The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
Background: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180) was the nephew by marriage of the emperor Antoninus Pius, whom he succeeded in 161. He was engaged in serious problems of reform (on behalf of the poor and working class Romans) at home and in a series of defensive wars against the Parthians in Syria and against the Germanic tribes along the Rhine-Danube borders of the empire. He was the last of the “five good emperors” whose combined reigns marked the golden age of the Roman empire. While leading his legions, Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations (in Greek) — a major expression of Stoicism which taught that all reality is material and that the notion of a “god” is best understood as the underlying (impersonal) rationale of the universe, something like the fundamental working force of the universe. Living according to reason or in accordance with god meant that one should come into harmony with the natural law of the universe. Such an ideal life was achieved by seeking wisdom, by practicing restraint or casting off passion (apathy), and by right conduct conforming to the universal law and to civic duty.
What is Marcus Aurelius affirming about “providence,” “nature,” and “good” at the beginning of this selection (II,3)? How does he appear to be taking the meaning of “gods” here?
What is Marcus Aurelius saying when he counsels (himself? his potential readers?) to “perceive of what universe thou art a part” (II,4) or “to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity” (II,5)?
How does Marcus Aurelius suggest we consider the passage of time, with its ebb and flow of fads, joys, and disappointments (II,12)?
Notice the way Marcus Aurelius provides a “picture” of the underlying features of what it means to be human (III,16). How does he affirm that these are actualized in the “good man”?
What do you think of his claim that the desire for relaxation or vacation (as in nice sea-shore retreats or mountain homes) is “common” and is best achieved by “retiring into one’s own soul” (IV,3)? What does he means by this? Would you tend to agree with him? Why or why not?
Do you think any of the counsels offered by Marcus Aurelius in this sampling of his Meditations offers any sound advice for someone living in the 21st century? Can you relate any of his ideas to other views you have come across? How would you try to compare what he is getting at with what Bonaventure or Francis assert?