Over the last few months I have been finishing off three commissioned pieces all dealing with Marcus Aurelius, each coming from a quite different angle. The first examines Marcus’s references to Socrates and the extent to which Socrates was an influence on both the form and content of the Meditations. The second discusses the theme of ‘mindfulness’ in Marcus and Epictetus, making some connections with Michel Foucault’s work on ‘cultivation of the self’. The third is concerned with the reception of the Meditations in the work of the seventeenth century Cambridge Platonist Henry More.
Here are the titles and abstracts for all three (preprints to follow shortly):
‘Socratic Themes in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’
Although Marcus Aurelius refers to Socrates only a handful of times in the Meditations, and often only to name him as an example of an illustrious figure now long dead, this chapter argues that there is a distinctive Socratic character to the philosophical project that we see at work in Marcus’s notebook writings. In those few places where Marcus does invoke Socrates it is usually in connection with one of the central preoccupations of the Meditations, in particular the notion of taking care of oneself, the primacy of virtue, and the need for self-control. This chapter i) examines Marcus’s knowledge of Socrates and the sources he used, and ii) explores the Socratic themes in the Meditations noted above. Although Marcus does not explicitly say very much about Socrates, I suggest that he probably considered the Meditations to embody a deeply Socratic project.
‘Roman Stoic Mindfulness: An Ancient Technology of the Self’
This chapter examines Michel Foucault’s notion of cultivation of the self by focusing on an example of an ancient practice contributing to that goal, namely the attitude of attention or mindfulness proposed by the Roman Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. It contrasts this Stoic attitude with modern versions of mindfulness, showing that both the object of attention and the goal of the process are different. It argues that the primary object of attention for Roman Stoic mindfulness was one’s philosophical principles. The goal of this practice was virtuous action based upon those principles. It was a technique aimed at ethical self-transformation, unlike its modern counterpart, which is primarily aimed at overcoming distress.
‘Henry More as Reader of Marcus Aurelius’
I examine Henry More’s engagement with Stoicism in general, and Marcus Aurelius in particular, in his Enchiridion Ethicum. More quotes from Marcus’s Meditations throughout the Enchiridion, leading one commentator to note that More ‘mined the Meditations’ when writing his book. Yet More’s general attitude towards Stoicism is more often than not critical, especially when it comes to the passions. I shall argue that while More was clearly an avid reader of the Meditations he read Marcus not as a Stoic but as a ‘non-denominational’ ancient moralist who confirms a range of doctrines that More finds elsewhere in ancient philosophy. In this sense More continues the Neoplatonic practice of downplaying doctrinal differences between ancient philosophers in order to construct a single ancient philosophical tradition. This is quite different from the approach of his contemporary and fellow Cambridge Platonist, Ralph Cudworth, who was keen to highlight doctrinal differences between ancient philosophers.