Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
States will never be happy until rulers become philosophers or philosophers become rulers.—Plato, The Republic
Marcus Aurelius is said to have been fond of quoting Plato’s dictum, and those who have written about him have rarely been able to resist applying it to Marcus himself. And indeed, if we seek Plato’s philosopher-king in the flesh we could hardly do better than Marcus, the ruler of the Roman Empire for almost two decades and author of the immortal Meditations. Yet the title is one that Marcus himself would surely have rejected. He never thought of himself as a philosopher. He would have claimed to be, at best, a diligent student and a very imperfect practitioner of a philosophy developed by others. As for the imperial throne, that came almost by accident. When Marcus Annius Verus was born, in A.D. 121, bystanders might have predicted a distinguished career in the Senate or the imperial administration. They could hardly have guessed that he was destined for the imperial purple, or seen in their mind’s eye the lonely bronze horseman whose upraised hand greets us from the Capitoline hill in Rome across two thousand years.
Marcus sprang from a distinguished enough family. The year of his birth coincided with his grandfather’s second tenure of the consulship, in theory Rome’s highest office, though now of largely ceremonial importance. And it was to be his grandfather who brought him up, for his father died when he was very young. Marcus makes reference in the Meditations to his father’s character as he remembered it or heard of it from others, but his knowledge must have been more from stories than from actual memories. Of the remainder of his childhood and his early adolescence we know little more than can be gleaned from the Meditations. The biography of him in the so-called Historia Augusta (a curious and unreliable work of the late fourth century probably based on a lost series of lives by the third-century biographer Marius Maximus) tells us that he was a serious child, but also that he loved boxing, wrestling, running and falconry, that he was a good ballplayer and that he loved to hunt. None of these are surprising occupations in an upper- class youth.
Book 1 of the Meditations offers glimpses of Marcus’s schooling, and we can fill out the picture by what is known of upper-class education generally at this period. His first instructors, like the unnamed teacher mentioned in Meditations 1.5, were probably slaves, from whom he would have mastered the rudiments of reading and writing. At a later stage he would have been handed over to private tutors to be introduced to literature, especially, no doubt, Vergil’s great epic, the Aeneid. But literature served only as a preparation for the real goal. This was rhetoric, the key to an active political career under the empire, as it had been under the Republic. Under the supervision of a trained rhetor, Marcus would have begun with short exercises before progressing to full-scale practice declamations in which he would have been asked to defend one side or another in imaginary law cases, or to advise a prominent historical figure at a turning point in his career. (Should Caesar cross the Rubicon? Should Alexander turn back at the Indus? Why or why not?)
Such training was conducted in Greek as well as Latin. Since at least the beginning of the first centuryB.C. the Roman upper classes had been essentially bilingual, and Marcus’s spoken and written Greek would have been as fluent as the French of a nineteenth-century Russian aristocrat or the Chinese of a Heian Japanese courtier. Marcus would have read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the tragedies of Euripides side by side with the Aeneid, and studied the speeches of the great Athenian orator Demosthenes as intensively as those of the Roman statesman Cicero. It was Greek writers and artists who constituted the intellectual elite at the capital; when in later life the emperor conversed with his court physician, Galen, he would have done so in the latter’s native tongue. Above all, Greek remained overwhelmingly the language of philosophy. In the late Republic and early empire, writers like Lucretius, Cicero and Seneca had worked to create a philosophical literature in Latin, with notable success. But the great thinkers—Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Zeno, Chrysippus, Epicurus, etc.— had all been Greeks. Serious philosophical investigation required a familiarity with the language they wrote in and the terminology they developed. That Marcus composed his own Meditations in Greek is natural enough.
In 137, when Marcus was sixteen, a crucial event took place. The reigning emperor, Hadrian, was childless. An illness had brought him near to death a year previously, and it was clear that he would not live forever. Hadrian owed his throne to his adoption by his predecessor and distant relative, Trajan. Following Trajan’s example, Hadrian had designated the distinguished aristocrat Lucius Ceionius Commodus to succeed him. In 137, however, Ceionius died unexpectedly, and Hadrian was forced to cast about for a new successor. His choice fell on the childless senator Antoninus, whom he selected with the proviso that Antoninus should in turn adopt Marcus (his nephew by marriage) along with Ceionius’s son Lucius Verus, then aged seven. Marcus took on the family name of his adopted father, becoming Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
Hadrian’s death the following year left Marcus first in line for the throne. His education and that of the younger Verus were now matters of still greater concern, and it is clear that no expense was spared. For training in Greek rhetoric, he was entrusted to Herodes Atticus, a fabulously wealthy Athenian rhetorician whose tempestuous relations with his family, fellow citizens and the imperial court itself would have furnished ample material for a soap opera. His instructor in Latin oratory was Marcus Cornelius Fronto, a prominent rhetorician from Cirta in North Africa. By an accident of fate, many of Fronto’s letters to Marcus have survived, and they illustrate the close relationship between student and teacher. They also suggest Fronto’s regret at seeing Marcus move away from rhetoric to delve ever more deeply into philosophy. The first book of the Meditations pays tribute to a number of philosophers from whom Marcus learned, both formally and informally, and he is likely to have studied with or listened to many others.
Marcus would have learned much outside the classroom as well. For training in legal and political matters, an informal apprenticeship bound aristocratic youths to older public figures—men like Junius Rusticus, whose influence Marcus chronicles in 1.7. But the single greatest influence was surely Marcus’s adopted father, Antoninus Pius. Marcus would have watched as Antoninus received embassies, tried legal cases and dictated letters to his deputies. Meanwhile Marcus’s own position as heir apparent was signaled in various ways. In 140 he served as consul (at the age of nineteen), and would serve again in 145. In the same year he married Antoninus’s daughter Faustina, to whom he pays tribute in Meditations 1.17.
Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describes the reign of Antoninus as “furnishing very few materials for history, which is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” It furnishes equally little material for Marcus’s biography. In the decade and a half between 145 and 161 we learn little of Marcus’s occupations, and our only glimpses of his inner development come from his correspondence with Fronto. But the two poles that would govern the remainder of his life—the court and philosophy— seem by this point to be fully established. There is no evidence that Marcus experienced anything like the “conversion” to philosophy that some ancient figures experienced (or affected), but it is clear that by the middle to late 140s philosophy was becoming increasingly central to his life.
On August 31, 161, Antoninus died, leaving Marcus as his sole successor. Marcus immediately acted to carry out what appears to have been Hadrian’s original intention (perhaps ignored by Antoninus) by pushing through the appointment of his adopted brother, Lucius Verus, as co-regent. Verus’s character has suffered by comparison with Marcus’s. Ancient sources, in particular the gossipy Historia Augusta, tend to paint him as a self-indulgent degenerate—almost another Nero. This may be unfair; it is certainly not the picture of him we get from Marcus’s own reminiscences in the Meditations. It does seem clear, however, that Marcus functioned as the senior emperor in fact if not name. It would be surprising if he had not. He was almost a decade older, and had been trained for the position by Antoninus himself.
What kind of ruler did this philosopher-king prove to be? Not, perhaps, as different from his predecessors as one might have expected. Though an emperor was all-powerful in theory, his ability to control policy was in reality much more limited. Much of his time was spent fielding problems that had moved up the administrative ladder: receiving embassies from the large cities of the empire, trying appeals of criminal cases, answering queries from provincial governors and dealing with petitions from individuals. Even with a functional system of imperial couriers, news could take weeks to travel from the periphery of the empire to the center; imperial edicts took time to move down the chain of command. While the emperor’s decision had the force of law, enforcement was almost entirely in the hands of provincial governors, whose diligence might be affected by incompetence, corruption, or an understandable desire not to antagonize local elites.
We get occasional glimpses of Marcus’s day-to-day duties from the evidence of imperial decisions preserved in letters, inscriptions and the legal codes. Surviving legislation shows a certain interest in the freeing of slaves and in regulations relating to the guardianship of orphans. Attempts have been made to tie the first to Marcus’s philosophical convictions and the second to his own memories of life without a father. But it remains unclear how much of the policy is due to Marcus himself, and how far it differs from that of Marcus’s predecessor, Antoninus. Perhaps more interesting are the traces of Marcus’s personality to be discerned in the phrasing of imperial documents, where we find a scrupulous attention to detail and a self-consciousness about linguistic usage that seems to differentiate Marcus from his predecessors. Neither trait surprises in the author of the Meditations or a student of Fronto, whose extant letters place great stress on the quest for the mot juste.
One of Marcus’s priorities was to preserve good relations with the Senate. The goal was to disguise the absoluteness with which the emperor ruled: to preserve a facade—and sometimes, no doubt, even to achieve the reality—of consensus and cooperation. A hundred years before, aristocrats might have dreamed of a restored Republic (as some certainly did). But by the second century it was clear that there was no alternative to the principate. The Senate expected deference in public and hoped for influence behind the scenes; “good” emperors were willing to play along. In cultivating the upper classes Marcus was following in the footsteps of Antoninus and Trajan, rather than of Hadrian, whose relations with the Senate had been prickly. And it is this, as much as anything else, that is responsible for his reputation as a benevolent statesman. An emperor might do as he liked while he lived, but it was the senatorial historians —men like Cornelius Tacitus in the 120s or Cassius Dio in the generation after Marcus’s death—who had the last word.
