Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Marcus Aurelius: Order of the Universe, and Man’s Place in that Universe.

Marcus Aurelius was a great political theorist of his time and has greatly influenced the way that the world looks at politics. Marcus rings a bell in most minds as being one of the great Roman Emperors of his time. He ruled Rome from 161 BCE until his death in 180 BCE and was consider to be the last of the “Five Good Emperors” (“Marcus Aerulius web-1). He was best known to the philosophic community as being a great Stoic philosopher. Some even argue that he was the best Stoic philosopher of all times, and really stuck to the Stoic Creed with his theories (Sellars web-1).
Marcus Aurelius’ most famous work was his Meditations. The style of this book is more like a journal that Marcus during his journey through central Europe. In fact the first part of the work reads more like an autobiography, but the entries have no chronology and many theorists suspect that this was written separate from the rest of the work. The rest of the work outlines his theories, mainly regarding his Stoic philosophy (Sellars web-2).
He was greatly influenced by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and according to other theorists, Marcus was very familiar with Epictetus’ Discourses. In Marcus’s Meditations he even outlines some of the Stoic Creeds relating it back to political theory (Sellars 2). He mentions the three topoi (according to Epictetus). The three topoi are: desires and aversions, impulse to act and not to act and freedom from deception, hasty judgment and anything related to assents (Sellars web-3).
In this paper, I will examine how Marcus Aerulius viewed the world and man’s place in the world and how that applies to political theory. I will outline what Marcus Aerulius theories were, specifically explained in his work Meditations and explain how they apply to political theory both in his time and in the 21st century. Also in this paper I will provide critiques of other scholars in the field of political science on Marcus Aerulius’s theories.
Before we can understand more about Marcus Aerulius as a theorist and how he influenced 21st century thought, we must first examine his life. He was born Marcus Aerulius Antonius Augustus on April 26th 121 B.C. in Rome. He was taught by Emperor Hadrian, but later was taught by Emperor Antoninus in 138 AD. Marcus was studied rhetoric later in his life by Fronto but later became more interested in philosophy. Later in his life he became Emperor of Rome, and at first ruled alongside Lucius Verus in 161 AD, then by himself in 169. Because of all the attacks that went on through his rule, he was constantly moving around central Europe. During his reign, even with all the moving around he was able to establish four chairs of philosophy in Athens one for each of the four principle philosophical traditions: Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, and Epicurean (Sellars web-1).
Marcus’s life was full of so many different environments and different influences that it influenced his philosophy on life. Most of his philosophy came from the teachings of Epictetus, especially Stoic philosophy which he based his book Meditations on. The focus of Marcus throughout his work is the order of the universe and man’s place within that universe.
P.A. Brunt wrote an article titled “Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations” in which he outlines his interpretations of Marcus Aurelius’s work Mediations and how they can apply to the world. Brunt describes the first part of the work as being an autobiography of Marcus Aurelius’s life because it alludes to his personal experiences and on occasion refers to his family. Brunt also says that the purpose of this first part of the work isn’t to make his own life “a paradigm for the instruction of humanity” (Brunt 8). Thus the first part of Meditations is just Marcus Aurelius talking to himself, since it was never his purpose to create a moral treatise for the masses to read. Brunt then questions if the first part of the work should even be studied along with the rest of the book which takes a more philosophical take.
Brunt then describes the rest of the book as Marcus Aurelius’s outline of the order of the universe and the place that man finds himself in that universe. Marcus Aurelius’s first point in his work is that man should take the gifts from god over everything else, and reject tyranny. This way man remains honest, and virtuous within the world. Marcus Aurelius revels in the idea of the “Stoic” creed and the focus of the individual in society. The individual then becomes responsible for his own actions within the universe otherwise he will feel the repercussions from the order of the universe (Brunt 5).
Throughout Brunt’s article, the word courage comes up a lot when he is talking about Marcus Aurelius’s views of both the leader and the citizens. Courage was a chief idiosyncrasy that Marcus felt everyone should have some degree of. Along with courage, Marcus Aurelius thought one of the biggest problems with man is that it is too easy for him to succumb to earthly sins. Marcus was an advocate for the rejection of temptations of sensual and greedy nature, because these are the marks of tyrannical behavior (Brunt 7).
