An Interview with Christopher Gill

Stoic Fellowship
Stoicism in Action
Published in
12 min readJan 26, 2019


As part of The Stoic Fellowship’s newsletter, Indifferents Quarterly, Dan Lampert of The Orlando Stoics interviewed Christopher Gill, who wrote the Introduction for Meditations (published by Oxford World’s Classics). His insights on the life of Marcus Aurelius will help us entice more people to attend our Stoic meetups around the world.

D = Dan Lampert

C = Christopher Gill

… Enter Dan and Christopher

D: In the Introduction to Meditations (published by Oxford World’s Classics), you described that Marcus was tutored by Fronto. Later, the Appendix shows correspondence between the two, in which Marcus addresses his teacher as “my best of masters.” How did Fronto affect Marcus and what ideas did Marcus weave together to become a Stoic?

C: Marcus, as a future emperor, was given an extensive education, with a large number of tutors. Fronto, a distinguished Roman orator and politician, tutored him for some years in Latin literature and rhetoric, helping to prepare him for public speaking. It is clear from the surviving letters between them (written between 138 and 167 AD, that is, during the time when Marcus was aged 18 to 47, but mainly in the earlier years of this period) that they had a close and even affectionate relationship. When Marcus wrote the Meditations (generally seen as later, 168–180), he includes a brief but positive comment on Fronto, praising his criticism of dictatorial attitudes and his high valuation of natural affection (1.11). However, in the autobiographical book 1 of the Meditations, Marcus singles out other people as more important philosophical — and ethical — influences on him, notably Rusticus, who was probably his closest political associate and personal friend (1.7). Rusticus, a politician influenced by Stoicism, Sextus and Apollonius (Stoic teachers) are all presented as powerful examples of people who put their philosophical principles into action in their lives (1.7–9); so it is likely that in Marcus’ life as a whole, these were much stronger influences than Fronto.

It is clear from the Meditations, including Book 1, that Marcus studied widely in philosophy, through his own reading and attending lectures by philosophical teachers, and was familiar with the main philosophical schools and not just Stoicism. As emperor he also set up four chairs of philosophy in Athens (the original home of these philosophical schools) for Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, and Aristotelianism. In the Meditations, he sometimes makes comments which strongly evoke philosophical approaches other than Stoicism. For instance, his theme of ‘the view from above’ (e.g. 7.48, 9.30, 11.1, 12.24) evokes Plato’s other-worldly or idealistic approach; and in some rather famous passages, he poses the question ‘providence or atoms’, seeming to leave open the question whether the Stoic (providential) or Epicurean (atomic) world-view is the true one (e.g. 6.44, 10.6, 12.14). However, Plato had been an important influence on Stoic ideas from the beginning so the reference to Plato is not an indication that Marcus is turning away from Stoicism. As for the ‘providence or atoms?’ theme, it runs counter to the fact that Marcus repeatedly indicates that he accepts the Stoic providential world-view (e.g. 2.3, 2.9, 4.23, 5.8). Although the ‘providence or atoms’ theme has been interpreted in different ways by scholars, I think it is most likely that he signaling in this way (to himself, of course) the fact that he has not completed the detailed study of Stoic physics (as he tells us in 1.17 end, 7.67 ) that would enable him to be fully confident about the truth of the Stoic world-view — though for the most part he accepts it on trust, along with other aspects of Stoicism. Taken as a whole, I think, the Meditations strongly reflect Stoic ideas, on ethics and its relationship to other branches of philosophy, as these are presented in our other ancient sources (a view presented in my more detailed commentary on Books 1–6 of the Meditations).

D: How did being co-emperor with Lucius Verus (and later with Commodus) affect Marcus’s worldview and his writings?

C: I don’t think Marcus’ making Lucius Verus co-emperor and Commodus co-emperor shortly before his death had any significant influence on his worldview and writings. He made Lucius Verus co-emperor as an act of respect for the decision of the earlier emperor Hadrian who had in 138 adopted Antoninus Pius as his successor and made Antoninus adopt Marcus (his nephew) and Lucius as his heirs; but Marcus was consistently regarded as the senior emperor, and was the stronger and more consistent character, as well as much more of a philosopher than Lucius. Marcus made Commodus co-emperor near the end of his life to show that the boy was his chosen successor; by that time Commodus was his only surviving male heir (though he and his wife had had a number of male and female children, most of whom died in childhood). Marcus has sometimes been criticized for making Commodus his heir, as he turned out to be a disastrous emperor. But Marcus may not have thought he had any real choice; if he had adopted anyone else, Commodus could have still tried to claim the role of emperor and this could have brought about civil war in the Roman empire (there had already been a serious revolt against Marcus by another Roman politician, Avidius Cassius, in 175). The appointment of both men as co-emperors thus reflects Marcus’ respect for authority and tradition in the conduct of the Roman empire, which is part of his worldview and attitude, though in Marcus’ own case it is combined with a thoughtful and humane approach.

