Notes on Marcus Aurelius

Bruce MacLennan

I. Some Important Stoics

A. Predecessors to Stoicism

Heraclitus (fl. 500 BCE)

Socrates (469-399 BCE)


Antisthenes (fl. 406 BCE)

Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BCE)

B. Zeno of Citium (335-265 BCE)

C. Chrysippus (280-208 BCE)

D. Cicero (106-43 BCE)

E. Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE)

F. Epictetus (60-117 CE)

G. Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE)

II. Review: Philosophy as a Way of Life

See item I.C in "Notes on Lucretius"

III. The Stoic Way of Life

A. Goals of Wisdom:

1. Serenity (ataraxía)

Joy (eupátheia) as opposed to Pleasure (hêdonê)

  1. Autonomy (autárkeia)

The mind as impregnable citadel (acropolis) [VIII.48]

(3. "Cosmic Consciousness" – Hadot)

B. which are achieved by Living in Harmony with Nature

C. which is achieved by Concentration on the Present Moment

Only the present moment is in our control, and only in respect to judgment, desire and intention.

It requires mastery by reason over the feelings, which are distracting.

The sage displays perfect absence of passion (apátheia).

Relocation of one’s being into continuous participation with Universal Nature. A continuous act (identical with life) of harmonizing oneself with Nature.

A profound feeling of participation in Nature.

The perfection of the moment depends on its quality, not on its quantity (duration).

An instant of joy is equivalent to an eternity of joy. "A tiny circle is no more a circle than a big one." (Seneca)

A moment of wisdom is the supreme happiness.

This concentration requires remembrance of and meditation on:

D. Three Fundamental Rules (Canons)

1. which discipline Three Faculties (Functions) of the Mind:

I. Judgment; II. Desire; III. Will (Inclination to Action)

2. which govern our relationship to

I. ourselves, specifically, our knowledge: private Nature.

II. the world: universal Nature.

III. other people: human Nature.

3. Wisdom consists in Three Disciplines [VIII.7]:

I. Giving assent to the objective:

Set aside subjective value judgments and govern inner discourse. Assent to true, dissent from false, suspend judgment on uncertain.

II. Indifference to indifferent things:

The only good/evil is moral good/evil. Desire nothing that does not depend on your moral purpose. Accept what Nature or Destiny brings.

III. Acting in harmony with Universal Nature

and according to Duty, that is, with Justice and Altruism

Nature places us in relations with other people, which determine our obligations. Feelings of fellowship, patience & charity toward others.

4. which correspond to the Virtues:

I. Truth; II. Temperance (Moderation); III. Justice (& Charity)

5. and the Inner Attitudes:

I. objectivity, truthfulness

II. consent to destiny, serenity

III. justice & altruism

E. Spiritual Exercises

1. Therapy of the word

Mutual exhortation & confession.

Self-exhortation [e.g. VII.21, IX.7].

Examination of conscience.

2. Keeping rules and dogmas ready to hand

3. Bracketing (natural descriptions)

4. Premeditation of misfortunes

5. Acceptance of present moment

6. Delimiting the present [e.g. VII.54, VIII.38, IX.32]

7. Meditation on rational evolution of cosmic events

8. Meditation on universal metamorphosis

9. View from above [e.g. VIII.48, IX.29]

10. Meditation on death

11. Philosophy as training for death

Ordinary will to live subjugated to higher demands of thought.

Dying to individuality and passions in order to achieve universal, objective perspective.

"He who has learned to die has unlearned slavery." (Seneca)

Training for death is actually training for life.

"My life is over": treating each day as the last.

12. Language and death

Logos (universal rationality, immutable norms) vs. flux (perpetual creation, change and destruction).

13. Writing

Ascent towards universality.

Actualizes what is latent in mind.

The subjective becomes objective.

Writer feels part of a community.

Marcus’ Meditations are writing exercises.

IV. Supporting Dogmas

A. Role of Dogmas

Dogma = a universal principle, which justifies some rule of conduct.

First, commitment to a way of life; then reinforcement of it through dogmas, theorems, rational argument and systems.

Rational demonstrations make the dogmas more secure and efficacious.

The purpose of the science of Nature is to better establish the dogmas [e.g. VIII.52].

Dogmas of – I. Logic (theory of knowledge); II. Physics (science of Nature); III. Ethics.

B. Some Fundamental Dogmas:

The Primary Dogma: the only good is moral good, the only evil, moral evil.

