In this week’s philosophy post we’ll be looking at the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, whose Stoic philosophy demonstrated a belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of all things.
Who Was He?
Aurelius lived from 121-180 AD. He was the adopted son of the Emperor Pius, and himself became Roman Emperor for nearly 20 years in the period leading up to his death. We have only one work from Aurelius entitled Meditations or Writings to Himself, allegedly written in the midst of the Parthian war, a long conflict between the Parthian Empire and the Roman Republic / Roman Empire.
As a convert to Stoicism, he became interested in a variety of social problems including slavery, imprisonment, and poverty, although at the same time was responsible, as emperor, for the persecution of the Christian population, who posed a threat to Roman polytheism.
What’s the Big Idea?
The Meditations contain a series of philosophical exercises designed to put into practice philosophical theory and thereby to transform Aurelius’s own behaviour and his entire way of life. He didn’t believe in an afterlife, instead supposing that everything we strive after will be condemned to oblivion. This considered, he believed desire is really pointless, except the desire for death, which has some merit as it marks the end of all desires. The best we can hope to achieve in life is to master our thoughts and try to suffer as little as possible.
Researching the thought of Aurelius I couldn’t help but think of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, with its message that all of our toil is mere ‘vanity and grasping for the wind’. But at the same time that Aurelius was philosophising with his Stoic contemporaries, presenting a message which focused on the insignificance of our lives, Christianity was emerging with its message that human beings have the hope of eternal life if they will turn to Jesus, repent, and follow him.
I can understand how philosophers like Aurelius can find a certain peace of mind in embracing the view that our lives are ultimately meaningless. It can be comforting to think everything will simply end, and that nothing really matters. On the other hand, if in reality there is a single omnipotent God who lives eternally, and in whom we live and move and have our being, our worldly actions can be seen to have an eternal purpose, and even eternal consequences, if we are to face judgment one day as Christians believe.
In next Friday’s philosophy post we’ll be moving from Stoicism to Scepticism and the thought of another Roman philosopher named Sextus Empiricus. If you’d like to receive an email every time I post, please consider subscribing. Thank you for reading!