History of philosophy

“Life is opinion”

Don’t go on discussing what a good person should be. Just be one.
―Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

That was then (April 26, 121 – March 17, 180 C.E.)

Plato famously wrote of the philosopher king. Marcus Aurelius had the reputation of being one. Writing in 1503, the political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli wrote of the so-called Five Good Emperors of Rome:

Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the good-will of their subjects, and the attachment of the senate.

Marcus Aurelius ruled as co-emperor with Lucius Verus from 161 until Verus died in 169. During the last fourteen years of his life, Aurelius was preoccupied with defending the Roman Empire against Germanic tribes to the north and against the Scythian-speaking Sarmatians to the east. While engaged in these campaigns he wrote a work in Greek that he called simply “to himself” (Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν) but that eventually came to be called Meditations, which has been one of the most enduring works of Stoicism as well as one of the most informative documents about the principles of the Stoic philosophers.

A theme that runs through the aphorisms that Marcus Aurelius wrote down for himself is that strength comes from looking within oneself and studying one’s own mentality and one’s own reactions to other people and to outside events.

Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.

Dig within. Within is the wellspring of Good; and it is always ready to bubble up, if you just dig.

Nowhere can one find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in one’s own soul.

A key teaching of the Stoics is that it is a far better use of one’s time and energy to make adjustments to one’s own attitudes and expectations than to try to shape the external world to conform to one’s own desires.

You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Just as there is little but futility in trying to shape external events to one’s own specifications, there is little point in disputing with other people, for everyone sees things from a particular perspective, and no two people will see things in quite the same way. Disputing with others about how things are or how things should be serves only to disturb one’s own peace of mind and that of others. Most often, after one tries to convince other people, they will continue acting and believing just as before an effort was made to change their thinking or their behavior.

Do what you will. Even if you tear yourself apart, most people will continue doing the same things.

Not only does trying to convince others that one is right and they are wrong disturb social harmony, but it shows a fundamental failure to realize that what we cling to as truth is nothing more than opinion.

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

Rather than harboring the feeling that you hold other opinions than I because your views are mere opinions to which you are stubbornly attached whereas my own opinion is well grounded in evidence and good reasoning, it is better for me, says Marcus Aurelius, to see my own views as also being mere opinions and not to privilege them over the opinions of others. If I am going to strive for anything at all, it may be better to strive for letting go of my own biases.

You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.

If judging situations and events is not called for, even less called for is passing judgment on other people or being concerned with their assessment of you.

Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?

When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.

If others are angry or hateful, he says elsewhere, realize that they are fearful or in pain and strive to alleviate their pain and help them be less afraid. That may not be successful, but it is preferable to responding to anger and hatred with anger and hatred.

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.

When Marcus Aurelius died in the city of Vindobona, which eventually became Vienna, he was succeeded by his son Lucius Aurelius Commodus, with whom he had shared the duties of governing the Roman Empire for the last three years of his life. The contrast between father and son was stark, despite the father’s seeing to it that his son had the finest tutors and was steeped in the same philosophical attitudes that had guided the father. Whereas Marcus Aurelius had lived a life of discipline, duty, respecting others, seeing the best in all the people he met and promoting cooperation, his son was known for being erratic, capricious, arbitrary and unpredictable. Unlike Marcus Aurelius, whose reign was characterized by almost constant warfare with external threats to the Empire, Commodus ruled the Roman Empire when there were few external threats to peace but much political strife and domestic turmoil, most of it, according to historians, due to Commodus’s uneven temperament, his extreme vanity and his response to criticism with an increasing tendency toward despotism, megalomania and self-aggrandizement. He was eventually assassinated in 192 C.E., strangled to death in his bath by a wrestler whose name, interestingly enough, was Narcissus. Commodus’s life appears to have been as much a demonstration of the consequences of the failure to live by Stoical principles as his father’s life had be a demonstration of the consequences of the success of living by them.

This is now

Writing in 1994, the historian of ancient Hellenistic philosophy Martha C. Nussbaum pointed out that “Twentieth-century philosophy, in both Europe and North America, has, until very recently, made less use of Hellenistic ethics than almost any other philosophical culture in the West since the fourth century B.C.E.”1 She observes that the European philosophers whose work was most congruent with the thinking of the Founding Fathers of the United States were Adam Smith, David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, all of whom were deeply influenced by the Stoics and by other Hellenistic philosophers, such as the Epicureans and the Skeptics. Like the ancient Stoics of Greece and Rome, the Founding Fathers tended to be wary of religion and insistent on separation of the governance of the state from institutions shaped by religious ideology. Steeped as they were in the writings of the Greek and Roman philosophers, no doubt many of the men who shaped the United States in its early days had read this passage of Marcus Aurelius:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

Martha Nussbaum reminds her readers that

When we speak of the influence of “the classical tradition” on the framers of the U.S. Constitution, we must always remember that it is, on the whole, Hellenistic (especially Stoic) ethical thought, via the writings of Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch above all, that is central to their classical education. Thus the neglect of this period in much recent teaching of “the Classics” and “the Great Books” gives a very distorted picture of the philosophical tradition—and also robs the student of richly illuminating philosophical arguments.2

It is not merely ironic but tragic that in the twenty-first century American political arena, those who speak most loudly of honoring the Founding Fathers by keeping current laws and institutions close to the intentions of those eighteenth-century men—for they were, to the detriment of the early country, mostly men—are also mostly ignorant of the literature that most shaped the thinking of those Founding Fathers. The politicians who have prevailed since January 20, 2017 seem to have forgotten (or never have known) Marcus Aurelius’s observation that “That which is not good for the swarm, neither is it good for the bee.” If the well-being of all men and women and children and the animals with which we share the planet is not looked after, then eventually no individual will be secure. Nobility has all but been forgotten in an age when the value of everything is measured in monetary worth, and leading a successful life has come to mean no more than having a much larger bank account than anyone needs or could possibly use. The oligarchic policy makers who are most vociferous in 2017 seem to be following a muse whose message is the antithesis of Marcus Aurelius’s muse when he wrote:

A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other ambition, which is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.

Vulgar aspirations have, for the time being, trumped nobility.


  1. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. Page 4. ↩︎
  2. Nussbaum, p. 5. ↩︎

Author: Dayamati Richard Hayes

Jemez Springs, NM, USA

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