Pleasure/pains are not goods/evils.

Only moral evil is shameful.

We cannot be harmed by those who commit faults against us.

Those who commit faults harm only themselves [IX.4, 20, 38].

We cannot be harmed by anyone else’s actions

Our faults are our own.

Only that which depends on us can be good or evil

But our judgment depends on us [XII.22].

Troubles reside in our own judgments, i.e. in the ways we represent things to ourselves.

Each person is the origin of his or her own problems [IV.26, XII.8].

Things cannot trouble our minds.

The mind is independent of the body [VI.32, VII.16].

Everything is a matter of judgment [XII.8, 22, 26].

Every fault is a false judgment and proceeds from ignorance [XI.18].

The unity and rationality of the Cosmos.

Everything comes from Universal Nature and in conformity with its will [XII.26].

Even human wrong-doing, which is a consequence of liberty [VI.42].

Everything occurs in conformity with Destiny.

All things undergo continuous metamorphosis in accord with Nature [XII.21].

But are ceaselessly repeated [VI.46, VII.1, IX.14].

We must die.

Nature is unified by a sympathy [IV.27, 40, V.26, VI.38, IX.9].

There is a mutual mixture and implication of everything in everything [VI.38, VII.9].

"The whole is more important than its parts." (Epictetus)

Universal Reason gives form and motion to inert matter.

So we must always distinguish the causal (reason) and the material [IX.25, 37, XII.18].

Human reason is a part of Universal Reason [XII.26].

So all humans are related.

So people are made for each other [VIII.59, IX.1].

The immensity of Nature.

Life is very brief [VII.21, VIII.21, XII.7].

The instant is infinitesimal [II.14, XII.26].

The earth is like a point [VII.21].

Current fame and posthumous glory are vain [VII.21, VIII.21, 44, XII.21].

Especially from those who contradict themselves or each other.

Who are not worthy of respect when they are seen as they are.

C. Miscellaneous

1. Universal Nature

Synonyms used by Marcus: Zeus, God(s) , Cause, Force, Soul, Pneuma (Spirit), Ether, Heat, Fiery Fluid, Mind, Universal Reason, Law, Truth, Destiny, Necessity, Providence.

All refer to the coherence of Nature.

2. Hêgemonikon

The directing principle in us. It is what makes us independent of the body and is what separates what is in our control from what is not.

3. Bear and Forebear (anékhou kai apékhou)

or "endure and renounce" – Epictetus’ summary of Stoicism.

4. Objective Representation (phantasia katalêptikê)

a sense perception so clear and compelling that it demands immediate assent, the basis of Stoic determination of truth.


Hadot, P. (1995) Philosophy as a Way of Life, ed. and with an intro. by A. I. Davidson, tr. by M. Chase. Blackwell.

Hadot, P. (1998) The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, tr. by M. Chase. Harvard.

Jones, W. T. (1970) The Classical Mind, 2nd. ed. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Long, A. A., & Sedley, D. N. (1987) The Hellenistic Philosophers, vol. 1: Translations of the Principal Sources, with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge University Press.

Discussion Questions

(1) What is Marcus’s position on destiny and free will?

(2) Stoicism permits suicide when life cannot be endured. Is this inconsistent with submission to destiny or with classifying external things as "indifferent"?

(3) Religion has been called reconciliation to the inevitable. Do you agree with this? Is Stoicism a religion?

(4) Do you agree that pain, grief, etc. are not really bad, and that their apparent badness is only a matter of faulty judgement?

(5) Due to the natural kinship of all people as rational animals, the Stoics believed that there are natural laws and rights (that is, depending on the nature of humanity), independent of conventional norms of behavior, which vary from culture to culture. Do you agree? What would be some examples of natural human laws and rights?

  1. Marcus says that the lower exists for the sake of the higher and that the higher exists for the sake of each other [XI.18]. Therefore plants and animals exist for the sake of people and people exist for the sake of each other. Discuss.
  2. Stoicism urges acceptance of and cooperation with Nature’s plan. But is it possible that a certain amount of rebellion and competition might be necessary to accomplish Nature’s ends?
  3. Can Marcus’s Stoicism be criticized for leading to apathy and thus to acquiescence in injustices, crimes and inequities, on the assumption that it’s "God’s will"? [cf. IX.1]
  4. Is the Stoicism of Marcus a practical way of life or unrealistic idealism?