D: What was Marcus hoping to develop from his book, which originally had no title, then named “To Himself”, then renamed “Meditations” by scholars?

C: I think it is very likely that the Meditations were written as a purely private notebook, in which Marcus noted down his own philosophical reflections at moments of respite from his duties as emperor (and general), perhaps at the beginning or end of the day. There is nothing to indicate that he had any other aim, or that he intended to publish the work. The work was unknown during his lifetime and for some time afterwards; and all the titles or descriptions given to the work (‘recommendations, ‘ethical writings to himself’, ‘meditations’) have been supplied by later writers, or editors and translators of the work.

D: You mentioned that Marcus might have written Books 2 and 3 toward the end of his life, because of references to age and dissatisfaction with associates. Does this imply that Books 1 through 12 were not written in that order? If so, did scholars decide that it made more sense in that order?

C: Books 2 and 3 have headings indicating that these books were written during Marcus’ long military campaign in Germany (168–180). This is one of the few indications we have of the date of the composition of the work. We do not know which order the 12 books were written in. However, it is likely that they were written in the order in which they are presented in the manuscripts, except that Book 1 may have been written in the middle of composing the other books. Book 6, in the chapter on Antoninus (6. 30) seems to anticipate the fuller treatment of this theme in 1.16; and 6.48 seems to prefigure the whole programme of Book 1, of reflecting on the ‘images of virtue’ displayed in the people Marcus has known in his life. So it is often supposed that the order of composition was Books 2–6, then Book I (written as a unit), then Books 7–12. The theme of approaching death, though common in the Meditations generally, is especially prominent in Book 12, as if Marcus felt his death was close.

D: Sometimes, in our group discussions in Orlando Stoics and Tampa Stoics, we wonder if Marcus was religious or an atheist. However, in your Introduction, you suggested that Marcus had a Stoic providential world-view by citing passages in Meditations (page xxii). I particularly liked passages 2.11, 6.10, and 11.18. My question is: do you think Marcus believed in a single god, a group of Roman gods, or was he a pantheist?

C: It is very unlikely that Marcus was an atheist (which was not a common view in the ancient world, in any case). Probably, he believed in maintaining the religious practices and traditions of Rome (Roman religion was largely a matter of ritual and practice, rather than doctrine or belief). This is indicated in the historical sources for Marcus’ reign; also in his positive comments on the piety of his predecessor, Antoninus Pius (1.16.15). He combined this with a Stoic philosophical view of the gods and of the universe as providentially shaped by divine purpose (despite the ‘providence or atoms’ theme). This kind of combination (traditional practice and philosophical theology) was not uncommon among Roman intellectuals; for instance, Cicero ascribes this combination to the Roman intellectual Cotta at the start of Book 3 of The Nature of the Gods. Stoic ideas about religion were quite complex and sophisticated; they are presented very fully in Book 2 of Cicero’s work, and then criticized in Book 3. Stoics tend to use the terms ‘god’, ‘gods’, ‘the divine’, ‘Zeus’, even ‘nature’ or ‘the whole’ (that is, the whole universe) interchangeably. They saw the universe as a cohesive, living entity, permeated by divine rationality, order, and providential care for all the component parts of the universe and the events occurring within it. The Stoic ‘god’ or ‘gods’ was also seen as an immanent (in-built) ‘mind’ or reason within the universe and not a transcendent separate creator like the God of the Judaeo-Christian faith (See also Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, section 54). So, from a modern standpoint, the Stoics can seem to be pantheists or theists. Marcus, in the Meditations, mostly seems to adopt the Stoic view of gods wholesale. The Stoics also saw conventional religious practice and myths as a kind of pre-reflective version of the religious worldview they offered; when Marcus thanks ‘the gods’ (in 1.17) he may mean the traditional gods, or the Stoic ideas of god/gods, or both.

D: Supposedly, Marcus Aurelius never called himself a Stoic. Is this true? Also, what did you mean when you concluded that Marcus was “a committed Stoic at the ethical level” (page xxiii)?

C: In the Meditations, Marcus does not describe himself as a Stoic (but then, if he is writing for himself, why should he need to do so?). Also, he sometimes indicates, as noted earlier, that he is not expert in all aspects of Stoicism. Though he has clearly thought much about Stoic ethics, and also about the Stoic providential world-view, he acknowledges that he has not made a systematic study of Stoic logic and physics (1.17 end. 7.67), and so he has not completed the full Stoic curriculum. When he talks about ‘the Stoics’ in 5.10, he is thinking of Stoic experts (teachers and writers) and does not count himself as one. He is, after all, first and foremost an emperor, not a philosophical expert, though he was obviously deeply interested in philosophy and Stoicism in particular. In saying Marcus was a committed Stoic at the ethical level, I mean that the Meditations are thoroughly imbued with Stoic ethical ideas (about virtue as the only good and basis for happiness, or about life as ongoing progress towards virtue and happiness, or about emotions as determined by our ethical understanding or the lack of this, or about the way that virtue should shape our social and political relationships). Marcus never questions any of these core Stoic ethical principles. And, although he seems to question the Stoic providential worldview (in raising the question ‘providence or atoms’), this reflects, as I suggested earlier, his consciousness of not having an authoritative, independent understanding of Stoic physics (study of nature).

