Roman Emperor and Stoic, the author of Meditations in twelve books. Its first printing appeared in English in 1634. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius the celebrated Pax Romana collapsed – perhaps this made the emperor the most forbearing of all Stoics. An important feature of the philosophy was that everything will recur: the whole universe becomes fire and then repeats itself.
Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web. (from The Meditations)
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was born in Rome. He came from an aristocratic family long established in Spain. His father was Annius Verus. When only a small child, he caught the attention of the Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138) – a pedophile and his fellow countryman. He was appointed by the Emperor to priesthood in the year 129, and Hadrian also supervised his education, which was entrusted to the best professors of literature, rhetoric and philosophy of the time. His letters to one of the teachers, Marcus Cornelius Fronto (c. 100 – 170), the foremost orator of his day, were found by Cardinal Mai in 1815.
Marcus Aurelius discovered Stoicism by the time he was 11 and from his early twenties he deserted his other studies for philosophy. The Emperor Antoninus Pius, who succeeded Hadrian, adopted Marcus Aurelius as his son in 138. “He never bathed at odd hours,” Marcus Aurelius said of him in Meditations, “or took a passion for building; never set up for a table connoisseur, and expert on textures and tints, or an authority on good looks… One might fairly apply to him what is recorded of Socrates, that he could either enjoy or leave things which most people find themselves too weak to abstain from, and too self-indulgent to enjoy.” Antoninus Pius treated Aurelius as a confidant and helper throughout his reign; Marcus Aurelius also married his daughter, Faustina, in 139. He was admitted to the Senate, and then twice the consulship. In 147 he shared tribunician power with Antoninus. During this time he began composition of his Meditations, which he wrote in Greek in army camps. Thus Book I is headed ‘This among the Quadi on the Gran’, and Book II ‘Written at Carnuntum’.
At the age of 40, in 161 Marcus Aurelius ascended the throne and shared his imperial power with his adopted brother Lucius Aurelius Verus. Useless and lazy, Verus was regarded as a kind of junior emperor; he died in 169. After Verus’s death he ruled alone, until he admitted his own son, Commodus, to full participation in the government in 177.
As an emperor Marcus Aurelius was conservative and just by Roman standards. He was beset by internal disturbances – famine, earthquakes, fires, and plague – and by the external threat posed by the Germans in the north and the Parthians in the east. However, Sir Edward Gobbon has praised the period of ‘Five Good Emperors’ – Narva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius – of which Marcus’ own life spanned almost three-quarters: “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”
Toward the end of his reign, in 175, Marcus Aurelius was faced with a revolt by Avidius Cassius, the governor of Syria, who perhaps believed rumors that the Emperor had died. His head was sent to Marcus Aurelius. According to some sources, Faustina, Marcus’ wife, may have been involved in this conspiracy. An epidemic of plague followed Cassius’s army from the East. Year after year Aurelius tried to push barbarians back but witnessed the gradual crumbling of the Roman frontiers. In these times of disasters, he turned more and more to the study of Stoic philosophy.
The Latin writings of Marcus Aurelius, letters to a teacher, Fronto, are not interesting, but the “Writings to Himself”, called Meditations, are remarkable. They are personal reflections and aphorisms, written for his own edification during a long career of public service, after marching or battle in the remote Danube. Meditations are valuable primarily as a personal document, what it is to be a Stoic. His opinions in central philosophical questions are very much similar to Epictetus’s (c. 55-135 AD) teachings. Epictetus’s two basic principles were: Endure and Abstain. He stressed that inner freedom is to be attained through submission to providence, and rigorous detachment from everything not in our power.
He who fears death either fears the loss of sensation or a different kind of sensation. But if thou shalt have no sensation, neither wilt thou feel any harm; and if thou shalt acquire another kind of sensation, thou wilt be a different kind of living being and thou wilt not cease to live. (from The Meditations)
Marcus Aurelius’s melancholic writings reveal that the public duties depressed him and he wanted to retire to live a simple country life. After his death in Vindobona (now Vienna, Austria) on March 17, 180 the emperor’s only son Commodus became Emperor and turned out to be one of the worst rulers. Marcus Aurelius’s reputation is shadowed by his persecution of Christians. A devout adherent of the Roman religion, Marcus Aurelius considered the Christians fanatics, who don’t die with stoic dignity. “How lovely the soul that is prepared – when its hour comes to slough off this flesh – for extinctions, dispersion, or survival! But this readiness should result from a personal decision, not from sheer contrariness like the Christians…” Probably Marcus Aurelius knew very little about Christian beliefs. The fierce cruelty, with which the persecution was carried out in Gaul, was not consistent with his writings. However, Stoics had a profound influence upon both Neoplatonism and Christianity. Besides Meditations Aurelius left behind among others two Roman monuments, the column which commemorates his victories in the Marcomannic Wars and the equestrian statue on the Capitol.
Stoicism, named after the Stoa Poikile, a hall in Athens where it was first formulated around 300 BC by Zeno of Citium. Zeno’s all writings are lost. The philosophy was developed by Cleanthes (331-232) and Chrysippus (280-207), who organized it into a system. Marcus Aurelius based his views in part on the later version, which was developed by the freed slave Epictetus (55-135). The Stoics were the first thoroughgoing pantheists: God is the universe, the universe is God. The wise and virtuous learns one’s place in the scheme. According to Stoic Ethics, the goal of human existence is to live consistently with Nature, which means “consistently with Reason”.
Meditations, or Writings to Himself (Ta eis heauton). First printed in 1559 in Zurich by Andreas Gesner with a Latin translation by William Xylander. Thereafter it has enjoyed a wide readership from poets to statesmen. Meditations contains 12 books, but while Book I offers a clear organization and unity, the others do not. Marcus Aurelius worked on his philosophical summary or pensées during the last years of his life while on campaign along the marshlands of the Danube. Among the central themes is man’s fate to die and be forgotten. “What should be valued?”, he asks, but sees not the answer in the rewards of glory. Aurelius had wanted to be untouched by passion, and generous by nature rather than by calculation. He had a firm sense of responsibility, but was perhaps more attracted to the Stoic ideal of the perfect man. When according to Stoicism humanity’s whole duty was to discover how it might live in harmony with the order of Nature, Aurelius hoped sadly that it could also apply to him: “Even in a palace life may be lived well.”