Another area where Marcus’s policy continued that of his predecessors related to a small and eccentric sect known as the Christians. In the course of the next century they would become an increasing problem for the imperial administration, and they were prominent enough in Marcus’s day to attract an extended denunciation from a certain Celsus, part of whose work “Against the Christians” still survives. The sect met with contempt from those intellectuals who deigned to take notice of it (Marcus’s tutor Fronto was evidently one), and with suspicion and hostility from ordinary citizens and administrators. The Christians’ disfavor stemmed from their failure to acknowledge the gods worshipped by the community around them. Their “atheism”—their refusal to accept any god but their own— endangered their neighbors as well as themselves, and their reluctance to acknowledge the divine status of the emperor threatened the social order and the well-being of the state.
Christianity had been illegal since the early second century when a query from Pliny the Younger (then governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor) prompted the emperor Trajan to establish a formal policy: While Christians were not to be sought out, those who confessed to the faith were to be executed. But empire-wide persecution did not become a reality until a much later date. The main threat to Christians in the second century came from individual provincial governors, acting either on their own initiative or under pressure from local communities. In the late 170s, for example, civic unrest at Lyons resulted in a virtual pogrom of Greek-speaking Christians resident there. Marcus’s mentor Junius Rusticus had tried and executed Christians (the apologist Justin Martyr among them) in his capacity as city prefect. Marcus himself was no doubt aware of Christianity, but there is no reason to think that it bulked large in his mind. The one direct reference to it in the Meditations (11.3) is almost certainly a later interpolation, and the implicit references some scholars have discerned are surely illusory.
Marcus, in any case, had more serious concerns than this troublesome cult. Soon after his accession, relations between Rome and its only rival, the Parthian empire in the East, took a dramatic turn for the worse. Since at least the time of Trajan the two states had been locked in a cold war that would continue for the next two centuries, and that once a generation or so flared up into a military conflict. The death of Antoninus and the accession of two new and untried rulers may have tempted the Parthian ruler Vologaeses III to test the waters. In 162 his forces occupied Armenia and wiped out a Roman garrison that had gone to the rescue. Syria itself was threatened. Rome had no choice but to respond.
It was Verus, the younger emperor, who was sent east, where he remained for the next four years. Neither he nor Marcus had any military experience to speak of (Antoninus’s peaceful reign had given little scope for it), and the day-to- day conduct of the war was no doubt left to the professionals. After initial setbacks the Romans rallied and, under such commanders as the dynamic young Avidius Cassius, forced the Parthians to sue for peace. Parthia would remain a threat, but one that could be dealt with by diplomatic means for the immediate future.
Verus and his senior colleague had no time to bask in their triumph, however. Within a year the empire was in the grip of a devastating plague, apparently brought back from the East by Lucius’s troops. Its effects may not have been quite as apocalyptic as later writers suggest, but the death toll was certainly high, and it also delayed the emperors’ response to a second threat. This was the increasing instability on the empire’s other border, the northern frontier that separated Rome from the barbarian peoples of Germany, eastern Europe and Scandinavia. During this period a number of these tribes were under pressure from peoples farther north and reacted by moving across the empire’s borders—not for conquest, but in search of land to settle. Rome’s reaction alternated between aggressive resistance and attempts at accommodation; its failure to develop a workable policy would eventually result in the collapse of the Western empire some three centuries later.
In some places a line could be drawn. Hadrian’s great wall, stretching across Britain, was intended to secure the empire’s most distant frontier; under Antoninus it had been briefly superseded by a second line farther to the north. But such fortifications were impracticable on the continent, and it was there that the threat was concentrated. Rome still remembered the catastrophe ofA.D. 9, when the Roman general Varus and three legions had marched into the forests of Germany, never to return. In the second century, the greatest source of anxiety was the area farther south, roughly corresponding to modern-day Romania and Hungary. Trajan’s conquest of Dacia two generations before had cleared out a possible source of trouble, but the potential for friction remained. In Marcus’s day three peoples presented a special problem: the Quadi, the Marcomanni, and the Jazyges, also called Sarmatians. The removal of three legions to Parthia had seriously weakened the Roman position on the northern frontier, and barbarians took advantage of the situation. In 168, Marcus and Verus marched north to deal with them.
Much of the remainder of the reign would be spent on intermittent warfare, first in the so-called Marcomannic Wars of the early 170s and then in a second campaign later in that decade. And most of the burden was to be borne by Marcus alone, for Verus died suddenly (apparently of a stroke) in early 169. It was a very different kind of war than the traditional campaign Verus’s armies had waged. The conventional military and diplomatic tactics that worked against the Parthians were of limited use here. Instead, the Romans had to negotiate with individual chieftains whose authority was limited and whose reliability was always in doubt. When negotiation failed, the only alternative was a slow and bloody succession of small-scale engagements rather than pitched battles. The progress of the campaign is recorded on the column erected in Rome to commemorate the close of the Marcomannic Wars. In spite of its triumphal purpose, the engraved scenes that spiral around the monument paint a grim picture of brutal fighting, devastation and execution. “Spiders are proud of catching flies,” Marcus notes mordantly, “men of catching hares, fish in a net, boars, bears, Sarmatians” (10.10). The gruesome vignette that opens Meditations 8.34 (“a severed hand or foot, or a decapitated head”) may well reflect Marcus’s own experience.
By 175 the Romans seemed to have gained the upper hand. But at this point disturbing news arrived. Avidius Cassius, who had distinguished himself as a general during the Parthian War and who as governor of Syria now served as virtual regent of the Eastern empire, had revolted and declared himself emperor. Some of the Eastern provinces (notably Cappadocia) remained loyal to Marcus, but Cassius was recognized as emperor throughout much of the East, and in particular in Egypt, whose grain supply was crucial to the capital. Civil war seemed inevitable, and was prevented only by Cassius’s assassination at the hands of a subordinate. Marcus was nevertheless obliged to travel east to reassert his authority, taking with him Faustina (who died in the course of the journey). He visited the major cities of the East, Antioch and Alexandria, arriving finally at Athens, where he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a set of mystic rites connected with the worship of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture.
Now in his fifties, Marcus was in declining health, and the revolt of Cassius had only underlined the need to make arrangements for the succession. Faustina had borne at least thirteen children, many of whom had died young. By the mid- 170s, Marcus had only one surviving son, Commodus, just entering his teens. There was no reason for Marcus to continue the policy of adoption followed by his predecessors, and there is no reason to think he even considered it. The years that follow see Commodus’s rapid promotion to a position not far short of co-emperor. He was consul in 177 at the age of fifteen. In the same year he was accorded all the major imperial privileges, except for the post of Pontifex Maximus, the head of the Roman state religion, held by the reigning emperor alone, and for life.
The gains of the Marcomannic Wars had not proved permanent, and in 178, Marcus and Commodus marched north again. Two years later Marcus died at age fifty-eight, the first emperor to pass on the throne to his son since Vespasian a century before. Sadly, Commodus’s performance did not bear out whatever promise Marcus had discerned in him. He was to be remembered as a dissolute tyrant, a second Caligula or Nero whose many defects were only emphasized by the contrast with his father. His assassination after a twelve-year reign would usher in the first in a series of power struggles that would burden the empire for the next century.
The composition of the Meditations is normally dated to the 170s—Marcus’s last decade. That this was a dark and stressful period for him can hardly be doubted. In the ten years between 169 and 179 he had to cope with constant fighting on the frontier, the abortive revolt of Cassius, and the deaths of his colleague Verus; his wife, Faustina; and others. Though he could hardly have anticipated the century of turmoil that would follow his death, he may have suspected that his son and successor, Commodus, was not the man he hoped. That in these circumstances Marcus should have sought consolation in philosophy is only natural. But understanding what Marcus looked for from his philosophical studies requires a certain amount of orientation. To understand the Meditations in context, we must familiarize ourselves not only with Stoicism, the philosophical system that underlies the work, but also with the role of philosophy in ancient life more generally.
Today philosophy is an academic discipline, one that few people other than professional philosophers would consider central to their everyday existence. While we may think of ourselves as having a “philosophy of life,” it bears little relation to what goes on in the philosophy departments of our universities. The careers of twentieth-century analytic philosophy often seem remote from what the American philosopher Thomas Nagel terms “mortal questions”: the problems involved in making ethical choices, constructing a just society, responding to suffering and loss, and coming to terms with the prospect of death. Indeed, most of us would be inclined to see these issues as the province of religion rather than philosophy.
For Marcus and his contemporaries, the situation was very different. Ancient philosophy certainly had its academic side. Athens and other large cities had publicly financed chairs of philosophy, and professional philosophers taught, argued and wrote, as they do today. But philosophy also had a more practical dimension. It was not merely a subject to write or argue about, but one that was expected to provide a “design for living”—a set of rules to live one’s life by. This was a need not met by ancient religion, which privileged ritual over doctrine and provided little in the way of moral and ethical guidelines. Nor did anyone expect it to. That was what philosophy was for.
