Marcus Aurelius

The All-Round Philosopher

John Sellars
Jun 12, 2020 · 5 min read

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is one of the most popular works of philosophy among general readers. It is a ‘philosophical’ work in the very general sense of being a series of reflections on life and how best to live it. But is it a work of philosophy in a more technical sense?

Some academic philosophers have doubted this. To be sure, the Meditations contains some practical, ethical advice that some people might find helpful, but there’s little in the way of philosophical theory or argument to justify or support what it says. It may be a practical, self-help book but that doesn’t make it a serious work of philosophy, it has been claimed.

One might respond to this by saying that although the Meditations is a somewhat unusual text, Marcus Aurelius was certainly a philosopher. Indeed, he was a self-professed Stoic. To that response, detractors have tended to come back with two kinds of objections. The first is to say that Marcus wasn’t really a Stoic at all, but instead a mere amateur and eclectic reader of philosophy who jumbled up Stoic, Platonic, and Epicurean ideas without much thought to the resulting inconsistencies. The second is to say that even if he were a Stoic, he never really gets beyond giving ethical advice, whereas a serious Stoic would engage equally in logic, physics, and ethics. These were the three parts of the Stoic philosophical system and the Stoics argued that they formed an integrated whole. Thus, so the objection goes, you can’t just dip into Stoic ethics on its own, because it depends on material in Stoic logic and physics.

I think these sorts of criticisms of Marcus Aurelius are unfair. When I first read the Meditations, almost thirty years ago now, I immediately had the sense that there was much more going on than first meets the eye. It seemed to me that there were all sorts of ideas bubbling just below the surface, clear in Marcus’s mind but not always made explicit to us, his readers. It was a desire to try to understand what was going on behind the scenes, so to speak, that was one of the things that first led me to become interested in Stoicism. Finally, nearly three decades later, that tries to dig below the surface and to show at least a bit of what is going on. If the book has an aim, it is to defend Marcus from the sorts of criticisms mentioned earlier and to argue that he is indeed a serious philosopher. In particular, it tries to show that Marcus was indeed a Stoic and that he was interested in all three parts of Stoic philosophy — logic, physics, and (not just) ethics.

Logic in The Meditations

First, logic. On the face of it, Marcus says practically nothing about logic in the Meditations and appears to have had little interest in it. But in their correspondence, his tutor Fronto suggests that Marcus was fascinated by logical puzzles and paradoxes. That attention to logic is not entirely absent from the Meditations either. Although it might be tempting to see Marcus as someone who relies on colourful images rather than sober arguments in order to get across his points, there are in fact a good number of arguments in the Meditations, and they are often specifically Stoic arguments.

Let’s consider some examples. In 5.16 Marcus says, ‘where it is possible to live, it is also possible to live well; but it is possible to live in a palace, therefore it is possible to live well in a palace’. You don’t need to have studied formal logic to see that this is an argument. It has the form ‘if x then y; x; therefore y’. What is less likely to be immediately obvious is that this is one of the five basic types of Stoic syllogism. It is known as the first Stoic indemonstrable.

Here’s another, more complex one. In 7.75 Marcus comments that either the universe was created from some necessary plan or it is completely devoid of reason. He then says that reminding him of this will keep him calm. Why would stating those two options make him calm? Well, one of those options — that the universe is devoid of reason — is to him clearly false, as we can see from other passages. So, he’s constructing an argument — although not writing it all down — along the lines of ‘either a or b; not b; therefore a’. It’s this conclusion that he thinks will keep him calm. Again, it’s worth noting that this argument form is a specifically Stoic syllogism: it’s the fifth Stoic indemonstrable.

So, Marcus uses arguments in the Meditations and, not only that, he uses Stoic arguments. He was clearly far from being either uninformed or neglectful of that part of Stoic philosophy.

Physics in The Meditations

What about physics? I think that any attentive reader will soon see that the Meditations reflects as much, if not more, on physics than it does on ethics. Processes of change, fate, providence, time — these are the dominant themes running through the whole work. Although there’s certainly some discussion of virtues such as justice, Marcus’s reflections focus on Nature more than anything else. Indeed, setting aside things like ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘it’, ‘not’, ‘that’, ‘for’, and the like, the most common word in the Meditations is ‘Nature’, appearing over 180 times. The most frequent ethical term, by contrast, which is ‘good’, appears just over 90 times.

One of Marcus’s central aims in the Meditations is to try to understand Nature and his place in it. There’s a sense in which it’s not possible to separate his reflections on Nature from the ethical lessons he wants to draw from them. This is just what we should expect from a Stoic who is committed to the idea of living consistently with Nature — a core Stoic idea that Marcus often mentions.

Bringing some of these aspects together, let’s consider one other passage from the Meditations. In 11.8 Marcus draws an analogy between an antisocial person and a branch that has broken off a tree. To his detractors, this is a colourful rhetorical image but little more. In fact, it presupposes Stoic thinking about Nature as a unified and integrated whole. And it is very carefully chosen.

Earlier in the Meditations, at 8.34, he had likened an antisocial person to a dismembered limb, cut off from the rest of the organic whole. The problem with that image, he immediately acknowledges after using it, is that it doesn’t seem to offer much hope of reconnection. But the analogy with the broken branch works much better on this front, because branches can be grafted back on. That is no doubt why he shifted to this new image later on. So, we can see that it is not a random image chosen for superficial rhetorical effect but instead something carefully chosen to help him capture a central Stoic idea.

These are some of the ways in which we can begin to see the depth of thought sitting just below the surface of the Meditations. It’s a book I’ve read many times and it repays reading again and again.

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John Sellars

Written by

Reader in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. Author of, among other things, Lessons in Stoicism (Penguin) / The Pocket Stoic (Chicago).

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

John Sellars

Written by

Reader in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. Author of, among other things, Lessons in Stoicism (Penguin) / The Pocket Stoic (Chicago).

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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