Time to get started on a new book about Stoic philosophy: Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel, which focuses on the Meditations by the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. As a hopefully useful reminder, recent entries in the Stoic Book Club series include: The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, by Liz Gloyn; Stoicism and Emotion, by Margaret Graver; The Role Ethics of Epictetus, by Brian Johnson; and Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism.
Hadot’s book is a classic, originally published in French in 1992, and translated into English by Michael Chase. It’s comprised of ten chapters, and depending on how my own reading goes, I may devote a post to each chapter. Here we begin with 1: “The emperor-philosopher.”
As Hadot points out, Marcus had a happy youth, but a tormented reign. He was born in Rome in 121 CE to a wealthy family that owned a number of brick factories and had significant political influence. He was noticed and protected by the emperor Hadrian, who instructed his chosen successor, Antoninus Pius, to adopt Marcus as well as Lucius Verus, and to groom them both for the throne. Marcus did become emperor in 161 CE, at the death of Antoninus, and he immediately appointed the far less capable Lucius as co-emperor (Lucius died in 169 CE, probably of the plague, leaving Marcus sole emperor).
Marcus had married Faustina, daughter of Antoninus, in 145 CE, and the two had thirteen children, of whom only five daughters and one son survived into adulthood. Unfortunately for the Roman people, that son was the infamous Commodus, who eventually inherited the Empire.
Trouble began the very same year of Marcus and Verus’ ascent to the throne, when the Parthians invaded the eastern provinces of Rome. It took several years and the capable leadership of generals Statius Priscus and Avidius Cassius to push back the Parthians. In 166 CE, as soon as the ceremonies for the victory had been held, the Marcomanni and the Quadi threatened the northern frontier with what today is Germany. Consequently, Marcus had to carry out military campaigns in the Danube region from 169 to 175 CE, and it was during this time that he likely wrote the Meditations.
As soon as the Marcomanni and Quadi situation was under control, Avidius Cassius rebelled and declared himself emperor, but was subdued by Martius Verus, the loyal governor of Cappadocia (modern Turkey). Marcus at this point decided to embark on an extended trip east, together with Faustina, who however died en route and his remembered tenderly in the Meditations (I.17-18), despite her reputation as an adultress.
During his period as emperor Marcus didn’t just face war and rebellion, but also a number of other calamities, including major floodings of the Tiber river (161 CE), a gigantic earthquake in Smyrna (Turkey, 178 CE), and a plague (166 CE) that cost million of lives throughout the empire. After his return to Rome, he had to leave again to engage on another northern campaign, and died most likely at Vienna in 180 CE. As commentator Cassius Dio aptly put it:
“He didn’t have the luck which he deserved … but was confronted, throughout his reign, by a multitude of disasters. That is why I admire him more than any other, for it was amidst these extraordinary and unparalleled difficulties that he was able to survive, and to save the Empire.”
Marcus was a philosopher, but not, of course, in the modern sense of an academic profession. As Hadot points out, in antiquity a philosopher could be a teacher, like Zeno or Musonius Rufus, but also anyone who actually practiced a chosen philosophy of life. As Epictetus puts it in Discourses III.21.5:
“Eat like a man, drink like a man, get dressed, get married, have children, lead the life of a citizen. … Show us all this, so that we can see whether or not you have really learned something from the philosophers.”
(Needless to say, we would update the language to gender neutral nowadays, and wouldn’t assume that getting married or having children is a necessary part of a good life. But the concept remains the same.)
There are two documents that testify to Marcus’ interest in philosophy and to his adoption of Stoicism in particular: his correspondence with his teacher of rhetoric, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, and, of course, the Meditations. It appears that the conversion to philosophy was due to the work of Junius Rusticus, a Stoic teacher who introduced Marcus to Epictetus, and who is accordingly thanked in the first book of the Meditations. Marcus’ interest in philosophy dates back to when he was twelve, and it’s traceable to another teacher, Diognetus, who he said inspired in him “the desire to sleep on a cot and a simple animal-skin, and for things of this sort which belong to the Hellenic way of life.”
Rusticus, however, was Marcus’ favorite teacher, according to the Historia Augusta, and he consulted him on both private and public business. Rusticus was both Marcus’ friend and his spiritual guide, we would say today. Interestingly, in the Meditations Marcus thanks Rusticus for having taught him not to get angry with people who irritated him, which apparently was in Marcus’ character to do. This is what good philosophy helps us with: becoming conscious of our own faults and constantly practicing their reduction.
At one point Marcus wrote to Fronto that he had been absorbed by the reading of Aristo, who - to Fronto’s horror, as a rhetorician - had reminded him that those who conduct advanced studies of dialectics are like people eating crayfish: they struggle with a lot of shell for very little nourishment. I love the analogy, and the warning is in line with the Stoic attitude toward studying theoretical matters: it’s okay up to a point, so long as such theory is then useful in practice, to live a good life. But beyond a certain point it becomes logic chopping or studying for erudition’s sake, something they considered unvirtuous.
Marcus also went to formal school, particularly attending the lessons of Apollonius of Chalcedon and Sextus of Chaeronea. Apollonius insisted that Marcus should go to him, the teacher, and not him to the palace where Marcus lived, prompting the emperor Antoninus Pius to comment that he brought Apollonius from far away at great expense to teach Marcus Stoicism, but that it was easier to get the philosopher to move from Chalcedon to Rome than from his house to the imperial palace. Marcus attended Sextus’ school when he was old, and was criticized for this. In response to the criticism he said:
“Learning is a good thing, even for one who is growing old. From Sextus the philosopher I shall learn what I do not know yet.”
Marcus probably learned not just ethics from his Stoic teachers - who were all influenced by Epictetus and his own teacher, Musonius Rufus - but also the other two standard topoi of Stoicism: “physics” (i.e., natural science and metaphysics) and “logic” (i.e., logic, dialectic, and what we today call psychology). This comes out very clearly in William Stephens’ Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed, which I highly recommend.
When Marcus became emperor on 7 March 161 CE, Fronto the rhetorician was not happy about the notion of governing in a philosophical manner. Rather sarcastically, he wrote to Marcus: “Even should you attain the wisdom of Cleanthes or of Zeno, you shall still be obliged, like it or not, to wear the purple pallium, and not that of the philosophers, made of coarse wool.” That is: you may be a philosopher, but as an emperor you’ll still need to deploy the rhetorical skills I taught you in order to govern effectively.
Nevertheless, Marcus did govern as a philosopher, surrounded by philosophers as advisors, and apparently the people of Rome were well aware of this fact, and arguably benefited from it (he was, famously, the last of the five “good emperors”). Indeed Galen, the most famous doctor of antiquity, who was Marcus’ personal physician, testifies to an intense philosophical activity during Marcus’ reign within the circles of the Roman aristocracy.
(next up: a first glimpse of the Meditations)