Comparing Marcus Aurelius and His Stoicism with Rousseau s Libertinism
Marcus Aurelius: What Has Been Lost
Natural law ethics were articulated by Aristotle in classical Greek philosophy and have been a mainstay of Western philosophy ever since, being discussed by Roman philosophers, early Church Fathers and Scholastics in the Middle Ages. It was not until the Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment when modern society began to reject the Old World values where natural law conformed with moral law. Enlightenment philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau abandoned the notion of Original Sin and of fallen human nature and viewed natural law from a liberal perspective in which every human impulse was deemed good regardless of whether form followed function (Laux). For Rousseau liberty was what mattered most, and that meant rejection of the order of the medieval Church and of the doctrines of sin and redemption. It also meant rejecting the natural law and classical notion of virtue, self-restraint, and stoicism propagated by one of the greatest classical stoics to influence subsequent generations—Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius wrote the book Meditations, which is both a chronicle of different points in the Roman Emperor’s life. Divided into 12 books, Meditations is as much a reflection on the Emperor’s own life as it is a meditation on stoic philosophy—the Hellenistic school of thought founded by Zeno in Athens some four hundred years prior. Stoicism, which Marcus Aurelius promotes in Meditations, was based on both a logical system of personal ethics and observations of the law of the natural world. Marcus Aurelius and his book Meditations can be considered as important to the laying of the foundation of virtue ethics and the notion of personal responsibility in the West for centuries as Aristotle or the later Scholastics (Strange). It was only with the arrival of the materialistic, liberal and revolutionary Age of Enlightenment that a new kind of philosophy rooted in libertinism began to take hold of modern society. This paper will show what has been lost in today’s world by examining the vigor found in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
The very first point that Marcus Aurelius makes in Book One of the Meditations is the importance of passing on knowledge and discipline from one generation to the other. In other words, it is directly the opposite of the argument that Rousseau makes in Emile, where the modern philosopher argues that parents should not try to pass on their ways, their knowledge or their view to their children because doing so corrupts the natural essence of the child and serves as an obstacle to liberty. Aurelius implies quite simply that to leave younger generations twisting in the wind without guidance is akin to abandoning them, and he implies this with his first line: “From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper” (Aurelius, Book One). That is such an important line for today’s world because it shows the absolute importance of receiving guidance from the older generations, the absolute vital importance of submitting to their wisdom and restraining one’s own passions. Rousseau who is basically one of the founding philosophers of modern thought argued in The Social Contract that people are…
…points to his father for learning how to cultivate a mild temper—but he also shows the value of having a religious perspective and Marcus Aurelius expresses gratitude to the gods for giving him such good examples of character in his parents, grandparents and friends and tutors. This alone is a nearly shocking display of humility that so flies in the face of today’s generations of atheistic, ungrateful people who show no thanks to any power or God whatsoever above them.
In the stoicism and Meditations of Marcus Aurelius one thus can find a depth of humility and self-possession that is all but missing in many of today. Yet even in his own time of Roman antiquity, people were also falling under the sway of libertinism. That is why Aurelius prepared himself each day by mentally telling himself: Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly… I can neither be injured by any of them” (Aurelius, Book Two). With this incredible sense of right from the wrong, the glory of beauty and the horribleness of that which is ugly, Aurelius was able to rise above it all and transcend the wicked environment of a decadent Rome. Today’s people of the modern world could learn a great lesson from reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and thinking about how they themselves have been formed, unformed or…
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Aurelius, Marcus. Book One. Meditations. http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.1.one.html
Aurelius, Marcus. Book Two. Meditations. http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.2.two.html
Laux, J. Church History. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1933.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/rousseau-emile-or-education
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/rousseau-the-social-contract-and-discourses
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