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MARCUS AURELIUS: EMPEROR AND STOIC SAGE

By Marc A. Loera

“The noblest Roman of them all,” according to Edward Gibbon, who borrows words from Marc Antony’s panegyric to Brutus in the last scene of «Julius Caesar» by Shakespeare. Others have concurred: “one of the noblest figures of antiquity…by nature a saint and a sage, by profession a warrior and a ruler” (M. Stanforth. “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (1967) 5: 156). If a saint, of what Church, one would ask, since the Emperor held Christianity in contempt (see book 11, paragraph 3). Perhaps, not by chance Christian persecutions, more or less dormant through the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, broke out in Southern Gaul during the last years of Marcus Aurelius’ reign.

The intelligentsia of the Church has never forgiven Marcus Aurelius for his words, unkind to her, and for the deeds against her flock in 177 at Lyons (P. J. Healy. “Aurelius Antoninus, Marcus.” The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) 2: 109-111). Marcus Aurelius’ stock remained low throughout the Middle Ages. His monument in Florence, a worthy work of art, and the only equestrian, bronze statue extant from antiquity, survived by the grace of blessed ignorance. Apparently, for centuries it was taken as representing the Emperor Theodosius, a Christian.

Marcus Aurelius’ writings disappeared from the fourth through the ninth century. In the tenth century, his Meditations surfaced in the writings of a Byzantine bishop, who had made a copy of the ancient Greek text, which has never been seen again. It is the prelate’s copy that has served since as the source of all others. The Meditations were first printed in Zurich in 1558-59. The first translation to any vernacular tongue was in French by Pardoux Duprat in 1570. 26 editions of Marcus Aurelius’ writings were published in the 17th century, 58 in the 18th century.

In the 19th century, with the industrial revolution, the flowering of unbridled capitalism, and the wholesale destruction of villages and mores in the name of laissez-faire, the Emperor had really arrived. There are 81 editions of The Meditations during the 19th century (R. Bach-Pellicer, notes to «Meditaciones de Marco Aurelio». Madrid, 1977. page 37). The waxing of the Emperor’s popularity correlates with the waning of Christianity, which, in spite of Roman pontiffs and Protestant Bible thumpers, has been in a decline since the seventeenth century. Blaise Pascal may have been its last major intellectual.

The principles of the Emperor—his spirituality, if the terms is applicable—in spite of all appearances, are grounded on materialism, however, on a materialism sensitive to the dynamics of mutability; hence its favorite metaphor, fire and conflagration. The Emperor does not believe in immortality, although he suggests a temporary persistence of the self beyond death (Med. 4: 27). The soul (psyche or pneuma) is reabsorbed in the world-conflagration (F. Copleston. A History of Philosophy. New York. 1965. 1: 437). Intelligence (nous), which is of the divine, returns to the divine.

Divine talk, of course, is metaphor. The gods, after all, are, quintessentially, value metaphors. The Emperor’s pious god-talk brings to mind Benedictus de Spinoza. The divine is the act and object of valuable intellectual awareness. The act and object of awareness is the nature of things. The divine, therefore, is the term to properly address all matters and instances of excellence of understanding and knowledge concerning the nature of all things, that is to say, the nature of the cosmos. «Deus sive natura».

Needless to say, from this «Natura seu Deus» to the notional absurdity of a Christian God-man, second person of a triune God, its a long, long way. Stoicism’s bias is intellectual and ethicist. No wonder Stoicism lost out to Christianity, a religion full of color, characters, drama, pious anecdote, and emotion; a theurgic religion, not a dispassionate enquiry on right conduct. Thin on narrative, stoicism never had a chance among the masses. It was too sophisticated.

Stoicism influenced Christianity. Stoicism conceptually justified monastic asceticism. But the influence was strictly one way. Taking Victorian liberties with history, Matthew Arnold fancifully writes on the Emperor: “… the effusion of Christianity, its relieving tears, its happy self-sacrifice, were the very element, one feels, for which his soul longed; they were near him, they brushed him, he touched them, he passed them by.” One can almost hear an organ groaning in the background an unctuous Protestant hymn. The transition motif has been used to describe Marcus Aurelius, as if anything and anybody were not transitional, subject to the transitory force of time. The Emperor, however, was not a pagan in spite of himself, nor a Christian in every way but name. He was what he was, a man of his time, rooted in his pagan culture, and a fine representative of the best of that culture.

