Ancient History & Civilisation



The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

There is the sharpest of contrasts between these imaginative amusements, flavoured with religion, and the unique sense of duty (despite a desire for withdrawal) of the emperor who was ruling during the epoch when the novel developed to maturity, namely Marcus Aurelius. Against the ills and anxieties of the age, the remedy of novelists and their readers was to note their existence obliquely, and ride triumphantly over them in the imagination; the remedy of Marcus was to do all in his power to put them right, with utter conscientiousness.

The dramatically intimate disclosures of his deepest thoughts, entitled by editors ‘his writings to himself’ and later called his Meditations, are written in Greek and have a literary cast because he had a literary training, but they were private notebooks not intended for publication. Nor do they form a connected unity. The notes and reflections which they contain are a highly personal confidential diary – a work of self-consolation and self-encouragement, an unparalleled self-scrutiny, each separate passage reflecting its own mood. The unpretentious and mundane letters which Marcus had written to his friend and tutor Fronto (who attempted a reform of Latin style) contain his thoughts from the age of seventeen to forty-five. The Meditations take up the story, with greater profundity, during the last ten or fifteen years of his life.

The writings of Marcus convey the necessity and difficulty of moral and social effort in more comprehensible and urgent language than had ever been used to clothe such ideas before. This, in terms of decent behaviour, is the climax of pagan Rome. But it is an austere creed, without consolations except its own performance. For man must just strive onward, and continue his unremittingly laborious efforts as best he can. When Marcus gratefully praises his predecessor and adoptive father Antoninus Pius, what emerges is the patient long-suffering endurance of Antoninus.1And the central, practical, point of Marcus’ demands upon himself and others is the same: turn inward; strengthen yourself, find the courage to complete your job – and his was almost intolerably burdensome. Life is short, he says, and all that is required is that you should think and act responsibly and unselfishly.

Hour by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice.… If you do the task before you, always adhering to strict reason with zeal and energy and yet with humanity, disregarding all lesser ends and keeping the divinity within you pure and upright, as though you were even now faced with its recall – if you hold steadily to this, staying for nothing and shrinking from nothing, only seeking in each passing action a conformity with nature and in each word and utterance a fearless truthfulness, then shall the good life be yours.2

Conformity with nature and with the divinity inside oneself are ideals which go back to Zeno of Citium in Cyprus, the founder of Stoicism in c. 300 BC. ‘Nature’ is the providential divinity that governs the universe, and according to the Stoics, drawing in part upon the idealism of Plato, a spark of that divinity is present in each one of us. Such is the religion of Marcus Aurelius. This intelligence in every man is God, an emanation from deity. To be a philosopher is to keep unsullied, unscathed, the divine spirit within oneself.’3 Marcus was also a pious worshipper of the Roman gods, for such ritual was necessary for the survival of the state and cohesion of its people (p. 164). But he saw these divine powers as aspects of a universal deity. He himself believed, like Stoics before him, that this deity is immanent in the world in such a way that it and the world make a single whole, like the soul and body. That is why man must be true to himself – to the highest part of himself, the heavenly force which has lodged this spark in his soul. Call this god or gods, it does not matter. Occasionally, twice for example when he was giddy or spitting blood, he felt their strength help him – through dreams. ‘It is experience which proves their power every day, and therefore I am satisfied that they exist, and I do them reverence.’4

Accordingly Marcus believed there was something infinite in human experience itself. His is a more sombre version of the joyful resignation to transcendent Divine Providence which had been the creed of that other Stoic missionary and physician of the soul, the Phrygian slave Epictetus (d. c.AD 135). Marcus owed a very great deal to Epictetus. But he owed nothing to the hopes of salvation conferred by a host of contemporary religions (p. 186), for he did not share those hopes. Death, to him, is an unanswerable riddle; it is impossible to see where any consolation or remedy for it can be found. And yet, failing in health and facing the enemy, Marcus thinks and writes often of dying, and advises that each day should be lived as if it were your last.5 He needed all his Stoicism to prevent such thoughts from overcoming him. Nor, even if the divine power occasionally seems present, did there appear to be any hope of influencing it by prayer.

