more likely candidates to be subject to the passions), those people were still ‘rational’, for their various actions (possibly heated and quite passionate) were based on rational belief sets, albeit poor ones. So someone who gets very passionate about wanting power, say, does so because of his rational belief set deep down that ‘attaining power is all-important’. But the Stoics would point out to such a person that that is a poor belief to hold, for a host of reasons but primarily because it cannot lead to the good life. So when Marcus talks about seeing other human beings as rational it is partly in this context, i.e. what kind of (rational, albeit not very good) belief-sets drive their behaviour.
    The other way in which Marcus regards human beings as ‘rational’ is from the more idealistic Stoic point of view that nature has created all human beings as part of a community, one of the common features of which is reason. At this level, all human beings have the capability to develop their rationality to live the life of virtue in harmony with other human beings. For many reasons, this is what the Stoics thought nature ‘wanted’ us as human beings to do, and this provides Marcus with a norm for his own behaviour. So even if others don’t live up to it (because of, as you say, the passions, etc!), this does not deny that, as the Stoics saw it, nature still wanted all humans to live up to it, and that we should always keep this in mind. Therefore Marcus reminds himself, irrespective of what other human beings might do, to try to live with the kind of qualities which he thinks nature would have him to have. And part of this entails Marcus setting out to challenge his own belief-sets so that they can be more and more inline what what the Stoics think nature wants.
    So I think you are absolutely right that Marcus saw others as men of passion, but in his context they were men of passion because of their (poor) rationality not despite it. For the Stoics then, the philosophical project was about good rationality counteracting bad rationality. The state of our belief-sets was the basis for our emotions. So good belief sets would give raise to good emotions (such as joy and wishing others well). So it was not a case just of ‘cold-reason’ v the passions, as we might think now, and perhaps the video might make better sense in light of that.

    1. While I would tend to agree that Marcus believes that philosophy is there to aid us attain our “natural” rational state, I still find that Professor Gill fails recognize the basic agonistic nature of the Stoic philosophical quest. His position reminds me of the pre-Nietzschean interpretation of classical art as the product of a calm, harmonious, and well-ordered temperament. But, as Nietzsche pointed out, Greco-Roman art was actually the sublimation of dangerous passions. I know I shouldn’t project Nietzsche onto Marcus Aurelius, but I believe that he too had the kind of “chaos in one’s soul which leads to the birth of a dancing star.” Professor Gill himself reveals similar flashes of life when he rushes to the defense of Marcus from what he believes are mistaken interpretations. If only Gill’s whole talk had been given in that spirit, then it really would have been something of value. But while his presentation is competent, it nevertheless remains conventional, technical and dull. It’s not a bad introduction to the Meditations, but it provides no understanding of the work.

  2. Professor Gill may be a very learned man, but his presentation of the Meditations is conventional, technical, and dull. Gill fails to understand the nature of Marcus Aurelius’ philosophical project. Far from believing that men were “rational” beings, Marcus saw that they were instead creatures of passion. Their natural state is not one of calm reason, but violent emotion. The Meditations itself is a record of Marcus’ struggle to overcome his own weaknesses. This philosopher on the throne hated life at court and many of men he encountered there. He could be proud, vain, and intolerant. He lusted after beautiful women and boys. Marcus Aurelius was a man of passion, not cold reason. His life-long internal war against “passion’s mastery,” documented in the Meditations, raises many fascinating questions about human nature. But one would never imagine that based on the bloodless interpretations offered by scholars such as Professor Gill.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kevin! It points to some important aspects of the Meditations. I’ve tried to respond with what I think the Stoics were up to (could be completely wrong of course!). It would be great if other readers had thoughts on this, or other aspects of what Marcus’ overall philosophical project as about too. Thanks again.