Unlike Seneca’s writings, markedly rhetorical, and unlike Epictetus’ maxims, conveyed by Arrius in strong, Attic prose, the Emperor’s «Meditations» are confessional in tone. They also impress the reader—this reader—as sincere, which is no mean feat, considering how well written many of its entries seem to be. In res litterae, the marriage of rhetoric and sincerity is as rare as modesty in a beautiful woman.

Beyond the well-known game of measuring to what degree this or that notion of the Emperor adumbrates this or that notion of Christian logomachy—providence, universal brotherhood, personalized deity, caritas, humilitas, resignatio, ascesis, contemptu mundi, etc.—, one may, indeed, read the Emperor’s «Meditations» to witness the intimate moral struggle of an eminently civilized man. He seeks earnestly for meaning; to define and accept his destiny as an instrument of the gods, in order to further the Empire’s civic consciousness, morality, integrity, and piety. The political scoundrels of our world could take a page from him, and should, red-faced with shame.

A.S.L. Farquharson, «The Meditations» …, 2 vols., Oxford, 1944, is the leading contemporary scholar of the Emperor in the English language. A fundamental text from the nineteenth century is Ernest Renan: «Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde Antique» (1882). There are translations.

G. Puente-Ojea (Ideología e historia. El fenómeno estoico en la sociedad antigua. Madrid, 1974) traces the social conservatism and conformism at the root of the Emperor’s gestures of resignation to the cosmic pattern of things; a cosmic pattern that, in the deity-talk of the period, the Emperor translates into the will of the benevolent gods. There is a double claim on the Emperor’s stoic soul: the recognition of a human civitas, or civilized hierarchy under the law of the State, and the cosmic order, or «logos», of divine nature. Reason adumbrates «logos», which resides in the soul as an inspiring «daemon». The individual, «civis romanus» —Roman citizen—serves as the junction point of both worlds—Manvs and Nature’s. The individual, «civis romanus», moderates between the two, conceding to social and natural necessity. He attempts to formulate the congruence between them and to translate ought into fact. He advances the recognition of ought as the only true freedom. The Emperor anticipates Nietzsche’s «amor fati», also Pope John Paul II’s «amor providentiae»: man is only free when he does what he must do.

A stoic oscillates between resignation and fortitude, isolation and social interaction, exaltation and pessimism. The Emperor argues for social interaction with principles that underline an impasse between the Other and the self. Hegel puts his finger on Stoicism’s weakness when he discourses on a disconnect between the external realm of facts and the internal subjective world of value in the stoic universe; the disconnect mothers paradox: “stoic happiness is true and imperturbable even if man is in misfortune…the greatness of the Stoic philosophy consists in the fact that if the will thus holds together within itself, nothing can break into it,…everything else is kept outside of it” (History of Philosophy. Trans. E. S. Haldane and F. H. Simson. London: Routledge, 1968. 2: 266).

Today’s political scoundrels have nothing to worry about; they stand beyond the reach of the Emperor’s censure. It is impossible to be a stoic in our time. We modern men do not share with the Marcus Aurelius enough signs and symbols. There has been far too much metaphorical change, innovation, and loss since his time. Take, for example, the stoic concept of freedom sketched a couple of paragraphs ago. Stoic freedom stands 180 degrees from our individualistic (i.e. selfish), willful, and sybaritic freedom; a notion of freedom that Marketing plays with in order to ensnare us through our eyes, belly, and folly.

All philosophies, all moral enquiries are rooted in time and space. Each one presupposes a culture. Our post-Christian, Western culture, a culture in rapid dissolution, is hardly compatible with the ancient pagan culture of Greece and Rome. Religious permutations throughout the centuries have fostered in the Western world cultural and historical amnesia. Modern man ignores Mnemosyne and the sacred functions of her daughters. We have lost Ariadne’s thread that would lead us from our secular, monstrous labyrinth to the Wisdom of the ancient Stoa.

Copyright Marc A. Loera © 1999


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