1

My question is short. Are there any contradicting things in Meditations of Marcus Aurelius? Contradictions in between his quotes or quotes and real life.

1

Welcome, Igor

I divide the discussion between Philosophy, then Practice.

Philosophy

A number of philosophical, Stoic themes emerge in the Meditations:

The unity of the universe

When Marcus talks of 'unity' without further qualifcation he usually refers to the unity of the universe. He urges himself to meditate often on "the concatenation of all things in the universe and their relationship with one another". epistundesis, 'concatenation', is a strong word for the mutual union and interdependence of all things and this necessary connection of antecedents and consequents is explained rather cryptically by Marcus as due to the movement of stress, the sympathy that pervades all things and the unity of all substance. Marcus argues that the tendency to union increases as one advances to higher orders. There is more uniting activity among irrational creatures, with their swarms and flocks, than exists among inanimate objects, such as minerals and plants. Rational creatures form political communities, friendships, households, assemblies and so on. He asserts that progress along the natural scale was able to produce unity even among things which are quite separate, such as the stars, which move in concert.-' But Marcus revels most in strong affirmations of his belief in the unity of the cosmos:

"All things are interwoven and the common bond is sacred.... For there is one universe consisting of all and one God immanent in all, one substance and one law - the reason common to all intelligent creatures - and one truth, if indeed the ideal of creatures who share the same origin and the same reason is one."

This belief is so well established that Marcus can speak of 'cosmos' as simply the name for the single but all-embracing unity in which all things that come to pass exist simultaneously." He exhorts himself to think constantly of the universe as a single living creature, comprising a single substance and a single soul." Men are united by nature, but they can sever themselves from "the unity which is in harmony with nature". For man, who is born as a part of the whole, cuts himself off by not associating his will with what happens or by some unsocial act. (G. R. Stanton, 'Marcus Aurelius, Emperor and Philosopher', Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Bd. 18, H. 5 (Dec., 1969), pp. 570-587: 576.)

The nature of the universe

Knowledge of this universe in which all things are bound together is important to Marcus and he frequently discusses its nature. He states that "the mind of the universe is social", implying that men as rational creatures have an essential ability to create koinonoa, the fellowship of society." A definite attitude to one's fellow man should result from this conclusion. Although our kinsmen and neighbours are ignorant of what is in harmony with their nature, we who do know should treat them in a kind and just fashion, in accordance with the natural law of fellowship.

Marcus' central idea about the working of the universe is change. The universe is continually preserved in its prime by change. Change is inevitable. What men call loss or death is nothing but change. Men should not fear change since nothing is more familiar to universal nature. Two principles which Marcus stresses as basic are: (i) "I am a part of the whole controlled by nature"; (ii) "I am intimately connected in some way with other parts of the same kind". With this in mind man should not be displeased with anything allotted to him by the whole, for what is beneficial to the whole cannot harm the part. The welfare of the whole and the part are completely bound up together. Linked with this concept of acceptance of whatever is assigned to man from the whole is the popular idea, for Marcus, of harmony with universal nature. Every man's interest is served by what is in harmony with his own constitution and nature; and man's nature is rational and social.' Hence to care for all men is in harmony with man's nature. Marcus stresses repeatedly that no one can prevent man living in harmony with nature. He states his personal determination to walk in the way that is in harmony with nature.

...

Marcus also recommends acceptance of one's destiny. Just as a doctor prescribes cures, so universal nature prescribes for men whatever befalls in the way of sickness or loss, as being beneficial to the whole. A rational being welcomes all that is assigned by universal nature, because he is a part of that whole. Marcus' overall view of man's relation to universal nature has these twin principles at its centre: first no one can prevent you living in harmony with nature; secondly, that nothing can happen to you which is not in harmony with universal nature." The most specific that Marcus becomes in explaining these principles occurs when he gives examples of acts of impiety against that venerable goddess, universal nature: injustice (because rational creatures are created to benefit one another); lying (because it distorts the know- ledge of the real nature of the things that exist); seeking pleasure and avoiding pain (because in either case a man must often blame the gods for a supposed unfair dispensation to good and bad, and blaming the gods is already established as sinful)." (Stanton: 577-8.)

Cosmopolitan ideas

Marcus clearly thinks of himself as a citizen of the universe: "My city and fatherland as Antoninus is Rome, but as a man, the universe." Moreover he gives a detailed defence of his concept of the universe as a state.

...

"If mind is common to us all, then so is reason, by virtue of which we are rational beings. If that reason is common which prompts us to do or not to do thiilgs, then law also is common. If that is so, we are citizens. If so, we share in an organised community. But the universe is the only organised community in which the whole race of mankind can be said to share. Thus the universe is as it were a state."

Then the argument proceeds to justify the premises:

"This common state is the source of our mind and reason and sense of law. For the mind, like the earthy and watery and spiritual and fiery parts in us, must have come from somewhere."" It seems likely that Marcus would also conclude that the universe is a state by means of the well established principle, in his thought, of koinonia, for it is a fellowship of men who are rational and social beings. Hence their community is in fact a universal state. The brotherhood of mankind is a unity based on the common possession of mind. Marcus says as much:

"When you are discontented with something, you have forgotten ... how strong is the kinship of man with all mankind, for it is a community (or fellowship) based not on blood or seed, but on mind." (Stanton: 578-9.)

Practice

In light of the above, how does he act as emperor ?

Wars

The reign of the emperor-philosopher was marked by continual wars on the northern and eastern frontiers of the empire. In 162, a year after his accession, Marcus sent his colleague Lucius Verus to the Parthian War and troops were taken from the northern frontier to bolster the armies in the east. From 166 on tribes living beyond the Upper Rhine and the Danube, especially the Quadi and Marcomanni, broke through the weakened line of defence and even invaded northern Italy. Marcus' response to the initial threat took the form of a frenzied round of foreign religious ceremonies and a march north led by both emperors. Italy and Illyricum were soon secured (A.D. 167) but Marcus spent most of the rest of his life fighting from his base in Pannonia and was still engaged in war with the Germanic tribes at the time of his death. (Stanton: 580-1.)

Stoicism and continual wars make an odd conjunction.

Persecutions

Judging from Eusebius' general notes of alarm about ... the time around the seventeenth year of Marcus Aurelius' rule [GT: c. 166-8], and judging also from his general grouping of particular anti-Christian movements and individual martyrdoms, one can with reason conclude that during this Emperor's rule there were at least two very distinct waves of persecution resulting in a large but indefinite number of martyrdoms. One is justified in ascribing the great majority of persecutions and particular martyrdoms to the hatred and violence of the non-Christian population, especially in Asia and even in Lugdunum. Christians, even more than the Jews, were, traditionally, targets of violence and pogroms in the Greek provinces, especially in the East. The singling out of these two periods of Marcus Aurelius' term and the specially alarming tone of the Christian historian and the obvious and extraordinarily violent character of these two waves of persecution, however, need much more than the usual explanation - the general popular hatred. (Paul Keresztes, 'Marcus Aurelius a Persecutor?', The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Jul., 1968), pp. 321-341: 327.)

Whatever the explanation, if Marcus did not intitiate the persecutions he also appears to have done little to stop them. This is perhaps not entirely what one might have expected from the supposedly great practioner of Stoicism.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.