Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121–180 CE)
MARCUS AURELIUS ANTONINUS
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus may have wielded more political power than any other person to have an entry in this encyclopedia. Born into a prominent Roman family in 121 CE, Marcus was adopted in 138 by Emperor Hadrian's heir, Antoninus Pius (at Hadrian's behest), and he succeeded Antoninus as emperor in 161. Marcus's reign is usually judged favorably; indeed, his death in 180 is often thought to end the golden age of the Roman Empire. But it was not all wine and roses: Marcus faced troubles on the frontiers of the empire, a devastating plague, and worst of all, persistent wars that included the first Germanic invasion of Italy in centuries, a harbinger of invasions to come.
By late antiquity, Marcus Aurelius was most famous as a philosopher. This reputation has come to rest on his Greek writings to himself, best known in English as the Meditations. In Book One, Marcus offers an idealized account of the influences on his character, acknowledging gods, family, and teachers, including several philosophers, a grammarian, and the rhetorician Fronto, part of whose correspondence with Marcus survives. The remaining eleven books manifest no obvious organization and have puzzled many scholars. Their 473 chapters vary considerably in length and style, from maxims to minitreatises, with consolations, dialogues, and harangues thrown in. These chapters commonly feature first- or second-person pronouns and the imperative mood, with the aim of recommendation or rebuke. Sometimes Marcus articulates more theoretical doctrines of philosophy or even, though much less often, arguments, but even at his most explicitly theoretical, he does not stray far from commending or censuring. Scholars have conjectured that the Meditations are the scraps of an intended treatise, but this does not fit well with the text. Scholars have also tried to rearrange the chapters to impose a clearer organization, but no such reorganization has commanded broad acceptance. Instead, most scholars now take the Meditations as they are. On the consensus view, although the whole collection is informed by philosophical reflection, Marcus writes not to theorize but to bring his thoughts, feelings, and activities in line with the philosophical commitments he accepts.
The Meditations are therefore not like usual philosophical writing, and this is what makes them historically significant. Philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome often encourage others to engage in meditative exercises to cultivate a philosophical way of life (especially relevant is Epictetus, Diss. I 1.25), and Marcus's work is the best example of such exercises. It suggests that one does not cultivate a philosophical way of life by the detailed application of philosophical theory to particular dilemmas. That is why Marcus's exercises do not shed much light on the particulars of his life. When he does make practical precepts explicit, he states them in general terms that could apply to a shopkeeper in Kansas as well as a Roman emperor and in terms that target attitudes more than actions. So it seems that one cultivates philosophy by bringing about a general outlook that one will then put into action as the circumstances demand.
The philosophical outlook that Marcus cultivates is generally thought to be Stoic though he does not call himself a Stoic. His praise for Epictetus and his use of Stoic vocabulary encourage this thought, but by no means decisively, since he also cites Plato and Epicurus favorably, and by his time philosophers of many schools used Stoic vocabulary. Still, some of the most prominent themes of the Meditations are genuinely Stoic: strong contrasts between the value of one's mind, a part of the divine intelligence, and what is external to one's mind and indifferent to one's happiness (II 13, III 12); concerted efforts to reduce anger at others and to control impulses (II 1, VII 22); and regular insistence that one should help other members of the human community (V 33, VIII 59, IX 1.1, IX 23). Less distinctively Stoic is the persistent theme of death (II 12, III 3, IV 5, IV 6, IV 48, VI 28; XII 36), though this is a natural obsession if the Meditations were written (as the evidence suggests) in the last decade of Marcus' life and some of them at military camps. So on balance the impression of Stoic commitments is hard to deny.
To call Marcus a Stoic, though, one must use an undemanding litmus. First, Marcus shows very weak adherence to two-thirds of the traditional Stoic system. He ignores the epistemology, language, and formal logic of the Stoic study of reason (or logic; logikē), and he belittles the need to study nature (that is, to engage physics; physikē). He occasionally helps himself to the Stoic thought that the cosmos is providentially ordered (II 3, X 6, XI 18.1), but he is detached enough from this thought that he also tries repeatedly to claim that the same practical precept applies whether the world is providential or, as Epicurean atomism holds, not (VII 32, VIII 17, IX 39, X 6, XII 24). In general, Marcus's philosophical commitments do not much outrun his ethic.
Even Marcus's ethical reflections are so untheoretical as to suggest a departure from traditional Stoicism. For example, Stoic ethics traditionally relies on the thought that virtuous activity alone constitutes a happy life, and Stoics support this thought either by describing the natural development of concern for virtuous activity alone (and the concomitant stripping away of obstacles to a smooth flow of life) or by engaging directly in the question of what happiness is. Marcus, though, does not motivate his Stoic aims theoretically. Presumably, he does not need to. If he already has these aims, he needs only to reshape his attitudes to improve his pursuit of them. In this way, Marcus's special purpose leads him to pass over many of the issues, distinctions, and arguments of traditional Stoicism.
The Stoicism of the Meditations clearly owes much to Epictetus, but in its ruthless pursuit of getting the cast of mind right without dallying in logic, physics, or the distinctions among the things that are neither good nor bad, it also resembles still more Cynicizing versions of Stoicism as that of Aristo of Chios, the renegade Stoic of the third century BCE. Marcus might have been especially influenced by Aristo's work or by the Cynic revival in imperial Rome. Or perhaps the appearance of such affinity is due to his special purpose in the Meditations of trying to recast his general practical attitudes.
This purpose might also explain another characteristic of Marcus's Stoicism. It is often said that Marcus shows strong Platonist leanings, especially in the starkly dualistic way in which he contrasts the intellect in the soul with the body (IV 41, VIII 37, IX 24, XII 33) and the matter of the external torrent (V 10.2, VI 15, VIII 24, IX 36). Sometimes these leanings are attributed specifically to the influence of the Platonizing Stoic Posidonius (c. 135–c. 50 BCE), and sometimes they are said to anticipate Neoplatonism. But Marcus's occasionally dualistic talk and his hostility toward the body might be understood instrumentally as part of a regimen to correct his excessive attachment to his own body and not as a commitment to any dualism.
The Meditations were apparently not in wide circulation for several centuries after Marcus's death, and so they exhibit no obvious influence on the immediately subsequent history of philosophy. In modern times, however, the work has been widely admired, sometimes for its fresh glimpse into ancient Stoicism but more often for its intimate picture of an aging emperor's struggle with noble yet human goals, to be a better person, and to face death without fear or regret.
text, translation, and commentary
Farquharson, A. S. L. Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944.
Hout, M. P. J. van den, ed. M. Cornelii Frontonis Epistulae. Vol. 1. Leiden: Brill, 1954
Asmis, Elizabeth. "The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius." Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt. Part II, Vol. 36.3. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1989, pp. 2228–2252.
Brunt, P.A. "Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations." Journal of Roman Studies 64 (1974): 1–20.
Hadot, Pierre. The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Rutherford, R. B. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Study. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
Eric Brown (2005)