The Stoic emperor never intended his work for publication. So why did he write it?
After the three Flavian emperors—Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian—came the “Five Good Emperors” of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and our man Marcus Aurelius (d. 180 CE). These emperors, wrote Machiavelli, “had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the goodwill of their subjects, and the attachment of the Senate.” Whereas Vespasian and Domitian had persecuted philosophers, Hadrian and Antoninus had courted them—until Marcus crossed over to the other side.
In Plato’s Republic (c. 375 BCE), Socrates says that his vision of the ideal state could not exist “until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy… then only will our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.” Here he was at last, more than five hundred years later, rarer even than the Egyptian phoenix, the fabled philosopher king—and not just any vassal or kinglet, but the Emperor of Rome.
In the latter years of his life, Marcus kept a journal, now called the Meditations, which has miraculously come down to us, and through which we might enter the mind of the philosopher-king. The twelve books of the Meditations do not present any chronological or thematic order but consist of a variety of unrelated reflections that seem to have been written for Marcus’ own benefit: for strength, for guidance, and for self-improvement—for example, “To speak to the Senate—or anyone—in the right tone, without being overbearing. To choose the right words.” This touching intimacy, and the epigrammatic character of many of his reflections, have ensured the appeal and perennial popularity of the work.
The first book, in which Marcus reflects with gratitude on what he has learned from various relatives and mentors, stands out from the rest as being more structured and autobiographical. He concludes this first book by thanking the gods that “when I became interested in philosophy, I didn’t fall into the hands of charlatans, and didn’t get bogged down in writing treatises, or become absorbed by logic-chopping, or preoccupied with physics.” The influence of the Stoic teacher Epictetus, here and elsewhere, is easy enough to discern.
It is unlikely that Marcus intended his thoughts for publication, or, even, for anyone’s eyes except his own. The “you” that he often uses is not a generic “you,” but him addressing himself—for example, “When you look at yourself, see any of the emperors… Then let it hit you: Where are they now?”
In one place, he refers to the Stoics in the third person: “Things are wrapped in such a veil of mystery that many good philosophers have found it impossible to make sense of them. Even the Stoics have trouble.” This suggests that he did not consider himself a Stoic, or even a philosopher, but merely a friend or student of philosophy.
Whatever the case, he clearly held the Stoics, and Epictetus, in the highest regard, and endeavoured all his life to live up to their precepts. In the Discourses, Epictetus advises the reader to rehearse and write down Stoic responses to life’s challenges. This embedding of Stoic principles, this turning of theory into practice, is what Marcus appears to be doing in and by the Meditations.
This kind of reflective journaling is not original to Epictetus. In On Anger, the Stoic Seneca (d. 65 CE) says that he acquired the habit from his teacher Sextius, who would nightly ask himself: “Which of your ills did you heal today? Which vice did you resist? In what aspect are you better?” “Your anger,” says Seneca, “will cease and become more controllable if it knows that every day it must come before a judge.”
Is there anything finer, then, than this habit of scrutinizing the entire day? What sort of sleep follows this self-examination—how peaceful, how deep and free… I exercise this jurisdiction daily and plead my case before myself. When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent… I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.
According to Epictetus, students of Stoicism ought to be trained in three areas, or disciplines, if they are to become good and virtuous and happy: desire, action, and assent. This pedagogy is echoed by Marcus when he writes, “Wipe out imagination: check desire: extinguish appetite: keep the ruling faculty in its own power.” That Marcus’ principal themes break down around the three disciplines supports the notion that the work represents his attempt to apply and embed the precepts of Stoicism.
And it’s surprising how Christian, or proto-Christian, he can sometimes sound—for example, when he writes: “God sees all our souls freed from their fleshy containers, stripped clean of their bark, cleansed of their grime. He grasps with his intelligence alone what was poured and channelled from himself into them. If you learn to do the same, you can avoid a great deal of distress. When you see through the flesh that covers you, will you be unsettled by clothing, mansions, celebrity—the painted sets, the costume cupboard?” Christian persecutions in fact increased during Marcus’ reign, although that probably had little to do with him.
Who discovered the Meditations after the death of Marcus? Who copied it? Who disseminated it? We may never find out. The first categorical mention of the Meditations, after more than four centuries of radio silence, is from the late ninth or early tenth century. In 1558, the German scholar Wilhelm Xylander translated the work into Latin, after which it came to assume its place in the Western canon.
After Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of China from 2003 to 2013, revealed that he had read it over a hundred times, it became a surprise bestseller in China too. How fitting, then, that the first recorded Roman embassy to China, at that time under the Hans, arrived in 166, in the reign of Marcus.
Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories: Stoicism by Its Best Stories.