For these reasons, the Meditations have been called the saddest of all books. Dedicated but far from optimistic, their writer looks for heavenly guidance but is only rarely conscious of receiving it, and tries to do his best though more than doubtful of a reward in the hereafter, let alone in this world. He was not a free-thinker (there were none) or an unbeliever or, according to the modern atheistic use of the word, a humanist. But Marcus did not share the irrational, unprovable assumption, common to all major religions, that the supra-sensible can be influenced by the activities of man. The rhythm of the universe is monotonous, meaningless and predestined. ‘Whatever may happen to you was prepared for you in advance from the beginning of time. In the woven tapestry of causation, the thread of your being had been intertwined from all time with that particular incident’.6

Nevertheless, he believed that very much still does lie within our power, and inside the bounds of our own strength and capabilities. This Stoic theme had meant all to Epictetus. ‘Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion. If you think only what is your own to be your own, you will blame no one, nor is there any harm that can touch you.’7 This is the essence of Marcus’ creed too: although much is predestined, much else is determinable by our own will, and from such decisions no man has the power to hold us back. They are ours, for us to make the best of them. So ‘keep yourself the friend of justice and godliness; kindly, affectionate, and resolute in your devotion to duty’.8 The prime duty of the soul is to realise its moral perfectibility by arduous discipline. Moreover, even if there are no posthumous rewards, men are capable of behaving well. And indeed, because of the divine spark which they share, it is natural for them to do so. For the suggestion that moral principles should not be identified with a deity’s commands would have seemed wrong to Marcus – at least if the deity is interpreted as the natural unity of the universe: in this sense, ‘the gods’ have given us full power not to fall into evil.9

For Marcus there were no oriental sensualities, but a rigorous asceticism typical of the age. He questioned the classical principle of a link between physical and moral beauty, and nowhere can one find a more relentlessly destructive analysis of the pleasures of eye, ear, food and sex, ‘twitchings of appetite’ which he describes in the coarse and sordid terms also used by many other pagans and Christians of this changing, later Roman world. The last password of Antoninus had been: Equanimity. To guide one’s will successfully through the batterings of Fortune is only possible by avoiding these alleged pleasures, and indeed by maintaining absolute calm.

Never to be flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinising – here is the perfection of character. Be like the headland against which the waves break and break; it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. ‘How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me!’ By no means; say rather ‘How lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness: unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future.’ The thing could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have emerged unembittered.10

These ideals, and Marcus’ manful and continuous endeavours to live up to them, are more noteworthy because he had to fight continuously, with melancholy resignation, against tortured convictions of his own personal shortcomings11 and those of the entire world. In such a fog and filth, what can be respected and pursued with enthusiasm he often no longer knows. ‘What do the baths bring to your mind ? Oil, sweat, dirt, greasy water, and everything that is disgusting. Such, then, is life in all its parts, and such is every material thing in it.’12 It is all a mere service to the flesh. Hellenism’s bright incentives encouraging material achievement have now been left behind. True, man is still the measure, for he must and can forge ahead. He is still to that extent captain of his own spirit, but with no sunny, classical sense of unlimited power. For Marcus echoes Epictetus’ belief in the essential insecurity of the human condition.13 Not only is life disgusting, but it is transient:

Yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes. In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours…. An empty pageant; a stage play; flocks of sheep, herds of cattle; a tussle of spearmen; a bone flung among a pack of curs; a crumb tossed into a pond of fish; ants, loaded and labouring; mice, scared and scampering; puppets, jerking on their strings – that is life.14

Just as Tolstoy felt like an orphan, isolated in the midst of all these things that were so foreign, so Marcus also saw life as a temporary visit to an alien land (p. 225).16 From now on, as one tormented year followed another, these promptings of doubt and inadequacy became ever stronger, verging on stupor and despair.

So what can be done except to withdraw into one’s own resources and draw strength from the inner life, that little domain that is the self? ‘Men seek for seclusion in the wilderness, by the seashore, or in the mountains – a dream you have cherished only too fondly yourself. But such fancies are wholly unworthy of a philosopher, since at any moment you choose you can retire within yourself. Avail yourself often, then, of this retirement, and so continually renew yourself.’16 Therein is the only chance of a more reassuring reality. ‘Withdraw into your own self. Dig within. There lies the well-spring of good: ever dig, and it will ever flow.’17

Preoccupied with this introversion, which was to receive even greater emphasis from Plotinus (p. 146), Marcus felt that you should ‘leave another’s wrongdoing where it lies’.18 Such a suggestion has been criticised for carrying tolerance to the point of becoming anti-social. But that is by no means his intention. On the contrary, ‘men exist for each other. Then either improve them, or put up with them.’19 In any case, the detachment which he advocated must never be allowed to produce a neglect of social obligations. ‘Injustice is a sin. Nature has constituted rational beings for their own benefit, each to help his fellows according to their worth, and in no wise to do them hurt…. The aim we should propose to ourselves must be the benefit of our fellows and the community.’20 Since, then, we are brothers by virtue of our shared divine spark, the social instinct like the moral instinct is inherent in our personalities. However difficult, therefore, this may be – and Aurelius often found it difficult21 – we must be kind to our fellow-creatures and tolerant of their faults; we must make allowances for their ignorance, and come to their help. Since men are made to work together, the theme of service is incessant. To act otherwise is against nature, and despite all the sustenance to be derived from inward withdrawal, ‘the man who dissociates and severs himself from the laws of our common nature by refusing to accept his lot is an excrescence on the world’.22

