Possible discussion points for the Ad Se Ipsum of Marcus Aurelius
After reading the so-called Meditations once through and then again with more attention to specific passages as well as a reading of his former tutor Fronto’s correspondence, I thought I would try to list some of the possible questions or demands we could make of this text in order to arrive at an evaluation of the work.
I managed to read the M once as I have said and the 2 volumes in the Loeb Classical Library of Fronto’s letters (many of which are to and from Marcus) and dipped briefly into Epictetus (Arrian) for a taste of austerity! Altogether it gives a fascinating insight into the life and times and concerns of a Roman emperor during the apogee of the Roman Imperial reach and fortunes, and also where we see the beginnings of the cracks in the façade to the Imperium and the seeds of problems which were eventually to overwhelm and finally to prove its downfall.
What is it? What kind of text, for what audience and purpose?
What is its organisational structure if any? The Greek is difficult for translators, koine, and neologisms and written by a non-greek. Many of Marcus' elite Roman background would have studied the classical language extensively and taught both that and possibly koine (for future administrative uses?) but I suspect that they were stronger at composing epigrams and verse than writing their own original works. So all translations have tended to suffer as a result and have had to approximate – the result is that it’s not entirely clear what point of Stoic or Epicurean philosophy he is referring to and in what sense. This is surely the fault more of the translator but some of the problem does lie with the author in my opinion, writing as he does in a slightly artificial philosopher’s Greek and with a focus on the ethical rather than the more crunchy epistemological aspects of Stoic philosophy.
What can we learn about Stoicism from this text?
Is it useful or appropriate to attempt to draw such significance from it or should we view it more sympathetically in the way of scribbled notes to oneself on the fly during travels or in the field?
Are there non-stoic elements? Epicurus, Plato Socrates etc. In what light does Marcus see them and how are they used in the notes?
What does the text tell us about Marcus? As a person, soldier, leader, Stoic; his attitudes to life and how it should be lived. Is he successful in his own Stoic project of ‘living in accordance with Nature?’ What are his recurrent themes and issues with which he struggles or succeeds?
Since it is a work without conscious intent as its driving force or any organisational pattern apart from Book I, can we expect too much in terms of distilled or coherent Stoic thought?
Alternatively, could he be seen as working through certain Stoic concepts/maxims often repeating the same themes at different points in the text in order to show them in new perspectives in the light of new and varying life experiences?
Is it possible or necessary now to divest ourselves of the Christian mindset of previous scholarship, particularly the Victorians and to some extent the Edwardians (and I am including both for and against, the Arnold/Long camp and the Plumptre/Farrar camp) and look at Marcus text from a post-christian stance taking care not to over-secularise him and fall into another error of interpretation, in order to stimulate new scholarship in the light of new work on Hellenistic thought and philosophical texts and possibly a new translation?
Marcus uses or refers to the use of rhetoric several times throughout the text [notably I.7,17], but what was his attitude to it? Does he trust it? How does it rate against philosophy for him?
I.7 'From Rusticus, to become aware of the fact that I needed amendment and training for my character, and not to be led aside into an argumentative sophistry. [for an example of what he might be referring to, see Fronto humiliating a grammarian with sophistry in Ex Auli Gellii Noctibus Atticis, xix. 10] ; nor compose treatises on speculative subjects, or deliver little homilies, or pose ostentatiously as the moral athlete or unselfish man and to eschew rhetoric poetry and fine language.' and from I.17, '..and that when I had set my heart on philosophy, I did not falll into the hands of a sophist, nor sat down at the author's desk or become a solver of syllogisms nor busied myself with physical phenomena.'
Finally, what use is the Ad Se Ipsum to us here and now in our current age? Is it merely a perennial appeal of the same old tropes, know thyself etc, or are there ways in which we can use the text to turn a light upon our present economic, psychological or even political issues that seem to obsess and beset us?