What if Marcus Aurelius Didn’t Write the Meditations?
The BBC recently put out an episode of its brilliant radio show and podcast In Our Time in which a panel of ancient historians discus Marcus Aurelius and the Meditations with Melvin Bragg, the show’s host.
I highly recommend listening for anybody with an interest in history, Stoicism or applied philosophy.
About halfway through, Bragg — known for his forthright style — challenges the panel to demonstrate how Marcus’s stoicism was put into practice.
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This is where things get interesting. The panellists agree that there are no “obviously Stoic actions on Marcus’s part”. They all agree his governance was good, but that it didn’t have a uniquely Stoic flavour.
“He’s exercising those traditional imperial virtues: clemency, justice and so on… the kinds of virtue that the [non-Stoic] emperor Augustus was praised for exercising.” Says Catharine Edwards, an ancient history professor.
In other words, the panellists agree that Marcus was a “good” (by Roman standards) ruler, but there’s nothing obviously Stoic about his actions as a leader except writing the Meditations. Augustus, the first Roman Emperor evoked as an example above, is well regarded, but could not be considered as being a Stoic.
This leads to a bombshell of a thought: what if Marcus had not written the Meditations? What if he did and they had been lost? What would we think of him?
Simon Goldhill, a classics professor suggests that if we did not have the text of the Meditations, “we would simply say here is an extremely strong powerful ruler of one of the biggest empires the world has ever seen… and he would have gone down as a decent emperor.”
Goldhill suggests that the Meditations are great “publicity” for power and, without them, we would have thought of him “completely differently”.
In such circumstances Marcus would have been put on an even footing with the other “Five Good Emperors” identified by Niccolò Machiavelli, who ruled between 96 and 161 CE: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antonius Pius. All four of these emperors oversaw a prosperous empire and governed relatively well.
If a Stoic leader is comparable with a non-Stoic leader in the way they approach leadership, then two questions come to mind: how effective is Stoicism in making people better leaders? And how truthfully does writing reflect character?
Marcus was the last of these good emperors. After he died, his son Commodus was the first of a succession of bad emperors whose poor management of the Empire led to crisis and decline in the third century.
All the “good Emperors” are respected as being competent leaders, and Marcus is granted that. But there’s little to distinguish Marcus from these other lesser-known emperors if you took away the book that he is most famous for.
His reign was potentially more difficult than the preceding Emperors, owing to the Antonine Plague (165–180), which ravaged the population and created difficulties defending the northern frontier. For managing such a crisis successfully, Marcus deserves some special credit. But did Stoicism make him special?
This brings to mind a point that we should give more thought to. As human beings we understand the world a lot of the time through stories, and stories must have heroes. For the most part this is fine, but we can often sink into dogmas and become susceptible to cultish hero-worship. We become blind to the grey areas of character.
We don’t need heroes. Fawning over complicated human beings from the past does us no good.
Like all of us, Marcus was far from a perfect person, and there’s evidence that he wasn’t always as morally upstanding as many of us would like to think. It would do the Stoic community good to stop “drinking the juice” and be a little more objective towards the saints of Stoicism.
Perfect ideas should be our inspiration, not the imperfect people who practice them.