Marcus Aurelius: A Wise Emperor Speaks

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.) succeeded his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, as Emperor of Rome in 161, reigning until his death in 180. As a young man, he was interested in sports and other activities, but was attracted to Stoic philosophers at an early age. He is the author of one of the most famous books of ancient wisdom, the Meditations.[1] At least a part of his Meditations was written during the last years of Marcus’ life, a period of almost constant military activity. He died in Austria during a military campaign in March 180 at the age of 58. He probably never dreamed that his little book of sayings, written for his own edification, would become a classic of ancient literature. As with Cicero, in Marcus Aurelius we experience the reflections of a person who is active in public life.

The Meditations are difficult to summarize because they consist a series of not always interconnected passages written over a long period of time. I am going to emphasize a few aspects of the thought of Marcus Aurelius important for political philosophy. Before launching into that task, it is important to begin by noting the humility of the writer. Marcus begins his Medications with a series of attributions, giving thanks for his parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and others for all the gifts and the example they set for him. In particular, he gives thanks to his father for his character and to his brother Severus, from whom he learned that classics and “received the idea of a state in which there is the same law for all, a state administered with regard for the equal rights and equal freedom of speech, the idea of kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.” [2] Here we see the view that freedom is not only to be protected in democracies but in all wise forms of government.

A Rational World

For Marcus, as for Stoics generally, there is a rational order to the world. The world embodies a “universal nature,” and everything in the world exhibits and reflects that nature, “…for the universal nature is the nature of all things that are; and all things that are have a relation to all things that come into existence. And, further, this universal nature is named truth, and is the prime cause of all things that are true.” [3] The universe embodies a created rationality that is, and should be, reflected in both nature and society.

The universal nature has both moral and social significance. Those who act contrary to universal nature or reason act with impiety and irrationally, which is bound to be destructive either of the world or of human society, which participate in this universal nature. This aspect of Stoic thought was much criticized by Cynics, since there is a great diversity both in physical nature and in the human societies built upon that nature. However, to Marcus, the universe displays a kind of order that should not be violated, and the one who violates it “fights against the nature of the universe.” [4]

A World of Relationality

There are aspects of Marcus’ thought that are surprisingly “post-modern,” contrasting starkly with the mechanical world view of the modern era. Marcus sees that all things are related and part of a whole that cannot be dissected without loss. Thus:

This you must always bear in mind: what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what kind of part it is of what kind of whole, and there is no one who can hinder you from always doing and saying the things that are in accord with the whole of which you are a part. [5]

In this quotation we see much of the wisdom and understanding of the writer: First, there is an order to “nature,” defined as the system of being in which every individual is immersed. This nature is both physical and social. Second, the wise person has to understand the environment he or she is in, what makes up that environment, and what is his or her relationship to the whole.

Based on this insight, Aurelius urges his readers to;

Consider frequently the connection of all things in the universe and their relations to one another. For things are somehow implicated with one another, and all in a way friendly to one another, for one thing follows in order after another and this is by virtue of their active movement and mutual agreement and the unity of their substance. [6]

Our world is a world in which all things are related to one another, and the wise person constantly considers the nature and implications of these relationships. In addition, what will be is implicit in what already is. Present reality is constantly passing away into what will be and is implicit in the new reality to follow. Finally, there is a religious dimension to this, for “All parts of the world are interwoven with one another, and the bond is sacred.” [7] This notion that the world is relational and sacred is a part of the stoic belief that God is a part of all the entire universe.

A World of Constant Change

Another of Aurelius’ foundational ideas is found in the previous quote: the world is constantly changing. The universe and any society in which an individual finds his or herself is one of constant change. In this respect, Aurelius is an organic and process thinker as opposed to a mechanical thinker. Thus, he says:

Observe constantly that all things come about by change; accustom yourself to reflect that nature of the universe loves nothing so much as changing things that are and making new things from them. [8]

No one, not even an emperor, can be successful or wise without an awareness of the reality of constant change. One might say that for Aurelius, like modern process thinkers, the fundamental reality is change. The attempt, so common in the modern world, to achieve “an end to history,” i.e. some perfect state of political and social organization, is doomed. All that can be done is to live and govern faithfully within the boundaries of the circumstances in which one finds oneself.

For every individual, there is an arrow of time in this constant change—an arrow that leads from birth, through maturity, and onwards towards death. Just as the Psalmist urges God to “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12), Aurelius urges his readers to recognize their mortality. The arrow of time for all men, Alexander the Great and the lowliest slave, is the same—an arrow of time that leads from birth to death.

