Marcus Aurelius: a guide for the perplexed

Marcus Aurelius a guide for the perplexedMarcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, one the few philosopher-kings (well, okay, emperor) in the history of the world, is a fascinating figure. Despite being one of the most famous Stoics, he was not a philosopher and teacher like Zeno, Chrysippus, or Epictetus. Unlike Seneca, he wrote just one book, the Meditations, which was actually addressed to himself, meant as a personal diary of philosophical reflection, not to instruct others, let alone as a treatise on Stoic philosophy. He was by all accounts an extraordinary man, who tackled some of the greatest challenges the Roman empire had to face, including a war against the irreducible Parthians, another one against a coalition of German tribes led by the Marcomanni, an internal rebellion by one of his most trusted governors, and a plague that killed two or three million people. He did not want to be emperor, but he leaned on his philosophy to do the best job he could. And ended up in the disastrous choice of his son Commodus to take up the purple mantle (but see here for a nuanced analysis of that episode), a decision that ended the prosperous and relatively peaceful age of the five good emperors of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty.

My friend and collaborator Greg Lopez chose Marcus as this year’s theme for his regular Stoic meetup in New York City, and I will focus on the Meditations in the upcoming Summer Stoic School in Rome. So it makes sense we started things off by reading William Stephens’ concise but highly informative Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2012). The book is logically organized in five chapters: the first one provides readers with the biography and historical context of Marcus’ life; the second one discusses the two major influences in the Meditations: the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and, of course, Epictetus; the third through the fifth chapters develop three major themes in Marcus’ philosophy: wholes and parts; time, transience, and eternity; and virtues, vices, and junk.

I want to comment here on the influences of Heraclitus and Epictetus on Marcus, briefly cover the three major themes in Marcus’ philosophy, and then point out a nice feature of the last three chapters of Stephens’ book, which I definitely recommend, even for people who are somewhat familiar both with Stoic philosophy and with Marcus Aurelius in particular.

Heraclitus is the oldest known source about the Logos, a crucial, complex Stoic concept, which was common to a number of Greco-Roman philosophies, and which was later imported into Christianity. It’s not obvious what Heraclitus meant by the term, in part because he wrote in a rather obscure fashion, in part because we only have fragments of his works, and in part because the term Logos had several related meanings. Here is Heraclitus, quoted by Stephens:

“Although this logos holds forever [is true], people ever fail to comprehend, both before hearing it and once they have heard. Although all things come to pass in accordance with this logos, people are like the untried when they try such words and works as I set forth, distinguishing each according to its nature and telling how it is. But other people are oblivious of what they do awake, just as they are forgetful of what they do asleep.” (p. 49)

Nonetheless, Stephens provides a nice summary of the major meanings of Logos in Heraclitus. It can mean: (i) Heraclitus’ own discourse; (ii) the nature of language; (iii) the structure of the psyche; or (iv) the cosmic law according to which everything happens. It is the latter two meanings that Marcus deploys in the Meditations, as he regards the Logos as a universal principle regulating the world, and also as the principle that makes possible our “ruling faculty” (the Hêgemonikon), the improvement of which is a major goal of Stoic training. Nowadays, we may interpret the Logos as the observation that the laws of nature are rationally understandable, or (not mutually exclusively) the biological structures that make possible for human beings to exercise judgment (i.e., the frontal lobes of the neocortex).

Most interestingly, fragment XXX from Heraclitus concerns the idea that human beings ought to work for each other’s benefit, precisely because they all partake in the Logos. This idea is taken up repeatedly by Marcus, for instance here:

“Where the end is, there also is the advantage and the good of each thing. Now the good for the reasonable animal is society.” (Meditations V.16)

Heraclitus is also famous for his concept of panta rhei (everything flows):

“One cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs.” (p. 62)

This is one of the earliest known articulations of a position termed process metaphysics, which nowadays is very popular among philosophers, in part because it accords well with the findings of modern science, especially fundamental physics. Again, here is Marcus deploying the concept:

“Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And can you take a hot bath unless the wood for the fire undergoes a change? And can you be nourished unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?” (Meditations, VII.18)

This is not only a profound insight into the nature of things, but also a source of consolation: change, including our death and decomposition, is both natural and necessary, if the universe is to work. Just as astronomer Carl Sagan famously reminded us that we are literally made of stardust, so we are reminded by Heraclitus and Marcus that the elements that make up our body will be recycled in the universal flow of things.

