The Military Metaphor in Marcus Aurelius

Soldiering as a Philosophy of Life in Stoicism

Donald J. Robertson
Jan 24 · 7 min read
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In one of the most famous passages of The Meditations, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius writes that everything physical is as transient as a stream rushing past us, everything belonging to the mind is as insubstantial as vapour and deceptive as smoke or mist, and that…

…life is warfare, and a sojourn in foreign land. — Meditations, 2.17

Only one thing can save us from all this confusion: philosophy, the love of wisdom.

He goes on to say many striking things about the philosophy he followed, called Stoicism. However, scholars have been struck by the oddness of this apparent allusion to his own situation, in a book that’s notoriously vague about time and place.

Indeed, Marcus was literally engaged in warfare, in a foreign land, when he wrote this. Nearby in the text we find the rubric “At Carnuntum”, the name of the Roman legionary fortress in Upper Pannonia where Marcus had stationed himself during the early stages of the First Marcomannic War. (Today Carnuntum is in Austria, near Vienna.)

As emperor, and commander-in-chief, he was responsible for the largest army ever amassed on a Roman frontier, numbering approximately 140,000 men altogether. Throughout his reign, Marcus was engaged in almost constant warfare, following the Parthian invasion of Armenia in 161 CE, and the invasion of the Danube provinces, and northern Italy, by the Marcomanni and their allies in 167 CE. The Meditations is believed to have been written some time between the years 170 and 175 CE, which happen to coincide with the middle and end of the First Marcomannic War. There don’t seem to be direct or explicit references in The Meditations to the war. Nevertheless, there are several curious allusions to military life.

The Trial of Socrates

Marcus often seems to turn real objects and events, from his life, into metaphors for philosophy. However, the precedent for doing so with military service was set almost six centuries earlier, at the dawn of the philosophical tradition in which he stood.

Plato’s Apology, was arguably the most influential philosophical text of antiquity. Certainly every Stoic was very well acquainted with it. During his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth, in 399 BCE, Socrates mentioned his military service, as a veteran of at least three major battles in the Peloponnesian War (Apology, 28b-e). Indeed, Socrates should have been decorated for valour, after saving the life of an officer who had been unhorsed during the Battle of Potidaea, but he turned down the award.

Military duty and courage are exemplified, in this iconic speech, by remaining at one’s post in the face of danger, rather than fleeing from the enemy. Socrates proceeds to draw an analogy between this and his current situation, facing the death penalty in court. He views himself as a soldier, once again, ordered by the god Apollo to commit his life to philosophy. He therefore considers it his duty to stand his ground, defending what he believes in, even when his life is threatened. This time, however, rather than protecting the city of Athens, he’s defending truth and justice, without which, he thinks, the city itself would be rendered worthless.

Marcus actually quotes directly from this account of Socrates’ defence speech:

For thus it is, men of Athens, in truth: wherever a man has placed himself thinking it the best place for him, or has been placed by a commander, there in my opinion he ought to stay and to abide the hazard, taking nothing into the reckoning, either death or anything else, before the baseness [of deserting his post]. — Meditations, 7.45

Socrates, of course, was executed. However, his death sent shockwaves through the ancient world, and inspired generations of young Greeks and, later, Romans to pursue the study of philosophy. It also seared on their minds the image of the philosopher as a kind of soldier.

This military metaphor for philosophy as a way of life recurs several times in The Meditations. For example, Marcus describes his own situation in life as that of a Roman emperor, and a soldier, who, like Socrates, stands at his post waiting, with discipline and courage, upon the signal from his general.

And further, let the deity which is in you be the guardian of a living being, manly and of ripe age, and engaged in political matters, and a Roman, and a ruler, who has taken his post like a man waiting for the signal which summons him from life, and ready to go, having need neither of oath nor of any man’s testimony. — Meditations, 3.5

Looking back on his life, Marcus says:

And call to recollection both how many things you have passed through, and how many things you have been able to endure, and that the history of your life is now complete and your [military] service is ended. — Meditations, 5.31

Either you endure life’s hardships, or choose to depart from life, or find yourself dying, in which case you’ve “discharged your duty”, he says, and can be of good cheer (Meditations, 10.22).

Soldiering in The Meditations

Elsewhere in The Meditations, the military metaphor is used to explain that, in life generally, we must be unashamed of asking for help. Indeed, it’s courageous to do so in the service of our true goal.

Be not ashamed to be helped for it is your business to do your duty like a soldier in the assault on a town. How then, if being lame you cannot mount up on the battlements alone, but with the help of another it is possible? — Meditations, 7.7

In a longer passage, Marcus seems to draw upon his experience as a military commander to make quite a startling, perhaps even paradoxical, claim. He observes that “both are equally deserters from their post”, the man who runs from fear, and the one who yields to anger (Meditations, 11.9).

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The legions were highly renowned for their professionalism. Roman generals perceived “barbarian” armies, by contrast, as chaotic and undisciplined. Tribal warriors often fought in loose formation, frequently breaking ranks either to flee or to charge opportunistically into the fray. The Roman military advantage came in part from their remarkable discipline on the field of battle. Legionaries were trained to remain in formation. Marcus seems to have in mind the, typically Roman, notion of it being disgraceful to either flee from or attack the enemy against orders. In either case, a soldier would potentially be risking the lives of his own companions by breaking ranks.

Marcus says here that a man should not let others stand in his way, or turn him aside, when he is acting in accord with justice. That requires the courage and determination of a soldier. However, neither should he allow his adversaries (“those who try to hinder or otherwise trouble you”) to drive him from gentleness and benevolence into a state of hatred and anger toward them. We must remain on our guard against both dangers — being turned into a coward, or into a monster, by violent and impulsive passions. Fear and anger are both forms of moral weakness.

This is what Marcus means, in part, when he says “life is warfare”. He makes it clear that, as far as Stoic ethics is concerned, when we hate or are angry with any other human being, we behave like deserters rather than soldiers, and embrace injustice toward our fellow man.

In one of the most graphic passages of The Meditations, he appears to describe the bloody aftermath of a battle but, again, he transforms the experience into a curious metaphor for the goals of Stoic philosophy.

If you ever saw a hand cut off, or a foot, or a head, lying anywhere apart from the rest of the body, such does a man make himself, as far as he can, who is not content with what happens, and separates himself from others, or does anything unsocial. — Meditations, 8.34

Indeed, Marcus says that our ability to live in accord with justice, and in a sort of harmony with mankind, is based upon an even more fundamental attitude of Stoic acceptance and contentment. Resenting our fate is therefore also a form of desertion:

And also when the ruling faculty [of the mind] is discontented with anything that happens then too it deserts its post. For it is constituted for piety and reverence towards the gods no less than for justice. — Meditations, 11.20

People today often call this attitude amor fati, borrowing a phrase from Nietzsche.

From Socrates, in 399 BCE, all the way down to Marcus Aurelius, writing over 570 years later, this image endured of life as warfare, and the philosopher as a soldier, remaining at his post. Abandoning the goal, and fleeing in cowardice from life’s dangers, of course, is the moral equivalent of turning into a deserter. However, so is bitterly complaining about our lot, like a faithless grumbling soldier who resents his posting. More insightful, though, is Marcus’ insistence that hatred and anger turn us all into deserters by alienating us from the rest of mankind. When we view our adversaries as nothing more than hated enemies, and give way to passionate anger, we risk losing sight of our own humanity, if we’re not careful.

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Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Cognitive psychotherapist, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019), featured in Forge, The Guardian. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002Q2WSPA

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Cognitive psychotherapist, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019), featured in Forge, The Guardian. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002Q2WSPA

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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