Classics Marcus Aurelius's Meditations
by
Marcel van Ackeren
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0152

Introduction

Marcus Aurelius (b. 121 CE) was heir to the throne for twenty-three years, beginning in 138 CE, and then Roman emperor from 161 until his death in 180. He was a philosopher as well; in fact, he was the last important Stoic philosopher of Antiquity. Though Stoicism was an important philosophical school, not even a handful of ancient texts survived as a whole (only the Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes; works by Cleomedes, Cornutus, and Seneca; and some lectures by Epictetus as reported by Arrian). Probably in his last decade, Marcus wrote a philosophical text in Greek that has survived. As far as we know, the text was unknown to his contemporaries. Also, we do not know why and how the text waspreserved until its first edition was printed in 1558. Few seem to have known of its existence, but no reliable source exists proving that the same holds true for its content. Probably Marcus did not choose a title. The first edition is titled Ta eis heauton, “To himself,” and in the English-speaking world, Meditations has become the common title, while in other languages the titles used differ greatly. After its publication the text quickly became one of the most widely read philosophical texts from Antiquity. The text as we know it is divided into twelve books. In the first seventeen chapters of Book I, Marcus thanks his family, some of his teachers, especially his predecessor and adoptive father, Antonius Pius, for being living paradigms, and finally the gods. The following eleven books, comprising 473 chapters (ranging in length from three words to about three pages) do not follow any obvious formal or argumentative structure. The text, written for private purposes, is not a treatise. The chapters—sometimes argumentative, sometimes aphoristic—are self-addressed and centered around a group of topics. Though Marcus uses Platonic language every now and then, he is purely a Stoic thinker, which becomes obvious as he uses the Stoic division of philosophy and argues for distinctly Stoic theories in each part, sometimes using technical language. His overall aims are not theoretical, but purely ethical. He wants to live a Stoic life. Given the renaissance of practical philosophy, particularly practical ethics and the renewed interest in the ancient forms of life (e.g., by Hadot and Foucault), it is not surprising that the combination of Marcus’s philosophical ambitions and his unique way of writing, such as his literary style, has led to new research.

General Overviews

The Meditations has been very popular since the 17th century. Today it is still one of the most widely read texts of Antiquity, but scholarly interest has not been extensive. Up to 1970 the very few (larger) studies almost exclusively dealt with philological aspects, as seen in Neuenschwander 1949, Dalfen 1967, and Giavatto 2008. The growing interest in Hellenistic and Roman philosophy and so-called practical ethics stimulated more research on Marcus the philosopher, including Rutherford 1989, Hadot 2001, van Ackeren 2011, and van Ackeren 2012.

  • Dalfen, Joachim. 1967. Formgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zu den Selbstbetrachtungen Marc Aurels. PhD diss., Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München.

    E-mail Citation »

    An unpublished dissertation thesis, nevertheless available via libraries. Aims at showing that Marcus knew and used various literary forms and rhetorical techniques. Only some chapters seem to be outdated, such as the one treating the alleged literary form “diatribe.”

  • Giavatto, Angelo. 2008. Interlocutore de se stesso: La dialettica di Marco Aurelio. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms.

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    A philological study of the language, rhetoric, and style Marcus used for his epistemology and dialectic, with cross references to the correspondence with Fronto. Requires knowledge of Greek and Italian.

  • Gill, Christopher. 2013. Introduction. In Marcus Aurelius: Meditations; Books 1–6. Translated with introduction and commentary by Christopher Gill, xiii–lxxiv. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This sixty-page introduction is very informative, up to date, concise and well balanced. It focuses on the philosophical project of the Meditations and is suited for scholars and (under-)graduates alike.

  • Hadot, Pierre. 2001. The inner citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    This lucid study has been very influential. It focuses on Hadot’s previously developed idea that many ancient philosophers were concerned with “spiritual exercises” and “philosophy as a way of life.” Hadot argues that Marcus did not evade logic and physics; rather, he made them part of his practical Stoic ambitions. Originally published as La citadelle intérieure: Introduction aux pensées de Marc Aurèle (Paris: Fayard, 1992).

  • Kamtekar, Rachana. 2010. Marcus Aurelius. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ.

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    A short and good introduction based on Hadot 2001 and Anglo-American research. It also contains valuable literature and links to online translations of the Meditations.

  • Neuenschwander, Hans R. 1949. Mark Aurels Beziehungen zu Seneca und Poseidonios. Bern, Switzerland: Haupt.

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    This book includes many interesting details and much information concerning Marcus, but it focuses on the alleged influence of Posidonius on Marcus. Requires knowledge of Greek, Latin, and German.

  • Rutherford, R. B. 1989. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A study. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    An excellent study. Though primarily investigating the style of the Meditations, this very detailed and clear study provides a full analysis of the central themes and arguments of the Meditations. It is also bursting with information on the cultural and philosophical background. Knowledge of Greek or Latin is not required but helps to appreciate the material presented.

  • van Ackeren, Marcel. 2011. Die Philosophie Marc Aurels. 2 vols. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110255560E-mail Citation »

    Volume 1, Textform, Stilmerkmale, Selbstdialog, analyzes characteristics of the form and their philosophical significance. Volume 2, Themen, Begriffe, Argumente, analyzes the themes, concepts, and arguments according to the Stoic division of the philosophy. One of the main arguments treats Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations as the earliest extant “self-dialogue.”

  • van Ackeren, Marcel, ed. 2012. A companion to Marcus Aurelius. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118219836E-mail Citation »

    Contains overview articles on many aspects of the Meditations, including its reception and its cultural and historical background. It also deals with Marcus the emperor, and thus has chapters on numismatics, archaeology, and historical perspectives. Suited for students and readers without Greek.

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