Marcus Aurelius

Sunday, June 2, 2024
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 30, 2022

What Is It

Marcus Aurelius was a 2nd century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. He is most famous for his Meditations, which was written as a private guide to himself on how to live a life where virtue is the only good and vice the only evil. So how do we figure out how to live a truly Stoic life? What’s the relationship between the wellbeing of an individual and the interest of the larger community? And what can we learn from Marcus about developing mental resilience when confronted with fear, suffering, or pain? Josh and Ray stay calm with Rachana Kamtekar from Cornell University, author of Plato's Moral Psychology: Intellectualism, the Divided Soul, and the Desire for Good.

Listening Notes

What can we learn from the Stoics about living a good life? Could we ever stop caring about pain, suffering, and death? Ray and Josh consider the writings of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who wrote about how to live a better life. Ray explains Marcus’s idea that the health of the soul is more important than the health of the body, which could help us be less afraid and saddened by death. Josh thinks removing our capacity for sadness might also take away our ability to be happy, but Ray argues that real happiness comes from doing good deeds. 

The hosts welcome Rachana Kamtekar, Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University, to the show. Rachana explains the core idea of the Stoics, which is that God is the rational principle of the world, and humans are rational in the same way that God is. It is only due to a narrow perspective that things are seen as bad, since a godly perspective would demonstrate something seemingly bad is good for the whole. Ray asks about the Stoic way of life, which prompts Rachana to discuss how we should live as dictated by wisdom and virtue, despite the difficulty of defining what makes an action virtuous. Josh questions how to align ourselves with Providence and whether our world is already ordered for the best outcome. In response, Rachana describes how consequences are co-fated, that is to say, they are determined both by Zeus’s and our own contributions. 

In the last segment of the show, Ray, Josh, and Rachana discuss the use of Stoicism in contemporary movements and how Marcus Aurelius’s teachings help us develop mental resilience. Rachana thinks that far-right movements have ignored the communal, anti-individualist sentiments of the ancient Stoics. Josh finds some aspects of Stoicism inhumane, such as their proposed reactions to the deaths of loved ones or children. 

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:08) → Shereen Adel seeks out surprising places where Stoicism pops up, including alt-right groups and cognitive behavioral therapy. 

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:03) → Ian Shoales examines a few quotes from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Transcript

Transcript

The Fall of the Roman Empire
Are you a man to enjoy an irony, Marcus Aurelius?

Ray Briggs
Coming up on Philosophy Talk: The Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

Josh Landy
Roman emperor, Stoic philosopher, author of the Meditations.

Comments (24)


Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, January 1, 2022 -- 5:32 PM

Marcus Aurelius (MA) never

Marcus Aurelius (MA) never intended to publish his meditations for posterity; instead, he wrote them in the spirit of being a better person. If I were to take any one idea from his example to build resilience in my life, it would be to write my philosophy down, meditate on it, and be mindful of the spirit in which I wrote it to guide my daily choices.

Somehow MA avoided the edict that absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is a lesson less easily translated as few people today have absolute power – though there are examples. For most philosophers, however, this has the corollary that MA could focus his thought on his duties as emperor and leader to his community. This is a practical takeaway for the best relationship of individual well-being and the larger community's interest, stay within your role.

But how do we figure out our role? When is change best, and when do we hold the line? This question, like resilience, was one that MA answered in his meditations.

I look forward to insight from Rachana on these questions and more modern takeaways from the world's first stoic self-help manual. Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer sums much of the stoic thought passed down to our current thinking.

"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."- Reinhold Neibuhr.

The tricky part is, not being a Roman emperor, what exactly is possible when changing. Though it would be cool to be emperor of all things (Czar?), our modern standard of living far exceeds that of any Roman emperor. Much of that standard is derivative of technology and privilege that can't be controlled or undone without more courage and hardship than I have been willing to bear so far in my life. Marcus Aurelius never had to face that dilemma. So I can't take his exact path as an example for my own. However, this much I can handle; to live below my means for personal satisfaction, meditate upon my life, and make the most of my opportunities to make those thoughts a reality.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, January 7, 2022 -- 5:01 AM

Presumably, Ms. Kamtekar

Presumably, Ms. Kamtekar knows something of Marcus, in so far as she has written of Plato. And is occupied with philosophy. I suppose many of us are stoics at heart. We pretty much have to be so, in order to weather these tumultuous times. As a pragmatist (at heart), my stance follows the old AA credo. You may know it: changing what one can;leaving the rest alone and knowing the difference. As a practical matter, this old duck's back has been wet before, and, sooner or later, any additional water runs off. Stoicism is really akin to other disciplines, many older, and most aimed at knowing inner peace; keeping one's blood pressure manageable and avoiding avoidable violence. (PT has, admirably, addressed non-violence among many topics.)

Stoicism is not very fashionable in our fast-paced, extreme-laden world. We just can't make time for it
But, for some of us, it is still food for reflection. Or, a fading mirror...

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, January 16, 2022 -- 4:13 AM

See Smith's comments above-

See Smith's comments above- re: the serenity prayer. I missed it on first reading. Sorry, Tim.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, January 16, 2022 -- 10:39 AM

Like minds... :-)

Like minds... :-)

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tartarthistle's picture

tartarthistle

Saturday, January 29, 2022 -- 11:54 AM

I like #28a. "Neither play

I like #28a. "Neither play king nor prostitute."

I suspect Marcus Aurelius would have a hard time actively participating at all in our present culture. I think he'd probably choose instead to become a wanderer. I can almost envision him donning a backpack, tucking a good book or two inside (Camus? Alan Watts? William Blake?), and then riding the rails. Let's just hope the Bulls don't rough him up when they catch him...They can be really mean, and most people don't recognize Father Zeus when comes to us dressed in hobo drag...