D: We are grateful that the book survived history by a chain of scholars. Your Introduction lists Themistius (mentions Marcus’s book in the 4th Century), Arethas (copies the book in the 10th Century), Conrad Gesner (produces the first printed edition in 1558), Xylander (translates it to Latin in 1559), Casaubon (produces another Latin translation in 1643), and Farquharson (produces an edition with English translation in 1944). How can we carry the wisdom of Meditations forward to future generations? And how can Stoa leaders around the world bring Marcus to life in their meetings?

C: For scholars like myself, the best way we can perpetuate Marcus’ legacy is by writing about it and making it known to a broad audience. As well as the Oxford World’s Classics translation, I have written another translation and commentary (with a long introduction), Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Books 1–6 (Oxford, 2013); there is rather little detailed commentary on the Meditations, so this is useful, I think. Donald Robertson also has a book soon to appear where he combines a reconstruction of Marcus’ life with reflection on the significance of Marcus’ ideas for us today. For Stoa leaders like yourself, I would think the best thing you can do is what you already seem to be doing — using the Meditations as a basis for discussion and debate about the best way to live. In a way you are perpetuating what Marcus himself did in the Meditations, that is, to reflect on the significance of core Stoic ideas as a basis for living a good human life. Each of the meditations is a kind of personal distillation of the meaning of Stoicism, and so any one of them can serve as a vehicle for sustained reflection and discussion.

D: If Marcus were alive today to experience social media and YouTube, what would he say about protecting our minds and about the dangers of luxurious living?

C: Actually, I think he would see them as ‘matters of indifference’ (like other things often valued, like health, money and social status) — they are morally neutral and can be used well or badly. In the Modern Stoicism movement, we have used videos and social media to good effect, I think, in spreading Stoic ideas. Marcus himself, as an emperor, used visual media such as coins and a monumental column, to covey political messages (like other emperors). But I also think that the Meditations offer some very pertinent advice for people who are inclined to waste time on social media or to attach undue importance to their ‘image’ or what other say about them. He stresses constantly the need for forming an independent and thoughtful judgement about what really matters and how we should shape our lives and not be over-influenced by other people’s opinions. (e.g. 2.5, 2.7, 2.8, 2.13, 3.9, 3.12, 4.18). And he also stresses the triviality and insignificance of fame and ‘celebrity’, and how all kinds of fame are transient and passing 3.10, 4.3.7, 4.19, 4.33). Since he was, of course, in his own age, someone who had great fame and ‘celebrity’ (as well as political power), his ability to see the shallowness of public judgement is especially impressive.

D: What are the best concepts in Meditations that you think resonate most with audiences?

There are quite a number of ideas that resonate well with modern audiences, as we can tell from our use of them in the ‘Live like a Stoic’ week handbook. The theme of ‘the view from above’ and the associated idea of the universe as ordered and providential are powerful for many people. Also, Marcus conveys with special force the idea of our whole life as an ongoing journey or quest, a continuing attempt to make ‘progress’, as the Stoics put it, towards the best human life (the life according to virtue and nature, which is also happiness for Stoicism). Book 1 as a whole conveys this idea, illustrating how Marcus’ experience of other people made his life a continuing process of learning how to live well. And the Meditations convey in many ways the idea of life as a pathway or road of progress (e.g. 4.51. 5.14, 5.34, 6.22). Marcus also brings out strongly the sense that, if you accept that your own death is an integral part of the natural order of events, you can face it with equanimity and even a kind of joy (much of Book 12 centres on this theme).

When you first read the Meditations, you may be struck most forcibly by the rather abstract, detached tone, and, certainly, Marcus urges himself to adopt a highly thoughtful and reflective attitude to life. However, Marcus was also very much engaged in family, social and political life in his own time; and what he conveys is that one can maintain a thoughtful (and thoroughly Stoic) approach to life while still being a caring parent and friend and an involved politician and general. This again comes out most clearly in Book 1, and in his comments on the qualities he most admires and the individuals he finds valuable role models (1.7–9, 1.16, also 6.30). For his thoughtful engagement in his political role, see 1.14, 2.5, 3.5, as well as his admiration for his adoptive father Antoninus, 1.16 and 6.30 again). At a time when many of us feel we are being let down by the political and personal qualities of our leaders, Marcus’ stress on good judgement, on duty shaped by a wide and humane worldview (including a view of all humanity as our brothers or sisters, 2.1, 3.4.7, 6.44 end), and the sense we have of intense sincerity and integrity, are especially telling.



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