Even today, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is read by every class from kings to common people. The book is a universal classic, meaning it can be related to at any time, by anyone. The philosophies included in his book have spanned the centuries, and Meditations remains to be one of the most influential books ever written. Marcus Aurelius was born on April 20, 121 AD into a family of royalty. His uncle and adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, was the emperor of Rome. Aurelius, too, was trained from birth to be a great ruler like his father.
At age eleven, he dedicated himself to religion, although he considered philosophy to be the “true, inward” religion, one which did not require ceremonies necessary in others. Throughout his childhood and early adulthood, Aurelius was taught by several talented teachers. When he was young, the great Epictetus tutored him, followed by a man named Q. Junius Rusticus, who would accompany Aurelius throughout much of his life. In 161 AD, Pius died, leaving Aurelius and Pius’s other adopted son, known as Verus, to rule together.
The two brothers were quite different, although no disagreements are mentioned between the two. Verus was a headstrong man, who was more apt to want a war than the contemplative Aurelius. Verus was an “Epicurean” and definitely would never be called a philosopher. However, Verus died suddenly in 169, leaving Aurelius to rule Rome on his own. It is important to mention that during basically all of Aurelius’ rule, Rome was engaged in a long series of defensive wars. In fact, the book Meditations was written during these wars, possibly during the darkest of conditions.
And even though these wars were successful, they were taxing both on Rome as a state, and on Aurelius himself. However, he somehow managed to stay somewhat unaffected throughout, an amazing feat unto itself. Although Aurelius was considered a great man and emperor, he ruthlessly persecuted the Christians. He considered them a threat to his “imperial system. ” However, he did not know very much of the Christian doctrines that he was so against. In direct contradiction to this ruthlessness to the Christians was the way he treated his own people.
He is considered to be the “Last of the Great Emperors. ” He ruled Rome during a time of declining prosperity. However, he did try to improve his home while he ruled it. He was a man concerned with public welfare. During his reign, he did such things as open schools, orphanages, and hospitals for the poor people in Rome. He also tried to “humanize” criminal laws, and have masters treat there slaves in a humane way. After Aurelius, Romans would miss such fair treatment. After nineteen years of ruling Rome, Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180 in Vindobona, which is currently Vienna.
He died of a plague while in the middle of yet another war to defend the territory of Rome. Aurelius was succeeded by his son, Commodus, who was the polar opposite of his father. Commodus was a corrupt and evil ruler. Apparently, his father was never aware of this fact, for Commodus fooled him into believing they were of the same mind when it came to ruling. Commodus was the first of the bad emperors to Aurelius’ last of the good emperors. This lack of an able ruler cemented the descent of the Roman empire. Throughout his life, Aurelius was never able to be happy being an emperor.
Even though he had money and privileges, and was royalty, he never became tranquil, or at peace with himself, with these material riches. It is evident when a person reads Meditations that Aurelius would much rather have lived the quite life of a philosopher than the public life of an emperor. He always wished that, at some point in his life, maybe when the wars were over, he would have some time to actively pursue philosophy. He never received that opportunity. However, he did, in the midst of all the wars he fought in, find the time to write down his thoughts into a diary.
This diary, now a published book, is called Meditations. This book, his only known writings, actually consists of 12 books written in Greek. The repeated points throughout Meditations are that a reasonable, moral life leads to peace and inner tranquillity; also, that is vital to obey the virtues present in life. Namely, these are wisdom, justice, fortitude, and moderation. Included in Aurelius’ book are all the philosophies he believes in, which generally match with those of the Stoics. His views on such topics as man’s place in the universe, an outer force, the soul, death, truth, knowledge, and virtue are included in his works.
According to Aurelius, the basic purpose of man in the universe is to listen to reason, and be in accordance with nature. Performing the duty that is assigned to a person in his life is also of great importance. It is evident that Aurelius believes this, because he accepted that God had meant for him to be an emperor, even when he himself would have preferred a completely different lifestyle. However, he accepted with dignity his lot in life, and tried his best to excel at it. A man should also show kindness to every person one encounters.
This follows the basic concept of the Stoics, who stated that all men are brothers, so showing generosity is only in accordance with nature. Also, if a person shows ignorance, it is essential that an educated man does all possible to help show the less educated man the way to live according to nature and reason. This should not be done with contempt, but with patiance. False praise and the opinions of others should be ignored. Aurelius firmly believes that a person should not form his own opinion of himself based on others’ view of him.
Looking inside oneself, and following reason and nature are the only true ways to know what kind of person one is. In Meditations, Aurelius writes, “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value of his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others. ” This is a universal concept, and is still able to be applied, even centuries later. Aurelius, and Stoics in general, have an interesting view on the outer force or being which govern their lives. They believe in two principles, which seem almost contradictory on the surface.
Those principles are monotheism, and the atomic theory. However, if one examines the roles of each in Stoicism, it becomes apparent that they can coexist. God created all of the universe, and all of the universe is made up of matter and atoms. It is interesting to note that several times in Meditations, Aurelius expressed a kind of doubt in God. He repeatedly used the phrase, “if there is a god,” rather than a more definitive belief in a universal force. That may be one matter in which Aurelius differed slightly than the Stoics which he generally followed.
Aurelius’ view on the soul and it’s purpose was significant in the Stoic belief. The soul was basically where all the important action in one’s life took place. The mind (which was “belonging to principles”) and soul combined to be far more superior than the body. The soul, which he referred to as the “ruling faculty,” was definitely the most important part of a person’s life, although he considered it “belonging to impulses. ” This is where one understood how to live in accordance with reason and nature, two of the most important ideas to Aurelius.
