Marcus Aurelius: Plato's Philosopher King
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180 CE) has been hailed as “one of the noblest figures in antiquity” and his work, Meditations, would certainly attest to the truth of that praise. Aurelius is known today as “the last of the good emperors” and, while his depiction in the film Gladiator(2000) is highly fictionalized (especially concerning his cause of death and his `vision’ for Rome) that he should be played so sympathetically in the movie is a testament to his legacy of gentleness and thoughtfulness.
Marcus was born in Rome (or Spain, according to some sources) to an aristocratic Roman family and at the age of six, following the death of his parents, was brought up by his grandfather. He was formally adopted by his uncle Aurelius Antoninus Pius (who had been named emperor Hadrian’s successor) thus making the boy heir to the empire. When he was eleven years old he was introduced to the precepts of Stoicism by the philosopher Diognetus and instantly internalized the teachings which would guide him through the rest of his life.
Throughout the nineteen years of his reign, this embodiment of Plato’s ideal of the philosopher-king would, ironically, be constantly harassed by bloody military campaigns, natual disasters and domestic sorrows. Of the five sons his wife, Faustina, bore him, only one, Commodus, survived to adulthood. The great devastation of the plague, which spread through the empire having been brought back from a campaign to Syria by his co-emperor Lucius Verus, was only one of many troubles Aurelius had to face and tried, philosophically, to cope with. The tribes of the Marcomanni and Quadi constantly were invading the frontiers and Aurelius spent untold hours and resources trying to secure and maintain the boundaries as well as expand the territory into the Danube region. Through all of this, as history and his own writings attest, Aurelius did his best to remain steady in the face of change, exhibiting what Hemingway would later call “grace under pressure.”
The choices Aurelius makes during his reign give evidence of a kind and loving, though not always prudent, character, despite the Stoic philosophy he held. Upon his ascent to rule, and in opposition to the majority of the Senate, he appointed the other adopted son of Antoninus, Lucius Verus, as co-emperor and gave him his daughter, Lucilla in marriage even though it was generally understood that Verus had neither the talent nor the intelligence to rule. His choice of Commodus as his successor was another poor one in that Commodus never shared his father’s high ideals nor displayed his intelligence. That Commodus would essentially un-do all the good that Aurelius had done, handing over the rule of Rome to incompetents and amusing himself constantly in his seraglio (which allegedly was comprised of 300 girls and 300 boys) shows exactly how poor Aurelius’ judgment could be. Yet it is this very `human-ness’, this kindness and hope for others to share his same vision which makes the Meditations so enduring a testament.
The Meditations are the diary or journal of Marcus Aurelius, written largely during his campaigns in the Danube region in twelve books. The work stands as a testament to the nobility of its author (who never intended his journals for publication) and endures because of the immense practicality and sense of the vision for life it expresses. The Stoic philosophy of Epictetus reaches its ethical height in the writings of Marcus Aurelius who, in Book II, chapter 4 of the Meditations writes, "You must one day realize at last of what cosmos you are a part and from what Governor of the cosmos your existence comes, and that a limit of time has been set aside for you, and if you do not use it to clear away the clouds from your mind it will be gone, and you will be gone, and it will never return again." For all of his very human faults, Marcus Aurelius did his best to clear away the clouds from his mind and pre-figures the much later ideals of the Existentialists (Sartre, among others) that the purpose of one’s life is to be the very best human being one can be regardless of the circumstances one finds oneself in.