Marcus Aurelius: Philosophy & Religion

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher-king, known for his writings on how a Stoic should live. Marcus emphasized acting for the good of the community and following your true nature.

The Philosopher-King and the Stoics

How should a person live? This question has been asked many people throughout the ages, both philosophers and ordinary people. One of those people was both a philosopher, and an emperor. In spite of how different his life was from peoples' today, his writings are still widely read and praised for their insight.

Drawing of Marcus Aurelius
drawing of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was born to a ruling class family in ancient Greece. His father died when he was young, and he was raised by his grandfather, educated in philosophy, and adopted by the emperor when he was sixteen years old. Marcus became emperor himself at the age of 37.

Marcus' renown as a philosopher is mostly due to his writings known by the name of Meditations. Marcus lived from 121 to 180 A.D., and was Emperor of Rome from 161 until his death. At this time, one of the most prominent schools of philosophy in the Greek and Roman world was Stoicism. Stoicism was first and foremost a philosophy of ethics derived from logic.

Stoics believed human beings should accept their lot in life, which was the result of a God, and develop self-control in order to achieve happiness. Though many people associate the Stoics with being disconnected or apathetic about the world, this is not correct. The Stoics simply didn't believe people should be manipulated by their emotions. Instead, you should be in command of yourself and your true nature.

The Stoic Epictetus

In addition to reflecting general Stoic beliefs in his writings, Marcus was strongly influenced by the Stoic Epictetus. Marcus quotes Epictetus' Discourses frequently in Meditations. Epictetus was a former slave who, after gaining his freedom, taught philosophy and in Aurelius' time was known as the greatest of all Stoic philosophers.

Meditations and Philosophical Exercises

Even though Meditations is known as a work of philosophy, it was not meant to be published. Marcus wrote in his notebook while he was away from home on a military campaign in Central Europe (Marcus was frequently away on military campaigns). Meditations also features letters between Marcus and his rhetoric teacher Fronto, likely from a slightly earlier time.

Because Meditations was Aurelius' personal notebook, it contained many philosophical exercises that were intended to help him develop his character and become a better person. The most well-known exercise is known as the point of view of the cosmos. Aurelius writes:

'You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgement, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite.'

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