Philosophy in the modern sense is largely the creation of one man, the fifth-century B.C. Athenian thinker Socrates. But it is primarily in the Hellenistic period that we see the rise of philosophical sects, promulgating coherent “belief systems” that an individual could accept as a whole and which were designed to explain the world in its totality. Of these Hellenistic systems the most important, both for Romans in general and for Marcus in particular, was the Stoic school. The movement takes its name from the stoa (“porch” or “portico”) in downtown Athens where its founder, Zeno (332/3–262 B.C.), taught and lectured. Zeno’s doctrines were reformulated and developed by his successors, Cleanthes (331–232 B.C.) and Chrysippus (280–c. 206 B.C.). Chrysippus in particular was a voluminous writer, and it was he who laid the foundations for systematic Stoicism. This early “academic” Stoicism is the source of certain key terms and concepts that reappear frequently in the Meditations, and proper understanding of Marcus’s approach requires some familiarity with the system as a whole.
Of the doctrines central to the Stoic worldview, perhaps the most important is the unwavering conviction that the world is organized in a rational and coherent way. More specifically, it is controlled and directed by an all-pervading force that the Stoics designated by the term logos. The term (from which English “logic” and the suffix “-logy” derive) has a semantic range so broad as to be almost untranslatable. At a basic level it designates rational, connected thought— whether envisioned as a characteristic (rationality, the ability to reason) or as the product of that characteristic (an intelligible utterance or a connected discourse). Logos operates both in individuals and in the universe as a whole. In individuals it is the faculty of reason. On a cosmic level it is the rational principle that governs the organization of the universe.1 In this sense it is synonymous with “nature,” “Providence,” or “God.” (When the author of John’s Gospel tells us that “the Word”—logos—was with God and is to be identified with God, he is borrowing Stoic terminology.)
All events are determined by the logos, and follow in an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Stoicism is thus from the outset a deterministic system that appears to leave no room for human free will or moral responsibility. In reality the Stoics were reluctant to accept such an arrangement, and attempted to get around the difficulty by defining free will as a voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable. According to this theory, man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon. If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged. In the same way, humans are responsible for their choices and actions, even though these have been anticipated by the logos and form part of its plan. Even actions which appear to be—and indeed are—immoral or unjust advance the overall design, which taken as a whole is harmonious and good. They, too, are governed by the logos.
But the logos is not simply an impersonal power that governs and directs the world. It is also an actual substance that pervades that world, not in a metaphorical sense but in a form as concrete as oxygen or carbon. In its physical embodiment, the logos exists as pneuma, a substance imagined by the earliest Stoics as pure fire, and by Chrysippus as a mixture of fire and air. Pneuma is the power —the vital breath—that animates animals and humans. It is, in Dylan Thomas’s phrase, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” and is present even in lifeless materials like stone or metal as the energy that holds the object together—the internal tension that makes a stone a stone. All objects are thus a compound of lifeless substance and vital force. When Marcus refers, as he does on a number of occasions, to “cause and material” he means the two elements of these compounds—inert substance and animating pneuma—which are united so long as the object itself exists. When the object perishes, the pneuma that animated it is reabsorbed into the logos as a whole. This process of destruction and reintegration happens to individual objects at every moment. It also happens on a larger scale to the entire universe, which at vast intervals is entirely consumed by fire (a process known as ekpyrosis), and then regenerated.2
If the world is indeed orderly, if the logos controls all things, then the order it produces should be discernible in all aspects of it. That supposition not only led the Stoics to speculate about the nature of the physical world but also motivated them to seek the rationality characteristic of the logos in other areas, notably in formal logic and the nature and structure of language (their interest in etymology is reflected in several entries in the Meditations). This systematizing impulse reappears in many other fields as well. The catalogue of Chrysippus’s own works preserved by the late-third-century biographer Diogenes Laertius is very long indeed; it includes not only philosophical treatises in a narrow sense, but also works such as “On How to Read Poetry” and “Against the Touching Up of Paintings.” Later Stoics would try their hands at history and anthropology as well as more conventionally philosophical topics.
The expansion of Stoic thought was not only intellectual but also geographical. The movement had been born in Athens. In the century and a half that followed Chrysippus’s death it spread to other centers, in particular to Rome. The Romans of the second century B.C. were in the midst of a course of conquest that by the end of the century would leave them the effective masters of the Mediterranean. With conquest came culture. Looking back on the rapid Hellenization of the Roman aristocracy between 200 B.C. and his own day, the poet Horace famously observed that “conquered Greece was the true conqueror.” Nowhere is the influence of Greece more obvious than in philosophy. Greek philosophers, including the Stoics, Panaetius (c. 185–109 B.C.), and Posidonius (c. 135–50 B.C.), visited Rome to lecture. Many spent extended periods there. In the first centuryB.C. it became the fashion for young upper-class Romans to study in Athens, in an ancient version of the eighteenth-century Grand Tour. Roman aristocrats acted as patrons to individual philosophers and assembled large libraries of philosophical texts (like that at the famous Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum), and Romans like Cicero and Lucretius attempted to expound Greek philosophical doctrines in Latin.
Of the major philosophical schools, it was Stoicism that had the greatest appeal. Unlike some other sects, the Stoics had always approved of participation in public life, and this stand struck a chord with the Roman aristocracy, whose code of values placed a premium on political and military activity. Stoicism has even been described, not altogether unfairly, as the real religion of upper-class Romans. In the process it became a rather different version of the philosophy from that taught by Zeno and Chrysippus. Perhaps the most important development was a shift in emphasis, a narrowing of focus. Early and middle Stoicism was a holistic system. It aimed to embrace all knowledge, and its focus was speculative and theoretical. Roman Stoicism, by contrast, was a practical discipline—not an abstract system of thought, but an attitude to life. Partly for historical reasons, it is this Romanized Stoicism that has most influenced later generations. Indeed, the application of the adjective “stoic” to a person who shows strength and courage in misfortune probably owes more to the aristocratic Roman value system than it does to Greek philosophers.
Stoicism in its later form was a system inspired as much by individuals as by texts or doctrines. One of its most distinguished adherents was Marcus Cato (known as Cato the Younger to distinguish him from his great-grandfather, prominent a century earlier). A senator of renowned rectitude when Julius Caesar marched on Rome in 49 B.C., Cato sided with Caesar’s rival Pompey in defense of the legitimate government. When it was clear that Caesar would triumph, Cato chose not to survive the Republic, killing himself after the battle of Munda in 46. Within a century he had become an emblem of Stoic resistance to tyranny. Under Nero he was immortalized by the poet Lucan and praised in a laudatory biography by the senator Thrasea Paetus, whose own resistance to Nero cost him his life. Thrasea’s son-in-law, Helvidius Priscus, played a similar role—and came to a similar end—under Vespasian. Thrasea and Helvidius in their turn served as role models to second-century aristocrats like Marcus’s mentors Rusticus, Maximus, and Severus. Marcus himself pays tribute to them (and to Cato) in Meditations 1.14.
Cato, Thrasea, and Helvidius were doers, not writers, and their legendary heroism inevitably lends them a somewhat two-dimensional quality. A more complex and much more interesting figure was the poet Lucan’s uncle, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 B.C.–A.D. 65), commonly known as Seneca the Younger to distinguish him from his equally distinguished father. Originally councillor to the young Nero, he was eventually forced to commit suicide after being implicated in an attempted coup against his erstwhile pupil. Men’s lives are not always consistent with their ideals, and some critics have found it hard to reconcile Seneca’s fabulous wealth and his shameless flattery of Nero with his philosophical views. Yet his works (in particular the Letters to Lucilius) remain the most engaging and accessible expressions of later Stoicism. Because they were written in Latin they were also among the most influential on succeeding generations.
But not all Stoics were wealthy senators. There was another kind of Stoic exemplar as well: the outsider whose ascetic lifestyle won him the admiration of his wealthier contemporaries and enabled him to criticize the pretenses of upper-class society with real authority. An early example of the type is Gaius Musonius Rufus (c. 30–100), a member of the Roman administrative class, the so-called knights (equites), who was banished by both Nero and Vespasian. A still more dramatic example was Musonius’s student Epictetus (c. 55–c. 135), who had taken up the practice of philosophy as a slave and devoted the remainder of his life to it after being freed. He had been exiled to Nicopolis (in northern Greece) under Domitian, and after the tyrant’s death, elected to remain there where he taught and lectured to visitors who often traveled great distances to study with him.
One of these was the upper-class historian and statesman Arrian (c. 86–160), who published an extensive record of the master’s discussions, a text conventionally referred to as the Discourses of Epictetus. He later produced an abridged version, the Encheiridion (“Manual” or “Handbook”). Epictetus seems to have been an especially important figure for Marcus. He thanks his philosophical mentor Rusticus for introducing him to “Epictetus’s lectures” (either the Discourses themselves or a private set of lecture notes), and a series of quotations and paraphrases from the philosopher appear in Book 11 of the Meditations. And Arrian’s abridged Encheiridion provides the closest literary parallel to the Meditations itself, not only in its content, but also in its form: a series of relatively short and unrelated entries.
Stoicism and the Meditations
The late Stoicism of Epictetus is a radically stripped-down version of its Hellenistic predecessor, a philosophy which “had learnt much from its competitors and had almost forgotten parts of itself.”3 Both these tendencies, the narrowing of the field and the eclectic borrowing from non-Stoic sources, can be discerned also in the Meditations.
