Perspectives: Core Ideas of Stoic Ethics in Marcus Aurelius Part Two (of two)
An Illustrative Reading: Meditation 3.11
The relevance of these ideas to the Meditations can be brought out in two, complementary ways. One is by examining in some depth a single passage, which shows how Marcus draws on these ideas and also how he weaves them together into a connected sequence. The other is by discussing in more general terms certain recurrent – and sometimes striking and distinctive – ways in which he treats each of these themes. First, let us look closely at this passage (3.11):
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Core Ideas of Stoic Ethics in Marcus Aurelius: Part One
A positive reason for seeing Stoicism as influential on Marcus is that most of the Meditations are strongly reminiscent of Stoic ideas, even if Marcus does not use technical Stoic vocabulary and sometimes recasts these ideas in his own distinctive ways. We can identify at least five features which were seen in this period as distinctive of Stoicism; and they match strongly marked themes in the Meditations. One is the idea that the virtuous life is identical with the happy life (that virtue is all that is needed to ensure happiness). Other things widely regarded as good, such as health or material prosperity and even the well-being of one’s family and friends, are seen as being irrelevant for happiness; they are ‘matters of indifference’, even if they are naturally ‘preferable’. A second theme is that emotions and desires depend directly on beliefs about what is valuable or desirable; they do not form a separate (non-rational) dimension of psychological life. The emotions and desires most people form are seen as shaped by mistaken ethical beliefs and in this sense as being psychological ‘sicknesses’. A third theme is that human beings have an in-built natural inclination to benefit others. This inclination, if properly developed, is expressed both in full-hearted engagement with family and communal roles and in a readiness to accept all human beings, as such, as part of a ‘brotherhood’ or ‘cosmic city’ and as proper objects of ethical concern. These three ideas add up to a highly idealised view of human ethics and psychology, one that ancient critics thought was over-idealistic and unrealistic. None the less, the Stoics maintained that all human beings are fundamentally capable of progressing towards the ideal state of complete virtue and happiness, though they admitted that no one had perhaps achieved this completely. Hence, ethical life, for Stoicism, consisted in an ongoing process or journey towards this goal, a journey for which their methods of practical ethics were a means of support.
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Ancient Healthcare and Modern Wellbeing
A new, 10 minute, introductory video on the Ancient Healthcare and Modern Wellbeing project here at the University of Exeter’s Classics Department, discussing the work being undertaken both on finding insights from ancient psychotherapeutics texts (as found in Stoicism) and from ancient texts on preventative medicine (as found in the 2nd Century doctor Galen and his text On Preserving Health).
Perspectives: The Stoics on the Community of Humankind
Much of Stoic philosophy stemmed from the simple observation that each of us is a part of the human race. From this accurate, so often considered naïve, fact, they argued that each of us had a role to play in contributing to the common good of our own species. For nature wants all things to continue, and each species is to work together to that end.
Now whilst, the Stoics observed, ants or bees naturally work together, the human being, whose mind is subject to all kinds of prejudiced conditioning from his or her own individual society, has to use his reason to pierce through that conditioning in order to understand the way things are, i.e. the aforementioned fact that each of us is a part of a species whose wellbeing we value, and to base his or her action on this fact. For that reason, they developed the metaphor of the human race as a ‘body’. Thus, as all the limbs contribute to the health of our body, so too does each human, like a limb, contribute to the body of humanity. The fact that this was setting the bar high was never to be taken as a deterrent, and especially so if you really did want to follow nature’s way. And as you too are a part of nature, a Stoic would say, why wouldn’t you want to do this?
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