John Sellars on Marcus Aurelius
An interview about Stoic Philosophy and The Meditations
John Sellars is a founding member of Modern Stoicism. He is also the author of many influential books on Stoic philosophy, led by The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy (2003), Stoicism (2006), and Lessons in Stoicism (2019). His lucid prose and ability to present complex philosophical ideas with patient clarity will be known to many readers.
At the start of July 2021, John and I were able to catch up on Zoom, across continents, to discuss John’s most recent work. This is his 2020 book on Marcus Aurelius, which I had had the pleasure to have recently read. The following text recounts our extensive and very enjoyable conversation.
John Sellars, thanks so much for your time. Let’s begin at the beginning, or at least, at a very basic level. Many scholars in the past have questioned whether Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher at all. You argue that he was, but a philosopher of a certain kind. In your view, what kind of a philosopher was Marcus Aurelius?
In the long history of the reception of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, many scholars have questioned whether Marcus was a philosopher at all.
Some have seen the Meditations as little more than personal ramblings with little intellectual force. Others see the text as a kind of exercise in practical self-help, again without specifically philosophically value. Others again see the Meditations as engaging in a kind of religious spiritualism, which turns Stoicism into a dogmatic belief, rather than a philosophy based in questioning, analysis and inquiry.
My argument is that Marcus was a philosopher, and that he was, indeed, a Stoic. This is to say that he was not, as other commentators have suggested, a kind of confused eclectic, mixing Epicurean, Platonic, and other philosophical positions.
For example, some people have seen in Marcus’ fragments where he considers whether the cosmos is either a random collocation of atoms or an ordered whole, so many testimonies to his philosophical confusion or uncertainty. A true Stoic would be in no doubt that the latter is true, and the former Epicurean idea false, etc.
I disagree with these readings. Marcus as I read him is a true Stoic. When he considers alternative positions, as here, it is because he has particular existential and therapeutic ends in mind. His Meditations, moreover, are far from lacking conceptual content. They clearly span and flesh out ideas in the three divisions of philosophy which the Stoic school recognized: logic, physics, and ethics.
My book also makes a metaphilosophical claim here. If you go to the Meditations with the view that “true philosophy” is about creating or discovering new concepts, or generating new theories, are likely to be disappointed. The book does not do these things. But this is because Marcus is aiming to live a philosophical way of life, not simply to generate a philosophical discourse.
And the text we have of his, The Meditations, is a text which he wrote with a view to achieving that philosophical goal.
This last point sound a lot like ideas about Marcus that readers may be familiar with through the work of Pierre Hadot. How would you situate what you are doing in this book, then, in relation to Hadot’s Inner Citadel, which will be known to many of our readers in the modern Stoicism orbit?
My work does something similar to Hadot’s book on Marcus Aurelius. Hadot wanted to defend Marcus’ credentials as a Stoic philosopher. And of course, he understands the Meditations as a text written as one part of Marcus’ attempt to live as a Stoic. I had long been familiar with Hadot’s work, and knew that it was an important text for me to engage with.
But in my book, I wanted firstly to engage with the Meditations again directly, and read it independently. Once I had done this, I returned to The Inner Citadel, and engaged with the text. I disagree with Hadot in fact on some points in my Marcus Aurelius.
Notably, I claim that Hadot’s desire to defend Marcus’ Stoic credentials leads him sometimes to present the Meditations as more systematic than they in fact are. Hadot, people will know, reads the three topoi he finds in Epictetus — the disciplines of desire, impulse, and impressions, which he aligns with physics, ethics, and logic — as a key to reading the Meditations.
I don’t think that this idea of the three topoi covers everything in the Meditations. Marcus is also doing other things.
OK, so, let’s turn to some of the analytic specifics, which make your book so strong. You argue that Marcus’s Meditations is not simply an “ethical” work, but includes significant engagements with Stoic logic and physics as well. That may surprise people. What does “logic” mean in this context?
The early Stoics’ conception of “logic” was much wider than ours today. We think of logic as being only about formal argumentation and syllogisms. For the Stoics, this is what they called “dialectic”.
