From an early age, the emperor Marcus Aurelius was drawn to a Stoic way of life. What was the attraction for him?
Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations was in origin just a bundle of handwritten notebooks that somehow survived his death. Someone close to the emperor must have recognized the book’s value and preserved it, and then eventually it became published for wider consumption. In this journal, which was written in the last decade of his life (he died on 17 March, 180 CE), the emperor jotted down his thoughts about life, the universe, and everything. Entries range from single sentences to longer essays. Almost all of them are deeply personal, and their particular flavor is given by the fact that Marcus was following the Stoic practice of critical self-examination and exhortation to do better.
Marcus saw philosophy as a path of self-improvement, and is concerned more or less exclusively with its impact on him personally. The book touches on the divine order of the world and the role in it that human beings should play, but its focus is chiefly on Marcus’s own role. He sometimes talks about himself in the first person, but often in the second, and when he does the “you” whom he admonishes and advises is always himself. About 300 of the 488 entries, spread over twelve notebooks, refer explicitly or implicitly to himself in this way, and the rest enunciate general principles or rules of life, still for himself alone. He is not telling anyone else what to do or how to live. In fact, there are many indications that the book was not intended for publication, especially when he refers to people and events that no one but he could know about. Communication was not his aim in writing, and since his only audience was himself, there was no point in dissimulation. The book is utterly sincere.
In the first of the notebooks, Marcus thanks the people who were, he felt, the main influences on him when he was young, detailing in each case what he felt he gained from each of them. In the sixth entry of this notebook he thanks one of his teachers, a man with the Greek name of Diognetus, for, among other things, turning him on to philosophy. The immediately following entry, in which he thanks another of his teachers, Quintus Junius Rusticus, makes it clear that the particular philosophy that Marcus found attractive was Stoicism: Rusticus lent Marcus his personal copy of Epictetus’s Discourses, and the former slave Epictetus, who had died not many years previously, was recognized as a profound and brilliant exponent of Stoicism.
Stoicism is named after the Painted Stoa of Athens – a large colonnade in the Agora where, at the end of the fourth and beginning of the third century BCE, the founder of the school, Zeno of Citium (in Cyprus, modern Larnaka), used to meet his students and discourse on philosophy. A couple of centuries later, Stoicism was taken up by members of the educated and ruling classes of Rome from the end of the Republic and into the imperial era. The toughness of Stoic moral discipline appealed to the robust and militaristic Roman ethos, and it allowed and even encouraged a man to pursue a public career, as many upper-class Romans expected to. A Stoic had, above all, a duty to himself, to make himself a man of virtue, but an aspect of that was being good to others, and this might well entail a public career.
Stoics saw a person’s responsibilities in terms of ever-increasing concentric circles: from preservation of the self to care for family, for extended family, for fellow citizens, for fellow countrymen, and finally for the whole human race. This was certainly one reason why Marcus was attracted to Stoicism: it allowed him to try to reconcile his twin aims of being a good man and a good emperor. But he was not drawn to it because he was emperor, any more than, in the previous generation, Epictetus had been drawn to it because he was a slave. In both cases, it would be closer to the mark to say they found Stoicism despite their statuses. It was Stoicism that seemed to have the potential to answer their most personal and profound questions; for them it was Stoicism, just as for others it is Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, humanism, or whatever. As a Stoic would put it, slaves and emperors are equal if they can accept the roles destiny has assigned them and do the best they can within those roles, especially toward their fellow men.
However, in Marcus’s time, there was no Stoic school as such – no particular teacher recognized as the head of the school, or particular city where one went to study this brand of philosophy – so his education in Stoicism was somewhat haphazard. His commitment to Stoic principles is clear, but he was an amateur philosopher. He was introduced to it in his youth by Rusticus and others, but once his education was over, although he was able to attend occasional lectures, he had to rely largely on reading and regularly checking that he was on what he considered the true path.
