The Great Philosophers

Marcus Aurelius: a philosopher-king, or a king that dabbled in philosophy?

Our series continues with the philosophically inclined Roman emperor, the Stoic who examined free will and what we can control and what we cannot

Tuesday 15 June 2021 21:30
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<p>An equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius at Palazzo del Campidoglio in Rome</p>

An equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius at Palazzo del Campidoglio in Rome

In his masterpiece, the Republic, Plato argues that the just state is ruled by the ones who know the Good, and at the top is the philosopher-king, a man born and quite literally bred to rule. 

While it might be tempting to think of Marcus Aurelius (AD121-80) as a philosopher-king, it would be a mistake. Marcus was a philosophically inclined Roman emperor, but not a philosopher-king in Plato’s sense. Among other things, he did not undertake the rigorous programme of study required by Plato, and anyway, the philosophy Marcus espouses, though Platonic in places, is clearly generally Stoic in nature. However, it would also be a mistake to overlook Marcus, to take him for a second-rate thinker who happened to be an emperor. We have, in his writings, nothing less than a kind of distillation of Stoic philosophy that is filtered through the practical demands of someone in possession of monumental political power.

His route to power was unusual. Marcus was adopted and brought up well by his uncle, Emperor Antonius Pius (himself adopted by Emperor Hadrian). By all surviving accounts, Marcus was an excellent student of rhetoric, poetry and law, but he seems to have taken an early and very keen interest in philosophy, particularly the writings of the Stoic Epictetus. At a precocious age, perhaps as young as 11, he began to dress plainly and follow what he took to be a Stoic’s severe regime of study, frugality and self-denial. Perhaps he went too far, because there are reports that his health suffered. 

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