Marcus Aurelius 121180 Rome

''Nothing happens to any man that he is not formed by nature to bear.''[Meditations]

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from Robert Sarkissian

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the Emperor of Rome from 161 until his death. Born Marcus Annius Verus, he was adopted by the emperor Antoninus Pius in 138, and married his daughter Annia Galeria Faustina a few years later. He succeeded to the throne without difficulty on Antoninus' death. Marcus Aurelius was educated by the best tutors in Rome and was a devotee of Stoicism. However, he felt with more religious fervour the communion of man in the unity of the universe than most other Stoics. In his later years he wrote the Meditations as a relief from his lonely office, in which he attempts to reconcile his Stoic philosophy of virtue and self-sacrifice with his role as emperor.

Throughout his reign as emperor he was engaged in defensive wars on the northern and eastern frontiers of the empire. His legions succeeded in repelling the invasion of Syria by the Parthians in 166, but Rome was again forced into battle in 167 by the Germanic tribes on the Rhine-Danube frontier. He returned to Rome intermittently during the German campaign to make legal and administrative reforms. Although he was particularly concerned with public welfare and sold even his personal possessions to alleviate the effects of famine and plague within the empire, he ruthlessly persecuted the Christians, believing them a threat to the imperial system. In 176 he returned to the northern frontier, hoping to extend the boundaries of the empire northeastward to the Wisla (Vistula) river. He died of the plague in Vindobona (now Vienna) on March 17, 180, before he could begin the invasion. His plan was abandoned by his son and successor, Commodus. As emperor he also lowered taxes and was a champion of the poor, for whom he founded schools, orphanages, and hospitals. He also tried to humanize criminal laws and the treatment of slaves by their masters.

As a philosopher Aurelius believed that a divine providence had placed reason in man, and it was in the power of man to be one with the rational purpose of the universe. This is a duty to a man himself and to the citizens of God's State. No man can be injured by another, he can only injure himself. He attempted to be a philosopher-king, which he considered a moral rather than a political ideal. He believed that the moral life leads to tranquility, and stressed the virtues of wisdom, justice, fortitude, and moderation.

Questions of Stoicism

From Oxford Companion to Philosophy


Philosophical tradition founded by Zeno of Citium, developed by Cleanthes and Chrysippus, and named from the Stoa poikilē or 'Painted Porch' in Athens where they taught. The last major figure in antiquity to have Stoicism as his primary allegiance was the emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second century  AD, but the influence of the school's ideas lived on, and 'stoical' has become a common expression to indicate acceptance of misfortune without complaint.

Stoicism placed ethics in the context of an understanding of the world as a whole, with reason being paramount both in human behaviour and in the divinely ordered cosmos. The Stoic view of divinity and its relation to the world has been historically influential, contributing to the context in which Neoplatonic and Christian thought developed, and especially to theodicy; but it is perhaps Stoic ethical views that are of most immediate philosophical interest to us today, and it is these that have been given most prominence in what follows. The systematic nature of Stoic philosophy indeed reflected the school's view of the systematic nature of the world itself, which it sought to explain without recourse to a Platonic other-worldliness. Some of the paradoxes for which Stoicism was notorious were deliberately adopted for the sake of a striking exposition; but the system was ultimately unable to succeed in explaining everything without internal incoherences.

Stoic ethics indicated that if a perfectly wise, i.e. virtuous, man saw his child in danger of drowning (say), he would try to save it; but that if he failed he would accept this without feeling distress or pity, and without his happiness being diminished. Since everything that happens is governed by divine providence, his failure must have been for the best, even if he could not understand why. Moreover, moral virtue is the only good, and wickedness the only evil; so the child's death was not itself an evil. Furthermore, since moral virtue is the only good, and being perfectly virtuous the wise man will by definition have done the best he could, there is nothing for him to regret. (This example is adapted from Long, Hellenistic Philosophy, 197-8; it is not based on any single ancient text, but brings out the implications.)

