Sunday, November 25, 2007

Marcus - or Not

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his book of philosophy, which was not really widely read or published until long after this death in 180 A.D. It has become popular, and is a clear example of late Stoic philosophical writing. Some college students even claim it as a source of personal inspiration! There is no doubt that the book is entertaining, and is, in any case, by far the most well-liked piece of writing by a Roman emperor. Who would have thought that, nearly two thousand years after his death, Americans would be buying thousands of copies of his book? And mainly people who are not students, and not assigned to read him by a teacher or professor!

Yet, despite his "best-seller" status, we label him as "historically insignificant"! Why? In the line of Roman emperors, he either represents no clear turning point, or, at most, a negative turning point, inasmuch as his successor and son was generally regarded as a far worse emperor than he. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the empire neither contracted nor expanded in a major way, nor did the nature of the Roman government alter itself perceptibly. For most of his reign, he was not in Rome, but rather in the provinces, mainly in Gaul, fighting with his army against various tribes. In the big picture of Roman history, he was the proverbial "blip on the screen."

Although historically insignificant, he was, however, philosophically significant. His book is the latest clear statement we have of Stoicism, before it ceased to be a belief system with any significant number of followers.

Given his prominent role in the history of Stoicism, it is worth comparing his life to his actions: how well does a life, the last twenty years of which were devoted to nearly constant warfare and to routinely signing execution orders for the thousands of Christians who were being put to death, match up with the sagely calmness of his book?