Marcus Aurelius
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Marcus Aurelius

John Sellars

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eBook - ePub

Marcus Aurelius

John Sellars

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About This Book

In this new study, John Sellars offers a fresh examination of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations as a work of philosophy by placing it against the background of the tradition of Stoic philosophy to which Marcus was committed.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is a perennial bestseller, attracting countless readers drawn to its unique mix of philosophical reflection and practical advice. The emperor is usually placed alongside Seneca and Epictetus as one of three great Roman Stoic authors, but he wears his philosophy lightly, not feeling the need to state explicitly the ideas standing behind the reflections that he was writing for himself. As a consequence, his standing as a philosopher has often been questioned. Challenging claims that Marcus Aurelius was merely an eclectic thinker, that the Meditations do not fit the model of a work of philosophy, that there are no arguments in the work, and that it only contains superficial moral advice, Sellars shows that he was in constant dialogue with his Stoic predecessors, engaging with themes drawn from all three parts of Stoicism: logic, physics, and ethics. The image of Marcus Aurelius that emerges is of a committed Stoic, engaging with a wide range of philosophical topics, motivated by the desire to live a good life.

This volume will be of interest to scholars and students of both Classics and Philosophy.

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Part I
Marcus and his Meditations


Marcus the Stoic philosopher

Marcus the philosopher

One popular and quite common image of Marcus Aurelius is as a wise old man writing his Meditations late in life while on campaign.1 At the end of Book 1 (or the beginning of Book 2) of the Meditations there is a note that reads “Written among the Quadi on the river Gran”, a tributary of the Danube.2 At the end of Book 2 (or the beginning of Book 3) there is a similar note that says “Written in Carnuntum”, which was close to the border between Germany and the Roman Empire.3 These notes seem to confirm this image, for Marcus was on campaign in this area during the 170s, the last decade of his life. Marcus was born in 121, so he was probably in his 50s when writing the Meditations. A less flattering image would present him not as an accomplished sage but instead a world-weary man in late middle age, half-remembering a few scraps of philosophy he had studied as an adolescent.4
Marcus did indeed study philosophy in his youth. The biography of Marcus in the Historia Augusta opens with the statement that Marcus was “devoted to philosophy as long as he lived” (HA 4.1.1).5 It goes on to say that Marcus’s education in philosophy began at an early age (HA 4.2.1). He was, we are told, committed to philosophy as a youth and “when he was twelve years old he adopted the dress and, a little later, the hardiness of a philosopher, pursuing his studies clad in a rough Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground” (HA 4.2.6). We have a list of his philosophy teachers, to whom we shall turn shortly, but it is worth noting that all this predated his adoption into the Imperial family. Although Marcus was born into the upper echelons of Roman society, he was by no means destined to become Emperor. It is difficult to know to what extent, if any, he may have anticipated his later role during his early years. Marcus’s natural father was an important person – prefect of the city of Rome – and the family were intimates of the then Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian had a reputation as an intellectual, interested in Greek culture, and a passing interest in philosophy. We are told that he was an admirer of Epictetus (HA 1.16.10), and there survives a generic question-and-answer dialogue between Hadrian and Epictetus.6 Hadrian was childless and, after looking around for a potential heir, decided to adopt Antoninus Pius as his successor. Antoninus, Marcus’s uncle, was himself without heir, so at the same time Hadrian arranged that Antoninus should adopt two sons himself as potential successors, Commodus and Marcus. The historian Dio Cassius reports that Hadrian chose Marcus “because he was already giving indication of exceptional strength of character” (Dio Cassius 69.21.2). In short, Marcus’s interest in philosophy began during his childhood, predated his elevation into the Imperial family, and may have even contributed to him being chosen for the role.

