Professor Christopher Gill on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
University of Exeter, Stoicism Today Project
In this brief video lecture for “Stoicism Today”, Professor Christopher Gill delivers a philosophical paper on the Stoic features of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations — featured also in full in a forthcoming book titled “Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Books 1 to 6” by Oxford University Press. Professor Gill argues that the Meditations properly considered in a “broader scholarly context” illustrates the extent to which Marcus Aurelius was neither an amateur nor an eclectic thinker but a serious stoic thinker in his own right taking stoicism not as a religion but as a serious social philosophy. In short, the argument is that to properly understand the purpose and organization of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, we must properly situate these essential stoic ideas.
To begin with, the Meditations is a short theoretical handbook that contains a seemingly large unconnected number of single entries or reflections written by Marcus Aurelius himself. In these entries, however Professor Gill argues, that we find a number of main strands that are derivative of stoic thought, indeed he argues that there are four such strands in the Meditations. The first strand of stoic thought is found in those passages where Marcus Aurelius speaks of living life as an “ongoing journey of character, understanding, and mode of interpersonal relationship”; a key feature of stoic “ethical development as appropriation” or “oikeiosis“. Second, and largely connected with this first strand is where Marcus Aurelius speaks of “death”, of “cosmic transience”, and the “physical dimension of human existence” in terms that are essentially stoic; as falling “outside the scope of human agency and thus outside the ethical project and aspiration of human development” and events in our life for which we need an appropriate attitude as matters of indifference. And finally, the third and fourth are those entries that articulate the distinctive stoic these of the universally shared human features of reasoning that make ethical development possible and those of the “universe” as an ‘ordered” “whole” and “providential framework”.
These four strands, argues Professor Gill, permit us to treat Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations as a serious stoic philosopher whose found reflecting in his handbook on “what it means to live one’s life sincerely and urgently according to stoic principles”.
“At the heart of the meditation is something central to stoic ethics: beyond the biological and purely formal parts of our existence, we should shape our lives as an ongoing journey, towards an ideal state of character, understanding and mode of interpersonal relationship which constitute our target even though we will never achieve it fully”.
Furthermore, the Meditations also shares in the following core stoic ideas in ethics and in Professor Gill’s words the “interface of ethics, logics and physics”:
i. That virtue is “the only good in human life” and that other goods (e.g., health, wealth) are “matters of indifference”;
ii. The human capacity for reason and ethical development is universal, reflecting the stoic idea of oikeiosis;
iii. The shared human capacity for reasoning is “integral” to a “single brotherhood”, reflecting a second aspect of the stoic idea of oikeiosis;
iv. That virtue can free us from “passions”, “ambition”, and “fear of death”, reflecting the stoic idea of the telos;
v. That virtue “bring us in line with the providential care that is built into the universe as a whole and that informs its in-built form of divinity”, reflecting the second aspect of the stoic idea of the telos.
For Professor Gill, the Meditations is a short handbook that brings these stoic principles together to illustrate their “relevance and interconnections” as teachings in ethical development and for a “coherent framework to led a human life”. The remainder of the paper discusses quite briefly the seemingly non-standard stoic language in the Meditations, namely the “Platonizing language” that describes the stoic “unified and holistic” view of “human psychology and the tendency in the Meditation in the use of the epicurean model of providence/atoms worldview in argumentation.