Marcus Aurelius - Biography
Marcus Aurelius Considered the last of the “Five Good Emperors” by Niccolò Machiavelli, Marcus Aurelius was born on the 26th of April 121 ACE. He and Lucius Verus were co-emperors of Rome from 161 until the latter’s death in 169 in which Marcus Aurelius continued to rule until his own death on the 17th of March 180 in the modern day city of Vienna while on campaign against Germanic tribes. Marcus Aurelius was known as a benevolent, ardent and loyal ruler who put his commitment to the Roman Empire above all else. His sense of duty and good will was, presumably, a consequence of his Stoicism. He was an avid student of the Stoic school of philosophy and was committed to putting his philosophy into practice, living his life through his understanding and interpretation of Stoicism. Alongside being the Emperor of Rome, he is most known for his writings in Greek contained in the Meditations that find their grounding in Stoic philosophy.
Born to Marcus Annius Verus III and Domitia Lucilla, Marcus Aurelius and his younger sister, Annia Cornificia Faustina, grew up in the Caelian Hill region. Though his father died when he was around the age of three, his childhood was quite pleasant and he was well cared for through his mother’s family inheritance and his growing adoptive family, primarily his father’s father, Marcus Annius Verus II. Lucius Catilius Severus was,as well, involved in his rearing. He had various private tutors and became a devoted student especially of philosophy in which it has been said he took up the dress and behavior of ‘the philosopher’ known, even, to sleep on the floor (until his mother’s intervention).
Around the age of eighteen, Marcus Aurelius was adopted by Antoninus Pius who had previously been adopted by Emperor Hadrian as heir to the empire. His education would continue in Greek and Latin, and, in philosophy and rhetoric, most notably with Atticus and Fronto respectively. Fronto would become his life-long friend and originally prompted him to follow in the direction of oration becoming involved in issues of the state yet Marcus Aurelius took a much greater interest in philosophy. His commitment to philosophy, and particularly Stoicism, escalated in his studies with the Stoics Apollonius of Chalcedon and Quintus Junius Rusticus.
By most accounts, Marcus Aurelius’s enthusiasm for Stoicism came from the writings of Epictetus, which were given to him by Rusticus. Similar to the disciplines of the earlier Stoics, divided as the physical, the ethical, and the logical, the philosophy of Epictetus asserts three areas of corresponding disciplines essential to the philosopher: desire or aversion, impulse to act and not to act, and assent (free from deception or rash judgement). He also upheld the firm stance that philosophy cannot just be philosophized, but must be practiced. In order to do so, bring philosophy into action, Epictetus recommended the employment of philosophical exercises into one’s daily life, including that of writing, as a form of philosophical discipline.
As such, many scholars agree that Marcus Aurelius’s most known text, the Meditations, is just that—an in-depth and at length philosophical exercise in the form of writing. It has been suggested that the three ‘rules’ Marcus Aurelius denotes in his text—being contented with whatever happens, conducting oneself justly towards others, and exercising discernment in one's judgments—correlate to the disciplines of Epictetus. That the text is more of a personal notebook, rehearsal and theoretical disciplinary companion is shared by most readers of his work as evidenced in little passages such as the exclamations to himself to “wipe out impression; check impulse; quench desire; do nothing at random; those who now bury will soon be buried.”
The Meditations are thus not a traditional philosophical text, and often wander in their dialogue, ruminations and exhortations. Considered to have been written mostly while he was on campaign waging against the impending attacks from the Germanic tribes, it appears as though the texts were summations, on a philosophical level, of a particular issue he may have been battling with followed by subsequent ways of action in dealing with (un)said particular crisis. This could be an important way of reading the text in understanding its non-methodical approach. It is full of philosophical assessment, descriptive antidotes, historic and metaphoric, and prescriptive manners for action.
The mode of the Meditations is certainly Stoic and it reveals Marcus Aurelius’ struggles in leading his life as a practice in philosophy.
