In his famous work, Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato argued that the ideal city state should be ruled by a ‘Philosopher-King’. Since then, many rulers laid claim to that title themselves or were given it by others. One of the strongest contenders, however, would emerge centuries after Plato in the second century AD, the Roman Emperor, and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius. The reason Marcus, who is considered one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ of Rome, earned Plato’s title is his book of philosophy that miraculously survived, known as Meditations. In this article, we will explore why Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations has had such a strong influence on philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: A Stoic Spiritual Exercise
Meditations is essentially a notebook of personal reflection that Marcus wrote throughout his time as Emperor. He most likely never intended it to be published or read by anyone else. Most historical figures remain somewhat distant from us, and we have to rely on what others wrote about them. With Marcus, however, we have a set of writings meant for his eyes only and in his own words. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is thus a unique document in the history of philosophy. It lets us see within the mind of a philosopher on an extremely intimate and personal level. Read in this way, the text reveals much to us about Marcus as a person and allows us to relate to him, even thousands of years after his death.
Marcus was an adherent of the Stoic school of philosophy. It was founded by Zeno of Citium (334 – 262 BC) and named after the Stoa in Athens where he and his students gathered. Among other ideas, Stoics believed that most events happen due to multiple interconnected causes outside of our power that they referred to as ‘fate.’ Some viewed this ‘fate’ as being under the control of a divinity that permeated the cosmos and called it ‘God’ or ‘Universal Reason.’ The key to happiness is to accept the will of ‘Universal Reason’ and ‘live in accord with nature.’
However, while we cannot control ‘fated’ external events, we can control how we react to them and therein lies our freedom. Ethically, the Stoics taught that the only morally good and bad things are virtue and lack of it. Everything else, they said, was morally ‘indifferent.’
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Many Stoics such as Chryssipus (279 – 206 BC) and Epictetus (50 – 135 AD) either wrote philosophical works themselves or had their teachings written down by others. As we already mentioned, Marcus’ work is simply a notebook that he never intended to be published. What was the idea behind Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and can we even call it a work of ‘philosophy’ at all? It can be argued that we should definitely classify it as such. The best way to understand the work itself requires us to redefine a little what we think of as ‘philosophy.’ Nowadays, philosophy is seen as an academic subject that one studies at university. It is stereotypically a matter of texts and arguments that one examines in a lecture hall.
In the ancient world however, there existed a completely different view on philosophy. As scholars such as Pierre Hadot (1995) and John Sellars (2009) tell us, philosophy in this context was a way of life. It was something one had to apply to life rather than just study. One way this was done was through the use of what Hadot famously termed “spiritual exercises.” These were physical exercises that someone did in order to merge philosophical teachings with their daily conduct and everyday life. Intellectual study was still an important part of philosophy, and one did have to understand the ideas too. However, this on its own was not enough and if someone did not practice these doctrines, they were not considered a true philosopher.
One such Stoic spiritual exercise involved the repeated writing down of philosophical ideas so as to keep them firmly in the mind of the practitioner. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is thought by scholars such as Hadot and Sellars to be an example of this exercise. Marcus wrote Stoic teachings in his notebook so he could keep them fresh in his mind. It should be remembered then that he was writing to himself. This fact allows us to see an incredibly personal portrait of Marcus’ personality from his own perspective.
Marcus Aurelius Had a Problem with Anger
Throughout Meditations, Marcus mentions the topic of anger frequently. He mentions it so often that it does seem that he had some issues with it. For example, in some verses, it seems that he is trying to calm himself down after a heated row:
“Given the character of the person in question, this outcome was inevitable. To want it not to be the case is to want a fig tree not to have sap. In any case, remember this: in no time at all both you and he will be dead, and shortly after that not even our names will remain.”
(Book 4, Verse 6)
“It won’t make any difference: they won’t stop even if you explode with rage.”
(Book 8, Verse 4).
We can all identify with this, as I’m sure we all get angry at one time or another. The good thing, though, is that Marcus acknowledged his issue and tried to do something about it:
“Every time you lose your temper, make sure you have readily available the thought that anger is not a manly quality and that in fact gentleness and calmness are more manly, qua more human.”
