Marcus Aurelius: What Is a Philosopher?

Recently I read a short article about Marcus Aurelius, the second century C.E. Stoic philosopher who was also a Roman emperor. In that article, its author wrote that Marcus Aurelius “never thought of himself as a philosopher.” Instead, he would have thought of himself as a student, and as a practitioner, of a philosophy (Stoicism) that had been developed by others.

I think the claim that Marcus Aurelius would not have thought himself a philosopher is incorrect. At the same time, the way it is incorrect is very interesting. Exploring this will show us some important things about what philosophy and philosophers were in the ancient world, what they are perceived to be now, and how we might choose to regard and engage in philosophy going forward.

First though, because it might otherwise seem like I’m just bringing up this article to criticize it, I want to say it was a very good article. Also, the claims its author makes about about Marcus not considering himself a philosopher, are very much in line with how we most often think of philosophy today. Despite this, I disagree with the statement because it doesn’t say that Marcus Aurelius fails to fit the description of today’s notion of a philosopher. If it did, it would be quite true. He did, however, fit his own time’s notion of a philosopher.

Not Fitting Our Present Notions

There are at least two reasons why Marcus Aurelius truly does not fit our current notion of a philosopher. First, he was not an author. He wrote no philosophical books or articles. Not everyone realizes this, because today there is a well known book by him called Meditations. However, this was not published until centuries later. Moreover, Marcus would not have considered it a book, nor expected it ever to see publication. During the emperor’s life, what we now think of as his book was simply a number of different notebooks in which he had written things to himself. This was part of a philosophical exercise to help him internalize and remember philosophical principles that were important to him. He would not have regarded himself as an author.

Second, Marcus Aurelius was not a creator of ideas. He studied under teachers who taught the ideas of already established philosophical schools, especially that of Stoicism. The ideas he wrote down for himself are those of existing schools and theorists. Most prominent are the ideas of Stoicism and the way in which the Stoic teacher Epictetus had presented Stoicism, although other schools and idea-creators are also represented to some extent, such as Plato. These are not Marcus’ innovations or creations. He does not fit our current day notion of the philosopher as a creator of ideas.

The Ancient Philosopher

However, the ancient idea of philosophy, and of what made a philosopher, was quite different than our current notion. Marcus Aurelius would surely have understood philosophy in the way that his world understood it. And what made a philosopher, according to the ancient understanding, was studying and practicing philosophy. Practicing philosophy did not mean creating ideas and authoring written works. It meant undertaking to live according to the principles of one or more of the existing philosophical schools. Sometimes a philosopher would also innovate within a school, or even create a school, but this was not necessary to being a philosopher. To live a certain way, to gradually train oneself in pursuit of lived wisdom, “virtue,” and ultimately happiness, to engage in philosophical or spiritual exercises — this was what it meant to be a philosopher.

(See my post Philosophy as an Art of Living for more on that.)

We Need to Rediscover the Ancient Idea

My intention, again, is not to criticize the article in question. Nor do I think its author was necessarily wrong to use ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosopher’ in their currently most usual sense. But I do wish that there should be more acknowledgment of what the ancient idea of philosophy was, especially when the context is that of the ancient world, for example Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations.

I also feel strongly that we should start to use the ancient type of idea of philosophy in the present day. The idea that philosophy is primarily a matter of theorizing should not simply be assumed as its default meaning. I would urge contemporary authors would help with this, perhaps especially when the subject is Marcus Aurelius, a person who, by embodying none of the current notions of philosophy, and yet being very much a philosopher in the ancient sense, so clearly represents the “other” idea, practice, cultural institution and unseen heritage of philosophy.

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10 thoughts on “Marcus Aurelius: What Is a Philosopher?

  1. I agee, philosophy not only as a theoretical discipline but also as an art of living and a means to cultivate virtue and happiness. Thank you for this thought-provoking reflection on the evolving notion of philosophy.

  2. Well I think it’s just a perspective of a person that is pointing out the obvious things that people aren’t seeing. Charles Darwin for example had the theory of survival of the fittest and evolution which was lauded at the time, but now is not appreciated in the same way. I’m a big fan of Alan Watts but he doesn’t provide any new ideas for you but merely points out the way you can look at the situation and see how it works. To quote him, people don’t believe what they see but see what they believe. When we wake up and accept ourselves we can be more poignant than any philosophical icon or any mantra.

    Remember that everything in the world is gloriously meaningless

      1. We do tend as a collective to be consumed by a causative past and then absorbed into a prominent future. We miss the present moment and that is all that every exists. I’m not an advocate for the way people are meant to act or how they are to behave. I’m solely responsible for myself. Since I was diagnosed with bipolar I had a shift in focus and I got rid of my social media platforms, the people who mattered are here in my life, I’m not bothered with what someone I knew at school had for their breakfast!

        Being philosophical is about pointing out the things that are obvious to you but you fail to acknowledge or deny that you can see.

        I have two statements from the 100s and 1000s of nonsense collective I write;

        “We are all individually unique yet fundamentally identical”

        “Parameters on what we are able to achieve is a paralysis of our evolution”

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