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Marcus Aurelius And Stoic Philosophy Essay, Research Paper

Marcus Aurelius and Stoic Philosophy

Stoicism is a belief that the universe, despite its appearances, is completely rational and guided by fate. Within it, individuals can, by conforming themselves to divine reason, find their proper place, learn to accept whatever happens with a strong and tranquil mind, and fulfill their obligations to society. These beliefs are the heart of Stoicism, a philosophy that originated in Athens during the 3rd century BC.

Stoicism can be divided into three periods: Old (300 – 129 BC.), middle (129 – 30 BC.), and New (30 BC. – AD 200). The foundations were laid by Zeno and were reshaped by his Greek and Roman followers (Comptons). Among the eminent Roman Stoics were Seneca, Epictetus, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, all of who provided valuable writings on the subject. Of special interest are Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”, which were private notebooks written during his military campaigns. He wrote “Meditations” as a relief from his lonely office, attempting to reconcile his Stoic Philosophy of virtue and self-sacrifice, with his role as Emperor.

Stoicism is essentially a system of ethics, which is guided by logic as theory of method, and rests upon physics as foundation. The whole philosophy was fairly complex and included a complete view of the universe, physics, psychology, and political theory. The ethics, or the principles governing the behavior of people in society, was the most prominent and appealing feature of the philosophy. By the time of Cicero in the 1st century BC, Stoicism had become the most widely diffused intellectual movement in the Roman Empire. It persisted as a powerful doctrine for centuries and influenced many of the early Christian writers.

In the cosmology of the Stoics, God is the pervasive, absolute reason who gives energy and form to matter (Stanford). This view is similar to pantheism, which sees god in all aspects of nature. All specific bodies, whether animal, mineral, or vegetable, are composed of a godly matter. The human mind is also a fragment of god contained in the individual. By living in harmony with nature, the mind is able to direct a person into a life guided by correct reason. Everything that happens in the world is planned by fate. Just as everyone has a duty to live by reason, so everyone should learn to accept with courage and calm whatever circumstances the world brings.

The notion of morality involves a life in accordance with nature and controlled by virtue. It is as ascetic system, which teaches perfect indifference to everything external. Nothing external can be either good or evil (Stanford). To Stoics, both pain and pleasure, poverty and wealth, and sickness and health, are supposed to be equally unimportant. Stoic Ethical teaching is based on two principles: first, that the universe is governed by absolute law, which admits of no exceptions; and second, that the essential nature of humans is reason.

Virtue, is the life according to reason. Morality is simply rational action. It is the universal reason, which is to govern our lives. The definition of morality as the life according to reason was shared by Plato, Aristotle, and Stoics. The Stoics however, had a much narrower interpretation, which they gave this principle.

Aristotle had taught that the essential nature of humans is reason, and that morality consists in following this. He did recognize that passions and appetites have their place in the human organism and did not demand their suppression, but merely their control by reason. The Stoics looked upon passions as essentially irrational, and demanded their complete extirpation. They envisioned life as a battle against the passions, which had to be completely annihilated. The Stoics did, in fact hold that emotions like fear or envy (or impassioned sexual attachments, or passionate love of anything whatsoever) arose from false judgments and that the sage– a person who has attained moral and intellectual perfection–would not undergo them. The later Stoics of Roman Imperial times, Seneca and Epictetus, emphasize the doctrines (already central to the early Stoics’ teachings) that the sage is utterly immune to misfortune and that virtue is sufficient for happiness. Our phrase ‘stoic calm’ perhaps encapsulates the general drift of these claims.

There are many similarities between Cynicism and Stoic Ethics. The Stoics modified and softened the harsh outlines of Cynicism and in the process created inconsistency. They laid down harsh principles then toned them down to admit exceptions.