(Book 11, Verse 18)
It certainly takes courage to admit to a problem like this and even more to address it. Throughout Meditations, we can see that Marcus repeated to himself Stoic doctrines to try and calm himself in stressful situations. His role as Emperor was no doubt a source of frustration sometimes. What it also shows is Marcus’ expression of humility. He knew and admitted that he was not a perfect person and did not claim to be so. What is more, he actively tried to improve himself as a person, seen as one of the goals of philosophy at that time.
Marcus Aurelius Suffered with Anxiety and Struggled to Ask for Help
Today, thankfully, we understand a lot more about the issue of mental health. Men, especially, still sometimes have an issue reaching out for help when they need it. Stupidly, it is seen as ‘unmanly’ to do this and many men sadly suffer in silence. It may be of help to know that Marcus, the Roman Emperor himself, also sometimes struggled with his mental health. He writes:
“There’s no shame in being helped, because you’ve got to do the job you’ve been set, like a soldier storming a city wall. Suppose you had a limp and were unable to scale the battlements on your own but could do so with someone else’s assistance.”
“Don’t be anxious about the future. You’ll come to it (if you must), equipped with the same reason that you apply now to the present”.
(Book 7 Verses 7-8)
The fact that Marcus wrote these words for himself makes them more poignant. These admissions were very intimate and personal. It also shows that in many ways, Marcus was just like us. Although the Romans obviously did not have a modern conception of mental health, it still existed. Despite being a powerful ruler, Marcus had to deal with many of the same problems as all people do. As mentioned above, Marcus was one of the ‘Five Good Emperors.’ On a personal level, though, he had an exceedingly difficult reign. Marcus personally led the Roman legions into battle against the Persian Empire and various Germanic tribes. In addition to this, he had to deal with the devastating Antonine Plague. One can perhaps see, then, why he was so prone to anxiety about the future.
Marcus Aurelius Believed in a Form of Human Equality
Another theme that Marcus mentions throughout the text is that of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism is the idea that all humans constitute a single community. This idea is not, of course, unique to Marcus himself. As stated by Diogenes Laertius, Diogenes of Sinope (412 – 323 BC) a famous Cynic philosopher, once famously said “I am a citizen of the World”. The Stoics, in many ways seeing themselves as the successors to the Cynics, carried on this tradition. As said above, the Stoics believed in the divine ‘universal reason’ that permeated and was equal to the universe. This divine entity had created humans and a spark of it was seen as being present in all human beings. This spark was responsible for human reason itself and since all humans possessed this, they enjoyed at least a spiritual equality. Marcus, being a Stoic himself, also agreed with this idea and mentions it many times:
“If intelligence is something we have in common, then reason, too, which makes us rational beings, is something we have in common. If so, then, the reason that dictates what we should and shouldn’t do is also something we have in common. If so, then, law too is something we have in common. If so, then we’re fellow citizens. If so, then we have some form of society in common. If so, then, the universe is a kind of community, since the universe is the only shared society that anyone could describe as common to the entire human race”.
(Book 4, Verse 4)
Marcus also talks about it on a more personal level saying how he is ‘related’ to other people. Due to this, he writes, he should try not to be angry with them:
“…I’ve seen the true nature of the wrongdoer himself and know that he’s related to me – not in the sense that we share blood and seed, but by virtue of the fact that we both partake of the same intelligence, and so of a portion of the divine.”
(Book 2, Verse 1)
Many Stoics expressed similar sentiments. Gaius Musonius Rufus, who taught Epictetus, a key influence on Marcus, advocated for the equality of women:
“Women as well as men, he said, have received from the gods the gift of reason which we use in our dealings with one another and by which we judge whether a thing is good or bad, right or wrong… if this is true, by what reasoning would it ever be appropriate for men to search out and consider how they may lead good lives, which is exactly the study of philosophy but inappropriate for women?”
(Lutz Translation P. 11)
In fact, the Stoics and Cynics were the amongst the first in the Western tradition to express such views. These views are commonplace today, as they should be. From the perspective of the time of the Stoics though, they were radical in a sense. It is impressive that Marcus agreed with them too. After all, he was the emperor, worshipped by many as divine. Yet, from Meditations, we can see that Marcus believed that other people were equal to himself in this particularly important sense.