Such a view may seem repellent, even incomprehensible, especially as the Stoics made 'following nature' the centre of their ethics, explaining the development of moral awareness by the individual's progressive realization of what was naturally appropriate for him (oikeiō sis). But context and motivation are important. Ancient Greek society placed considerable emphasis on material achievement, and in spite of Socrates' insistence on the importance of moral goodness, Aristotle had maintained the relevance of bodily and material goods, as well as virtue, to human happiness ( eudaimonia); indeed some Aristotelian virtues require considerable resources and social standing. The Stoics reacted against such views, still within a eudaemonistic framework, by insisting that all that matters is our attempts to do what is right; health and wealth are naturally preferable to sickness and poverty, and we should pursue them if we do not wrong others thereby, but achieving them is beyond our control. A slave, as Epictetus had been, can be as virtuous as a free man. Stoicism did not teach withdrawal and inaction (the Stoic school, unlike others, was in the Athenian city centre); but the wise man, while doing the best he can in the circumstances as he sees them, is prepared to accept the eventual outcome as the will of providence, and thus he alone is free. He is like an archer who cares less about actually hitting the target than about doing the best he can to hit it, and his wisdom includes understanding the difference between what is in his power and what is not. (That Chrysippus was a thoroughgoing compatibilist, holding that our actions are predetermined but still our responsibility, is a separate issue; what is important - from his point of view - is that the actions are still ours.)

Only the perfectly wise man is good - and he is as rare as the phoenix; all others are both mad and bad, and all crimes are equal. Like the insistence that virtue alone is good, this can be seen as straining language to make a serious point; all imperfection is imperfection, and one can drown an arm's length from the surface as well as 500 fathoms down. The paradox was lessened by recognition of a class of those not yet virtuous but 'making progress'. The actions which such people should perform are 'proper' (kathēkonta, often rendered 'duties'); it is only when such actions are performed by the wise man that they count as virtuous. Emotions are interpreted in intellectual terms; those such as distress, pity (which is a species of distress), and fear, which reflect a false judgement about what is evil, are to be avoided (as also are those which reflect a false judgement about what is good, such as love of honours or riches). It is for such emotions as these that the Stoics reserved the usual Greek term pathē. They did, however, allow the wise man such 'good feelings' as 'watchfulness' or kindness, the difference being that these are based on sound (Stoic) reasoning concerning what matters and what does not. The wise man will thus be apathēs, 'without pathē', but not in our terms 'apathetic'. The experience of internal conflict which Plato had interpreted as a struggle between rational and irrational parts of our psyche was for the early Stoa rather a rapid wavering between conflicting judgements.

By taking nature as a moral guide (like their Cynic predecessors, for whom, however, 'following nature' meant little more than rejecting the institutions of the city state), the Stoics founded the tradition of natural law. In the Roman period Stoicism became linked with the senatorial opposition to the autocratic rule of emperors like Nero and Domitian. The Stoics were pantheists; god not only orders everything for the best, but is present in everything as 'spirit', conceived in corporeal terms (as fiery air), because only what is corporeal exists, and determining the character of each thing by its degree of physical 'tension'. In animate beings spirit is present as psyche, in plants as 'nature', and in inanimate things as their 'state' (hexis). But god exists in a special way in the fiery heavens, and at fixed periods the whole world becomes fire (an apotheosis, rather than a destruction) before again repeating its predetermined history.

The Stoics developed propositional logic; they engaged in epistemological debate with the sceptical Academy, and partly anticipated Frege's distinction between sense and reference. In spite of their influential attempts to reconcile providence and evil, they could not adequately explain why, when virtue was the only good, divine providence should bring it about that almost everyone is bad. Theism eventually proved more congenial than pantheism, and a psychology of conflict than the unity of the psyche; Stoicism declined as Neoplatonism developed.

Bibliography  A. A. Long, Hellenistic Philosophy (London, 1974).
 A. A. Long, and D. N. Sedley (eds.), The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1987). Texts and commentary.
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press 1995




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'''A cucumber is bitter.' Throw it away. 'There are briars in the road.' Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, 'And why were such things made in the world?'''

''Every instant of time is a pinprick of eternity. All things are petty, easily changed, vanishing away.''

''I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others''

''Remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses.''