I have just finished writing a book on Marcus Aurelius. This has been a longstanding commitment so I am pleased to have finally got it finished. It is due to be published by Routledge, in their series Philosophy in the Roman World.
The aim of the book is to defend Marcus Aurelius as a philosopher, and in particular a Stoic philosopher. It is all too common to hear it said that Marcus wasn’t really a philosopher at all - he was merely an amateur, he just wrote moral exhortation, he was a confused eclectic, he resorted to colourful images and rhetoric rather than argument, and so on.
I try to defend Marcus from these sorts of charges on a number of fronts. The first is biographical, where I look at Marcus’s early commitment to philosophy and his education. It is striking that the vast majority of his teachers in philosophy were Stoics. The correspondence with Fronto is especially interesting here, as it makes clear that Marcus was reading Chrysippus and Seneca, not just Epictetus.
The second front is literary. The Meditations is an anomalous text. In order to take it seriously as a work of philosophy we need to understand what type of text it is and what it was supposed to achieve. That requires thinking about the idea of written exercises conceived as a form of philosophical training, which was in turn part of philosophy understood as an art of living.
The third, and most important, front is philosophical. This involves looking at the philosophical themes in the Meditations and unpacking the Stoic doctrines presupposed by Marcus’s personal notes to himself. Against a common view that the Meditations is a work of practical ethics, I look at themes in logic, physics, and ethics. As I have presented it in the book, it’s in fact physical themes that predominate, although on so many topics one can see logical, physical, and ethical material intermingled. Marcus certainly engages with a wide range of philosophical material.
In the process of writing the book I have found a number of things:
It’s often been claimed that Marcus was not a proper philosopher because he resorted to colourful rhetorical imagery rather than giving real arguments. In fact there are quite a few arguments in the Meditations, and they are specifically Stoic arguments. For instance, in 5.16 he uses the first Stoic indemonstrable syllogism; in 7.75 he uses the fifth indemonstrable; in 10.6 he uses the second indemonstrable; and there are many other examples.
The division of the books of the Meditations into sections that everyone uses today only dates back to Thomas Gataker’s edition of 1652. Earlier editions (Sally 1626, Casaubon 1643) divide things up differently, while the first printed edition (Xylander 1559) just prints each book as continuous text without divisions. When reading the Meditations, then, it would be a mistake to approach it as a series of isolated aphorisms. Often a passage that can seem cryptic makes a lot more sense when read as part of a chain of thought spanning a series of interconnected sections. The text is a thought process, not a set of carefully crafted literary nuggets.
While I have learned a lot from reading Pierre Hadot’s various writings on Marcus, I have become less convinced by his claim that Epictetus’s three areas of study (topoi) are the key to understanding the Meditations. While there are certainly lots of echoes of Epictetus there, there are also lots of echoes of Seneca, but just as important are core Stoic ideas originating in the early Stoa. Marcus certainly read his Chrysippus, as were so many of his contemporaries, such as Galen, Plutarch, and Aulus Gellius.
The table of contents for the book looks like this:
Part I: Marcus and his Meditations
1. Marcus the Stoic Philosopher
2. The Meditations, a Philosophical Text
Part II: Logic
3. Impressions and Judgements
Part III: Physics
4. Nature and Change
5. Fate and Providence
6. Soul and Emotion
7. Time and Death
Part IV: Ethics
8. Virtue and Justice
9. The Cosmic City