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Marcus Aurelius' Meditations on Natural Law and Divine Providence
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-07-21 09:31:09
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In The Republic Plato postulates that the best way to achieve a near perfect polity is to have a philosopher-king as its head. That is of course an ideal that has rarely been achieved in world history and many have branded Plato as too idealistic in that regard, not practical enough, naïve and unaware of “real politik,” in short, not Machiavellian enough. There is however one glaring exception which vindicates Plato: the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

He was the adopted son of the Emperor Pius who became himself an Emperor in the year 160 AD at the age of thirty nine and ruled till 180 AD till his death at the age of fifty nine. By modern standards he ruled and died as a young middle aged man and not the old decrepit man portrayed in the movie Gladiator which takes several liberties with the historical record.

Marcus Aurelius is remembered not so much for being an exceptionally competent ruler among so many crazy and incompetent Roman emperors but for his literary-philosophical work The Meditations which is basically a diary to himself. It has become a must for every beginner philosophy and political science student, and for good reasons. It exemplifies existentially the Stoic Greco-Roman philosophy to which Marcus Aurelius subscribed. Despite the reputation of this philosophy for forming men indifferent to suffering and human misery, we detect in this short book a concern for the social problems of the poor, the slaves, the imprisoned. This is already more than many modern heads of states in modern countries can muster nowadays. And here lies the importance of The Meditations, in their practical and aphoristic Stoic message. They represent an example of a living ethic well grounded in Stoic theory, of an admirable teaching which appears closer to religion than to mere abstract philosophical speculation.

For example, the following reflection is typical of Marcus Aurelius’ writings: “The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts; therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.” Like Seneca before him, Marcus 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. In other words, there is a natural law to which even positive man-made laws have to conform at the price of becoming unjust laws.

Stoic philosophy was primarily concerned with living in accordance with one’s own nature as derived from universal Nature. Thus simple living and being content with one’s lot go hand in hand with Stoicism. Some have confused this with quietism but as mentioned above concern for the suffering of others, that suffering being the result of violating natural law, was indeed part of Stoicism. Others have accused Marcus Aurelius of harboring ulterior “Machiavellian” motives such as social control by way of a “religion” which encourages people to accept things such as they are. The more they do this the less trouble they are likely to give an Emperor. Marx, for one was no great fan of Stoicism. But those who hold such view are mostly social activists who put the cart before the horse and begin with praxis rather than with theory and give a prognosis before arriving at a diagnosis. One in fact suspects that they have never read The Meditations and have proceeded to dispose of the messenger for a message not to their liking. That was also done to Socrates and there was even an attempt on Aristotle.

Be that as it may, the theory behind the Stoic insistence on living “in accordance with nature” stems from a certain biological outlook. According to the Stoics, all “ensouled beings, that is to say sentient life, strive towards self-preservation. Self-preservation leads a being to look for that which is in tune with its nature and appropriate to its own being. Aristotle called this the telos, or the purpose of a being. Hegel called it “the world spirit” when it operates as a collective but all of these theories presuppose a spiritual soul which takes residence in matter and is more than the sum total of the parts of the body. This is something that has become difficult for modern man “in search of his soul” to grasp.  But the Stoics held that Man, being endowed with reason, seeks not just food, warmth, shelter, sex, creaturely comfort (as animals do also) but also that which is good for the intellect and the spirit; what the Greeks called “the good life,” something that is radically different from the “comfortable life” full of “goods.” Ultimately reason allows us to choose that which is in tune with our true nature with greater accuracy than if we were to merely follow our animal instincts and act accordingly.

Central to this Stoic outlook or philosophy of life is an understanding of what constitutes the good or the most appropriate life for human beings. It is a life in conformity with natural law which is there just as the starry night is there at night, waiting to be discovered by reason. It is not the search for wealth or even health for its own sake. The ultimate Good must be good at all times. It is quite conceivable that wealth might sometimes be detrimental to a person as many lottery winners will confirm; even health if I put my strength at the disposal of what is evil. Hence the Stoics conclude that the only infallible good is virtue. This includes the usual list of Greco-Roman excellence: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Indeed, Marcus Aurelius could have done much worse by simply becoming a mindless activist emperor like Nero or Caligula who reduced the natural law to what was convenient to their individual ego. But before we smugly consider ourselves beyond that kind of blindness, let’s consider that the wisdom revealed in The Meditations is no less applicable to the modern world than in the Roman world.

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PRETTYVIVI2008-10-03 06:45:44

Joe2019-07-14 19:15:54
Great article. Provides context and background for an improved understanding of Roman stoicism and Meditations. Thank you.

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