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History has shown us how great men and women have changed the world around them. Some of those individuals have accomplished this through political or military force; others have less aggressively stood up for what they believe in, and changed their circumstances that way. Still, others are remembered for their intellectual prowess, and their influence on how we think about life. When you hear about philosophers, it tends to be Plato, Socrates, or Aristotle.
These men are great, and it is appropriate that we discuss them so often; however, there are other thinkers who have had a significant impact on philosophy.
One of those individuals is Marcus Aurelius who is even more remarkable because he combined philosopher, military commander, and ruler. As Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius had great power, fame, and wealth. Born in Rome, the adoptive son of Emperor Antoninus Pius, with his privileged upbringing, Aurelius received an exceptional education. He succeeded Antoninus on March 7, 161, and for eight years ruled conjointly with his brother Lucius Aurelius Verus.
Revolts in different parts of the empire required him to lead military campaigns on the frontier and that is where he began keeping a journal where he would write down his observations and principles. This group of writings, found after his death, called To Himself or better known today as Meditations. This work allows insight into something rare in the field of humanities, the mind of a thinker/leader. He is known more specifically as the last great Stoic philosopher, which would make his Meditations the last great stoic writing.
Some may argue to the point that while Marcus Aurelius was one of the last great stoic philosophers, individuals continued to follow stoic beliefs after his death. That is true, and stoic principles are even present in our day and age mixed in with other philosophies. However, Marcus Aurelius definitively served as the end of the “Stoic Era” in Rome (Matthews and Platt, 134). His death ushered in a new period of philosophy; one situated around Neo-Platonism. Although there were many that still followed stoicism, history moved in a different direction after Marcus passed, making his Meditations the last great Stoic writings known to us.
First, in order to understand more clearly how Marcus Aurelius impacted philosophy, one needs to know from where he came, and the things he did during his life. Marcus Aurelius was born in 121 CE to a prominent Spanish family in Rome. He was orphaned at a young age and then devoted his life to study. At age twelve he was mastering art, geometry, literature, and music. At age fourteen he was given the togos virilis signifying his adulthood and citizenship in Rome. The crown recognized Marcus’ success and Hadrian set up a process so that Marcus would rule Rome as his successor.
Hadrian had Marcus’ uncle take the thrown after him only for the purpose of handing it over to Marcus when the time came. At the age of seventeen Marcus realized the responsibility that had been laid upon him, and began preparing himself for his future role. Eventually, at the age of thirty-nine Marcus became emperor of Rome. During his reign Marcus made many reforms in the areas of politics, education, and economics and became a champion of the poor, and improved life for slaves. Being an orphan himself, and looking to the example his parents gave him on how to treat people, he understood more of what average citizens went through.
Marcus was a great king in that he rejected all the things that could be his, but that would corrupt him. He also fought off more invasions than any other Emperor. In Rome, he saw Christians as a threat great enough to one day bring down the entire empire from within so while he did not instigate persecution of Christians, he allowed it and many died under his reign. Marcus Aurelius died as a beloved emperor and reformer in 180 CE (Kolak). Second, during his lifetime Marcus studied many different philosophers at the prompting of his teacher (Aurelius, 2).
His research and study lead him ultimately to stoicism, and this is what he practiced the majority of his life. To understand his Meditations and his actions, you would have to understand the different stoic principles that influenced him. Stoics believe there is a separation between the body, soul and mind (Brown, 56). Marcus agreed with this principle and believed that divinity lies in ones mind. Because of this belief they encourage usefulness as a citizen, and stresses reason, for reason was how one comes into contact with the supreme reason (Martin, 41).
The stoics’ goal was to “live accordingly to the benevolence and orderliness of the universe. ” This meant living virtuously in order to one day be as autonomous, uniform, and benevolent as God. Aurelius did not believe in absolute truth as many other stoics did however. He believed there was probable truth. Therefore, in order to be virtuous, one must be open-minded (Kolak). All of these virtues were separate, but impossible without the others. These virtues, were more than actions, they were attitudes (Hallie, 22). Some examples of these virtues they held were: intelligence, bravery, and justice. These virtues guided their everyday lives.
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