Chrysippus and his followers had divided knowledge into three areas: logic, physics and ethics, concerned, respectively, with the nature of knowledge, the structure of the physical world and the proper role of human beings in that world. Marcus pays lip service to this triadic division in at least one entry (8.13), but it is clear from other chapters and from the Meditations as a whole that logic and physics were not his focus. Among the things for which he thanks the gods is that he was never “absorbed by logic-chopping, or preoccupied by physics” (1.17). Occasional entries show an awareness of Stoic thought about language (the etymological pun in 8.57 is perhaps the clearest example), but they are the exception, not the rule. In many cases Marcus’s logic is weak —the logic of the rhetorician, not of the philosopher; it is rare to find a developed chain of reasoning like that in Meditations 4.4. His interest in the nature of the physical world is limited to its relevance to human problems. About one of the basic Stoic physical doctrines—the notion of the periodic conflagration (ekpyrosis) that ends a cosmic cycle —Marcus adopts an agnostic position (though he was not alone in this). To him it was ethics that was the basis of the system: “just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others . . .” (7.67).
The questions that the Meditations tries to answer are primarily metaphysical and ethical ones: Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? How should we deal with pain and misfortune? How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist? It would be both pointless and impertinent to try to summarize Marcus’s responses; the influence of the Meditations on later readers springs in part from the clarity and insistence with which he addresses these questions. It may be worthwhile, however, to draw attention to one pattern of thought that is central to the philosophy of the Meditations (as well as to Epictetus), and that has been identified and documented in detail by Pierre Hadot. This is the doctrine of the three “disciplines”: the disciplines of perception, of action and of the will.
The discipline of perception requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought: that we see things dispassionately for what they are. Proper understanding of this point requires a brief introduction to the Stoic theory of cognition. We have seen that for the Stoics universal order is represented by the logos. The logos infuses and is wielded by our hegemonikon (literally, “that which guides”), which is the intellective part of our consciousness. In different contexts it can approximate either “will” or “character” and it performs many of the functions that English speakers attribute to the brain or the heart.4 One of its primary functions is to process and assess the data we receive from our senses. At every instant the objects and events in the world around us bombard us with impressions. As they do so they produce a phantasia, a mental impression. From this the mind generates a perception (hypolepsis), which might best be compared to a print made from a photographic negative. Ideally this print will be an accurate and faithful representation of the original. But it may not be. It may be blurred, or it may include shadow images that distort or obscure the original.
Chief among these are inappropriate value judgments: the designation as “good” or “evil” of things that in fact are neither good nor evil. For example, my impression that my house has just burned down is simply that—an impression or report conveyed to me by my senses about an event in the outside world. By contrast, my perception that my house has burned down and I have thereby suffered a terrible tragedy includes not only an impression, but also an interpretation imposed upon that initial impression by my powers of hypolepsis. It is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to accept it. I may be a good deal better off if I decline to do so. It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.
The second discipline, that of action, relates to our relationship with other people. Human beings, for Marcus as for the Stoics generally, are social animals, a point he makes often (e.g., 5.16, 8.59, 9.1). All human beings possess not only a share of the logos but also the ability to use it (that is what makes us human and distinguishes us from other animals). But it would perhaps be more accurate to say that we are participants in the logos, which is as much a process as a substance. Marcus himself more than once compares the world ruled by logos to a city in which all human beings are citizens, with all the duties inherent in citizenship. As human beings we are part of nature, and our duty is to accommodate ourselves to its demands and requirements—“to live as nature requires,” as Marcus often puts it. To do this we must make proper use of the logos we have been allotted, and perform as best we can the functions assigned us in the master plan of the larger, cosmic logos, of which it is a part. This requires not merely passive acquiescence in what happens, but active cooperation with the world, with fate and, above all, with other human beings. We were made, Marcus tells us over and over, not for ourselves but for others, and our nature is fundamentally unselfish. In our relationships with others we must work for their collective good, while treating them justly and fairly as individuals.
Marcus never defines what he means by justice, and it is important to recognize what the term implies and what it does not. All human beings have a share of the logos, and all have roles to play in the vast design that is the world. But this is not to say that all humans are equal or that the roles they are assigned are interchangeable. Marcus, like most of his contemporaries, took it for granted that human society was hierarchical, and this is borne out by the images he uses to describe it. Human society is a single organism, like an individual human body or a tree. But the trunk of the tree is not to be confused with the leaves, or the hands and feet with the head. Our duty to act justly does not mean that we must treat others as our equals; it means that we must treat them as they deserve. And their deserts are determined in part by their position in the hierarchy. Stoicism’s emphasis on the orderliness of the universe implies a similar orderliness and harmony in its parts, and part of its appeal to upper-class Romans may have been that it did not force its adherents to ask difficult questions about the organization of the society they lived in.5
The third discipline, the discipline of will, is in a sense the counterpart to the second, the discipline of action. The latter governs our approach to the things in our control, those that we do; the discipline of will governs our attitude to things that are not within our control, those that we have done to us (by others or by nature). We control our own actions and are responsible for them. If we act wrongly, then we have done serious harm to ourselves (though not, it should be emphasized, to others, or to the logos). By contrast, things outside our control have no ability to harm us. Acts of wrongdoing by a human agent (torture, theft, or other crimes) harm the agent, not the victim. Acts of nature such as fire, illness, or death can harm us only if we choose to see them as harmful. When we do so, we question the benevolence and providence of the logos, and thereby degrade our own logos.
This, of course, we must not do. Instead we must see things for what they are (here the discipline of perception is relevant) and accept them, by exercising the discipline of will, or what Epictetus calls (in a phrase quoted by Marcus) “the art of acquiescence.” For if we recognize that all events have been foreseen by the logos and form part of its plan, and that the plan in question is unfailingly good (as it must be), then it follows that we must accept whatever fate has in store for us, however unpleasant it may appear, trusting that, in Alexander Pope’s phrase, “whatever is, is right.” This applies to all obstacles and (apparent) misfortunes, and in particular to death—a process that we cannot prevent, which therefore does not harm us, and which accordingly we must accept willingly as natural and proper.
Together, the three disciplines constitute a comprehensive approach to life, and in various combinations and reformulations they underlie a large number of the entries in the Meditations. We see them laid out starkly and explicitly in Meditations 7.54:
Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:
- to accept this event with humility [will];
- to treat this person as he should be treated [action];
- to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in [perception].
We find the same triad rephrased and reordered in Meditations 9.6: “Objective judgment . . . Unselfish action . . . Willing acceptance . . . of all external events.”
And we find it in a more subtle form underlying Meditations 8.7:
. . . progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it—the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the tree’s.
A score of other entries could be cited. The almost obsessive repetition of these three points suggests that they lie at the very heart of Marcus’s thought, and of his project in the Meditations.
Marcus Aurelius is often thought of and referred to as the quintessential Stoic. Yet the only explicit reference to Stoicism in the Meditations (5.10) is phrased in curiously distant terms, as if it were merely one school among others. The great figures of early Stoicism are conspicuous by their absence. Neither Zeno nor Cleanthes is mentioned in the Meditations, and Chrysippus appears only twice—quoted once in passing for a pithy comparison (6.42) and included with Socrates and Epictetus in a list of dead thinkers (7.19). This is not to deny the essentially Stoic basis of Marcus’s thought, or the deep influence on him exercised by later Stoic thinkers (most obviously Epictetus). If he had to be identified with a particular school, that is surely the one he would have chosen. Yet I suspect that if asked what it was that he studied, his answer would have been not “Stoicism” but simply “philosophy.”
There is nothing surprising about this. The imperial period saw the development of a widespread ecumenical tendency in philosophy. Adherents of most of the major schools—the Platonists, Peripatetics, Cynics, and Stoics—preferred to focus on the points they shared, rather than those that separated them. Not all the figures Marcus credits as influential on his own philosophical development were Stoics; Severus, for example, was a Peripatetic. Although authors like Seneca and Epictetus accepted the basic premises of the system developed by Zeno and Chrysippus, they showed no reluctance to borrow aphorisms, anecdotes, and argumentative strategies from non-Stoic sources. The Meditations follows a similar procedure. While built on a Stoic foundation, it also refers to and quotes a wide range of figures, both precursors of the Stoics and representatives of rival schools.
Of the predecessors Marcus invokes, the most important is surely Socrates, the great Athenian thinker who had helped redirect philosophy from a preoccupation with the physical world to a focus on the role of man in society and the nature of human morality. Socrates himself wrote nothing. His teachings were transmitted (and greatly elaborated) in the philosophical dialogues of his student Plato. Marcus quotes Plato repeatedly (especially in Book 7), and Socratic or Platonic elements can be discerned elsewhere too. One example is the so-called Socratic paradox, the claim that no one does wrong willingly, and that if men were able to recognize what is right, they would inevitably do it. “They are like this,” Marcus says of other people, “because they can’t tell good from evil” (2.1), and he repeats this assertion elsewhere.
Socrates’ character was as important as his doctrines. His legendary endurance and self-denial made him an ideal model for the Stoic philosopher—or any philosopher. His refusal to compromise his philosophical beliefs led him to make the ultimate sacrifice when he was put on trial at the age of seventy on trumped-up charges of impiety. His display of integrity at the trial and his comportment in the days leading up to his execution made it easy to view him as a forerunner of first-century Stoic martyrs like Thrasea Paetus or Helvidius Priscus, and it is in this light that Marcus evokes him in Meditations 7.66.