A Social World

This infinitely complex and delicately interwoven world is designed for social relationships and cooperation as much as for conflict. This is true of nature and of society:

As it is with members of unified bodies, so it is with the rational beings that exist separate, but are designed for co-operation. You will realize this more if you say to yourself: ‘I am a member of a system of rational beings.” [9]

Marcus Aurelius would agree with Aristotle that human beings are by nature social. Thus, “The primary principle then in men’s constitution is the social.” [10] This insight is much different from the modern notion that the individual is primary, that society is made up of autonomous individuals, and that social life is fundamentally a constant conflict for power. Rational cooperation, not conflict, lies at the foundation of a sound social order.

The social order of the world is one of the foundations of wisdom and of morality. The wise and good person recognizes that all of his or her actions are a part of the order of the world and influence the world for good or ill:

As you yourself are a component part of the social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life. Whatever act of ours then has no reference either immediately or remotely to a social end, this tears asunder your life. [11]

Here is a relational principle that strikes at the root of the problem of the individualistic ethos of the modern era in which people see themselves as self-seeking and independent. The entire idea of the detached individual is irrational because we are all component parts of a social whole which involves our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and fellow citizens. It is not enough to think of myself or my own advantage, for every act has a social impact and therefore a social end. The idea that I can seek my personal best interests and have a society that is stable, is simply wrong.

Universal Commonwealth of Humanity.

Marcus’ subscribes to the Stoic ideal of a universal commonwealth.  He expounds on this idea as follows:

If the faculty of understanding is common to us all, the reason also, through which we are rational beings, is common. If this is so, common also is that reason which tells us what to do and what not to do. If this is so, there is a law common to all men also. If this is so, we are fellow citizens and members of some political community, and thus the world is in a way one commonwealth. [12]

This is an important stoic principle that illustrates a difference between the thought of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius from Plato and Aristotle.  The world is not fundamentally divided into Greeks and Barbarians or Jews and Gentiles. There is a common humanity, bound together by one common nature that causes us to be part of one commonwealth, whatever commonwealth we happen to be a part of at any one time. In this, Marcus and Stoic thought in general is similar to the Christian notion of the brotherhood of the human race. In this insight we see a break with tribalism as the primary form of political organization.

Marcus does not identify this universal commonwealth with the Roman Empire, which as Emperor one might think he would. Instead, Marcus is aware that though we are a part of one human race and a commonwealth of rational people, we find ourselves as part of a local political unit to which we owe loyalty.

Serenity in a World of Constant Change

A world of constant change, the way to achieve wisdom and serenity begins with accepting what comes. The wise person is satisfied with their place in life and does not hurry from place to place or activity to activity. [13] There are limits to human striving, and the wise person respects those limits. As a general matter, Marcus urges human beings to do those things that it is their social duty to do and to avoid things that are not necessary, and which lie outside their social duties.

The serene person does not think too seriously or often about what others think, especially critics. “How much trouble he avoids who does not look to what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only what he does himself that he may be just and pure.” [14] Instead of constantly desiring more and different things, true serenity is found in retiring into one’s self and being happy with the circumstances in which one finds oneself: “Remember then to retire into this little realm of your own, above all do not distract or strain yourself, but be free and look at things as a man and as a citizen and as a mortal.”  [15]

Too often, we consider striving, success, and personal accomplishment as central to social life. Our political system is based on the notion that good policy decisions are made in an essentially conflictual process dominated by irreconcilable alternatives. The nature of the process created out such a notion traps politicians and political leaders in a process and life-style that excludes the search for serenity and personal wholeness. If anyone might be trapped in such a situation, it would be an emperor of Rome. Nevertheless, by embracing an essentially rational, relational, and social notion of political life, Aurelius seems to have found serenity and personal wholeness in the midst of a busy life.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations” in Marcus Aurelius and his Times; The Transition from Paganism to Christianity, tr. George Long (New York, NY: Walther J. Black, 1945), pp 11-133). All quotations are from this edition of the work.

[2] Id, at 14.

[3] Id, at 91.

[4] Id. I believe that this idea of a rational order to the universe and to a well-founded and ordered society is an important part of any project of reconstructing a wise and moral society.

[5] Id, at 22-23.

[6] Id, at 63.

[7] Id, at 69.

[8] Id, at 40.

[9] Id, at 69.

[10] Id, at 71.

[11] Id, at 96.

[12] Id, at 34.

[13] Id, at 58-9. This is the hardest part of this blog to write. The nature of Marcus’ work means that it is filled with many aphorisms that are applicable to everyday life.

[14] Id, at 38.

[15] Id, at 34.

One thought on “Marcus Aurelius: A Wise Emperor Speaks”

  1. Chris, a good thought provoking article. Marcus Aurelius‘ Meditations are remarkable, I sensed some Eastern thought in them, especially about the interconnectedness of all things.

    His thoughts on change are quite true, though I wonder if he regarded all change as helpful to the human condition.

    It seems very few are content “with their place in life” in this he is correct, most are concerned with self, and not content.

    Enjoyed your article. Blessings my Friend, Greg Darden

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