Logic as the Stoics conceived it however also included epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and rhetoric, the theorization of how to speak and write persuasively. It included everything that concerns logos, reasoning, language, and the judgments we form about what is true and right.
A core concept in Stoic logic is in fact that of “impressions” or phantasia. They are concerned with how we respond to the sense impressions we receive of the world, and the judgments we form on the basis of these impressions. This concern is really central to the Meditations (as we returned to below)
With that said, there are also lots of arguments in Marcus Aurelius. We can easily think of the text as a set of aphorisms or apothegms: little one-line pearls of wisdom. But there are longer passages as well. And in those longer passages there are lots of arguments. Commentators have rightly noted that many of those arguments replay forms of reasoning that the Stoic logic had formalized.
So, let’s drill into the logic in the Meditations a bit further. There are three ‘bad’ or mistaken kinds of impressions you identify which MA is concerned with, in order to guard himself against them? What are they, and why are they bad for Marcus?
In lots of places, Marcus calls upon himself to pay attention to his sense impressions (phantasia), and the judgments he forms about them. This is because the judgments we form about things determines our inner state, and our emotional experience of the world. But some of these impressions are ‘positive’, or at least Marcus has good things to say about them, whilst others he finds more problematic.
There are three kinds of ‘bad’ impressions in the Meditations that Marcus especially returns to. The first are impressions that as it were already include value judgments, especially negative value judgments, like “something terrible has happened”.
As far as Marcus is concerned, as a Stoic, we should not assent to this judgment. External things are indifferent, neither good nor bad in themselves. So, the value (“terribleness”) is not “in” what we have perceived, or our impressions. It is something we have added to the impressions, which will engender negative affects: here, perhaps fear or anger. By not adding the value-judgment, the affects will be avoided.
The second kind of bad impression is also produced from within. But it is less a simple value judgment, than an imaginative “add on” to, or extrapolation from, what we are experiencing. Think of what psychologists call “catastrophizing”. Here we imagine everything bad that could (and also thus could not) happen to us in future, in response to some present challenge.
Marcus thinks we should always interrogate the kinds of judgments we form in response to challenging impressions. Reality provides enough challenges without our imaginatively adding more. One example is Meditations VIII, 36:
Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: ‘What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?’ You would be ashamed to confess it! And then remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present, and the power of this is much diminished if you take it in isolation and call your mind to task if it thinks that it cannot stand up to it when taken on its own.
The third kind of bad impressions are what we might call “distracting impressions”. These are thoughts which take us away, again, from the present moment, pushing us to attend to things we can’t change or control, and so wasting our energies. Think of “FOMO”, “fear of missing out” on what others are doing, or what we all might be doing if the pandemic hadn’t come, and so on.
Can you give an example of how Marcus practices this kind of logic, and with what aim?
For Marcus, we should always try to avoid impressions that are false. And that includes falsely introducing value judgments into what we are experiencing. So, take the famous fragment where Marcus thinks through someone slandering you. Marcus directs himself as follows:
Do not say more to yourself than the first impressions report. It is said to you that someone has spoken badly of you. This alone is told you, and not that you are hurt by it.
There is an important idea here in Marcus which is not perhaps unique to him, but stressed much more often than in other Stoics. This is the idea of “first impressions”, as distinct from more developed impressions, which might have become embroiled with our judgments and assents. These are impressions, precisely, before value judgments have been added to them. So, the example above of “someone has spoken badly of me”, minus the “and this is harmful … hurtful” is a good one.
There are other good impressions, and uses of impressions, in the Meditations. Think of the exercise of the physical re-description of things, like a meal at a fancy restaurant. This is Meditations VI, 13:
When we have meat before us and such foods, we receive the impression that this is the dead body of a fish, and this the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see what kind of things they are. Just in the same way ought we to act all through life, and where there are things which appear most worthy of our approbation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For outward show is a wonderful perverter of the reason, and when you are most sure that you are employed about things worth your pains, it is then that it cheats you most.
