Category Archives: Marcus

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.



Stoicism and the “inadequacy of the invincible”

ITALY-THEME-LANDMARKStoicism is not new to criticism. Many of the fragments of Stoic texts that we have, especially referring to the early Stoa, are actually from authors who were not just critical, but seriously pissed off at, the philosophy. And now that Stoicism seems to be on the upswing again, the critics have come out of the woodworks once more. There is, of course, much value in serious criticism of one’s philosophy (for instance, from the likes of Martha Nussbaum), and the Stoics themselves repeatedly took good ideas from whenever they found them, be that the Cynicism so admired by Epictetus, or even the Epicureanism in which Seneca made a number of forays “not as a deserter, but as a scout” (II. On Discursiveness in Reading, 5).

Some of the modern critics have tried to top Sextus Empiricus’ famous “Against the Professors,” managing to express a level of venom probably better suited to other targets. Here, for instance, is my response to Existentialist philosopher Sandy Grant, who I think managed to write one of the most uncharitable recent commentaries on Stoicism. (Then again, none other than Bertrand Russell himself, one of the philosophers who most influenced me early on, botched the job fantastically in his History of Western Philosophy.)

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Marcus Aurelius and the Christians

Marcus distributing bread to the people

I’m going to conclude this mini-series on Marcus by briefly addressing the question of whether he persecuted the then novel Christian sect. (Part I of the mini-series was on Marcus’ speeches, and part II on his sayings. Check this link for all my writings about Marcus.) If you have a particular interest on this topic, also take a look at Don Robertson’s comprehensive post. My notes here are based on the Delphi Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius, translated by C.R. Haines.

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The sayings of Marcus Aurelius

Young Marcus, Naples Archeological Museum, photo by the author

I have recently examined three surviving speeches by Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor. Here I will take a look at a number of scattered sayings — i.e., bits that do not appear either in the speeches or in the Meditations — collected as part of the excellent Delphi’s Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius and translated by C.R. Haines. As Haines’ introduction states, the picture of Marcus that emerges from these sayings is “a striking combination of ‘sweetness and gravity,’ of mildness and tenacity, of justice and mercy. We see a truly religious man who lived up to his creed, a tempered Stoicism.”

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The speeches of Marcus Aurelius

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on Capitoline Hill, Rome (photo by the author)

We are all familiar with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, one of the most famous books of practical philosophy of all ages. But did you know that we also have three speeches attributed to Marcus? They are collected in Delphi’s Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius, and it’s worth to take a look even though they only indirectly speak to Stoic philosophy.

There are three such speeches: one to the Roman Army at the news of the revolt of Cassius in 175 CE; a speech sent by Marcus to the Senate after that same revolt; and his last words before dying.

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Stoicism and Christianity, III: Marcus

MarcusWe now get to the third of the three great Roman Stoics as seen from a Christian perspective, following along C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. (Part I on Seneca is here; part II on Epictetus here.) Of course the analysis is based entirely on the Meditations, about which Pierre Hadot said: “Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations … are not the spontaneous outpourings of a soul that wants to express its thoughts immediately, but rather an exercise, accomplished in accordance with definite rules. … [The Meditations ] presuppose a pre-existing canvas, upon which the philosopher-emperor could only embroider.” And a significant part of that canvas was provided by the work of Epictetus, which Marcus had read and studied. Also keep in mind, throughout the following, that the Meditations are characterized by Marcus going back over and over to the three Epictetean disciplines of desire, action, and assent.

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What I like about the three great Roman Stoics

I have been studying Stoicism somewhat seriously for a while now, and in particular, of course, the three great Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus. Although all three of them espouse the same fundamental philosophy, there are, of course interesting differences among them, which attest to the fact that Stoicism was and is a vibrant set of ideas and practices, not something perennially and unalterably written on a stone tablet.

It is also very clear to the reader of the Letters to Lucilius (for instance), the Discourses, and the Meditations, that the three in question differed markedly in terms of their personalities, which in turn affected the way they understood and practiced Stoicism. Here I’d like to explore what I find captivating in each of the three great ones and what I’m learning from them in terms of my own practice.
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