The concept of “truth-finding and truth-telling” are extremely important and Brunt points out that Marcus Aurelius uses the example of Achilles and Odysseus from Greek history to illustrate this point. Marcus takes this contrast of Achilles and Odysseus from Plato’s teachings. Achilles then is the “most straightforward and truthful of men” where Odysseus is the more typical Greek (Brunt 9).
Brunt focuses on Marcus Aurelius’s views on associates for a good part of his article. Marcus’s chief concern with the associates of rulers is that too much trust is put into them. He believed that man shouldn’t be so trusting of the ones that work under him, because we must “remember that men are but jagged and crooked instruments” (Brunt 12).
Brunt then moves off of Marcus Aurelius’s focus on man, and now takes a turn and moves to Marcus’s focus on the order of the universe and what man’s place is in it. Marcus says that man should be in devout service to the gods and then goes on to define just what “the gods” are. According to Marcus the universe, gods, kosmos, nature, are all interchangeable depending on the point of view and the culture of man. Marcus sticks with his Stoic doctrine and goes on to prove that all laws are bound by the kosmos. He says: “The kosmos consists of passive material and of a casual substance which gives it the form and is the source of every change” (Brunt 15). Marcus here is now talking about the appeal to reason that we all know today as “logos” (Brunt 15).
Brunt then comes to a conclusion about Marcus Aurelius’s philosophy when it comes to man and the universe. Brunt thinks that Marcus Aurelius had a very idealistic look when it pertained to man. It seems that Brunt feels that the ideas that Marcus had, at times contradicted themselves especially when it came to the concept of the truth versus the secrecy of the ruler. Brunt also once again questions the purpose of the autobiographical portion of the work and whether it was necessary, or if the editor who put the work together after Marcus’s death just threw it in for good measure (Brunt 18).
Like Brunt, James Ker wrote an article outlining the philosophy of Marcus’s Meditations, In Ker’s article has a more critical take on Marcus’s work, even going as so far as calling is pessimistic. He calls Marcus “a Stoic half-way to Platonism, so overawed by the brevity of human life within the infinite procession of eternity that he almost lost faith in his own existence” (Ker web-1). Ker, like Brunt, also uses the teachings of Epictetus to explain the Meditations, and how they are very Stoic in their doctrine.
Ker goes onto say not only did Marcus follow the Stoic creed, but that his work Meditations followed the three basic principles of Epictetan disciplines which correspond to the “tripartite Stoic system of logic, physics and ethics” (Ker web-1). This three tripartite system that Marcus uses in his work also correspond to the Epictetan topoi which were mentioned at the begging of the paper (desires and aversions, impulse to act and not to act and freedom from deception, hasty judgment and anything related to assents).
Ker also notices the self-address that is used in Meditations. He then points out that Marcus’ purpose in his writing “was not to invent or to compose, but to influence himself and produce an effect upon himself” (Ker web-1). So basically what Ker is implying was even thought Marcus’s aims were selfish and that he wasn’t planning on writing a moral treatise for the masses, he ended up doing so.
At the end of his article Ker praises Marcus for his philosophy, and even though his motives were selfish and pessimistic he ended up influencing the course of political theory throughout history. He says “what is personal and most distinctive about the text is its emergence from Marcus’s day-by-day attempts to actualize Stoic doctrine within a lived life-not its doctrine or even its imagery” (Ker web-2). So what Brunt regarded as day to day nonsense and unnecessary in general, Ker praises as the one thing that made Marcus’s teachings more understandable to the masses.
So despite the two author’s opinions of Marcus’s work, all can agree that its main doctrine was a Stoic one that taught where man fell in the grand scheme of things. Marcus’s basic belief system that he had still finds its place in the 21st century. He is still heralded as one of the great Emperors of his time. He has even been glorified in many books, movies, and television shows.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this was in the 2000 film Gladiator where Richard Harris played the great Emperor. On his death bed in the film Marcus muttered these words that truly show his influence on the world:
Yet you have never been there. You have not seen what it has become. I am dying, Maximus. When a man sees his end... he wants to know there was some purpose to his life. How will the world speak my name in years to come? Will I be known as the philosopher? The warrior? The tyrant...? Or will I be the emperor who gave Rome back her true self? There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish... it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter (Harris, Gladiator)
And in the end it is the philosopher in Marcus Aerulius that we remember and his philosophy that we used throughout time that still finds its place in the 21st century.
