Recently I have been reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a collection of books written by the Roman Emperor (121-180 AD) throughout his life. His work was rediscovered and saved by the Byzantine bishop Areta in the X century. It was finally published in the 1559, thanks to the philologist Guilielmus Xylander.
Meditations is a collection of thoughts on life and its relation with the surrounding cosmos. It is a form of spiritual exercises that aims to self-discipline, self-control and self-study, these typical of the stoic sage. Marcus Aurelius’ vision of life is disillusioned, looking at death and transformation as simple processes within the life cycle.
Marcus Aurelius’ life is characterized by two main periods. The first forty years were dedicated to studies and to the cursus honorum for his future role as princeps. His political involvement brought to many political responsibilities by the side of the Emperor Antoninus Pius (86-161 AD). In the year of Antoninus Pius’ death (161 AD), Marcus Aurelius became Emperor. His reign was characterized by a strenuous and continuous defence of the empire’s borders, contrarily to Marcus Aurelius’ desire of peace. He accepted this contradiction thanks to his stoic faith, looking at events as if these were dictated by a superior will, the Logos, that decided on his and others’ destiny.
In Meditations, it is possible to see the influence that these two life periods had on his writings; indeed, his political responsibilities noticeably influenced his stoic doctrine. Throughout his life, Marcus Aurelius always tried to reconcile his stoic beliefs with the challenges he faced as both a man and an emperor.
Originally, the stoicism refused politics: the sage was seen as autonomous, having the law within himself, this coming from the universal Logos of which his soul was a fragment. After Alexander the Great, the stoicism started to dialogue with politics, finding a certain success in the wealthy classes. Indeed, these justified the Roman Empire as a manifestation of the universal reason that governs the world. Specifically, Marcus Aurelius had great considerations for Epictetus’ stoicism; this philosopher preached the human helplessness in front of necessities. Among his lessons, it was relevant the difference made between what can be or not controlled by men, accepting the limits of our existence as part of the human experience.
Marcus Aurelius’ vision of the world is based on a principle of immutability, stubbornly static and fatal, considering life itself as irrelevant and ephemeral. On the contrary, the universe is motionless, living in an eternal present. Humans connect between each other, living on a mutual dependence, working on the tasks that the Logos has reserved for them. Embracing destiny also means to accept your social condition and working on the fulfilment of your function, by always keeping in mind that we are all servant of someone else due to our innate reciprocity.
Meditations present a strong tension between the rational soul and the body, that the sage lives as a constant fight for the triumph of the first upon the second. In this context, death stands as the final liberation. Marcus Aurelius’ attention devotes itself to the directive principle (hegemonikon) of the soul, this being life’s truest core, where the relationships between oneself and the external world happen. The cosmos is eternal and the events happening within it are just a repetition of themselves. Thus, the new generations won’t see anything new from the past.
Life, in this discourse, is just a dot within the universe’s life, a brief ‘present’ that loses its dimension at the moment of death. It is important for the rational soul to face the problem of death, this seen as a transitory phenomenon of the human substance. Death also guarantees the conservation of the matter necessary for the creation of new beings.
In his writings, Marcus Aurelius uses images that donate a profound look on its contents. This is a stoic strategy that consists in the realistic portrayal of an abstract concept, thus fixing it in the reader’s mind in the form of an experience. Moreover, images help to contrast strong passions; indeed, by imagining the consequences of excessive hate or love, the reader can more easily avoid them and protect him/herself. By offering light and sublime images to the reader, Marcus Aurelius also frees the text by the gloomy meditatio finis that the reader can feel while reading.
Considering the collection’s structure, Meditations is scholarly divided into XII books, all composed by more or less brief reflections, often resulting as quotes. Regarding the I book, it was written almost at the end of Marcus Aurelius’ life. Indeed, this is where he thanks his predecessors, friends, relatives and teachers for the lessons and experiences they shared together.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction on Marcus Aurelius’ work and that you will read all his books! If you like, please leave a comment below. Cheers,
P.S. For writing this preface I took inspiration from a nice essay written by Martino Menghi. He is professor at different universities, these including Milan, Sorbonne and Paris.