As ruler of the Roman empire, Marcus sought unremittingly to bring his principles into effect – thanking heaven that he had not succumbed to the temptation to remain academic. Plato enunciated the theme of the philosopher king, and later Greek monarchs had been influenced by their Stoic advisers to put into words and practice the ‘glorious slavery’ which this role involved. Marcus, although without false modesty,23 was unimpressed by imperial grandeur. He hated the life of the court, felt an acute distaste for many of the people he had to deal with, and understood deeply the moral dangers that lie in wait for the ruler. ‘Be careful not to affect the monarch too much, or to be deeply dyed with the purple; for this can well happen.’24

He was forty when he came to the throne – the disenchanted age, he said, when a man of average intelligence will have experienced everything that has been and is to come. And this believer in contemplation had to spend the greater part of his reign commanding armies on the remote frontiers of the Roman empire. Yet, when he captured Sarmatians, he felt that any self-satisfaction to be derived from this was no better than the exultation of a robber, or of a spider that has caught a fly.25 Indeed what, after all, is the imperial purple itself? Only the gore of a fish.26 Fame, he reminds himself over and over again, is not everlasting.27

Yet Marcus also felt the strongest possible association between his philosophy and his emperor’s task. For the closest analogy on earth to the ideal Stoic Brotherhood of Man seemed to him the Roman empire. ‘I became acquainted with the conception of a community based on equality and freedom of speech for all, and a monarchy concerned primarily to uphold the liberty of the subject.’28 And the answer, later echoed and transformed in Augustine’s City of God, was the world of Rome. ‘There is a world-law, which in turn means that we are all fellow-citizens and share a common citizenship, and that the world is a single city. Is there any other common citizenship that can be claimed by all humanity?’29 He would have approved Caracalla’s declaration, whatever its motives, that all free men should become citizens of Rome (p. 82).

For half a millennium nearly every philosopher, of whatever creed or allegiance, had thought it his task to give practical guidance in the major problems of life. With Epictetus and now Marcus Aurelius, the quest, became more intense and compelling. Marcus has received too little attention in the twentieth century because he was so fulsomely praised in the nineteenth – and some of this praise was for the wrong reasons. True, in spite of a certain grimness in the Meditations, Renan was right to call them the most purely human of all books that have come down to us; John Stuart Mill even judged their writer to stand at the summit of all previous attainments of mankind. But when Matthew Arnold finds Christian grace and sweetness in Marcus’ thoughts, these are the words of a liberal Christian, such as could be found also in antiquity, attributing all pagan excellence to an unconscious yearning for the Christian faith (p. 209).

And yet, since the calmness which was Marcus’ ideal required a man to avoid attitudes and excitements and to be unassuming,30 he was disconcertingly far from sympathetic towards the deliberate martyrdoms of the Christians – persecuted during his reign (p. 225). For in his opinion, preparedness to die ‘must be the outcome of its own decision; a decision not prompted by mere contumacy, as with the Christians, but formed with deliberation and gravity, and, if it is to be convincing to others, with an absence of all heroics’.31 The words ‘as with the Christians’ could conceivably be a later insertion, but in any case they are clearly the people to whom he is referring. His closest advisers were hostile to those forms of the faith that they had encountered; Fronto wrote a treatise against Christianity. And Marcus himself, as a Stoic believing (despite every personal temptation to the contrary) in the individual’s duty to the state, took an unfavourable view of their unconcern for this worldly life. But what he particularly deplored was the readiness of Christians to die because they were trained to do so, without apparently exercising their choice as individuals. Love and pity were not lacking in Marcus’ beneficence towards his fellow-man, yet his temperament and tradition and office alike caused them to assume a cerebral, unemotional form which could not include sympathy for the Christian martyrs.

But his exceptional significance lies in something else: in the lofty standard which he proposed and attained without the insistent prompting of any personal kind of religious inspiration or encouragement. He was a religious man, but the Stoic Nature and Brotherhood from which he deduced his goodness were impersonal; nor did he feel able to believe that salvation must reward goodness in the hereafter. Although there is much that we cannot change, he believed that there is also much that we can. And so human life has a meaning – whatever meaning we ourselves, we alone by our own unaided efforts, are able to give it. We are responsible to the nature of things for realising and achieving all our potential worth and dignity. Marcus Aurelius is the noblest of all the men who, by sheer intelligence and force of character, have prized and achieved goodness for its own sake and not for any reward.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!