Of Socrates’ predecessors (the so-called pre-Socratic thinkers), the most important, both for Marcus and the Stoics generally, was Heraclitus, the mysterious figure from Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) whose Zenlike aphorisms were proverbial for their profundity and obscurity alike. Heraclitus’s philosophical system ascribed a central role to logos and to fire as the primordial element. Both elements were naturally congenial to the Stoics, and may well have influenced them. Heraclitus is mentioned in a handful of entries in the Meditations (4.46, 6.47), but his doctrines can be traced in many others. Moreover, his concision and epigrammatic phrasing anticipate the kind of enigmatic apothegm we find in a number of entries:
The best revenge is not to be like that. (6.6)
Straight, not straightened. (7.12)
The fencer’s weapon is picked up and put down again. The boxer’s is part of him. (12.9)
It is from Heraclitus that Marcus derives one of his most memorable motifs, that of the unstable flux of time and matter in which we move. “We cannot step twice into the same river,” Heraclitus had said, and we see Marcus expanding on the observation: “Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone” (4.43; and compare 2.17, 6.15).
Though Heraclitus was clearly the pre-Socratic who most influenced Marcus, other thinkers leave traces as well. Marcus twice borrows the poet Empedocles’ image of the self-contained soul as a perfect sphere (8.41, 12.3), and he alludes once to the mystic doctrines of the Pythagoreans (11.27). Several entries explore the implications of phrases attributed to Democritus, one of the inventors of the theory of atoms, which would later inspire the Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus.
Neither Heraclitus nor Socrates had founded a school. That was an achievement reserved for Plato, and then for Plato’s student Aristotle, who broke from his master to found the Peripatetic movement. Marcus never refers to Aristotle, though he does quote approvingly from the latter’s successor Theophrastus (2.10). Probably more important was another fourth-century B.C. movement: Cynicism. The Cynics, of whom the first and most notorious was the irascible Diogenes of Sinope, were united less by doctrine than by a common attitude, namely their contempt for societal institutions and a desire for a life more in accord with nature. Diogenes himself was largely responsible for the image of a philosopher as an impoverished ascetic (the “philosopher without clothes” evoked by Marcus at Meditations 4.30 might well be a Cynic). His famous claim to be a “citizen of the world” surely anticipates, if it did not actually influence, the Stoic conception of the world as a city-state. Marcus refers to Diogenes in several passages, as well as to the latter’s student Monimus (2.15), and invokes another Cynic, Crates, at Meditations 6.13, in an anecdote whose tenor is now uncertain.
Marcus’s relationship to Epicureanism, Stoicism’s great rival among Hellenistic philosophical systems, is much more vexed. The followers of Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) believed in a universe radically unlike that posited by Zeno and Chrysippus. The Stoic world is ordered to the nth degree; the Epicurean universe is random, the product of the haphazard conjunctions of billions of atoms. To speak of Providence in such a world is transparently absurd, and while Epicurus acknowledged the existence of gods, he denied that they took any interest in human life. As for humans, our role is simply to live as best we can, making the most of what pleasures are available to us and insulating ourselves as far as possible from pain and anxiety. In particular, we are to feel no anxiety about death, which consists simply in the dissolution of our component atoms. This process is not only inevitable, but harmless, for the simple reason that after death there is no “us” to suffer harm.
Although the sect numbered not a few prominent Romans among its adherents, it never attained the success of Stoicism, and was regarded with genial contempt by most outsiders. The quietism endorsed by the Epicureans was obviously difficult to reconcile with an active public life— an important Roman value—and the Epicurean equation of the good with pleasure was bound to raise eyebrows among conservative Romans. “Eat, drink and be merry” was popularly supposed to be the Epicureans’ motto, though Epicurus himself had been quite explicit in identifying pleasure with intellectual contemplation rather than the vulgar enjoyment of food and sex. Though a minority view, Epicureanism was, nonetheless, the only potential rival to Stoicism in offering a systematic cosmology, as Marcus acknowledges on a number of occasions by the stark dichotomy “Providence or atoms” (4.3, 10.6, 11.18, 12.14).
Marcus normally seems to view Epicureanism with disapproval (as we would expect). In Meditations 6.10 he contrasts the Epicurean universe, founded on “mixture, interaction, dispersal” with the components of the Stoic system: “unity, order, design”—clearly to the advantage of the latter. Should we not be ashamed to fear death, he asks in another entry, when “even” the Epicureans disdain it? (12.34). But other entries suggest a less dismissive attitude. Marcus quotes with apparent approval Epicurus’s account of his own exemplary conduct during an illness (9.41) and twice seeks comfort in the philosopher’s remarks on the endurance of pain (7.33, 7.64). Like other late Stoics (Seneca is a notable example), he was willing to accept truth wherever he found it.
Thus far we have been concerned with the content of the Meditations: the ethical doctrine of late Stoicism, incorporating a certain amount of Platonic and Heraclitean material, and overlaid with occasional reference to other schools and thinkers. But what of the Meditations itself? How and why was it written? Who is its audience? What kind of book is it? For the answers to these questions we must turn from the book’s content to its form and origins.
The Meditations: Genre, Structure, and Style
I suspect that Marcus would have been surprised (and perhaps rather dismayed) to find himself enshrined in the Modern Library of the World’s Best Books. He would have been surprised, to begin with, by the title of the work ascribed to him. The long-established English title Meditations is not only not original, but positively misleading, lending a spurious air of resonance and authority quite alien to the haphazard set of notes that constitute the book. In the lost Greek manuscript used for the first printed edition—itself many generations removed from Marcus’s original—the work was entitled “To Himself” ( Eis heauton). This is no more likely than Meditations to be the original title, though it is at least a somewhat more accurate description of the work.6
In fact, it seems unlikely that Marcus himself gave the work any title at all, for the simple reason that he did not think of it as an organic whole in the first place. Not only was it not written for publication, but Marcus clearly had no expectation that anyone but himself would ever read it. The entries include a number of cryptic references to persons or events that an ancient reader would have found as unintelligible as we do. While a contemporary might have recognized some of the figures mentioned in Meditations 8.25 or 12.27, for example, no ancient reader could have known what was in the letter that Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa (1.7), what Antoninus said to the customs agent at Tusculum (1.16), or what happened to Marcus at Caieta (1.17). Elsewhere Marcus reflects directly on his role as emperor, in terms that would be quite irrelevant to anyone else. We find him worrying about the dangers of becoming “imperialized” (6.30), reminding himself to speak simply in the Senate (8.30), and reflecting on the unique position he occupies (11.7). From these entries and others it seems clear that the “you” of the text is not a generic “you,” but the emperor himself. “When you look at yourself, see any of the emperors” (10.31).
How are we to categorize the Meditations? It is not a diary, at least in the conventional sense. The entries contain little or nothing related to Marcus’s day-to-day life: few names, no dates and, with two exceptions, no places. It also lacks the sense of audience—the reader over one’s shoulder —that tends to characterize even the most secretive diarist. Some scholars have seen it as the basis for an unwritten larger treatise, like Pascal’s Pensées or the notebooks of Joseph Joubert. Yet the notes are too repetitive and, in a philosophical sense, too elementary for that. The entries perhaps bear a somewhat closer resemblance to the working notes of a practicing philosopher: Wittgenstein’s Zettel, say, or the Cahiers of Simone Weil. Yet here, too, there is a significant difference. The Meditations is not tentative and exploratory, like the notes of Wittgenstein or Weil, and it contains little or nothing that is original. It suggests not a mind recording new perceptions or experimenting with new arguments, but one obsessively repeating and reframing ideas long familiar but imperfectly absorbed.
Perhaps the best description of the entries is that suggested by the French scholar Pierre Hadot. They are “spiritual exercises” composed to provide a momentary stay against the stress and confusion of everyday life: a self-help book in the most literal sense. A revealing comment in this context is Meditations 5.9, where Marcus reminds himself “not to think of philosophy as your instructor, but as the sponge and egg white that relieve ophthalmia—as a soothing ointment.” On this reading, the individual entries were composed not as a record of Marcus’s thoughts or to enlighten others, but for his own use, as a means of practicing and reinforcing his own philosophical convictions. Such an interpretation accounts for several aspects of the entries that would otherwise be puzzling. It explains the predominance of the imperative in the text; its purpose is not to describe or reflect (let alone to “meditate”), but to urge, direct, and exhort.7 And it explains also the repetitiveness that strikes any reader of the work almost immediately—the continual circling back to the same few problems. The entries do not present new answers or novel solutions to these problems, but only familiar answers reframed. It was precisely this process of reframing and reexpressing that Marcus found helpful.
The recognition that the entries are as much process as product also accounts for the shapelessness and apparent disorder of the work. We do not know by whom or on what basis the individual books of the Meditations were arranged; the order may be chronological, or partly chronological, or wholly arbitrary. The arrangement of the individual entries may or may not be Marcus’s own, though its very randomness suggests that it goes back to the author (a later editor would have been tempted to group together thematically similar entries, and perhaps to tie up some of the more obvious loose ends). Nor can we always be sure where individual entries begin and end; in some cases this is a question Marcus himself might not have been able to answer.8
A special position is occupied by Book 1, which is distinguished from the rest of the work by its autobiographical nature and by the greater impression of conscious design and ordering apparent in it. It consists of seventeen entries in which Marcus reflects on what he learned from various individuals in his life, either directly or from their example (hence the title I have given the section here, “Debts and Lessons,” which has no warrant in the transmitted text). The entries roughly mirror the chronology of Marcus’s early life, from his older relatives to his teachers to his adopted father, Antoninus, and ultimately to the gods.9 This logical schema, as well as the increasing length of the entries, suggests deliberate arrangement, presumably by Marcus himself. If so, then this book, at least, was conceived as an organic whole. It may be among the latest portions of the text, if scholars are correct in thinking (as most do) that the short sketch of Antoninus Pius in Meditations 6.30 was the starting point for the longer memoir in 1.16.