Marcus’s philosophy teachers

Marcus was taught philosophy by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic (HA 4.2.7), and the Historia Augusta makes a point of saying that he continued to seek instruction from Apollonius even after joining the Imperial family (HA 4.3.1–2), which might be taken to imply that Apollonius was one of his childhood instructors in philosophy.7 Marcus acknowledges Apollonius in Book 1 of the Meditations, writing that from him he learned what we would now think of as archetypal Stoic lessons: to remain firm in the face of fortune and “to look to nothing else, even for a little while, except to reason” (1.8). Elsewhere, in a letter to Fronto, Marcus called Apollonius “my master in philosophy” (Ad M. Caes. 51).8
As well as studying with Apollonius, the Historia Augusta tells us that Marcus “attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea, the nephew of Plutarch, and of Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus, and Cinna Catulus, all Stoics” (HA 4.3.2). He also attended the lectures of Claudius Severus, a Peripatetic (HA 4.3.3). Of all these teachers, the Historia Augusta reports that Junius Rusticus was the most important influence on Marcus, a man “exceedingly well acquainted with the Stoic system” (HA 4.3.4).9 Marcus himself acknowledges his debt to Rusticus in Book 1 of the Meditations, noting that it was from him that he learned the need “for reform and treatment of character” (1.7),10 as well as an attitude of suspicion towards rhetoric and towards speculative writing or the production of commentaries on texts. At the same time, Marcus tells us that Rusticus encouraged him to read books carefully and deeply, and that he lent Marcus his own copy of the Discourses of Epictetus.
Marcus also acknowledges his teacher Sextus of Chaeronea in the Meditations, from whom he says he learned what we would now think of as core Stoic doctrines: “the notion of life according to Nature” and “to be at once entirely passionless and yet full of natural affection” (1.9). The Historia Augusta describes Sextus as a Stoic while also noting his more famous uncle, Plutarch, who of course wrote a number of extended polemics against the Stoics (HA 4.3.2).11 Dio Cassius reports that Marcus took on Sextus as a teacher after he had become Emperor, as evidence for his lifelong commitment to philosophy (Dio Cassius 71.1.2). By that point, it is likely that Marcus was already committed to the philosophy of the Stoa. Philostratus, in his Lives of the Sophists, reports an anecdote from one Lucius, who visited Marcus in Rome when he was Emperor. When Lucius found Marcus going out one day, he asked where the Emperor was going, to which Marcus is reported to have replied, “It is a good thing even for one who is growing old to acquire knowledge. I am going to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know” (VS 2.11.1). The impression we begin to get, then, is of someone with a lifelong interest in philosophy, stretching from early childhood to old age. The other noteworthy feature of this anecdote is that, as Emperor, Marcus did not summon Sextus to visit him, but made the trip to visit Sextus himself. This tells us something about both Marcus’s character and the nature of his relationship with his teacher.
The remaining teachers mentioned in the Historia Augusta are also all acknowledged in Book 1 of the Meditations. Claudius Maximus, another Stoic, held a number of important governmental posts, including consul sometime around 142. Marcus’s description of him lists a whole series of positive character traits that feature throughout the Meditations – self-mastery, coping with adversity, dignity, generosity, and so on (1.15) – that suggest that he was an important influence on Marcus’s own outlook on life. Indeed, at 1.17 he mentions Maximus alongside Apollonius and Rusticus as a formative influence. We do not know that much about Maximus but, if the identification is correct, he appears in the Apology of the Platonist Apuleius. This text, written as a defence speech in response to charges of using magic, is addressed to one Claudius Maximus who, as proconsul of Africa, presided over the court proceedings.12 Here he is presented as a Stoic (Apol. 19) who had read widely in the works of ancient philosophers (Apol. 38). Although, in a text like this, it should come as no surprise to see Apuleius praise Maximus, he describes him as a most honourable (sanctissimus) man (Apol. 85).
Cinna Catulus is mentioned only briefly by Marcus (1.13), and we do not know anything else about him beyond the comment in the Historia Augusta that he was a Stoic.13 When we turn to the last of these teachers, Claudius Severus, we meet the only one not described as a Stoic. As we have seen, the Historia Augusta describes him as a Peripatetic. He too, like a number of Marcus’s other teachers, was a high-ranking Roman active in politics. Marcus’s description of him presents an image of a close friend rather than a formal teacher and this is perhaps borne out by the fact that Severus’s son married Marcus’s daughter.14 Beyond that we do not know very much. But one thing that comes through very clearly from this brief survey of Marcus’s teachers in philosophy is that the dominant influence during his education was Stoicism.

Marcus and Fronto

Alongside philosophy Marcus also studied rhetoric in his youth. The Historia Augusta names a number of teachers – Aninius Macer, Caninius Celer, Herodes Atticus, and Cornelius Fronto (HA 4.2.4) – the most important of whom, we are told, was Fronto.15 Marcus’s relationship with Fronto gained even greater significance when, in the early nineteenth century, Angelo Mai discovered in Milan fragments of a correspondence between Fronto and Marcus as a palimpsest, on manuscript leaves partly erased and reused for another text. A few years later, in Rome, Mai found further leaves from the same original manuscript of Fronto and Marcus, reused for another text. The combined discoveries were first published together in 1823.16
Many of the letters that were recovered date from Marcus’s youth, but some are from later, when Marcus was Emperor. The correspondence was, however, over before the Meditations were written. Fronto was around 25 years older than Marcus, so when Marcus was a pupil of 15, his teacher was around 40 years old. Fronto was originally from Africa and in the correspondence describes himself as “a Libyan of the Libyan nomads” (Ad M. Caes. 2.3).17 Their relationship, then, was one of master and pupil, even if the pupil was of high social rank. The letters are often personal, with regular references to each other’s physical ailments, and very affectionate in places, leading some to see them as evidence for a homosexual relationship.18 The younger Marcus we find in the letters is quite different from the popular image of the austere sage: he often alludes to Latin comedy and can be, in the words of Fleury, “light-hearted and emotional” (2012: 74).
It has been commented that, given the close relationship often in evidence in the letters, the brevity of Marcus’s note on Fronto in Book 1 of the Meditations is somewhat surprising.19 An explanation might be found in the f...

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