*Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
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by Marcus Aurelius, c. 170–80 CE
If the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–80 CE) was not the philosopher-king that Plato envisioned, he was one of the few rulers who was also a philosopher. Deeply imbued with the doctrines of the Second Sophistic, a revival of Greek culture and thought in the second century CE, he cultivated the Stoicism of Epictetus, focusing on piety toward divine providence, duty, and self-sufficiency. “Constantly think of the Universe as one living creature, embracing one being and one soul,” he admonished. “How it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture.” At the same time he resisted Stoic materialism, considering the human mind (nous) as distinct from the body. For Marcus Aurelius it was this mind, derived from the divine, that gave humans their agency to choose and act, and therefore commanded their obedience to duty. Failure to follow reason was both immoral and impious. It was in his Meditations that he most fully expressed and more fundamentally lived his Stoic piety, representing what R.B.Rutherford (1989) calls “his complex and humane response to the austerity and bleakness of Stoicism.”
The exact nature and composition of the Meditations is not entirely certain. It was written in Greek, and internal evidence suggests that Marcus Aurelius worked on it during the last years of his life while on campaign along the marshlands of the Danube.
The work was never “published,” and was presumably preserved among his papers after his death by his family or scribes. It seems to have been unknown to his early biographers and chroniclers, the first reference to it only appearing two centuries later in an oration by the Greek philosopher and rhetorician Themistius. It was first printed in 1559 in Zurich by Andreas Gesner with a Latin translation by William Xylander. Thomas Gataker published the standard edition in 1652.. Thereafter it has enjoyed a wide readership from poets to statesmen, appreciated both as an important document of the Later Stoa, and as a work of profound selfanalysis and private devotion.
The Meditations contains 12 books. While Book I offers a clear organization and unity, Books II-XII do not. Nor is it evident how Books II-XII are structurally related to Book I.
Thus while the themes, language, and aphoristic style remain consistent throughout, there is little sense that Marcus Aurelius is developing an argument or advancing a thesis. Each book may therefore be read as an independent work; the books are linked with one another through their common method and concerns. At the same time, it seems more than a collection of random thoughts or pensées. While various elements of the
Meditations find parallels and prototypes in classical authors such as Plato, Lucretius, Horace, Seneca, Epictetus, and Plutarch, it does not fall neatly into any one literary category. Book I develops an autobiographical portrait, though Marcus Aurelius presents himself indirectly through a series of memorials, expressing his gratitude to those who contributed to his success and to the formation of his character, from his grandfather and father, through his teachers, to the gods, who provided “good grandparents, good parents, a good sister, good masters, good intimates, kinfolk, friends, almost everything.”
Some later commentators complain that Books II–XII lack philosophical rigor or originality. This, however, misunderstands the nature of the project. Marcus Aurelius is not so much writing a philosophical or moral treatise as engaging in a philosophical or spiritual exercise. The aphorisms of these later books tend to present a theme and variations in which he explores man’s place in nature, the transience of his achievements, and human mortality. “All is ephemeral,” he writes, “both what remembers and what is remembered.” Given this condition, “What should be valued?” he asks—certainly not the clapping of hands or clicking tongues in approbation. Thus the rewards of glory amount to little. Extending the theme, he later adds, “Alexander the Great and his stable boy were leveled in death, for they were either taken up into the same life-giving principles of the Universe or were scattered without distinction into atoms.” If the transience of things human tempers the fruits of glory, it also mitigates life’s misfortunes. “Continually run over in mind men who were highly indignant at some event,” he says, “men who attained the greatest heights of fame or disaster or enmity or of any kind of fortune whatever.
Then pause and think: ‘where is it all now?’ Smoke and ashes and a tale that is told, or not so much as a tale.” It is man’s fate to die and be forgotten; to agonize over the inevitable is pointless. Thus through this rigorous selfinterrogation, Marcus Aurelius confronts his pains and anxieties, teaching himself how to endure. By repeatedly examining human mortality from all its angles, weighing the implications of all possibilities, he is engaged in a process of spiritual care and therapy, a process described by Martha Nussbaum (1994) as important to Hellenistic ethics.
Philosophy for Marcus Aurelius is not an occupation so much as a preoccupation. If the Meditations does not represent an original contribution to Stoic doctrine, and if much of what it contains can be found in the writings of Epictetus and others, it remains nonetheless an eloquent reminder that the goal of philosophy is not merely to know the meaning of life, but to live it.
See also Classical Influences
Meditations, edited and translated by A.S.L.Farquharson (bilingual edition), 2, vols., 1944; translated by C.R.Haines (Loeb Edition), 1930, G.M.A.Grube and Maxwell Stanforth, 1964, and Roy Alan Lawes, 1984
Arnold, Matthew, “Marcus Aurelius,” in his Essays in Criticism: First Series, London: Macmillan, 1865; Boston: Ticknor, 1866
Birley, Anthony, Marcus Aurelius, London: Batsford, and New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1987 (original edition, 1966)
Brunt, P.A., “Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations,” Journal of Roman Studies 64 (1974):1–20
Farquharson, A.S.L., Marcus Aurelius: His Life and His World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and New York: Salloch, 1951
Grant, Michael, The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition, London and New York: Routledge, 1994
Nussbaum, Martha C, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994
Rutherford, R.B., The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Study, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989
Stanton, G.R., “The Cosmopolitan Ideas of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius,” Phronesis 13 (1968):183–95
Stanton, G.R., “Marcus Aurelius, Emperor and Philosopher,” Historia 18 (1969):570–87
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