… as you are no longer able to have lived your whole life as a philosopher since youth; and it is clear to many others and to you yourself that you are far from philosophy. Thus you are confused: the result is that obtaining the reputation of a philosopher is no longer easy for you … If you have seen truly where the matter lies, then leave behind your reputation and be content even if you live the remainder of life, however long, as your nature wills. Consider what it wills, and let nothing else distract you. For your experience tells you how much you have strayed: nowhere in so-called reasonings, wealth, reputation, enjoyment, nowhere do you find living well. So where is it? In doing those things which human nature seeks. And how will one do these things? If one has doctrines from which one's impulses and actions. Which doctrines? Those concerning goods and evils: that nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, temperate, courageous, free; that nothing is bad, which does not make him the contraries of the aforementioned. (viii1)
In terms of what is good and just or wrong and evil, Marcus Aurelius considers the issue more in terms of what is just, as a matter of justice and natural good. Similar to Cicero and cosmopolitanism, he seeks to position himself, or man, in relation to the cosmos—“embracing in thought the whole cosmos.” From this perspective, one is to think of oneself as a part of the whole in which what is good and just for the whole is good and just for the one. Culling from Plato’s Republic, Marcus Aurelius makes equivalence between an individual and its community and a limb and its body such that one is what they are, a functioning, additive participant, in relation to the whole that they are a part.
This notion of a cosmic perspective that is so just, also figures prominently in Marcus Aurelius’ desire to eschew judgment, or rather false judgment and value judgment. To act in just form and to appreciate one’s allotment is to be in the holistic view of the greater community. There are always impressions that will appear and one should halt there, allowing the impression to be as is without adding to it one’s judgment. As well, one should accept such impressions as part of the impressions of the way of the cosmos, thus avoiding conflict, competition and destruction. In this way, ‘providence’ yields to the whole, thus one should be accepting and appreciative of what is, of what happens as it happens. There are passages in the Meditations in which Marcus Aurelius muses between providence and atoms as a quasi debate between Stoic and Epicurean belief—intelligent design or chaotic collision. He seems to always circle back though to a ‘Stoic providence’ in which he is a functioning participant of a larger circumscribed ‘polis’.
As his accounts attest, and scholarship agrees, Marcus Aurelius was primarily a Stoic. Yet he was, as well, influenced by other schools of thought, in particular that of the Epicurean school. He also seems to have been influenced by those he often quoted, such as Antisthenes, Chrysippus, Democritus, Euripides, Heraclitus, Homer, and Plato. In addition to the established philosophy, Marcus Aurelius also sought the lessons of history and their political figures in guiding his rule as an ethical challenge such as that of Caesar and Brutus, and his desire to not become corrupted and yet another Caesar.
Marcus Aurelius was brought into state affairs as consul in 140, and again in 145 under Antoninus Pius. Also under Antoninus Pius was his marriage arranged, to his adoptive father’s daughter. The marriage lasted thirty years and produced thirteen children. While the young thinker would probably have much preferred philosophy as his life’s work, the death of Antoninus Pius ensured his position as successor and his allegiance to Stoicism assured his commitment to serve his call of duty. In the year 161, Marcus Aurelius was to be made emperor of Rome yet he accepted only on the condition that his fellow adopted brother (and formerly the adopted grandson of Hadrian), Lucius Verus, was made co-emperor. Thus, for the first time in history there were two governing emperors: Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus and Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus.
While most scholars agree that Marcus Aurelius was essentially first in command, the two ruled together harmoniously until Lucius Verus’ death in 169. The greatest encumbrance they, the Roman Empire, had at the time was sustaining its borders and abiding by the role of expansion set forth by Hadrian. From Persia to the Germanic front to the British lands, Marcus Aurelius was besieged with the challenges of the empire and his relationship with Fronto would prove to be of utmost importance and need. The letters that remain between them continue to reveal Marcus Aurelius’ penchant for philosophy and his commitment to its practice.
A few years before his death Marcus Aurelius made his son, Commodus co-emperor (which would prove to be an unwise decision). He died while on the northern front in modern day Austria in the city of Vindobona, which became Vienna. He was glorified, even before his death, as a ‘philosopher-king’, and memorialized for his campaigns against the Germanic tribes in ‘his’ now infamous column in Rome. Again, his writing was not of the caliber or density of the many philosophers that influenced him, but his practice of philosophy was erudite and exemplary. Marcus Aurelius was influential in how he lived and how he led, and obliges him a Stoic among Stoics.
Not to feel exasperated or defeated or despondent because your days aren't packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit you've embarked on.