Philosophy Marcus Aurelius
by
John Sellars
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0278

Introduction

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (b. 121–d. 180) was the author of a series of philosophical reflections that are best known in the English-speaking world under the title Meditations. In the Meditations Marcus reflects on a range of philosophical topics as well as challenges in his own life. The book is unlike any other philosophical text that has come down to us from Antiquity, taking the form of a collection of notebook jottings that were probably never intended for wider circulation. With the exception of Book 1, which reflects on Marcus’s debts to various people that have been important in his life, the remaining eleven books of philosophical and personal reflections are in no particular order and display no obvious structure. Many of the philosophical positions that Marcus holds, and the arguments underpinning them, remain unstated but various remarks in the text and elsewhere (especially Marcus’s correspondence with his rhetoric tutor Fronto) make it clear that Marcus was committed to Stoicism. The Meditations contains numerous examples of someone trying to respond to problems in everyday life in the light of not just Stoic ethics but also Stoic physics and Stoic logic. Although Marcus quotes often from Plato and occasionally uses Platonic terminology his philosophical worldview remains thoroughly Stoic. He often quotes from the Stoic Epictetus, whom he explicitly acknowledges as an important influence, and he also quotes from Heraclitus, whose image of nature as everlasting fire influenced Stoic physics. How the Meditations were preserved after Marcus’s death and through the Middle Ages remains obscure, and the text did not attract any significant number of readers until the first printed edition in the 16th century. Since then it has proved especially popular with general readers although less so with professional philosophers. In the 17th and 18th centuries Henry More, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, and Francis Hutcheson were all avid readers of Marcus. More recently he has been an important influence on Pierre Hadot’s account of philosophy as a way of life, which, in turn, influenced the late work of Michel Foucault.

General Overviews

Brief but informative introductions to Marcus Aurelius can be found in Gill 2007 and Kamtekar 2010. An older and slightly longer introduction, highly recommended for both students and scholars, can be found in Brunt 1974. Rutherford 1989 is a literary rather than philosophical study of the text and offers a careful and sensitive reading. Recent years have seen the publication of a number of important monographs on Marcus. Of these Hadot 1998 offers an important and philosophically rich reading of the Meditations. More recently Giavatto 2008 and van Ackeren 2011 both offer thorough scholarly analysis of great value. The collection of studies in van Ackeren 2012 covers many important topics and is highly accessible.

  • Brunt, P. A. “Marcus Aurelius in His Meditations.” Journal of Roman Studies 64 (1974): 1–20.

    DOI: 10.2307/299256E-mail Citation »

    A classic overview of the Meditations. Scholarly and presupposes knowledge of Greek in places but still accessible and engaging for students. Recently reprinted in Brunt’s Studies in Stoicism, pp. 360–393. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    A detailed philological and philosophical study of the Meditations, in Italian, paying particular attention to the rhetorical and argumentative techniques deployed by Marcus. Requires knowledge of Greek.

  • Gill, Christopher. “Marcus Aurelius.” In Greek and Roman Philosophy 100 BC–200 AD. Vol. 1. Edited by Richard Sorabji and Robert W. Sharples, 175–187. London: Institute of Classical Studies, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    A short but detailed overview of the central issues in recent scholarship on Marcus, focusing on his use of Stoicism. Recommended for anyone wanting to get up-to-date with the scholarly literature.

  • Hadot, Pierre. The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important and influential study, shaped by Hadot’s previous work on the role of spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy. Highly recommended. First published in French as La citadelle intérieure: Introduction aux Pensées de Marc Aurèle. Paris: Fayard, 1992.

  • Kamtekar, Rachana. “Marcus Aurelius.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, Winter 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    A brief but lively overview, paying especial attention to Marcus’s practical application of Stoicism to problems in daily life.

  • Rutherford, R. B. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Study. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    A literary rather than philosophical study of the Meditations, rich in information about the classical literary and cultural context in which Marcus was writing. Presupposes knowledge of Greek, although the Greekless reader will still be able to gain much.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive study of Marcus Aurelius in German examining both literary and philosophical aspects of the Meditations. The most detailed study to date.

  • van Ackeren, Marcel, ed. A Companion to Marcus Aurelius. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    A substantial collection of essays covering both Marcus the Emperor and Marcus the Philosopher. The essays on his philosophy together form a strong overview and are accessible to students.

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