What we are doing when we undertake this exercise is escaping from being trapped in the artificial, conventional values that surround things like “fine dining”, beauty, shows of power, and the like. We are returning to things, before they were loaded with such extrinsic values.
It’s interesting, because in this last case the “first impression” is false. The mind has to work to move away from the idea that this is a wonderful, sublime dish to “this is just a dead fish”, etc. Whereas, in other cases where the “someone has spoken badly”, the first impression (value neutral) is fine and good. It is our judgmental “add-ons” to the first impressions that are bad, and that induce inner distress.
So, in some cases, we need to pay attention merely to what is given. In others, since value judgments intrude so quickly, we need to stand back and peal away these evaluations to actively get back to the things themselves.
Let’s turn in this light to the physics in the Meditations. Why is Marcus seemingly so interested in time, transience and the present moment? How do you understand this interest in relation to other Stoic texts?
The interest in time, as such, fits with earlier Stoic thought. The Stoics had what we would term a process metaphysics. They greatly admired the Presocratic philosopher, Heraclitus, who was famous for his claims that nothing is stable, but everything is in movement and change.
Marcus cites Heraclitus several times in the Meditations, and there are many fragments in the text where he observes, reminds himself, and reflects upon how all things are constantly changing.
I think that this stress on time and transience in Marcus however primarily relates to his own existential concerns. He is responding to his own awareness of mortality. Like many of us, he is in the latter part of his life, and aware that he has less time ahead of him than behind him. So, he wants to take stock of this reality, which we can so easily forget in our absorption with everyday tasks.
He is also the Roman emperor. So, he is aware that he is likely to be remembered, that historians will talk about him. He has a concern therefore to think about fame and his legacy. So, he returns to this subject very often.
Victor Goldschmidt, a leading French scholar, claimed that Marcus’ use of two Greek words to describe time in the Meditations is significant: the words kronos and aion (roughly, “eternity”). Goldschmidt claims that this distinction reflects a technical distinction between two conceptions of the present moment: as both indivisible yet as a lived phenomenon, related to human experience and intentionality. In our times, Gilles Deleuze has taken up this distinction to develop his own theoretical position.
A close analysis of the word uses of these two terms in the Meditations, I believe, doesn’t bear Goldschmidt’s argument out. Marcus doesn’t seem to use these terms consistently to demarcate two competing perspectives on time as such. He uses both of them to describe both the immensity of time and the dimensions of the present moment.
The interest in time and eternity are related much more closely, as Hadot saw, to Marcus’ existential and therapeutic concerns in the Meditations. He doesn’t develop a “theoretical theory of time”, as it were.
The Stoics distinguished between Fate (heimarmenê) and Providence (pronoia). What in your view does Marcus do with this distinction? Is it new?
The official Stoic position is that “Fate” and “Providence” are the same thing: the wholly determined order of causes in Nature. If you see this chain of causes and effects simply as determined, and inescapable, you have the idea of fate.
If you see a greater purpose in the same chain of causes and effects, then you have a thought of providence. We must remember that the Stoics were pantheists: nature was God, for them. And when you have this thought of God, you will have some thought of divine will and Providence.
So, this opposition of “Fate versus Providence” to some degree lines up with the opposition of “nature versus God”, remembering that ultimately these are two names for the same Whole. But there is one other element here which is important.
If we take ancient Stoicism seriously, including the pantheism, then the person who as it were stops at “Fate”, the chain of natural causes, hasn’t understood Nature fully or properly.
The sage who really understands Nature fully, and the interconnectedness of all things, understands it also as Providence. This is an extra level of understanding. Subjectively, it will lead to a gratitude about what is the case, whereas otherwise we can respond with a negative value judgment to fate: “just one darned thing after another …”, etc.
So, there are three possible attitudes to recognizing fate.
- The first is this pessimistic, “fatalistic” approach.
- A person who is making progress reaches a second comportment: she holds the idea of Fate to be value neutral, neither good nor bad.
- The sage, at the third level, sees Fate as Providence. She experiences gratitude, or what modern authors call amor fati.