The second major influence on Marcus, apparent all over the Meditations, is that of Epictetus. Indeed, Marcus acknowledges it right at the beginning, in book I, where he thanks his teacher Quintus Junius Rusticus for having given him his own copy of the Discourses. As Stephens points out, Epictetus is mentioned directly in VII.19, and he is paraphrased in the last seven entries of book XI, which concludes with a reference to brief dialogue that is likely taken from a lost book of the Discourses.

“Epictetus’ direct, unvarnished style of calling a spade a spade seems to have influenced Marcus’ method of clear-eyed scrutiny of objects in front of him.” (p. 68)

One of the ways in which Epictetus influences Marcus is in a certain degree of disdain for the body. This doesn’t come from any misguided sort of dualism, but rather from the observation that while we share the possession of a body with all other animals, human beings are unique in having a mind capable of rational thought. And it is this, together with our sociality, that for the Stoics defined human nature, and hence what it means to “live according to nature.”

Another important aspect of Marcus’ philosophy is the idea — again derived directly from Epictetus, but of course part of the general Stoic view — that death is a natural phenomenon, not to be feared. Indeed, Marcus even directly endorses Epictetus’ famous “open door” policy, i.e., the notion that suicide is admissible under certain circumstances. As Stephens puts it:

“Marcus repeats this Open Door Policy of Epictetus when he writes ‘If the smoke makes me cough, I can leave’ (V.29). Thus, like Epictetus, Marcus accepts the Stoic doctrine that suicide under extreme circumstances of suffering can be morally permissible — at least for the person who is making progress in virtue. Moreover, Marcus and Epictetus both derive consolation from the fact that we are free to exercise our own judgment about what degree of suffering we will tolerate and what degree of suffering we need no longer endure. We have the power to decide when to exit the smoky house of life. The question is not whether we mortal beings will die. The question is when and how it is appropriate for us to exit life.” (p. 73)

The third, fourth, and fifth chapters of the book then zoom into the details of Marcus’ philosophy, by focusing on three major recurring themes in the Meditations: Marcus’ use of mereology, i.e., the branch of metaphysics that is concerned with the identification of parts and their relationship to the whole; the interrelated notions of time, transience, and eternity; and the relationship between virtue and vice (and what Stephens calls “junk”). There is no space here to treat any of this in depth, but let me give a flavor of how the author proceeds, keeping in mind that his goal is to show that Marcus — even though he is not a philosopher, and he is writing for himself — nonetheless articulates a coherent, and at times original, philosophy of life.

Marcus’ use of mereology is what allows him to analyze the component parts of certain objects, reflect on their relations to the whole object, and draw philosophical conclusions pertinent to his view of life. For instance, in VII.23, he notes that the universe is made of a large number of individual objects, including all living beings (horses, trees, human beings). All these objects contain the universal matter, and as he says, “it does the container no harm to be put together, and none to be taken apart.” In other words, death is a kind of cosmic recycling, to which the cosmos are indifferent:

“Every portion of me will be reassigned as another portion of the world, and that in turn transformed into another. Ad infinitum. I was produced through one such transformation, and my parents too, and so on back. Ad infinitum.” (V.13)

Mereology comes into play also when Marcus wants to remind himself that we, as individual human beings, are limbs of the social body, and that we therefore have to work together for the betterment of the whole body, i.e., the polis.

“We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.” (II.1)

The second theme, that of time, transience, and eternity, is explored by Marcus in order to quell his own fear of mortality, to achieve serenity of mind, and to develop a sense of equanimity toward people and events. Here, of course, is where we find his use of Heraclitus’ metaphor of time as a flowing river. The idea is that once we fully appreciate the infinity of time, we realize how silly it is to get upset about the minutiae of our puny everyday life, regardless of how disproportionately large they may loom in our thoughts whenever we let go of the view from above.

Another consequence of this perspective is that it exposes pride in one’s accomplishments, and especially seeking fame, for the empty things they are: everyone we know will soon be dead and forgotten, and so will we. What we do matters in the here and now, because it is helpful to others, not because it will be remembered for a little bit longer by people who we will not know. The real gift is the present, over which we have control (in the sense of controlling our judgments and actions). The past and the future are infinite, and we have no control over them.

The third theme is that of virtue, vice, and junk. Here, according to Stephens, we see some of the more mature and sophisticated aspects of Marcus’ philosophy. One manifestation of this is his analysis of the nature of things, aiming at discerning whether they are truly important or not. These are the bits in the Meditations where we get the reminder that precious marble is nothing but hardened dirt, gold and silver are just residues mined from the earth, the prestigious purple dye worn by the emperor is just the blood of a shellfish.