The Emperor Had to Choose Between Ruling and Philosophy
Throughout his reign, Marcus became known throughout the empire for his passion for philosophy. On a visit to Athens, Marcus established four chairs of philosophy for the main philosophical schools of the time. One chair each was established for Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, and Aristotelianism respectively. He built up a reputation, not as someone who just did philosophy for a hobby, but as a true philosopher himself. He was viewed by the citizens of the empire as practicing what he preached and inspiring others by his example. As the Greek historian Herodian writes of Marcus’ reputation:
“Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life. His reign thus produced a very large number of intelligent men, for subjects like to imitate the example set by their ruler.”
However, sometimes, from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, we can detect a note of tension between his role and his passion. In one verse, he seems to admit that he cannot be both Emperor of Rome and a full-time philosopher at once:
“Another thing that will help you calm your tendency towards self-importance is the fact that you no longer have the opportunity to live your whole life, or at least your adult life, as a philosopher. In fact, it’s obvious to a great many people, not just yourself, that you’re a long way off being a philosopher. You’re neither one thing nor the other, and consequently not only has the time passed when it was feasible for you to win the glory of being a philosopher, but also your role militates against its ever being possible”.
(Book 8, Verse 1).
Many of us have struggled with something similar to this in our lives in our own era. There are people who have a passion, only to have to abandon it. They are maybe told that their passion will not secure them a good future. They should perhaps try something more ‘stable’. We can see that Marcus had a challenging time choosing between philosophy and his ‘career’ too. Though, I’d argue that he was wrong in saying that he was a “long way off being a philosopher”. From Herodian’s quote above, we can see that many people in the empire thought of him as a philosopher, and not simply because he knew about philosophy, but because he lived and practiced it.
Lastly, Marcus did seem to attempt a middle ground between the two. In the same verse, he says that he can still spend his life living by Stoic principles. In his commentary, Waterfield (2021, p. 177) writes, “So, perhaps we should read his self-reproach at the beginning of the entry as regretting that he will never be an all-round philosopher, not that he is not some kind of philosopher”. Waterfield makes a very good interpretation here. We can see that Marcus Aurelius sometimes struggled to choose between the two paths, but he resolved to do his best to live as a philosopher as much as he could. He would be pleased to know that for his citizens, and many scholars today, his philosophical credentials are not in doubt.
How Can Aurelius’ Text Speak to Us Today?
Meditations has always been an extremely popular text and it continues to help and inspire readers today. Donald Robertson (2020), for example, is the author of a book on Marcus’ Stoicism. In an article for The Guardian, he writes how Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations can help people through the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Without Meditations, we would still know Marcus as the last Emperor who presided over the ‘Pax Romana.’ We’d also know him as a fierce warrior who fought to defend the empire’s borders, and maybe even as a philosopher. With Meditations, we see that Marcus Aurelius was all these things, but that he was, above all, an ordinary man. A humble man who tried to improve himself, who struggled with doubts and sometimes let his anger overcome him. But one who was intelligent, kind, and who believed all were equal in divine terms.
This is how Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations speaks to us today. It shows that despite the passing of empires and millennia, humans have not changed that much; and a main message we can take from it is that, above everything, we humans really are not so different after all.
Hadot, P/Chase, M (Trans) (1995) Philosophy as a Way of Life. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
Laertius, D/ Mensch,P (trans) (2018) Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 288
Livius.org (2007/2020) Herodian 1.2 [online] Available at Livius [Accessed 2nd July 2022]
Robertson, D (2020) Stoicism in a Time of Pandemic: How Marcus Aurelius Can Help. [Online] Available at The Guardian [Accessed 4th July 2022]
Rufus, M/Lutz, Cora E. (trans) (2020) That One Should Disdain Hardships: The Teachings of a Roman Stoic. Yale, Yale University Press. P.11
Sellars, J (2009) The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy. London: Bristol Classical Press, Bloomsbury Academic.
Waterfield, R (trans)/ Aurelius, M (2021) Meditations: The Annotated Edition. New York: Basic Books.