The process of toning down took place in three ways: The principle of complete suppression of passions was modified to, the wise person might exhibit certain mild and rational emotions, but never be allowed to grow. Second, they modified the principle that all else, save virtue, is indifferent by declaring that among things indifferent, some are preferable to others. Indifferent things were classified into three categories; those to be preferred, those to be avoided, and those that are absolutely indifferent. Finally, the principle that people are either wholly good or wholly evil was toned down because when thinking of themselves, they hesitated to claim perfection, to put themselves on a level with Socrates, yet they could not bring themselves to admit there was no difference between themselves and the common herd.

I find it very interesting that Stoics accepted their inconsistencies of setting harsh principles yet allowing for exceptions to them. My interpretation of Stoicism is that we all have a set of rules to live by but within that set of rules, there are acceptable deviations, as long as the basic foundation stays intact. It really is necessary to have reasonable movement within the guidelines, in order to be independent.

When considering the doctrines of Stoics, it is important to remember that they think of philosophy not as an interesting pastime or even a particular body of knowledge, but as a way of life. They define philosophy as a kind of practice or exercise, in the expertise concerning what is beneficial. Once we come to know what we and the world around us are really like, and especially the nature of value, we will be utterly transformed. This soteriological element is common to their main competitors, the Epicureans, and perhaps helps to explain why Christianity eventually eclipsed both.

The “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius provide a fascinating picture of a would-be Stoic sage at work on himself. The book, called To Himself , is the emperor’s diary. In it, he not only reminds himself of the content of important Stoic teaching, but also reproaches himself when he realizes that he has failed to incorporate this teaching into his life in some particular instance.

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 until his death. He was educated by the best tutors of Rome and was a devotee of Stoicism. He did however, feel with more religious fervor, the communion of man in the unity of the universe, than most other Stoics. Aurelius faced a great task when he became emperor as successor to his uncle, Antonius Pius. Generations of luxury had made the patricians, or nobles, weak and selfish. The middle class was disappearing, and the working class was being reduced to a state of slavery. Germanic tribes were at the borders of the empire, while few Romans seemed willing to defend their homeland.

Throughout his reign as emperor, he was engaged in defense wars on the northern and eastern fronts of the empire. He was particularly concerned with public welfare, placing the good of society before his own comfort. He put good government into effect, limited the gladiatorial games, and passed laws that benefited slaves. He even sold his personal possessions to alleviate the effects of famine and plague within the empire. Aurelius ruthlessly persecuted the Christians, believing them as a threat to the imperial system. As emperor, he was a champion of the poor, founding schools, orphanages, and hospitals.

Although Marcus Aurelius loved peace, he was a good warrior and succeeded in defending the border provinces against invasion. In his spare moments, he jotted down in Greek the rules that guided his own conduct. The resulting volume of “Meditations” was for many generations, one of the world’s most admired books of practical and political wisdom.

As a philosopher, Aurelius believed that a divine providence had placed reason in man and it was in the power of man to be one with the rational purpose of the universe (Comptons). This is a duty to a man himself and to the citizens of Gods State. No man can be injured by another, he can only harm himself. He attempted to be a philosopher-king, which he considered a moral rather than political ideal. Aurelius believed that the moral life leads to tranquility and stressed the virtues of wisdom, justice, fortitude, and moderation.

Marcus Aurelius died on March 17, 180. He was the last of the “five good emperors” whose combined reigns marked the Golden Age of the Roman Empire.

I think stoic philosophy is fairly reasonable and easy to identify with. It is a mistake to regard health, wealth, success, or any other temporary condition as a cause for happiness. Only virtue is good, and vice is evil. The individual who pursues virtue can become wise. Virtue is defined as the attainment of courage, justice, and moderation. These are the ingredients of a good life, and the only things that can provide true happiness. A morally weak individual is unhappy no matter what good fortune the world brings. Money, wealth, and success can create a temporary psychological condition called happiness, but they cannot create real happiness — described as the good life well lived.

“Marcus Aurelius.” Comptons Encyclopedia. Online. America Online. 12 Feb.2001.

“Stoicism.” Stanford Encyclopedia. Online. America Online. 10 Feb. 2001.

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