“With this strategy, Marcus shatters the rosy-colored lenses through which we prefer to view the things we so intensely desire. He insists on seeing these pleasures for what they really are.” (p. 133)

As we know, the implication of this approach is not that external objects do not matter, but rather that they are merely preferred indifferents, things that are not good in themselves, and which certainly take a backseat when compared to the chief good: virtue. To pursue them for their own sake, therefore, becomes a vice. It is like going after junk rather than something of true value.

Let me conclude by giving you just one of several examples in the book where Stephens goes through a particular section of the Meditations and reconstructs the formal structure of Marcus’ argument. This is a useful exercise for two reasons: first, it allows us to examine the argument more carefully, to see whether it is valid and sound. Second, and I think actually more importantly, it dispels the common notion that the Meditations is written somewhat casually, and that it is not a serious book of philosophy. It is, but since Marcus was writing to himself, not to an audience, we have to do the work necessary to appreciate his thinking.

My preferred example is in the context of Marcus’ discussion, in VIII.17, of the idea that it is futile to lay blame, regardless of what particular metaphysical view of the world (the Stoic, the Epicurean, or any other one) we happen to hold. Here is Stephens’ reconstruction of the full argument:

1. The matter is either in our control or in the control of someone else.

2. If it’s in our control, then we can handle it appropriately without blaming ourselves.

3. If it’s in the control of someone else, then we could blame either atoms (if the
Epicureans are right about how the cosmos works) or the Logos (if the Stoics are right about how the cosmos works), or no one and nothing.

4. It’s stupid to blame atoms (since they have no intentionality).

5. It’s stupid to blame the Logos (since the cosmos — which for the Stoics was a living organism — knows best what should happen).

6. Hence, if it’s in the control of someone else, then blame no one and nothing.

7. Therefore, blaming is pointless.



11 thoughts on “Marcus Aurelius: a guide for the perplexed

  1. Patrice Ayme

    Thanks for essay above, Massimo. Good points all. However, a different perspective I have developed shows why Marcus Aurelius made the mistake of making Commodus a Consul, while still a child (and so on, until making Commodus co-emperor at… 16). In other words, Marcus’ error was no error, but system. Marcus Aurelius thought that ‘non-useful’ thoughts should be banned! He wrote that explicitly!


  2. Massimo Post author


    I find Don Robertson’s analysis pretty convincing. At any rate, I don’t see what banning non0useful thoughts has to do with it.


  3. Patrice Ayme

    Dear Massimo, trying to explain myself a bit more:
    Can one be a creative, or rigorous thinker, and not attribute blame? I think not.
    Marcus Aurelius said (paraphrased): “If a matter is in the control of someone else, then we could blame either atoms (if the Epicureans are right about how the cosmos works) or the Logos (if the Stoics are right about how the cosmos works), or no one and nothing.”

    Is that a typo? What happened to blaming people? Isn’t that the most natural blame to attribute? If I don’t like Trump’s tax reform, shall blame atoms, the logos… or no one and nothing? I prefer to blame Trump, and his ilk.

    Let’s be cynical, as the fine hounds we are. Those who refuse to attribute blame to anybody seem to say: ‘I can’t be blamed, I am only human, after all!’
    Those who claim “nothing” can be blamed say: ‘everything that is, is true and innocent. And there is no scientific method, as nothing is false, hence our rule is above any suspicion…’

    The essence of the most advanced thinking is to disconnect the motivation which brings it from any utilitarian objective. Advanced thinking is born from the honor of the human spirit, not from whether the emperor finds it of some use. Marcus could not conceive of this.

    Although Marcus was strong and determined against the German barbarians, not being a believer in advanced thinking, he didn’t realize that the way out of the invasion crisis, was the one launched by the Roman Republic, seven centuries prior: mental creativity to invent new strategies, weapons and mechanisms, all to be paid by higher taxes on the wealthiest. Instead, emperors went to fear inventions, imagination, and taxes, at the cost of hundreds of ever more crippling invasions (the same problem would occur with the Carolingian/Renovated Roman empire, in the second part of the Ninth Century).

    The Roman empire understood finally that one had to tax the wealthiest, to pay for a sufficient army, under Aetius, 250 years later, when it was too late, and more than half of the Roman tax basis, let alone food supply, had been occupied or demolished by the savages (Marcus Aurelius had pathetically ‘solved’ his tax crisis, by selling state property, like the palace’s silver…).


  4. Massimo Post author


    there are a number of things in your comment that I think are off the mark, but I will comment on just two.

    First off, “not blaming” is a standard Stoic attitude, meant to recognize that all human beings err, and that nobody does evil on purpose. I find it refreshing and very useful in dealing with others. It doesn’t mean one should not stop others from doing bad things.

