Friday, December 09, 2005

Epictetus on Marcus Aurelius

I have a question for those of you who are familiar with the stoicism of the Marcus Aurelius. We have been discussing lately Epictetus’ view that you cannot be devoted to both externals and your inner life. As he says at Discourses IV. 10. 18, you cannot wish for a consulship or land or wealth, and also attend properly to what lies in the sphere of choice.

I think it’s fair to say that Epictetus did not imagine someone who professed to be a Stoic reigning as Emperor of Rome. But within 30 years or so of this death that did happen. You cannot but wonder what Epictetus would have thought of Marcus. Would he have said, “That man is no Stoic!” Or would he have changed his views about the compatibility of temporal & spiritual devotions?

I want to register my dissatisfaction in advance with one interpretation of Marcus’ career that I think does not fit the historical record. Epictetus and Marcus both speak piously of fulfilling the role fate or God has assigned us. Some of us are destined to be emperors and some of us to be slaves. That is not in our hands, only how well or poorly we play the role we have been assigned. ( Vide Encheiridion 17 )

No doubt both men believed this to a degree, but the career of Marcus is not the portrait of someone drifting along on the winds of fate “wherever God wishes is fine with me”. Marcus was no accidental emperor, no Claudius from behind the curtain. He clearly wished to be emperor, he struggled to secure his ambition, and then he fought almost continuously for 20 years to suppress rebellions and attacks upon his empire. His visit to the Quadi & Marcomanni, noted in the Meditations, was not a goodwill outing!

The Meditations strike me as the record of a man trying to combine just what Epictetus thought you could not combine: a devotion to a fragile, unstable external good ( the Empire, his Empire ) with a tranquil inner life. Does it seem to you that Marcus was reasonably successful in this, or are his life & reign evidence in the end that Epictetus was right?


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