Turning finally to the ethics, why do you argue that Marcus will so often point to justice as the primary virtue? Many of us think of Stoicism as about self-improvement, so how does this relate?
Again, I think recognizing the biographical dimension of Marcus’ text is helpful here. He was, as he wrote the Meditations, the Roman Emperor. As such, he was managing many human relations: not simply relations between individuals, but relations between entire nations and peoples.
Justice is the virtue which determines whether he does his job well or badly. It is this virtue that he needs to develop to play his role well.
And we should remember the great stress Epictetus, one of Marcus’ inspirations, places on role ethics. We should as Stoics play whatever roles fall to us as well as we can, like actors in a play — excepting when these roles demand us to violate virtue itself. But Marcus has the role of the Emperor, whether he wanted it or not. To do it well, he must cultivate the virtue of justice above all.
But there is another dimension here. Justice is also the virtue of how we relate to others. It responds particularly directly to the Stoic sense that we are deeply social or political animals, born from others, living with others, and only able to be fulfilled in our relations with others.
We often present the Stoic idea of oikeiosis (adaptation to our environment) as if humans all start self-concerned, and then slowly expand our circles of concern outwards to include others. But there are other texts which point to a contrary idea: that sociability is as it were part of our animal nature from the start. It goes that deep.
When we pay close attention to Marcus’ frequent listings of the virtues to which he aspires in the Meditations, we see in fact how little he is talking about what we would usually call “self-improvement”.
He is concerned with how he can become a better human being, and a more just man. The attention to himself is there so he can benefit his community, and other people more. A lot of the text is other-directed: aimed at care of others, not simply the self.
Think of a modern example. You can develop courage to show off, or have a better impression of your self-worth. But compare that with a firefighter, who cultivates their courage so they can run into burning buildings to save children.
Lastly, you close with considerations on the idea of the cosmic city and cosmopolitanism, an idea which is often traced right to Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic. What is Marcus’s stance on this idea, and can you talk about how he specifically develops it?
The idea in Stoicism probably goes as far back as to Zeno himself, the founder. It is the idea that we are, as natural creatures, citizens of a cosmic city, embracing all peoples, as well as of particular cities, like Athens or Rome. With the decline of the city states in the Hellenistic period, the emphasis on being a citizen of a particular city declines. Marcus really revives the idea of, as it were, Stoic dual citizenship: citizenship of the human species on one hand, and citizenship of his particular city, Rome.
He takes the cosmopolitan aspect very seriously. We all have, as human beings, an affinity with all peoples. This obviously reinforces the emphasis on justice we just talked about. Marcus also gives it a very strong cosmological foundation, which clearly places it in tension with his particular responsibilities as a Roman emperor.
And this leads to an important idea about reading the Meditation. Marcus has often been taken to have been a perfect sage or non-Christian Saint. But the Meditations are not the text of a sage.
Marcus is clearly instead reflecting in this text on the issues that are problematic or troubling for him; like flatterers and slanderers, and also, issues surrounding what he owes as an Emperor to his own people, as against those peoples they are in conflict with.
Why would he reflect so often on this idea of a cosmic city, to which all humans belong, if not because in his day-to-day life, for much of his reign, he was dealing with wars and conflicts?
Similarly, he clearly cared enough about fame to have to repeatedly want to return to it. I think of Michel Foucault’s famous article here on “Writing the Self”. In a text like the Meditations, you don’t write about what you are, so much as what you would want to become.
John, thanks so much for your time and thoughts. Do you have any final consideration for readers you’d like to share?
One feature of the Meditations which explains their continuing appeal is the way that the book can be read at different levels.
People can pick it up with no background in ancient philosophy or history, and find ideas in it which speak to their existential concerns and aspirations. This explains why it remains a bestseller.
But, if you want to unpack the text as a work of Stoic philosophy, and seek out what is implicit in the background of the book — in terms of its history, its philosophy, the philosophy of Stoicism, and the like — you can get a lot more out of it as well. This speaks to what a significant work the Meditations is.