Sunday, 4 January 2015

Marcus Aurelius, Philosopher

Originally written for, and published in, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (2010).

Marcus Aurelius was not only an emperor; he was also a philosopher. His interest in philosophy began at a young age, as his correspondence with the rhetorician Fronto indicates. One of Marcus’ tutors, Rusticus, introduced him to the philosophy of Stoicism and lent him a copy of the Discourses of Epictetus. This proved to be a decisive influence.

Although this interest in philosophy started very young, our only document for Marcus’ philosophy comes from his old age. The text that we now know as the Meditations was written in his final years, while on military campaign in Germania. The modern title Meditations dates only from the seventeenth century; the manuscript tradition offers the title To Himself (ta eis heauton). The earliest reference to this title dates to the ninth century and the original text may well have been untitled. This should come as no surprise, however, as the Meditations appear to be simply the private notebooks of the Emperor, containing a mixture of passing thoughts, memorable sayings, quotations from his reading, along with passages of more extended philosophical reflection. The twelve books of the Meditations have no obvious structure, although the first book differs from the rest, taking the form of an autobiographical record of Marcus’ debts to others, and this book may have been composed separately.

A number of themes emerge out of the remaining eleven books of the Meditations. Marcus repeatedly exhorts himself to analyse his impressions, to see himself as but one small part of Nature, and to act rightly. These three themes correlate with the three parts of Stoic philosophy – logic, physics, and ethics – although Marcus never explicitly puts it in those terms. These three themes, like the three parts of Stoic philosophy, are intimately connected to one another. Thus acting rightly requires that one does not assent to false impressions and that one understands one’s place within Nature.

The most striking passages in the Meditations express the second of these themes, urging us to approach human life – and, in particular, human vanities – from a much wider cosmic perspective. Everyday human concerns and ambitions seem trivial and inconsequential when seen against the background of the vast impersonal flows of matter that constitute the Cosmos. By embracing this sort of cosmic perspective Marcus wants to emphasize that everything that is apparently stable is in fact in a process of continual transformation. The Cosmos is an endless cycle of birth and death, creation and destruction. Human life – indeed all of human civilization – is merely a momentary slowing down of these larger impersonal cosmic processes. Much of our emotional distress and many of our ethical failings result from our inability to acknowledge this basic fact. But if we analyse our impressions correctly (using logic) and understand our place within Nature (with physics), then we shall learn to act appropriately (ethics).

Marcus’ philosophical worldview is ultimately Stoic, although the Meditations do not record any detailed engagements with the technical aspects of Stoic philosophy. Some readers have detected sympathies towards both Epicurean and Platonic ideas in his work, but more often than not these reflect ambiguous forms of expression rather than a deliberate philosophical eclecticism. In a number of places Marcus seems unable to choose between Stoic pantheism and Epicurean atomism but this agnosticism is probably the prudent response of one who claims no expertise in the details of the physical theory of either school. He is, however, committed to a doctrine of universal flux and, like the earlier Stoics, is an admirer of the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus.

The ethical thrust of the Meditations focuses on the two inter-related themes of avoiding attachments to particulars and escaping irrational emotions, both central Stoic ideas. No externals are good or bad in themselves, and so they should neither be coveted nor feared; only a virtuous state of mind is genuinely good. Consequently the primary philosophical task for Marcus is to take care of his soul, which involves analysing his impressions closely in order to make sure he does not make any false judgements. But beyond these more formal philosophical themes, the Meditations are above all else an attempt by an old man to come to terms with the inevitability of his own impending death. Marcus continually reminds himself that his fame and reputation will ultimately be forgotten in the eternity of time and that all he can hold on to for sure is the present living moment.

The Meditations do not appear to have circulated widely after Marcus’ death. They are mentioned in passing by Themistius in the fourth century, it is reported that Arethas of Caesarea possessed a copy around the end of the ninth century, and they are noted in the Byzantine lexicon Suda some fifty years later. Marcus was read a little more widely during the Renaissance but the first printed edition was relatively late, in 1559. It was not until the late seventeenth century that the Meditations became widely known and they reached their height of popularity in the late nineteenth century. Out of vogue in the mid twentieth century, the Meditations are now receiving renewed attention.