Repost: Core Ideas of Stoic Ethics in Marcus Aurelius by Chris Gill

This weekend, we are looking at some earlier posts which appeared on this blog, which the blog’s new readers (after Stoic Week 2013) might have missed. In this post, Chris Gill extracts from Marcus Aurelius the key claims of Stoic ethics, including ideas on ‘the good’, ‘indifferents’, and natural human sociability. He looks at one meditation in particular (3.11) which draws on all of these key aspects of Stoic thought….

Core Ideas of Stoic Ethics in Marcus Aurelius

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.

            The three themes, together with the related ideas about ethical development or progress, fall within the sphere of ‘ethics’, as understood in Stoicism. Another distinctive theme falls within ‘physics’ (the study of nature) and the interface between ethics and physics. A topic of major debate at this time was whether the natural universe embodied in-built purpose or meaning or whether it was simply the random outcome of natural laws or processes. The Stoics, following Plato and Aristotle, adopted the first view, the Epicureans maintained the second, which was linked with their theory about the atomic nature of matter. The Stoic belief in in-built purpose was connected with their view that all events are determined, and that the whole sequence of events embodies divine purpose or providentiality. As this point illustrates, the Stoics saw the branches of philosophy (in this case, ethics and physics) as interconnected and mutually supporting. Thus, their belief in divine providence belonged to the study of theology (which for them formed part of physics). But this belief also helped to provide a meaningful framework for ethics; while ethics in turn made sense of ideas (such as ‘good’) which underpinned the notion of providentiality and thus supported the principles of theology. As this point indicates, the Stoics saw philosophy as forming a highly unified and systematic body of knowledge. The ability to trace and understand connections between different ideas and between the branches of philosophy thus formed an important part of the study of Stoicism.

 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):

‘To the preceding pieces of advice, one more should be added: always make a sketch or plan of whatever presents itself to your mind, so as to see what sort of thing it is when stripped down to its essence, as a whole and in its separate parts; and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the elements from which it has been put together and into which it will finally be resolved. For nothing is as effective in creating greatness of mind as being able to examine methodically and truthfully everything that presents itself in life, and always viewing things in such a way as to consider what kind of use each thing serves in what kind of a universe, and what value it has to human beings as citizens of that highest of cities of which all other cities are, as it were, mere households, and what this object is that presently makes an impression on me, and what it is composed of, and how long it will naturally persist, and what virtue is needed in the face of it, such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness, good faith, simplicity, self-sufficiency, and so forth. So, as each case presents itself, you should say: this has come from god, this from the co-ordination and interweaving of the threads of fate and similar kinds of coincidence and chance, this from one of my own kind, a relation and companion, who is however ignorant of what is natural for him. But I am not ignorant of that, and thus I will therefore treat him kindly and justly, according to the natural law of companionship, though aiming at the same time at what he deserves with regard to things that are morally indifferent.’

            This passage offers a clear illustration of one of Marcus’ most characteristic methods of practical ethics: that is, making a ‘sketch’ or ‘outline’ of things, and ‘stripping them naked’ to their essential reality or core. Although this may seem at first to be a purely scientific or analytic procedure, what Marcus has in mind is getting to the ethical core of the situation (although, as becomes clear, this is also linked with understanding the natural world better). The ‘stripping’ method assumes the first of the key Stoic themes noted earlier: that our happiness depends solely on responding virtuously to situations and not at all on acquiring material or social advantages. Hence, what the method brings out is what virtues we should aim to express in that context (‘what virtue is needed … such as gentleness, courage, truthfulness, good faith, simplicity, self-sufficiency’). The passage also alludes at the end to the characteristic Stoic idea that things other than virtue, such as material wealth, are ‘morally indifferent’ and do not affect our happiness. Acting virtuously involves benefiting other human beings; and the passage also refers to the third theme, the idea that we should work towards regarding other human beings (in principle, all human beings) as ‘brothers’ and ‘fellow-citizens’ in a world-wide ethical community. Also, running through the passage is the fourth theme, the linkage seen by Stoics between ethics and the natural universe. Marcus reminds himself that the universe is permeated by divine providence, which shapes the way events unfold: ‘as each case presents itself, you should say: this has come from god, this from the co-ordination and interweaving of the threads of fate’. In a more general way, the whole passage implies that the ‘stripping’ method illuminates the underlying connection between the ethical order (how we should behave) and the natural or cosmic order. Fifthly, this passage, like many others in the Meditations, shows the importance of underlining the connections between different, but related, themes in Stoic thought, which was famous for its ‘joined-up’, systematic character. Bringing out the links between ethics and physics, as the passage does, represents one aspect of this larger process.

This extract is © Christopher Gill, and is taken, with kind permission of Oxford World’s Classics, from the Introduction (xv-xviii) to Marcus Aurelius: Meditations with selected correspondence, trans. Robin Hard, with Introduction and Notes by Christopher Gill.

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