Marcus Aurelius's Philosophy in "Meditations"

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Stoicism declares that one should act in accordance to the unyielding source of change that is nature. A person who enjoys life by the moment and is mindful of their ephemeral existence is said to be one of virtue – and maintaining this virtuous state of being is considered by stoics to be purpose of life.

The most preeminent dictation of stoic philosophy is a series of personal reflections that was never given a title by its author. In one of the last letters, the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius laments that he never had the opportunity to be a professional philosopher and that he will not be remembered for being one. This slight fracture in the veil that that borders on callousness, although it is personally appreciated because it reminds the reader that Marcus has emotions, is erroneous for several reasons. His anxiety regarding legacy he’ll leave is seemingly contradictory to stoicism itself, which rejects a person’s concern regarding the opinions of those around them and especially for those who are yet to come. Furthermore, I propose that more people know of Marcus Aurelius for being a philosopher than those who know that he was the last of the 5 Good Emperors. Meditations (the name it is most often referred to as) is a dense collection of the philosophies of a well-educated individual with over a half century of life experience and is unsurprisingly chock-full of arguments and statements regarding a vast array of topics – from death to the purpose of life. The inherent nature of Meditations as a collection of life lessons makes it impossible to completely embrace after only a few reads; nonetheless it is everything I hoped it would be and more.

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There are no more Roman campaigns along the Danube; heads of state no longer travel with their military to fend off invaders such as the German tribes along the Danube, technology has made this risk (for the sudden loss of an emperor can be the catalyst for the end of an empire) obsolete. However, the head of one’s body remains consistently on conquest against threatening ideas and emotions such as grief, anger, and anxiety. Once again, I find a degree of irony during this analysis: Meditations is focused on the fleeting moments that make up a person’s short lifespan, yet it has maintained the test of time. The fads, drama, and gossip of one’s day that indubitably permeates one’s culture confines lifestyles to the time period and location in which it exists. If the philosopher-king’s personal memoirs had focused on superficial aspects of mid-second century Roman culture, I believe there would be a good chance that modern humans would not have even known this philosophical piece had been written. However, the human itself has not changed; whether it be our physical structure, psychology, or hopes and dreams.

What is philosophy but an examination of the true nature of that which is tangible or intangible through reason? Marcus Aurelius appears to cope with intrinsic crises via reason – that which is able to separate logic from emotion and allow for one to make head’s end of the problem. This is one facet that has allowed Meditations to retain relevance and popularity throughout its 1900-year existence. The universal struggles brought forth in Meditations includes death, betrayal, passion, spirituality,

In the past I have enjoyed immersing myself in famous depictions and hypotheses behind abstract ideas brought forth in acclaimed philosophical works. Meditations was the first work to realize that philosophy is more than an examination of the intangible: it can be utilized as a tool that fights on the side of reason against passionate emotional expression.

Philosophy appears to be an everlasting passion throughout the life of Marcus Aurelius. By the time he was eleven years old, Marcus was choosing to wear a chiton (forgoing the toga) and would sleep on the floor. This seems similar to a child having a fake driver’s wheel in the passenger seat: he was clearly emulating those whom he respected. Known as the philosopher-king, we know Marcus Aurelius was educated and interested in philosophy, but there lacks any primary or secondary sources of evidence as to why he was interested in philosophy.

Attempting to understand why Marcus Aurelius was passionate about philosophy requires extracurricular research. Looking at the few known events in his life that would have caused a personal, emotional reaction, it is clear that familial death permeates the life of Marcus Aurelius. To make a long list as short as possible, Marcus lost his father, mother, sister, adoptive father, adoptive brother, wife, and eight children during his life. He lost his father at a young age, but he was at least 20 years old before he lost any other close ones. Thus, the agony of grief did not initiate an interest in philosophy (so I cannot suggest that death evoked his philosophical interest). However, he utilized philosophy to find meaning in death and found the tools to cope with loss. This is proven chronologically: he only began writing Meditations after losing at least six immediate family members. Therefore, his personal philosophies that are preserved in Meditations reflect perspectives that assisted in coping with the grief of death that was too common in his life. During the period in which Meditations was written, Marcus was in the carriage when Lucius had his fatal stroke. He watched his adopted brother, whom Marcus went great lengths in order for Lucius to be co-emporer, die in his lap. Since Meditations represents the summation of his personal philosophies, he viewpoints served him in significant enough ways to be included in this collection of personal statements.

On death, Marcus Aurelius has the audacity to juxtapose death with that which separates humans from animals: reason. In this argument, reason is similar to death in which both entities are products of nature. Nature is critical in Meditations as a universal source of change. Marcus declares entities that are truly good are those that act “in accordance with nature.” This is a central theme of stoicism in general — this idea that anything that flows with the ever changing process of the universe is good. Nature is defined as a “product of Providence.” Therefore, nature is inherently good.