Attempts to find organic unity in the remaining books or development from book to book are doomed to failure. Wherever one opens the Meditations (with the exception of Book 1) we find the same voice, the same themes; Marcus’s thought does not change or develop noticeably from one book to another. Nor can any structure or unity be discerned within individual books. It seems most likely that the division between books is a purely physical one. The transmitted “books,” in other words, represent the individual papyrus rolls of Marcus’s original, or perhaps of a later copy. When one had been filled, another was begun.10
If the books as a whole are homogenous, the individual entries show considerable formal variety. Some are developed short essays that make a single philosophical point; many of the entries in Books 2 and 3 are of this type. Others are straightforward imperatives (“Take the shortest route . . .”) or aphorisms (“no one can keep you from living in harmony with yourself”). Sometimes Marcus will list a number of basic principles in catalogue format (“remember that . . . and that . . . and that . . .”). Elsewhere he puts forward an analogy, sometimes with the point of comparison left to be inferred. Thus human lives are like “many lumps of incense on the same altar” (4.15) or like “a rock thrown in the air” (9.17). In other cases the analogy will be made explicit: “Have you ever seen a severed hand or foot . . . ? That’s what we do to ourselves . . . when we rebel against what happens to us” (8.34). Others present a kind of formal meditative exercise, as when Marcus instructs himself to imagine the age of Vespasian (4.32) or Augustus’s court (8.31) and then to compare the imagined scene with that of his own time. Portions of two books (7 and 11) consist simply of quotations. Some entries appear to be rough drafts for others; several of the raw quotations from tragedies in Book 7 are incorporated in the much more polished Meditations 11.6. The significance of some entries remains completely obscure. Few critics have known what to make of notes like “Character: dark, womanish, obstinate” (4.28) or “They don’t realize how much is included in stealing, sowing, buying . . .” (3.15).
The entries also differ considerably in the degree of artistry they display. Some entries are little more than Marcus’s notes or reminders to himself—the philosophical equivalent of “Phone Dr. re appt. Tues.?” But others are highly literary. Marcus wrote as a man trained in the rhetorical techniques of the second century. His thoughts naturally took on the impress of his training and intellectual milieu even when he was writing for himself alone.
The shorter entries often display an interest in wordplay and a striving for epigrammatic brevity that recalls both the ingenuity of the rhetorical schools and the paradoxical compression of Heraclitus:
Does the sun try to do the rain’s work? Or Asclepius Demeter’s? (6.43)
Evil: the same old thing. (7.1)
Not a dancer but a wrestler . . . (7.61)
To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference. (8.33)
The philosophical tradition may have been influential on another element that we find occasionally: the intermittent snatches of dialogue or quasi-dialogue. As a developed form, the philosophical dialogue goes back to Plato, who was imitated by later philosophers, notably Aristotle (in his lost works) and Cicero. The Meditations certainly does not contain the kind of elaborate scene setting that we expect in a true dialogue, but we do find in a number of entries a kind of internal debate in which the questions or objections of an imaginary interlocutor are answered by a second, calmer voice which corrects or rebukes its errors. The first voice seems to represent Marcus’s weaker, human side; the second is the voice of philosophy.
The longer entries (none, of course, are very long) are marked by a coherent if sometimes slightly labored style. Not all critics have had kind words for Marcus’s expository prose, and some have been inclined to attribute perceived shortcomings to deficiencies in his Greek. But in all likelihood the occasional awkwardness is due less to an imperfect grasp of the language than to roughness of composition—Marcus thinking aloud or groping for an idea. The same explanation may underlie one of the most noticeable features of Marcus’s prose—namely, his tendency to string together pairs of near-synonymous words and phrases, as if uncertain whether he has hit the target the first time. When combined with the very abstract vocabulary natural in philosophical prose, this can make for difficult reading, especially in English, which privileges concision and concrete vocabulary to a greater degree than Greek. At its best, however, Marcus’s writing can be extraordinarily effective, most of all when it strikes a balance between image and idea, as in the opening of 5.23:
Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see.
This particular topic—the transience of human life, the constant change that shapes and informs the world—is a recurrent theme in the Meditations, and as we shall see, it is one whose treatment owes as much to literary as to philosophical models, and as much to Marcus’s own character as to Stoic doctrine.
To try to extract a sustained and coherent argument from the Meditations as a whole would be an unprofitable exercise. It is simply not that kind of work. It would be equally fruitless to try to read autobiographical elements into individual entries (to take 9.42 as referring to the revolt of Avidius Cassius, for example, or 10.4 as a reflection on Commodus) —all the more so since so few of the entries can be dated with any security. This is not to say that the Meditations has no unity or no relationship to Marcus’s own life, for it has both. What unifies it is the recurrence of a small number of themes that surely reflect Marcus’s own preoccupations. It is the points to which Marcus returns most often that offer the best insight into his character and concerns.
One example that will strike almost any reader is the sense of mortality that pervades the work. Death is not to be feared, Marcus continually reminds himself. It is a natural process, part of the continual change that forms the world. At other points it is the ultimate consolation. “Soon you will be dead,” Marcus tells himself on a number of occasions, “and none of it will matter” (cf. 4.6, 7.22, 8.2). The emphasis on the vanity and worthlessness of earthly concerns is here linked to the more general idea of transience. All things change or pass away, perish and are forgotten. This is the burden of several of the thought exercises that Marcus sets himself: to think of the court of Augustus (8.31), of the age of Vespasian or Trajan (4.32), the great philosophers and thinkers of the past (6.47)—all now dust and ashes.
This theme is not specific to Stoicism. We meet it at every turn in ancient literature. Marcus himself quotes the famous passage in Book 6 of Homer’s Iliad in which the lives of mortals are compared to leaves that grow in the spring, flourish for a season and then fall and die, to be replaced by others (10.34). He would have recognized the sentiment in other writers too, from the melancholy Greek lyric poet Mimnermus, who develops and expands on Homer’s simile, to the Roman lawyer Servius Sulpicius, writing to his friend Cicero on the death of the latter’s daughter:
I want to share with you something that brought me not a little consolation, in hopes that it might have the same effect on you. On my way back from Asia, on the voyage from Aegina to Megara, I gazed at the lands we passed. Aegina was behind me, Megara before me, Piraeus on the starboard side, Corinth to port—towns which flourished once upon a time, and now lie fallen and in ruins before our eyes—and I said to myself, “Alas! . . . and will you, Servius, not restrain your grief and recall that you were born a mortal?” Believe me, the thought was no small consolation to me.
This is not a point modern grief counselors would be inclined to dwell on, but it is one that Marcus would have understood perfectly, and its appeal to him casts light on both his character and his background. Marcus may have been a Stoic, but he was also a Roman, influenced not only by Zeno and Chrysippus but by Homer and Vergil. Vergil is nowhere mentioned in the Meditations, and in a Greek work could hardly be quoted or alluded to, but there is a note of melancholy that runs through the work that one can only call Vergilian.
Other concerns surface as well. A number of entries discuss methods of dealing with pain or bodily weakness of other sorts. “When you have trouble getting out of bed . . .” begin several entries (5.1, 8.12). A persistent motif is the need to restrain anger and irritation with other people, to put up with their incompetence or malice, to show them the errors of their ways. Several entries focus on the frustrations of life at court, nowhere more present than when Marcus tells himself to stop complaining about them (8.9). He contrasts the court against philosophy as a stepmother against a mother —to be visited out of duty, but not someone we can really love (6.12). Yet the court need not be an obstacle: it can be a challenge, even an opportunity. One can lead a good life anywhere, even at court, as Antoninus showed (5.16, 1.16). “No role [is] so well suited to philosophy,” Marcus tells himself, “as the one you happen to be in right now” (11.7).
A more subtle clue to Marcus’s personality is the imagery that he prefers. It is worth noting, for example, how many images of nature occur in the Meditations. Many readers have been struck by Meditations 3.2, with its evocation of “nature’s inadvertence” in baking bread or ripening figs, olives, and stalks of wheat. Metaphors and offhand comparisons in other entries evoke the pastoral and agricultural rhythms of the Mediterranean world, with its flocks, herds, and vines, its seasons of sowing and harvesting, its grapes drying slowly into raisins. Some of these may be stock examples, but even a stock example can be revealing. One can hardly read a page of Plato without tripping over the helmsmen, doctors, shoemakers, and other craftsmen who populated ancient Athens; such figures are much rarer in Marcus. The image of society as a tree whose branches are individual human beings expresses an important Stoic principle, but the image is developed further than one might expect and informed by what might be personal observation: “You can see the difference between the branch that’s been there since the beginning, remaining on the tree and growing with it, and the one that’s been cut off and grafted back.”
