Sometimes referred to as the “philosopher king,” Marcus Aurelius served as Emperor of Rome for 19 years, being the last of what many cite are the Five Good Emperors. But the implication that Aurelius was not only a political and militarial authority but also a philosophical authority derives chiefly from his influential contributions to the Hellenistic school of thought known as Stoicism. Stoicism postulates that virtue is commensurate to happiness and, therefore, as the will is maintained through human determinism and duty, the order of nature is preserved with equanimity.
Much of what we know regarding Aurelius’ thoughts and perspectives on life, nature, and humanity are gleaned from his 12-volume opus, Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, “That which is to himself” — or what we now commonly refer to as his Meditations. Originally penned in Koine Greek, these writings serve as Aurelius’ personal source of guidance, self-improvement, and enlightenment. The majority of the reflections were written during his military campaigns between the years 170 and 180 A.D., giving intimate insight into the manner and method by which Aurelius sought to sustain a calm, composed, almost unemotional presence of mind amidst serious conflict, as is posited by the Stoics.
Aurelius’ work is still considered to be a monolithic achievement, not only for Stoicism and its adherents but also for literature as a whole. The work encapsulates a remarkable collection of meditations on service, duty, and life. He speaks of fate and time and finding one’s place in the universe; of virtue and honor and “being a good man.” His musings are varied, touching on numerous subjects and applications — an indication of his pervading adherence to his ideology, his faith, if you will.
Aruelius’ dedication to a Stoicism wasn’t mere postulation either. His words, while many and eloquent, were reinforced by an even more excellent life. The historian Herodian records, “Alone of the emperors, he [Aurelius] gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.” (13) The advocation and insistence for a cosmic perspective on life is clear, if not adamant throughout Aurelius’ writings. One such musing, though, is, perhaps, more applicable and more readily descriptive of us than the others. “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact,” Aurelius says. “Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” One can see the rumblings of postmodernism rife in this sentiment. Even if that wasn’t Aurelius’ intent, the subjectivity of everything being an opinion, relative to one’s epistemological tendencies is undeniable. Truth in this understanding is constant only in terms of nature and the cosmos, in things that are unstained by human frailty, frivolity, and fragility. Because of man’s inherent weakness, your truth and my truth might not be the same, with predilection ruling out over principle.
Fashioning life from this understanding is rather difficult, nigh impossible, as it essentially suppresses the idea of “truth” in its own quest for it. Under this guise of reasoning, mankind’s bias is so strong and pervading a force that all sound and sight is muddied with one’s own predisposition towards a specific attitude. Based on one’s upbringing and environment, interpretations change and how the world is perceived is skewed. Such an ideology, though imperceptible, is universal, almost unavoidable. Those who wish to explain away their misdeeds do so by assigning blame somewhere else — cultural, societal, environmental, and parental forces are considered the guilty parties as the culpable party seeks to retain his freedom and innocence. And while external factors surely play roles (often significant) in one’s development and understanding of the world, there is truth that we can hear and know and, one day, see — that being the truth as it is in Jesus. The undeniability of environment affecting one’s perception does in no way negate the verifiable truth of God and his Word.
The truth regarding Christ is constant, sure, and timeless. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isa. 40:8) “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8) This ought to be the perspective of the believer. His continued repose must be on God’s eternal gospel, on the good news which announces Christ’s deliverance of desperate, searching souls. Such is our reminder from the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1–2)
The posture of the Christian is one of persistent “looking to Jesus” from, for, and through everything. And this is not attained except through humility, nor is it sustained except by grace. Inherent in this look is an admission that one is not capable or competent on their own. In clear contradistinction to the idea that man himself can reason his way to God comes the truth of Scripture that, “Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.” (Eccl. 8:17) Despite all our advances in technology, discoveries in science, and progression in philosophy and anthropology, the reason of man is not an adequate substitute for the redemption of Christ.
Assuming that true truth is unknowable is a cataclysmic way to live, causing one to be susceptible to what the apostle describes as being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” (Eph. 4:14) There’s no foundation there, no certainty to rest upon, no inevitability to stay your mind upon when the throes of life intensify. The proper, most powerful perspective isn’t to look inwards for some sort of ethereal enlightenment, but look upwards for eternal encouragement.
Looking up above all human improbabilities and impossibilities, — looking above all our sinfulness and unworthiness, — looking above all the dark, depressing, painful circumstances of our position, — looking above creature help, sympathy, and succour, — looking up to God alone! The more we look up to God, the less we shall find it necessary to look down to man. (Winslow, 347)
This is what the gospel does: It engenders a look upwards to Christ alone for grace and strength, which, in turn, results in a look outwards for those who need the same. The gospel of God is intensely relational — it will always leave you considering others and their needs before your own. Viewing the world through this lens keep everything in proper perspective. No longer will we view ourselves on a higher plane of cosmic understanding or stoic awareness. Instead, we’ll see messed up people and know that we’re just as messed up as they are. What’s more, for us and them — for the whole world — a Savior has come granting mercy to the messy and grace to guilty.
Herodian, History of the Roman Empire, translated by Edward Echols (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961).
Octavius Winslow, The Precious Things of God (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1867).