One argument found in Meditations, which is reminiscent of the Plato’s Apology of Socrates, analyzes the process of death and hypothesizes possible results consequences aftermath routes product on what exactly occurs after one’s heart ceases to function. Essentially, death is either a “loss of sensation or another kind of sensation.” If the conscious degrades entirely, then there will be no pain and thus one should not fear this kind of death. Even in this possible aftereffect of death, Marcus Aurelius is remains steadfast that one still exists in the universe — just as an eroded rock still prevails — just as smaller pieces. Thus, death is the dissolv(ing) into its proper parts. Declared to be good, death is simply a change willed by nature. The other consequence of death is a transformation and relocation of the soul. Shold this occur, the conscious becomes anotehr type of being, and therefore “you will not cease to live”

Mindfulness is a therapeutic technique that was initially utilized by psychiatrist in the 1970s and is used globally today in the treatment of mental disorders, ranging from bipolar disorder to substance abuse disorder. Mindfulness is described as bringing one’s awareness to the present moments and the surrounding environment. It is similar to meditation in that it helps restore balance to one’s psyche, but I consider the practice of mindfulness to be more applicable than meditation. This eastern philosophy-esque train of thought is continuously suggested throughout Meditations and Marcus Aurelius harps on the fact that moment in which one exists is all that he owns — neither the past nor the future belongs to anyone. Furthermore, Marcus alludes to a belief in fate and destiny when he suggests the we be satisfied with the amount of life that we are given, as it has “been arranged to you, so be content with the time.”

Mindfulness is more than suggesting that an individual be content with the present; it also emphasizes that we control our own minds. To accept this a truth, one must accept responsibility for their state of mind and continuously center one’s psyche back to the moment. In every letter Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that letting another person affect his soul can only occur if he grants them access to his soul. The repetition implies that not only are his soldiers getting on his nerves at times, but that staying mindful of one’s mindset is critical to living a virtuous life in which he can live constructively with the perpetual flow of nature. Furthermore, happiness can be attained on one’s own accord. Accepting responsibility is difficult — to yield power over one’s own life means that blaming others becomes ineffective and inplausable to one’s self. However, I find greater personal freedom is understanding that emotions cannot be controlled and are temporary while my state of being can be as constant as I would like and is under the wrath of my dictatorship.

If there were a 3-dimensional venn diagram of stoicism, Christian ideology, and eastern philosophy, mindfulness would be at the center.

The word ‘stoic’ in modern vernacular is synonymous with “aloof, apathetic,” and “detached.” For this reason, I found myself initially perplexed at the length at which Marcus Aurelius discusses prosocial behavior. As I progressed reading through the letters, it was clear that he declares prosocial behavior to be an innate resident within the human psyche. Therefore, one could say it is human nature to act on prosocial tendencies. If it is within human nature to act this way, Marcus Aurelius believes that clearly prosocial behavior is a part of the universal Providence, the spiritual force that governs nature. As an inherent ingredient of nature, prosocial behavior is an essential ingredient in reaching the ultimate goal of existing — acting with virtue. Although not discussed by Marcus Aurelius, this appears to border on altruism; if not encourages engaging in altruistic behavior altogether.

The junction between Aurelius’s views on the importance of interacting with mankind and the beneficence of nature as a source of change brings about a sense of spirituality that aligns with Christianity in several ways. The spirituality displayed in Meditations certainly has ideology that is similar to, if not the same as, Christianity when pertaining having a lifestyle centered around austerity, the necessity of prayer to one’s higher power, forgiveness, the importance of serving others and living with purpose, and the notion of justice and goodness. Both ideologies caution against needless presumptions about others, unnecessary persecution of those at fault, holding grudges, and the dangers of passion and the loss of control over one’s emotional being.

Austerity was another unexpected topic breached by Marcus Aurelius. Then again, perhaps he has the ultimate authority upon which to preach about living a simple, modest lifestyle. To be an expert — for people to care about what you have to say about something — you must have a credible reputation to the subject on which you are expressing an opinion. Experts are notioned as such because they have been on both sides of the coin, whether it be wealthy businessman who group up in desolate poverty or a preacher who used to persecute those whom he preaches to (such as biblical figure Paul). While Marcus Aurelius may not have understood the nuisances of pottery or other trades in which the common-man worked, he spent his adolescence with multiple private tutors.

Meditations remains relevant to the common man because Marcus Aurelius, who was probably to wealthiest person in the world during his life, rejected a life of pompiety and found comfort in a barely-sufficient lifestyle. Christianity sympathizes with this perspective as Jesus preaches about the necessity of giving up earthly values to in order properly focus on God and His Will. Personally, I lack the motivation to become affluent and will simply take the advice offered in Meditations as fact.

“We can’t be happy, but we can be good; let us therefore pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn’t matter being unhappy.”

A harsh critic of stoicism, Bertrand Russell concluded this to be the defining statement that characterizes stoicism. Perhaps this is an unfair summation of an entire school of philosophy, but I agree with Russell. I can feel Russell’s negativity and I understand what he is criticizing about stoicism, but there exists more than one way to interpret his statement. My opinion on Russell’s denouncement of stoicism is in itself is an application of Aurelius’s principles of perception that provides multiple angles from which I can analyze Russell’s statement. As is said several times throughout Meditations, Marcus Aurelius quotes the Cynic Monimus when he states “all is opinion.”

Although I enjoy stoicism and believe in it’s principles, I agree with Russell. “Happy” is an emotion, so to “be” (suggesting the individual is in a perpetual, constant state) happy is impossible. To be happy consistently would mean that someone would have to go through life without ever even stubbing their toe. With vigilance, I believe it is possible to maintain a state of “goodness.” Marcus Aurelius determines this to be in accordance to the constant change that is nature. To accept things as they occur without exerting the psychic energy to label an event with emotion. To have virtue would be to leave one’s life with mankind being better off than before one’s birth. To have a positive effect on those around me is fulfilling, and when I think about this, it can bring me happiness about being good.


Meditations explores the depths consciousness in an attempt to discover the perspectives and philosophies which are intended to satisfy existential crises. Its relevance persists in the modern age because fear of what happens after death and questions as to how to live a happy life resides in the back of the minds of every human. It is the collection of Marcus Aurelius’s thoughts during a turbulent and dark period of his life.

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