The solitude of Marcus Aurelius in his time – by Aldo Dinucci

You who read me have certainly experienced hostile environments in which you felt completely out of place among people with whom you had no closeness of ideas or sensitivity. On these occasions, we experience the most intense loneliness and want to be free from these entanglements as soon as possible.

Marcus has had this experience on several occasions, and he offers his testimony of these situations, always emphasising the need to be kind and benevolent to everyone.

Marcus was a human with extraordinary sensitivity, as we can see from his diary and according to the news that reached us from Antiquity. Furthermore, he had a thorough education. The best preceptors available were responsible for instructing him, and he shows enormous gratitude for his teachers in the first book of his only surviving work.

However, in his last years, with the death of his friends and preceptors, Marcus found himself increasingly alone. His diary, written in the previous decade of his life, between 170 and 180, manifests this isolation, which made him dialogue at length with himself through his famous monologues.

Let’s look at some passages where Marcus reveals his discomfort among his contemporaries. In entry 9.3, for example, our Emperor reflects on arguments by which we can despise death:

But if thou requirest also a vulgar kind of comfort which shall reach thy heart, thou wilt be made best reconciled to death by observing the objects from which thou art going to be removed, and the morals of those with whom thy soul will no longer be mingled. For it is no way right to be offended with men, but it is thy duty to care for them and to bear with them gently; and yet to remember that thy departure will not be from men who have the same principles as thyself. For this is the only thing, if there be any, which could draw us the contrary way and attach us to life,—to be permitted to live with those who have the same principles as ourselves. But now thou seest how great is the trouble arising from the discordance of those who live together, so that thou mayst say, Come quick, O death, lest perchance I, too, should forget myself. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.3.2, George Long translation)

Marcus observes that death is not to be feared. On the contrary, it will free him from coexistence with the characters he has around him, people with whom he has little or nothing in common regarding opinions. Marcus does not specify these opinions, but we can assume that they are opinions about life, death, and the cosmos – moral and philosophical judgments. The following passage from the Meditations confirms this assumption:

Short is the little which remains to thee of life. Live as on a mountain. For it makes no difference whether a man lives there or here, if he lives everywhere in the world as in a state [political community]. Let me see, let them know a real man who lives according to nature. If they cannot endure him, let them kill him. For that is better than to live thus [as men do]. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.15, George Long translation)

Marcus realises that the sand that flows through the hourglass of his existence begins to become scarce at the top. He urges himself to live as if isolated on a mountain, adding that it is better to die than live like his contemporaries. Marcus’s dissatisfaction with his contemporaries is related to their way of life, derived from their opinions on the values that should guide human existence.

Finally, in another passage, Marcus ponders his discomfort among his contemporaries:

There is no man so fortunate that there shall not be by him when he is dying some who are pleased with what is going to happen. Suppose that he was a good and wise man, will there not be at least some one to say to himself, Let us at last breathe freely, being relieved from this schoolmaster? It is true that he was harsh to none of us, but I perceived that he tacitly condemns us.—This is what is said of a good man. But in our case how many other things are there for which there are many who wish to get rid of us? Thou wilt consider this, then, when thou art dying, and thou wilt depart more contentedly by reflecting thus: I am going away from such a life, in which even my associates in behalf of whom I have striven so much, prayed, and cared, themselves wish me to depart, hoping perchance to get some little advantage by it. Why then should a man cling to a longer stay here? Do not, however, for this reason go away less kindly disposed to them, but preserving thy own character, and friendly and benevolent and mild, and on the other hand not as if thou wast torn away […] (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.36, George Long translation)

Marcus notes that even the death of a sage is a relief to the humans around him, who would feel continually judged by him. However, Marcus (according to himself) does not rank among the wise, so those around him would have more reason to get rid of him. As the passage reveals, Marcus does not consider himself truly loved by those around him, although he fought, prayed and reflected for them. However, for him, this realisation makes his acceptance of the fact of death easier, a true liberation.

Marcus’ gentle acceptance of his adverse fate inspires those who, amid our days’ collective madness and ideological bombardment, feel lonely and isolated, seeking refuge within themselves and among the few with whom they can still dialogue.


Aldo Dinucci is Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Federal University of Sergipe in Brazil, the Editor in Chief of Προμηθεύς, and has published, among other books, translations from Greek to Portuguese of the Manual of Epictetus, Epictetus Discourses, Book 1, As Meditações de Marco Aurélio and composed the Manual de estoicismo.

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