As mentioned before, Marcus spent a good bit of his work talking about how man shouldn’t succumb to earthly sins such as lust and greed. This is something that in the 21st century we still believe in and try to follow in our everyday lives. Also the concept of rejecting tyranny and the fact that tyranny comes out of succumbing to the earthly sins.
Many rulers of the 21st century have followed the ideas that were outlined in Marcus’s work. One of the most prominent is Bill Clinton who even has a copy of Meditations on his bedside table. He was asked once in an interview what was the most important book to him other than the Bible, and he replied Meditations. Clinton followed the idea that “Individuals however can endure life’s futilities through the performance of duty and the application of reason. Central Stoic doctrines include the obligation to play a role in public affairs and indifference to life’s pains and pleasures” (Coates A12). Clinton really took the idea to hear that he should get involved, obviously going so far as becoming president of the United States and using Marcus’s theories to get him there.
One of main things that Clinton likes about him was “his ability to concentrate Stoic thought into tight, pithy expressions that can be very quotable” (Coates A12). The author of this article though goes onto say that even though Marcus is very quotable his theories can only be in small doses otherwise they become repetitive and increasingly boring.
Despite this feeling that Coates has for his theories, he does call Marcus “no mere philosophical speculator: he was the sole ruler of one of the greatest political entities history has ever known, a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders is ever there was one.” (Coates A12). So we can see that whether the critics are denouncing him, calling him boring, singing his praises, or living by his creeds, Marcus Aerulius still has a strong hold on political theory today in the 21st century.
Marcus Aerulius had a lot of great theories that he outlined in his work. He had great experience with political theory from traveling around so much during his rule so he saw more than the other theorists did. His view of the world and man’s place in it was built off of other theorists, but he put his own spin on it. I agree with his concept that we answer to a higher power and to make that power happy we can’t fall prey to the earthly sins that are around us.
The only thing that was a weakness when it came to Marcus Aerulius was that he had an extremely idealistic view on the world. He wanted man to be perfect and to follow the laws that were set down by the gods strictly. He also wanted the rulers to remain incorruptible and above the rest of the citizens, thus revered by the ruler’s followers. Obviously no one is incorruptible because everyone is human and falls prey to the sins of this earth.
Marcus Aerulius was a great philosopher no matter how he is spun, he was smart, he had the background, he had the knowhow, and he had great theories. It is safe to say though that when he wrote Meditations he didn’t mean for it to be used as a doctrine for people to live their lives, which it did become over the years. It started out as a sort of self-address to point out the flaws in society and how he himself should work to correct those flaws within his own rule. His work has become so much more than that, which we can see since his doctrines are still relevant in the 21st century.
In general political theory shapes our everyday society. Without the great philosophers our government would be in shambles. Everywhere one looks in the government there are influences from political theorists. Our governmental system in general is derived from the Greek philosophers and rulers, our presidents have long quoted and used philosophic doctrines in their presidencies, and our Constitution is derived straight from the basic philosophical ideals of the greats.
Political Theory is open to interpretation. Everyone is always going to have their own take on how the government should run and the structure that it should undertake. Back when the theorists were coming up with their theories about politics a lot of them were scorned for their ideas. Some, like Machiavelli were even hung for their beliefs. This just shows how different people have different opinions and usually the opinions of the majority are the ones that take over.
The theories of the great philosophers not only influence our political system and the governing bodies’ ideals, but our everyday life. Without political theory our society would be in ruins. Forget not having our democracy that we pride ourselves on, we wouldn’t even have a presentable society. Everyday values and morals that we live by wouldn’t exist, and our society would be in ruins if we didn’t have political theory.

Works Cited
· Brunt, P.A., “Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations”, Journal of Roman Studies 64 (1974):
· Coates, Steve. "The book on Clinton's bedside table.” Wall Street Journal [New York, N.Y.] 20 Jan. 1993, Eastern edition: A12
· Gladiator. Dir Ridley Scott. Perf. Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Richard Harris and Connie Nielsen. DreamWorks Pictures, 2000.
· “Marcus Aerulius.” 11 March 2009. 15 March 2009
· James Ker. . "The Inner Citadel. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. "Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.1 (2000): 116-118. Research Library Core. ProQuest. 18 Mar. 2009
· Sellars, John. “Marcus Aerulius.” The Internet Encyclopedia of 2005. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 13 March 2009

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