Affection for the natural world contrasts with a persistent sense of disgust and contempt for human life and other human beings—a sense that it is difficult to derive from (or even reconcile with) Stoicism. As P. A. Brunt puts it, “Reason told Marcus that the world was good beyond improvement, and yet it constantly appeared to him evil beyond remedy.” The courtiers who surround him are vain and obsequious, while the people he deals with on a daily basis are “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly” (2.1). One of the most frequently recurring points in the Meditations is the reminder that human beings are social animals, as if this was a point Marcus had a particularly hard time accepting. The gods care for mortals, he reminds himself, “and you—on the verge of death—you still refuse to care for them.”
There is a persistent strain of pessimism in the work. “The things we want in life are empty, stale, and trivial. Dogs snarling at each other. Quarreling children—laughing and then bursting into tears a moment later. Trust, shame, justice, truth—‘gone from the earth and only found in heaven.’ Why are you still here?” (5.33). Images of dirt appear in several entries. The world around us resembles the baths: “oil, sweat, dirt, grayish water, all of it disgusting” (8.24). If Marcus contemplates the stars, he does so only in order to “wash off the mud of life below” (7.47). And the objective analysis Marcus prizes often shades over into a depressing cynicism (in the modern sense of the term). “Disgust at what things are made of: Liquid, dust, bones, filth. Or marble as hardened dirt, gold and silver as residues, clothes as hair, purple dye as shellfish blood. And all the rest” (9.36). The human body itself is no more than “rotting meat in a bag” (8.38). “[D]espise your flesh. A mess of blood, pieces of bone, a woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries” (2.2). Perhaps the most depressing entry in the entire work is the one in which Marcus urges himself to cultivate an indifference to music (11.2).
As one scholar has observed, “reading the Meditations for long periods can be conducive of melancholy.” And even those who love the book cannot deny that there is something impoverishing about the view of human life it presents. Matthew Arnold, whose essay on the work reveals a deep respect and affection for Marcus, identified the central shortcoming of his philosophy as its failure to make any allowance for joy, and I think this is a fair criticism. Marcus does not offer us a means of achieving happiness, but only a means of resisting pain. The Stoicism of the Meditations is fundamentally a defensive philosophy; it is noteworthy how many military images recur, from references to the soul as being “posted” or “stationed” to the famous image of the mind as an invulnerable fortress (8.48). Such images are not unique to Marcus, but one can imagine that they might have had special meaning for an emperor whose last years were spent in “warfare and a journey far from home” (2.17). For Marcus, life was a battle, and often it must have seemed— what in some sense it must always be—a losing battle.
There are also a handful of points in the text where we have glimpses of a different frame of mind, most obviously when Marcus refers to the gods. From a Stoic perspective, of course, “God” or “the gods” (the terms are used interchangeably by many ancient writers) are merely conventional terms for what we might equally well call “nature” or “the logos” or “Providence,” or simply “how things are.” Marcus stresses the benevolence of this power (what is divine must be good, surely?), but it is clear that he also ascribes to its actions the implacability with which orthodox Stoic doctrine endows it. It is not easy to see why one should pray to a power whose decisions one can hardly hope to influence, and indeed Marcus several times seems to admit the possibility that one should not (5.7, 6.44, 9.40).
It is all the more surprising, then, to find Marcus elsewhere suggesting a more personal concern on the gods’ part. The final entry of Book 1 is the most obvious example. Here Marcus indicates that the gods have aided him quite directly “through their gifts, their help, their inspiration,” just as they have others (cf. 9.11). Their help is curiously concrete. Among the things for which they are thanked are “remedies granted through dreams,” including “the one at Caieta” (1.17; the text is uncertain). The gods also assist other people, he reminds himself, “just as they do you—by signs and dreams and every other way” (9.27). That Marcus himself did believe deeply in the gods, not merely as a figure of speech but as a real force in his own life, is suggested by his refutation of those who doubt their existence: “I know the gods exist. . . .—from having felt their power, over and over” (12.28). How was this personal relationship with the divine to be reconciled with the impersonal logos of the Stoics? The question seems to be played out in the dialogue at Meditations 9.40. “But those are things the gods left up to me,” protests one voice, to which another responds, “And what makes you think the gods don’t care about what’s up to us?” Marcus himself may not have fully recognized or acknowledged this conflict, but its existence may point to a half-conscious awareness that the answer Stoicism offered was not in every respect satisfactory.
How or by whom the Meditations was preserved is unknown. The late-fourth-century Historia Augusta paints a picture of Marcus lecturing on the Meditations to a spellbound audience at Rome—one of the charming fantasies in which that peculiar work abounds, but certainly an invention. The passage does suggest, however, that the text was in circulation by the fourth century, when it is also mentioned by the orator Themistius. It was very likely familiar also to a contemporary of Themistius’s, the neo- pagan emperor Julian (known to later ages as Julian the Apostate), in whose dialogue “The Caesars” Marcus is pictured as a model for the kind of philosopher-king that Julian himself aspired to be.
The century that followed Themistius and Julian was one of decline, at least in the West—decline in political institutions, and also in the knowledge of Greek. For the next thousand years Marcus’s work, like that of Homer and Euripides, would remain unknown to Western readers. Copies survived in the Greek-speaking East, of course, but even there the Meditations seems to have been little read. For centuries, all trace of it is lost, until at the beginning of the tenth century it reappears in a letter from the scholar and churchman Arethas, who writes to a friend, “I have had for a while now a copy of the Emperor Marcus’s invaluable book. It was not only old but practically coming apart. . . . I have had it copied and can now pass it on to posterity in better shape.” Whether Arethas’s copy was indeed responsible for the work’s survival we do not know. At any rate, its readership seems to have increased in the centuries that followed. It is quoted a generation or two later by the vast Byzantine encyclopedia known as the Suda, and it was perhaps around this period also that an unknown Byzantine poet composed a brief appreciation that came to be copied along with the text:
On the book of Marcus
If you desire to master pain
Unroll this book and read with care,
And in it find abundantly
A knowledge of the things that are,
Those that have been, and those to come.
And know as well that joy and grief
Are nothing more than empty smoke.
The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 led to an exodus of scholars, bringing with them the Greek texts that inspired the Italian Renaissance. The Meditations must have been among them. Yet even at this date the work’s survival hung by a thread. The only complete manuscript to survive is a fourteenth-century codex (now in the Vatican), which is riddled with errors. The first printed edition did not appear until 1559, when Wilhelm Holzmann (known as Xylander) produced a text from what seems to have been a more reliable manuscript. That manuscript, unfortunately, has not survived. But even at its best it was a very imperfect witness to what Marcus himself wrote. Our text of the Meditations contains a number of passages that are garbled or in which one or more crucial words seem to have been omitted. Some of these errors may be due to the confused state of Marcus’s original copy. Others may have been accidentally introduced in the course of the copying and recopying that the work underwent in the millennium following Marcus’s death. In some cases the informed guesswork of scholars over several centuries has been able to restore the original text. In others, there is still uncertainty.11
The Meditations has never attracted great interest from professional students of the classics, and the reasons are perhaps understandable. It contains few direct references to historical events and provides relatively little material for social historians. As evidence for later Stoicism it pales beside the greater bulk of Epictetus’s Discourses. Yet it has always exerted a fascination on those outside the narrow orbit of classical study, perhaps especially on those who can best appreciate the pressures that Marcus himself faced. The Meditations was among the favorite reading of Frederick the Great; a recent American president has claimed to reread it every few years. But it has attracted others too, from poets like Pope, Goethe, and Arnold to the southern planter William Alexander Percy, who observed in his autobiography that “there is left to each of us, no matter how far defeat pierces, the unassailable wintry kingdom of Marcus Aurelius. . . . It is not outside, but within, and when all is lost, it stands fast.”12
If Marcus has been studied less than many ancient authors, he has been translated more than most. But it has been a generation since his last English incarnation, and the time seems ripe for another attempt. My intention in what follows has been to represent in readable English both the content and the texture of the Meditations. I have been especially concerned to convey the patchwork character of the original, both the epigrammatic concision that characterizes some entries and the straggling discursiveness of others. I hope the results will bear out my conviction that what a Roman emperor wrote long ago for his own use can still be meaningful to those far removed from him in time and space. We do not live in Marcus’s world, but it is not as remote from us as we sometimes imagine. There could be no better witness to the effect of the Meditations on a modern reader than the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, whose essay “Homage to Marcus Aurelius” takes its departure from the famous statue of the emperor on the Capitoline hill in Rome:
I saw him for the last time a few years ago, on a wet winter night, in the company of a stray Dalmatian. I was returning by taxi to my hotel after one of the most disastrous evenings in my entire life. The next morning I was leaving Rome for the States. I was drunk. The traffic moved with the speed one wishes for one’s funeral. At the foot of the Capitol I asked the driver to stop, paid, and got out of the car. . . . Presently I discovered I was not alone: a middle-sized Dalmatian appeared out of nowhere and quietly sat down a couple of feet away. Its sudden presence was so oddly comforting that momentarily I felt like offering it one of my cigarettes. . . . For a while we both stared at the horseman’s statue. . . . And suddenly—presumably because of the rain and the rhythmic pattern of Michelangelo’s pilasters and arches—all got blurred, and against that blur, the shining statue, devoid of any geometry, seemed to be moving. Not at great speed, and not out of this place; but enough for the Dalmatian to leave my side and follow the bronze progress.
