| The Enduring Appeal of the Stoics |
Posted on 21st June 2021 by Antigone in Philosophy, The Classical Tradition
The Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–80) is consistently one of the best-selling philosophy books, ancient or modern. Countless readers continue to find inspiration from his notebook jottings. At the same time, this is not a book that is often taken seriously by modern philosophers. This is even the case with modern specialists in ancient philosophy. After all, how can Marcus’ notebook jottings compare with the depth and sophistication of work like Aristotle’s Metaphysics?
The error in that kind of negative assessment is that it implicitly assumes that Marcus was trying to do the same thing as Aristotle, and then failing miserably. But he wasn’t. Marcus’ aim was quite different. So, what was Marcus doing? His book Meditations is a collection of notes and reflections written to himself. It is comprised of comments on events in his own life, quotations from texts he was reading, and – most importantly of all – constant reminders of how he ought to act and what he ought to think about things happening to him.
On meeting a rude and angry person, Marcus tells himself not to respond in kind but instead to remember that they are a fellow human being who is evidently going through a difficult time (Med. 2.1). The appropriate response, then, is sympathy rather than indignation. Marcus repeats ideas like these to himself again and again. The goal is to digest them so that they become second nature. As he puts it himself, his aim is to dye his soul a new colour, and to do this thoroughly one has to dip the cloth in the dye multiples times, so to speak (Med. 5.16).
Bust of Marcus Aurelius, AD 170s (Musée des Antiques, Toulouse, France).
What are the core ideas that Marcus repeats most often? As we’ve just seen, one of the most common is that other people – including anti-social ones – are fellow human beings whom we should always work with rather than against. Closely related to this is the idea that we are all parts of a single community and, as parts, we benefit whenever the community does. Consequently, we should prioritize working for the benefit of the community over our narrow self-interest, knowing that by doing so we shall benefit both ourselves and others.
Alongside these broadly ethical ideas, Marcus also reminds himself about Nature and his place within it. Nature is ultimately a process of continual change and everything within it is merely a transient gathering-together of matter. Marcus also reminds himself often that his life is just a brief moment in the history of the universe and his body little more than a speck of sand within the wider cosmos.
These constant reminders of the brevity and transience of human life lead Marcus also to reflect on his future reputation. As a figure in the public eye, who was likely to be remembered by future historians, he reminds himself not to be overly concerned by what others will think of him and instead to focus on acting the best he can in the present moment.
The constant repetition of these key themes throughout the Meditations has sometimes been judged as a stylistic weakness. But Marcus was never trying to write fine literary prose; his aim was something far more ambitious, namely transforming himself into a better human being.
Title-page of the first printed edition of the Meditations, in which a clunky Latin translation precedes Marcus’ original and inimitable Greek (G. Xylander, Zurich, 1559): the full book can be browsed here.
Marcus was a Stoic. His goal was to live his life according to the principles of Stoicism, but it was never his aim to lay out in detail what those Stoic principles were. After all, he was writing to himself, and he already knew them. Instead, the notes we get are often brief nods and hints – enough to remind himself of the ideas he wanted to keep in mind.
In order to understand the Meditations fully, then, we need to know quite a bit about earlier Stoic philosophy. Stoicism was already centuries old by the time Marcus was writing. The school was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium – whose statue opens this article – at some time around 300 BC, and it flourished there over the next two centuries. The texts of the early Stoics active in Athens are more or less all lost and the earliest accounts we have of Stoic philosophy were written by the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero in the first century BC.
In the following century another Roman, Seneca the Younger, embraced Stoicism and outlined its core ideas in a series of letters and essays. Just a few decades later, a slave in Rome called Epictetus managed to gain his freedom and went on to set up a school of philosophy in Greece. Epictetus would become an important influence on Marcus.
Epictetus and his crutch: the frontispiece (engraved by Michael Burghers) to the Christ Church edition of his Enchiridion, or “Essential handbook” (Oxford, 1715).
The core Stoic doctrine that shaped Marcus’s outlook on life was the claim that the only thing that truly matters if one wants to live a good life is a virtuous character. At one point Marcus says:
If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, moderation, and courage… turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found. (Med. 3.6)
By contrast, everything else – money, power, fame, posthumous reputation – are mere ‘indifferents’ for the Stoics. These things might be preferable to their opposites, but they don’t directly contribute to living a good life. The standard Stoic view is that some of these ‘indifferent’ things, such as health and wealth, have a real positive value, while their opposites, sickness and poverty, have a real negative value. By nature, we pursue health and wealth because these things are vital for our physical survival. They enable us to live, even if it is only a virtuous character that enables us to live well. Marcus was no doubt well aware of this, but in the Meditations he often puts this subtlety to one side, insisting on virtue alone as the only thing that matters. In doing so, he was following what we might call the hard-line view of Epictetus, whose works had inspired Marcus at an early age.
Marcus Aurelius distributing bread to the people, Joseph-Marie Vien, 1765 (Musée des beaux-arts, Marseille, France).
Marcus also took from Epictetus the idea that we ought to focus our attention on what we can control and not waste time agonizing over what we cannot. One thing that both of them insist is that we have no control over what others think about us:
You have been told that someone speaks badly about you. This is what you have been told; you have not been told that you are harmed. (Med. 8.49)
This introduces another theme, also taken from Epictetus, namely that when we get upset it is not due to things but to our judgements about those things. The value judgements that we make produce the emotions that we experience – we desire things that we judge to be good and fear things that we judge to be bad. So, by paying attention to our judgements we can alter the sorts of emotions we experience:
If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your judgement about it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgement at any moment. (Med. 8.47)
Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, c. AD 175 (Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy).
Marcus was also influenced by the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 540–480 BC), who was a regular point of reference for the Stoics. Heraclitus was famous for claiming that everything is in a continual process of change, unstable from one moment to the next. Marcus reflects on this often, and he quotes from Heraclitus a number of times, in the process preserving fragments that would otherwise be lost.
This Heraclitean idea of perpetual change is primarily a statement about the natural world, and so part of physical theory, but Marcus reflects on what we might call its existential consequences. Death, he often says, is merely a natural process of change. The insults and, indeed, praise of other people is of no consequence when set against the backdrop of ever-changing Nature. As Marcus puts it,
Of man’s life, his time is a point, his substance flowing, his perception faint, the constitution of his body decaying, his soul a spinning wheel, his fortune hard to predict, and his fame doubtful; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, the things of the soul dream and delusion, life is a war and a journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion. (Med. 2.17)
The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, Eugène Delacroix, 1844 (Musée des beaux-arts, Lyon, France).
It is comments like this that continue to hit home with readers of the Meditations today. You don’t need to know anything about Stoic physics and its debts to Heraclitus to be able to appreciate the force of what Marcus is saying. Countless people continue to draw benefit from this ancient Stoic text – enough to keep it near the top of the best-seller lists today.