Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 9, Marcus Aurelius — the man himself

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Well, it took a while, but we finally got to the end of Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. It’s a long and difficult book, but it’s a crucial entry in the modern Stoic literature, which is why I spent so much time — and really put to the test my readers’ patience, I’m afraid — with this series. In this last post I will skip the short chapter 9, on “Virtue and Joy,” and focus on selected passages of the very long chapter 10, “Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations,” where Hadot does his best to glean the character of the man behind the philosophy. However, this isn’t just a biographical chapter, as Marcus’ character, life, and philosophy are deeply intertwined. Which means we are just as likely to learn about the man from his philosophy and life as we are about the philosophy by looking at how this extraordinary man attempted to put it into practice throughout his life.

Hadot is keenly aware of the perils of attempting this kind of analysis, and devotes an entire section of chapter 10 to a discussion of the limits of what he calls psychological history. In particular, he writes:

“The mistake made by some kind of psychological history is to project back onto the past our modern-day representations.” (p. 247)

Indeed, Marcus needs to be understood and appreciated (or criticized, as the case may be) within his own historical, social, and political contexts, not ours.

After a detour on the question of whether Marcus was an opium addict (not likely), and another one on Marcus stylistic elegance (he was a very good writer), Hadot attempts to derive some chronological signposts from the Meditations, a book that comes across as rather atemporal (which is probably one of the reasons it keeps being fascinating almost two millennia after it was written). We know that between books I and II an inscription says “Written in the land of the Quadi, on the banks of the Gran,” and between books II and III we read “Written in Carnutum.” Carnutum was a Roman military base on the Danube, near Vienna, and Marcus fought against the Quadi and the Marcomanni from 170 to 173 CE. The river Gran is now called Hron, in Slovakia, and it joins the Danube in modern Hungary. Assuming these two inscriptions are original, they tell us that Marcus wrote the Meditations in the midst of a military campaign, which Hadot suggests may explain the recurrence of the theme of death in books II and III. We can speculate about when the other books were written, based on occasional internal references to Marcus’ court and his speeches to the Senate. Books IV through XII were likely written between 173 and 180 CE, the latter year being when Marcus died.

More interesting is Hadot’s analysis of the obvious difference between book I and the rest. Book I is highly structured, essentially being a long exercise in gratitude, where Marcus thanks all the people that have influenced him for the better, detailing what he learned from each one. No such structure is evident in books II-XII. Hadot does attempt an analysis of recurring themes in those books, and the interested reader is referred directly to the chapter, or to my previous summaries of The Inner Citadel.

That said, the Meditations’ main theme is death. As Hadot puts it:

“From beginning to end, the Meditations are also an exercise of preparation for death, which involves, among other things, evoking famous figures of bygone times, who, in spite of their power, knowledge, and renown, died like everybody else.” (p. 275)

Hadot also suggests that in a sense the Meditations are Marcus’ “confessions,” analogous to some extent to the famous book by the same title written by Augustine of Hippo. The first chapters in particular can be read as a personal spiritual itinerary, from childhood to the discovery of philosophy, and especially its practice:

The humbleness that evident in the previous passage is seen elsewhere in the Meditations, for instance in this passage when Marcus freely admits that people have a point when they remark on the limits of his intelligence:

A related issue often arises about Marcus’ character: was he sincere or affected? The emperor Hadrian, who picked Marcus for the line of succession, to come after Antoninus Pious, nicknamed Marcus “verissimus,” that is, the very sincere. And here is historian Cassius Dio, who lived during the reign of Commodus, Marcus’ infamous son:

“He obviously did nothing out of affectation, but everything out of virtue. … To such an extent was he truly a good man, and there was nothing affected about him.” (Roman History, LXXII, 34, 4–5)

How did Marcus balance his duties as emperor and his vocation as a philosopher? This, of course, is a crucial question, because it speaks directly to the effect, if any, of Stoicism on someone’s actual life, and an emperor’s life at that! Marcus often reminds himself that he is, in a sense, prisoner of the halls of power, and that he will always be surrounded by people who will attempt to take advantage of his favors. He compares life to court to a stepmother, while his true mother is philosophy.