The standard modern biography of Marcus is A. R. Birley, Marcus Aurelius (1966; rev. ed., New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987), which makes full use of the principal ancient literary sources—not only the Meditations (especially Book 1), but the remains of the history of Dio Cassius, the letters of Fronto and the biography of Marcus in the so-called Historia Augusta. Birley also draws on recent research into the careers of upper-class officeholders (prosopography) and the workings of the imperial administration to paint a picture of Marcus’s background and the society he moved in.
The most comprehensive and reliable treatment of the Antonine age can be found in the Cambridge Ancient History, volume XI, The High Empire, A.D. 70–192 (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Edward Gibbon’s famous characterization of the period in the opening chapters of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remains well worth reading, although the picture it paints may be too rosy-colored. A useful counterbalance is E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1965), which offers a very different assessment of the period.
Treatments of special topics abound, and only a few titles can be mentioned. The upper-class education that Marcus enjoyed is described by S. F. Bonner, Education in Ancient Rome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977). E. Champlin’s Fronto and Antonine Rome (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980) is the best modern study of Marcus’s teacher. Glen Bowersock’s Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969) is a fundamental study of intellectual culture in the second century. Fergus Millar’s The Emperor in the Roman World (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977) is an exhaustive analysis of the civil and administrative functions performed by Marcus and his fellow emperors, complemented for military matters by J. B. Campbell’s The Emperor and the Roman Army (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).
Most of the major ancient sources for Marcus and his world are conveniently printed with facing-page English translations in the Loeb Classical Library. The valuable but highly unreliable life of Marcus in the Historia Augusta can be found in the three volumes of Scriptores Historiae Augustae, trans. D. Magie (1921–1932), as well as in A. Birley, trans., Lives of the Later Caesars (New York: Penguin, 1976). The Loeb series also includes the letters of Fronto, trans. C. R. Haines (2 volumes, 1919); and of the historian Dio Cassius, trans. E. Cary (9 volumes, 1914– 1927, of which the last two are relevant to Marcus). Although composed and collected a generation before Marcus’s birth, the Letters of Pliny the Younger, trans. Betty Radice (2 volumes, 1969), are a rich and illuminating source for upper-class society in the mid-empire. Insight into the intellectual life of the period can be gained from the Attic Nights of the antiquarian Aulus Gellius, trans. J. C. Rolfe (3 volumes, 1927), the works of the satirist Lucian, trans. A. M. Harmon, K. Kilburn and M. D. MacLeod (8 volumes, 1913– 1967), and Philostratus’s entertaining Lives of the Sophists, trans. W. C. Wright (1921). Finally, mention should be made of two modern novels set in the Antonine period, Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean (1885) and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951). Neither should be mistaken for a primary source, but each is, in its different way, a masterpiece.
Recent work on Hellenistic philosophy has done much to illuminate the philosophical background of the Meditations. A clear and helpful introduction to both Stoicism and Epicureanism can be found in A. A. Long, Hellenistic Philosophy (London: Duckworth, 1974); on a much larger scale is Keimpe Algra, Jonathan Barnes and Jaap Mansfeld, eds., The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). On Stoicism see also F. H. Sandbach, The Stoics (London: Chatto and Windus, 1975), and J. Rist, Stoic Philosophy (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1969). The works of the two most important Stoics, Zeno and Chrysippus, are largely lost; their surviving fragments are translated in the first volume of A. A. Long and David Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), which also includes much material on Epicureanism. An important source for the history of both schools is Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks, in the Loeb series (2 volumes, 1925).13
For Stoicism under the empire, the most important sources are the works of Seneca the Younger and Epictetus. The best introduction to Seneca is probably the Letters to Lucilius, of which a selection is available in Letters from a Stoic, trans. R. Campbell (New York: Penguin, 1969). Epictetus’s Discourses and the Encheiridion are available in the Loeb series in a translation by W. A. Oldfather (2 volumes, 1925). The Encheiridion has also been translated by T. W. Higginson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955).
For the Meditations itself the indispensable resource (though long out of print and difficult to obtain) is A.S.L. Farquharson’s The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus, 2 vols. (Oxford, Eng.: Oxford University Press, 1944). I have derived benefit from a number of earlier English translations, notably those of Farquharson (recently reprinted with a new introduction by R. B. Rutherford); George Long (1862); C. R. Haines (Loeb, 1916); G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963) and Maxwell Staniforth (New York: Penguin, 1964), as well as from W. Theiler’s German translation (Zurich: Artemis, 1951) and the French edition of Book 1 by Pierre Hadot (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1998). The best modern edition of the Greek text is that by J. Dalfen (2d ed., B. G. Teubner, 1987), though in vexed passages I have sometimes preferred different readings.
Among scholarly studies of the Meditations, three in particular deserve mention. P. A. Brunt, “Marcus Aurelius in His Meditations,” Journal of Roman Studies 64 (1974): 1– 20, analyzes the themes that especially exercise Marcus. Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The “>Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius, trans. M. Chase (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), is a thoughtful reconstruction of Marcus’s philosophical system. R. B. Rutherford, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Study (Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon, 1989), is an excellent analysis from a more literary perspective, with good remarks also on Marcus’s relationship with the gods. Among the many appreciations by nonclassicists two deserve special mention: Matthew Arnold’s “Marcus Aurelius” (originally a review of Long’s translation) in his Lectures and Essays in Criticism, ed. R. H. Super (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), and Joseph Brodsky’s “Homage to Marcus Aurelius” in his collection On Grief and Reason (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995).
Karen Schwabach read through an initial draft of the translation and suggested numerous improvements, for which I am deeply grateful. For help of various sorts I am also indebted to Deborah DeMania, Gregory Gelburd, Krista Kane, Charles Mathewes, Katherine Odell, Hayden Pelliccia, Ellyn Schumacher, and Alphonse Vinh. My colleagues in the Department of Classics at the University of Virginia, and in particular my department chair, John Miller, made it possible for me to take course relief during the fall semester of 2001, when much of the work was completed. Thanks are due finally to my editor, Will Murphy, for his patience and enthusiasm for this project.
- In this larger sense, rather than attempting to translate it, I have generally left it simply as “(the) logos.” I hope that readers who have assimilated such terms as “karma” and “the Tao” will be prepared to welcome this one too.
- So, too, some modern physicists have imagined a series of universes produced by an alternation of expansions and contractions—“big bangs” and “big crunches.”
- Ramsay Macmullen, Enemies of the Roman Order (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 48.
- Earlier translators have been driven to clumsy equivalents such as “Guiding Reason.” I have generally rendered it “mind,” as being perhaps the least unsatisfactory English equivalent.
- Two examples are worth pointing to. Marcus finds the gladiatorial combat and the brutal executions of the arena a source of tedium (6.46); that they might be morally wrong seems never to have occurred to him. He prides himself on not having taken sexual advantage of his slaves, not because it would have been harmful or unjust to them, but because such self-indulgence would have been damaging to his own character (1.17). There is no sign that he ever questioned slavery as an institution. If asked, he would no doubt have responded that “true” slavery is the self-enslavement of the mind to emotion and desire (cf. 8.3, 9.40, 11.30); actual bodily slavery is merely a condition to be accepted and endured, like nearsightedness or a cold.
- A still better title might be “Memoranda,” which suggests both the miscellaneous character of the work and something about its intended function. Scores of entries begin with the injunctions to “remember . . .” or “keep in mind . . . ,” while the syntax of others (e.g., 12.18) presupposes such an admonition.
- In order to stress the self-directed nature of the Meditations I have sometimes preferred to translate these as resolutions (“to . . .”) rather than direct commands.
- The conventional divisions and numbering go back only to the Latin translation published by Thomas Gataker in 1652. It cannot be regarded as authoritative, and I have occasionally split up a single entry into two (sometimes following earlier editors, sometimes not).
- There are some striking omissions, which may or may not be significant. Antoninus’s predecessor, Hadrian, is not mentioned, for example. It may be that Marcus disapproved of him, or simply that he had little contact with him before his death in 138. Perhaps more surprising is the lack of any reference to Herodes Atticus, from whom Marcus learned Greek rhetoric. Does this point to personal tensions that arose between the two in later years? Or does the omission stem from Marcus’s move away from rhetoric toward philosophy? (It is noteworthy that the Latin rhetorician Fronto, with whom Marcus seems to have been close, is allotted only a very brief entry in comparison with Marcus’s philosophical preceptors.)
- The openings of Books 2 and 3 differ from those that follow in including a brief note to identify (presumably) the place of composition. We do not know whether these notes go back to Marcus himself, or why the other books lack them. The average length of the entries in these two books is perhaps slightly longer than in the later books, but there are few differences otherwise. Attempts to find a thematic thread within Books 2 and 3 as a whole are not convincing.
- I have noted the most egregious instances in the notes, and have marked with an obelus (< . . . >) a few passages where the original is impossible to reconstruct.
- William Alexander Percy, Lanterns on the Levee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), p. 313.
- A survey of work on the predecessors and rivals of the Stoics is obviously beyond the scope of this note, but two good starting points may be mentioned. The surviving fragments of Heraclitus and other early philosophers who appear in the Meditations are translated in Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Presocratic Philosophers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1948 and later reprints). Any reader unfamiliar with Plato should probably begin with the Apology of Socrates, available in the Modern Library’s Selected Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, rev. H. Pelliccia (New York: Random House, 2000) or any number of other translations.