Marcus Aurelius and His Meditations

While many Roman emperors are infamous for their tyranny and debauchery, Marcus Aurelius is famous for his statesmanship, generalship, and intellect. He reigned as emperor, 161-180 CE, and is considered the last of what are called “the good emperors.” Edward Gibbon in his book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) describes this period, 96-180 CE, glowingly: “If a man were called to fix the period in history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name [this period].”

Brown Model UN, 11-2012 012(Statue of Marcus Aurelius at Brown University, Providence, RI)

The five emperors who reigned during this period are described as “good” by historians because they generally respected the members of the Senate, ended arbitrary executions, acted in accordance with the public welfare, enlarged and protected the empire, and did their best to keep a general peace.

The ancient Greek Plato, in his most famous political work, The Republic, examines two critical questions: How does a society produce good men? How does a society produce a good state? No admirer of democracy and no believer in the political sense of the common people (demos), Plato concludes it is best to find, educate, and train the best men of a society, making them eventually philosopher-kings. It is to these men that the power to rule should be given. Some historians consider Marcus Aurelius to be history’s closest approximation to this ideal “philosopher-king.”

Not only a successful politician, administrator, and general, he was also a thinker and writer. We are lucky to have his philosophical system available to us in his writings, collectively called Meditations. In it he covers a wide range of subjects, sometimes becoming overly vague and abstruse. However, his main focus is clear: the ethical system of a good person; how a person should live his life—a good life.

Marcus Aurelius was schooled in and became the last great proponent of the philosophical system called Stoicism. Founded by Zeno of Citium on the island of Cyprus in the 3rd century BCE, Stoicism, as practiced by Aurelius, includes the following fundamental principles for living a truly “good life.”

About the world we live in:

  • The Universe has unity. All is inter-connected.
  • The patterns which govern the Universe and human lives continue as always.

About humans:

  • Man possesses a divine element.
  • Man is a social being.
  • Man is distinguished from other animals by his reason.
  • Man is simply a speck in the vast universe; his life is a mere drop in the bucket.
  • All life is fleeting.

About how humans ought to act:

  • Live in accord with “Universal Nature.”
  • Pursue the quest for truth, justice, and moral rectitude through right actions.
  • Perform one’s duty and purpose which Nature has given you.
  • As social beings, be kind and generous to one another.
  • Maintain the “governing self” within, free from all negativism and distraction.
  • Avoid regret about the past and worry about the future; concentrate on the present.
  • Persevere through pain.

Follow me on Twitter: @FredZilian

Writer and educator, Fred Zilian teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI.


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7 Responses to Marcus Aurelius and His Meditations

  1. petemccall1 says:

    Not sure we have any good emperors to choose from in November

    Take care.

    Peter McCall (c) 770-329-6156


  2. Dan Meucci says:

    The gap between the education level of the people and the “Philosopher Kings” was great during that wonderful period. Hence, the system worked to produce an era of peace and prosperity.
    In today’s world, we live in a Republic with the Demos who have a greater degree of education and has the ability to make choices for themselves. (Larger degree of freedom than in Roman times)
    I would suggest President Obama feels he is a “Philosopher King”
    who knows best for the “Demos”. So he has perverted our Bill of Rights and has shredded our Constitution by Executive Fiat.
    Let’s remember the definition of “Philosopher Kings” today is very
    broad and subjective depending upon your ideology.

  3. Fred Zilian says:

    Thanks again for the comment. I think your position is overstated regarding Obama’s actions. Though no lover of Obama, I would not characterize his actions as perversions of the Bill of Rights (gun control?) and the shredding of the Constitution (???). This sounds like he has committed impeachable offenses: “high crimes and misdemeanors.” I think he has used his executive powers to the fullest to achieve what he believes in. (As you know, I do line up with him on climate change.)
    The bigger question you touch on is the proper role of government vs. individual choice. I have confidence in YOUR ability to make reasoned decisions; I seem to have less confidence then you in the ability of the demos.

    • Dan Meucci says:

      Sorry we disagree over President Obama’s
      use of Executive orders and his shredding of our Constitution.
      1. Passed Obamacare by 1 vote and told lies to sell the law which increased costs, cut benefits, increased our debt and hurt the best medical care system in the world.
      2. Does not enforce imigration laws on the books. Instead supports programs to go around our imigration laws.
      3. Wants to allow 5 million illegals amnesty by
      Executive order.
      5. Hurts our 2nd Amendment rights by Executive order.
      6. Has supported BLM group using Ferguson
      shooting as race based? In short setting back race relations by 50 years
      President Obama may fit the description of a
      Philosopher-King but it doesn’t take a PhD to understand his actions go against the principles of our Constitution. (Balance of powers ) Yes, I believe Mr Obama could be
      Impeached if we had the correct RNC leadership instead of a group of Rhinos trying to outsmart a slick Chicago Community Organizer.
      A great movie to watch is Mr. John Doe played by Gary Cooper (1941). He represents the people who have lost faith in themselves because of the depression. John Doe ( the people) figures out how the establishment is trying to use him to control votes. In the end they understand who is telling the TRUTH.
      Unfortunately Mr. Obama does not feel constraint by normal values because he feels he knows what is best for the masses…
      HLMencken ,”I believe it is better to tell the truth than to lie”

      • Fred,

        Many thanks for the conversation about Marcus Aurelius and His Meditations. Truly enjoy your thoughtful articles. Just wish we had more people who were interested in history as a viable tool to

        understand our past, present and future.


  4. Fred Zilian says:

    Thanks for this info. It will force me to look more critically at his actions.
    I remember the movie, although I have never watched it.

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