This habit of self-checking and self-admonishment helps to explain the nature of many of the entries in Meditations, and in particular the way that Marcus comes back again and again to the same core topics, such as controlling his temper, not seeking fame, and not fearing death. This is not just a result of the fact that he was jotting ideas down as they occurred to him over the course of many years. It is also an essential feature of this kind of writing. Writing things down is always a good way to fix them in your mind, and that is what Marcus was doing. Writing them down again and again fixes them even better, and was a practice that was encouraged within Stoicism. In an exercise he learned from Epictetus, Marcus frequently urges himself to have his core precepts readily available for consultation, and to keep them pithy and memorable, so that they can strike his mind with their original force. For example: “Clear your mind; control your impulses; extinguish desire; see that your command center retains its self-mastery” (9.7).
This is what really explains the stylistic details of Meditations: the great majority of the entries, especially the brief ones, are, above all, Marcus’s way of “dyeing his mind” (5.16) with the ideas and teachings that could help him be a better person and a better emperor. The entries are fragments of a kind of dialogue between teacher and pupil, where Marcus simultaneously plays both parts. For Marcus, the notebooks and their entries were designed to reinforce and revive, if necessary, the moral precepts he had come to accept as true, as a way of helping him to put them into practice.
Although the Stoic school was not united on every point of philosophy, there was enough of a common core to legitimate talk of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Marcus was basically an orthodox Stoic and it is impossible to understand where he is coming from without some knowledge of Stoicism. This is not to deny that many readers profit from the book without knowing much about Stoicism. Marcus addresses general life issues that strike chords with any reader. But Marcus’s own mindset and frame of reference was basically Stoicism, and the book takes Stoic principles for granted on every page.
However, no reader of Marcus needs to know all there is to know about Stoicism. The Stoics divided philosophy into three branches: logic, physics, and ethics. Logic covered not only the rules of correct argumentation, but grammar, linguistics, rhetorical theory, epistemology, and all the tools that might be needed to discover the truth of any matter. Physics was concerned with the nature of the world and the laws that govern it, and so included ontology and theology as well as what we would recognize as physics, astronomy, and cosmology. Ethics was concerned with how to achieve happiness, or how to live a fulfilled and flourishing life as a human being.
Some Stoics held that all three branches were of equal importance, but others, while acknowledging their interdependence, held that logic and physics were subordinate to ethics. They came up with nice images to express this. If logic is the wall and physics the orchard protected by the wall, ethics is the fruit. Or, if logic is the human skeleton and muscles, and physics flesh and blood, ethics is the soul. It is clear that Marcus belonged among those who prioritized ethics. At the very end of the first notebook he thanks the gods for the fact that “I did not shut myself away and study history, or analyze arguments, or occupy my time with the study of celestial phenomena.” At 7.67 he says:
You may have resigned yourself to never being good at logic or physics, but don’t on that account despair of being self-reliant, modest, focused on the common good, and obedient to God.
His relative ignorance of Stoic logic and physics was, in his opinion, no impediment to his being a good person. Again we see that what he found attractive about Stoicism was what it could do for him personally.
However, Marcus was familiar enough with aspects of physics and logic to ground and give a Stoic flavor to his ethics. For instance, he frequently remarks on how the four elements recognized by Stoicism (earth, water, air, fire) are constantly being recycled by the death and disintegration of things. It is one of his consolations in the face of death: it is a natural process that happens to everything. But it is also clear that he was not very interested in either logic or physics in themselves. He was more interested in their implications for the daily practice of self-improvement.
There are no extended discussions of logical or physical matters in Meditations, as there occasionally are of ethical matters. You can believe in the perfection of the universe, say, and the importance of that for you personally, without holding a theory about how exactly it came to be so. You trust the greater intellects that have handed down the idea. At 10.16 he scorns philosophizing even about ethical matters: “No more abstract discussions about what a good man is like: just be one!” He committed himself to the therapeutic practice of Stoicism, but not so much to its theory. His concern was to be a good emperor, not a professional philosopher.