The body he considered to be basically worthless, and “belonging to sensations. ” He almost seemed to think that the body tricked a person because the physical body senses pain and pleasure, two of the things he tried best to avoid. Neither of these things could affect a person’s soul, so he considered the soul far superior to the body. Aurelius’ view on death is very much like that of Democritus’. He viewed death simply as the dissolution of atoms, while Democritus believed that death was simply objects breaking apart.
Aurelius also believed that the fear of death was useless, and that is was ignorant to fear something that one has never experienced before. He considered death only one step of a cycle. Life was short, only a moment in the history of all that has been and all that will be. A person is born, lives a short while, dies, and becomes ashes. Since life is so short, it is important to appreciate what time a person does have, whether it is ten years, or one hundred. In the end, we all die, so it is of little importance how long we live, as long as we live well, in accordance with nature.
He says that humans are “daily nearer to death,” and that we must never put off living a reasonable life. Even though a person may live a long time, a person’s perceptions and understanding of things end first, and all that is left is the inferior senses. Insignificant things such as posthumous fame (which he thought far too many people were concerned with) were worthless, also. The people who would remember a famous ruler or philosopher would soon be dead themselves, therefore completing the cycle. One’s time was better spent on obeying reason than trying to achieve fame at any point.
Aurelius’ outlook on truth was that one should question everything that passes by, try to strip it to it’s bare minimum, and ask certain questions. Questions such as, what does this consist of? What does it change to? What will it be like when it changes? Will it sustain harm? Once these questions have been answered, one should try to categorize the object. What kind of matter is this? What type of form is it in? What is it’s purpose in the universe? This is how one attains the truth. This method greatly resembles the dialectic, or the Socratic method, whose basic definition is to question everything.
According to Aurelius, knowledge should be used to live the good life, where the days are spent living in accordance with reason, and obeying nature. One gains knowledge by questioning, and one should use his superior intelligence to help his brothers who may not be so fortunate as to be living the reasonable life. Virtue, or “the good will,” according it Aurelius, are such things as wisdom, justice, fortitude, and moderation. Attaining wisdom, pursuing justice, showing fortitude, and practicing moderation were all signs of a virtuous soul.
Ignoring both pleasure and pain was also considered virtuous. One interesting point to mention is that Aurelius considered pain an opinion. An important belief in Stoicism was that a man is simply one small part of the whole universe. Therefore, if one person was hurt, then all people were affected, and hurt, also. However, God would never create such a fault so that everything was hurt. So, there was no point when everyone in the universe hurt. In turn, one person couldn’t be hurt, either. Pain was an opinion, formed by one’s body, and an opinion that should be ignored.
Pleasure, on the other hand, was false, and tried to lead a person from what is true, nature and reason. Both should be ignored if a person were to live a virtuous life as a Stoic. Reason and nature were the most important virtuous things a person could attain. Aurelius also believed in numerous philosophies which do not fit into the above categories. For example, he believed that man should never think anything that he would be embarrassed to share with others. Inferior things exist for the sake of superior things. Even things on earth which are considered by humans to be ugly are beautiful because they are natural. Aurelius finds the cracks present in homemade bread beautiful, even though they are “contrary to the purpose of the baker. “) A person who commits generous acts and expects rewards from them is on the same level of a man who commits no such acts. The best way of getting revenge is not to become like the one who did harm. These are just some of the numerous miscellaneous philosophies found in Aurelius’ book. In order to become the person Aurelius eventually became, he needed the numerous teachers he received education from to help influence his views.
Throughout his life, Aurelius was the pupil to many talented and famous philosophers. An early teacher to Aurelius was Epictetus, the freed slave who was actually considered a philosopher. The two men have similar views on many theories, which is natural when one is the pupil of the other. Q. Junius Rusticus was also a teacher to Aurelius. He was the official teacher of philosophy to Aurelius, and later went on to become Aurelius’ advisor after the need for a teacher for Aurelius had diminished. Also, such philosophers as Socrates, Epicurus, Plato, Aristotle, and Homer are quoted in Meditations a great many times.
It does not seem as though Aurelius influenced a great many other people, or at least during his time. There were really no future rulers of Rome who were philosophers that shared his view. Starting from his son, Commodus, and on from there, the rulers of Rome were not the least bit philosophical. It seems that when Aurelius died, his way of ruling died with him. Aurelius was also considered one of the last, if not the last great Stoic. Aurelius definitely spent much time contemplating the law. He considered the natural law the highest kind of law, but, as he was an emperor, he also was concerned with the laws of an empire.
He was considered a caring and humane person to his brothers, as is necessary when one is a Stoic. Dealing with the equality of man, he realized that men were divided into classes, and he was “superior” to others. However, as a Stoic, one should be satisfied with his job in life, and that should be enough to keep a man at peace with himself. And, if a man is tranquil and in accordance with nature, they were all equal in the eyes of God. And obviously, the government was of major concern to Aurelius, as he was emperor of what once was the greatest empire.
He did his best to keep the government an honest as possible, and tried to use it for the advantage of the people, which was it’s original purpose. Aurelius obviously was concerned with many different areas of both his empire and his religion. Marcus Aurelius, through his book Meditations, has attained something he scorned in principle – posthumous fame. Throughout his life, he was known as a generous emperor, and not considered to be a student in philosophy. After his death, however, his diary was discovered, and the true inner thoughts of Marcus Aurelius were published for the entire world to read.
Although the vast majority of the philosophies included in Aurelius’ book still hold true and make sense, we know that at least one was wrong. Aurelius believed that even posthumous fame was short-lived, for a person’s named is never carried from generation to generation. However, this melancholy collection of philosophies written by a lonely man centuries ago is still considered to be one of the most influential books ever written. Although he never received the opportunity to be a philosopher during his life, Marcus Aurelius certainly deserved the title.