    Second, there is no way Marcus could have reverted from empire to Republic. He would have been killed instantly. It has nothing to do with not believing in advanced thnking, which by the way is not what the Stoics counsel. They counsel that the best way to prepare for the future is to act rightly here and now. Not the same thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kathryn W. Kemp

    The Stoic says, “Nobody does evil on purpose.” However, definitions of evil vary. The Trump supporter, for example, approves of his antics; I find these actions contemptible. Trump may not think he does evil, but I do. Where does the stoic stand in this case? Is Trump’s evildoing simply a mistake? It is certainly on purpose. And evil.


  6. Marcus Aurelius

    As you write: The Stoic says, “Nobody does evil on purpose.” The Stoic invariably asks first, however, “What lies in my control and what does not?” Is that how we should approach it? We will not stop the Trumpanzees in Washington and beyond. We might have a bit of control over the people in our nearest circles. Let us move them with the greatest good of Stoicism, virtue. It might sound resigned but I have given up trying to sway people on the Internet to reconsider their thoughts.


  7. Massimo Post author


    “Trump may not think he does evil, but I do. Where does the stoic stand in this case? Is Trump’s evildoing simply a mistake? It is certainly on purpose. And evil.”

    I published a full explanation of what the Stoics mean by the idea that nobody does evil on purpose here:

    see also this post:

    I also wrote about the fact that Stoicism does carry a duty to political involvement, here:

    as well as to social justice:


  8. Roberto Sans

    Thank you for an excellent essay on Marcus. It makes me lament not being able to attend this year´s Stoic Course in Rome! I will probably need to read it slowly for a couple of times to assess all the points on it.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Patrice Ayme

    Dear Massimo:
    Thanks for your answer. The description of the “standard Stoic attitude”, that “all human beings err, and that nobody does evil on purpose”, it seems to me is exactly what prevented Marcus Aurelius to put back the “Republic” on the correct trajectory it was clear it desperately needed during Marcus’ reign.

    Ah, yes, the “Republic”, not a detail: the “Principate” was considered to be a Republic by those who partook in it. The Roman Republic justice system and Senate were still going on during the “Principate”. As emperor Decius said in June 251 CE, after his son was struck by an arrow at the battle of Abbritus: “Let no one mourn; the death of one soldier is not a great loss to the republic.”
    So it was not a question of “restoring the Republic”: the first emperor, Augustus, claimed to have done so (27 BCE). Local democracy was alive and well (until the first German raids deep inside the empire, starting with Alexander Severus, circa 234 CE!)

    Marcus Aurelius had two major problems, one fiscal, the other technological. Trajan had taxed the wealthiest to create an empire which was more social, more expanding, and giving advanced education to meritorious youth through scholarship. (Unfortunately Trajan died at 63, preventing consolidation of his enlightened rule, all the way to the Persian gulf.)

    Marcus had a disastrous situation: the Germans had learned to become a military threat to Italy. All what Marcus did was to battle away against the Germans, for a continuous 20 years, in the here and now, with insufficient means, insufficient militarily, fiscally, technologically, democratically. Marcus should have followed Trajan fiscal, educational, social policies. Marcus’ closest policy to Trajan was in military matters: Marcus understood the Marcomanni and their ilk had to be crushed (Commodus inverted his father’s conquests). However he didn’t have the fiscal means for his army, that Trajan gave himself by hating the wealthiest.

    This lack of inclination of Marcus for finding in depth revolutionary change prepared for a future of more of the same, precisely because Marcus enjoyed an enormous prestige as a philosopher-emperor. Marcus just had to follow Trajan, he didn’t.

    Thus, for an astounding three centuries of war (176 CE-476 CE) the Romans fought as Marcus did, not realizing that, as long as they couldn’t integrate the Germans into the empire, they made them stronger, and more ferocious, just by battling with them. (The only emperor who understood the problem was Julianus, Julian “the Apostate”, who studied philosophy in Athens, and was elevated to Augustus by the Parisians. Unfortunately he died from combat in Mesopotamia, 363 CE.)

    Marcus had to raise the taxes on the wealthiest, on the .1%. Marcus had to blame the wealthiest, as Trajan did. The other philosophical solution, which Marcus didn’t embrace, was to reject Plato’s hostility to technological change, and re-embrace the Roman (true Republic) love of technological innovation.

    Individuals drunk on the neurohormones of cruelty and domination exist, denying it is counterproductive to progress: the head of the Brazilian army just made a threat (on Twitter!) Hence the Brazilian Supreme Court decided to jail Lula, who leads by a very long shot the 2018 Brazilian presidential race.
    [Please excuse the length, more on my site…]


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