A fascinating point made by Hadot concerns the inevitable conflicts between Marcus’ duties as an emperor and as a practicing Stoic:

“These two duties are hard to reconcile: on the one hand, our duty [as Stoics] to love other human beings, with whom we form one single body, tree, or city [various metaphors used by Marcus]; on the other, our duty not to let ourselves be cajoled into adopting their false values and maxims of life.” (p. 292)

This is a reminder that as Stoics we need to be coherent with our own values, which include the hard to explain and accept (for others) notion that the only truly good thing for us is our own sound judgments, and the only evil our own bad judgments. At the same time, we cannot impose our philosophical framework on other people, and we should not use our Stoicism as a stick to beat others with. That is a major reason why questions along the lines of “is X Stoic?” don’t make much sense, or are at the very least misconceived.

Another very interesting question tackled by Hadot concerns the relationship between Stoicism and political programs. Nowadays, Stoics are accused of being de facto defenders of the status quo, pursuing virtue while at the same time ignoring structural societal problems. This is more than a bit unfair (given that Stoicism is a personal, not political, philosophy) as well as historically inaccurate (consider, for instance, the famous “Stoic opposition” to three tyrannical emperors). Nevertheless, how did Marcus — as emperor — approach the issue?

One clue is found in his own explicit list of political role models, which included Paetus Thrasea, Helvidius Priscus, Cato the Younger, Marcus Junius Brutus, and Dio of Syracuse. The first two are mentioned by Epictetus, and were members of the Stoic opposition against Vespasian. Cato was the archenemy of Julius Caesar, who died at Utica in north Africa in order not to allow his opponent to use his capture to score political points. Brutus was, of course, the chief conspirator against Caesar. And Dio deposed the infamous tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius II, who almost got Plato killed. All these men have in common the fact that they put their lives on the line to fight against tyranny and for what they regarded as liberty (albeit usually limited to the male dominant class). It is highly indicative that Marcus mentions them with admiration. Accordingly, Marcus articulates his own ideal for how to run the Roman state:

This is absolutely remarkable, given the times! Yes, Marcus is still a monarch, but he wants to reign by collaborating with the Senate and while respecting equality and freedom of speech, an ideal not yet realized even in modern democracies.

In fact, with regard to the Senate, he famously addressed that body in the following manner, according to Cassius Dio:

“We possess nothing of our own, and it is in your house that we live.” (Roman History, LXXII, 33, 2)

The occasion was the financing of the Danubian war. The funds were readily available to the emperor, who did not need to ask the permission of the Senate. But that was nonetheless the right thing to do, and Marcus did it.

Also germane to the issue of politics is Marcus’ famous reminder to himself not to wait for Plato’s Republic:

As Hadot observes, the phrase “Plato’s Republic” did not literally indicate the specific system of government outlined by Plato in that book, but referred more generally to a state in which all citizens have become philosophers, thus bringing about a society in perfect harmony. So Marcus, a real life politician whose conduct was guided by Stoic philosophy, was reminding himself that it is dangerous to await for the realization of what we would today call a utopia. Instead, we must work to make progress, regardless of how apparently small, because all progress matters, morally speaking.

Hadot makes the point — supported by a recent biography — that the problem with Cato the Younger was precisely that, although he was a men of high integrity, he did in fact act as if utopia were around the corner:

“Cicero says [in Letters to Atticus, 2, 1, 8] of Cato of Utica that he used to act as if he were living in Plato’s Republic, and not in the mud of Romulus. … This is the eternal drama of humanity in general and of politics in particular. Unless it transforms people completely, politics can never be anything other than a compromise with evil.” (p. 304)

And this, unfortunately, was true during the Roman Republic and Empire just as it is true pretty much everywhere on the globe in the 21st century. That’s why it isn’t the job of politics to transform people, but rather that of philosophy. Politics is needed to compromise with evil, until, perhaps, we can ban evil by changing people.


Post Scriptum: Next time, new book! John Sellars’ The Art of Living. We will focus only on chapters 4, 5, and 6, as well as on the Conclusion. Happy reading!

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