Ancient philosophy was considerably different from its modern cousin. Modern philosophy is pursued in classrooms, seminars, and the written word, and much of it consists of the analysis of abstract concepts and arguments, but much ancient philosophy, and especially Marcus’s kind of Stoicism, was philosophy to live by and practice daily. It was supposed to purge you from your base attachments and make you a better person, and the ideal was to be a master of this art, a Stoic sage. The therapeutic purpose of philosophy attracted Marcus:
A person’s lifetime is a moment, his existence a flowing stream, his perception dull, the entire fabric of his body readily subject to decay, his soul an aimless wanderer, his fortune erratic, his fame uncertain. In short: the body is nothing but a river; the soul is dream and delusion; life is war and a sojourn in a strange land; and oblivion is all there is to posthumous fame. What, then, can escort us safely on our way? Only one thing: philosophy. (2.17)
If you had both a stepmother and a mother, you’d do your duty by your stepmother, and yet you’d constantly return to your mother. That’s how you stand today in relation to the imperial court and philosophy. Return, then, at frequent intervals to philosophy and lean on it for rest. With its help, even court business seems tolerable to you, and you become tolerable while attending to it. (6.12)
It is no exaggeration to say that each entry in the notebooks is, as it were, a dose of self-administered therapeutic medicine.
Over the centuries before Marcus’s time, philosophy had in effect gone in two directions. High philosophy, as we may call it, was the impersonal presentation of often very subtle ideas and arguments; some of the work of the Stoics, for instance, on logic and epistemology is as challenging as philosophical work of any era. Low philosophy, on the other hand, was the attempt to make philosophy practical and accessible to the common man and woman. Hence professional philosophers generally presented a public image that stressed poverty, or at least frugality, as a way of advertising the success of their teaching: they had moved beyond the superficial values of the world, and they could teach others to do so as well. The pupils they wanted were those who already felt somewhat at odds with the world. To judge by Marcus’s frequent complaints in Meditations about the world and the people around him, he was a perfect candidate.
Marcus was originally drawn to the Stoic way by its austerity and by the quality he perceived in those of his teachers who were already on the path, but an aspect of Stoicism that he stresses in Meditations, especially when contrasting it with Epicureanism, is the orderliness of its universe. It is not just that everything has its place in the hierarchical order of things, but that the whole world was created by a benign deity and is maintained by the providential care of that deity. Every one of a person’s experiences, therefore, has been specifically designed for him alone; his world is thus full of meaning. Epicureans, by contrast, saw the world as a randomly generated conglomeration of atoms, indivisible lumps of matter; they denied the existence of gods, except as special formations of atoms, which in their view exercised no care for human beings or any other aspect of the world. And they denied that it was natural for human beings to care for others.
Although there was plenty of common ground between Stoics and Epicureans – their thorough-going materialism, the dominance of reason in the human soul, the quest for peace of mind – it was clearly Marcus’s view that the Epicureans had built the wrong kind of edifice on these foundations. He preferred Stoic self-discipline to their notion that pleasure, in some form, constituted the human good; the virtues promoted by Stoicism seemed to him closer to traditional Roman virtues. He could see no point in living in a world without gods, and whereas the Epicureans believed that peace of mind could come only by withdrawing from the world, the Stoics believed that it came from engaging with the world in the right way, and especially from recognizing that all the thoughts and feelings that disrupt tranquility are generated by one’s own mind, and can therefore be dispelled by one’s own mind. Nothing is bad unless you think it so. Stoicism puts all responsibility for one’s moral life and character squarely on the individual himself or herself and, aware that there was room for personal improvement, Marcus took up the challenge.
Robin Waterfield is the editor and translator of Meditations: The Annotated Edition, which will be published by Basic Books on April 6, 2021. You can find out more about Robin’s work at his website, robinwaterfield.com.