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johnqeniac's picture

johnqeniac

Sunday, January 30, 2022 -- 11:20 AM

Did Marcus Aurelius actually

Did Marcus Aurelius actually live his life in any way at all according to Stoic principles? I mean, he engaged in brutal wars trying to maintain or expand the Roman Empire as far as possible, right? He inflicted enormous misery on many people including slaves. And as a dictator, he probably was constantly annoyed and infuriated by his own bureaucrats, the masses, everyone else. He might have been a wannabe Stoic but was probably a miserable Stoic in his actual behavior.
Greg Slater
ps - does any at philtalk actually read these comments?

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johnqeniac's picture

johnqeniac

Sunday, January 30, 2022 -- 11:29 AM

...And this leads me to the

...And this leads me to the question: can anyone who actually strives to accomplish anything at all in the real world actually live like a Stoic? I mean, fine for some contemplative philosopher to talk about it, because he's not interacting with the world, has no ambition, accomplishes nothing. But a human actually trying to accomplish something in the real world, interacting with others who he cannot control except by force, I don't think can ever live by Stoic principles. He (or she, they, whatever) can only 'aspire to Stocism', but never in any real way live by it. Meanwhile, they live the horrific, stressful, frustrating, infuriating, angst-ridden world like the rest of us....(by the way, that's called the 'Human Condition' - you can't escape from the Human Condition, no matter how much you try. Sorry.) Show me a true (practicing) Stoic, and I'll show you someone who never accomplished a goddamn thing...
Greg Slater

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johnqeniac's picture

johnqeniac

Sunday, January 30, 2022 -- 11:34 AM

Couple questions for the

Couple questions for the philosophers:

1. Does actually acting according to Stoic principles actually make you less stressed out? Or more (because it would seem it would rule out ambition of any kind?
2. Name one actually 'practicing' Stoic in the history of the World (who actually thought and acted according to the Stoic principles and mindset)?

3. (most important) - are you guys gonna ever take calls again? If so, when? If not, why not? (by the way, a good Stoic would allow live phone calls from listeners)

Thanks,
Greg Slater

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, January 30, 2022 -- 11:54 AM

I second this call for live

I second this call for live calls... it really changes the show not to have these. It would be nice to return to this.

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admin's picture

admin

Monday, January 31, 2022 -- 12:43 PM

Unfortunately we cannot take

Unfortunately we cannot take calls because our show no longer goes out live from the studio due to Covid restrictions. It is now pre-recorded, which is why we ask listeners to submit their questions ahead of time if they want them to be included in the show.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, January 31, 2022 -- 6:22 PM

admin,

admin,

Covid has made shows easier to live-stream, not more difficult. Producing the shows and screening the questions removes the folk from the conversation. There are advantages to either approach. I'm just noticing that conversations we used to hear are no longer present; Jack in San Francisco - speaking Anti-Vax on Gina Rini's guest show on Tolerance and John from Oakland in the Pseudo-Science show are two that come to mind.

There are comments here on this show that are dissonant and not the mainstream. These seem to be cut out of the current production method. These are the minds PT is here to engage, I think.

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admin's picture

admin

Tuesday, February 1, 2022 -- 9:40 AM

Tim, we are hoping we will be

Tim, we are hoping we will be able to return to the studio and resume broadcasting the program live sometime this year. We miss having live callers too.

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Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, February 1, 2022 -- 10:10 AM

Sounds good. I'm not sure

Sounds good. I'm not sure going back is possible now that we all have become Zoom enabled, but this sounds like a virtuous and noble plan worthy of a Marcus. i will resume my stoic stance and take what I can control.

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johnqeniac's picture

johnqeniac

Sunday, January 30, 2022 -- 11:40 AM

Stoic Paradox - Could Hitler

Stoic Paradox - Could Hitler have been a Stoic?
Because it all depends on how you define 'the good', etc, which is left up to each of us to decide.

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Daniel's picture

Daniel

Wednesday, February 2, 2022 -- 6:19 PM

The question is an

The question is an interesting one. There's two things going on in it. One is the assumption of standard-optionality in the field of morals; which is not the same as moral relativism (which claims that there are no (objective) moral standards at all). Standard-optionality does not exclude moral objectivity, but claims only that if they are to exist for individuals they must be defined and self-imposed. It doesn't exclude the fact that some definitions might be morally correct, and others incorrect. The other takes an example of moral incorrectness which is held as obvious, and poses the question about whether or not such obvious immorality could be compatible with an attitude thought to be consistent with and propitious for moral action. This strikes me as a real problem for Stoicism. For there seems to be no clear path of how to distinguish fortitude with regards to one's own experience of fear, pain or loss and that of another. The question above is whether it's possible, not whether it was ever the case. If the stoic theorist is unable to answer that question, is there a way to supplement the model to do so?

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johnqeniac's picture

johnqeniac

Sunday, January 30, 2022 -- 11:43 AM

I could be okay with being

I could be okay with being eaten by a lion if it wasn't for the pain...

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johnqeniac's picture

johnqeniac

Sunday, January 30, 2022 -- 11:52 AM

Please compare and contrast

Please compare and contrast Stoicism and Zen Buddhism. Thanks.
Is a Stoic like Zen Buddhist who actually wants to accomplish something in the world?
Thanks,
Greg Slater

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johnqeniac's picture

johnqeniac

Sunday, January 30, 2022 -- 11:59 AM

How about this for a synopsis

How about this for a synopsis: "Only rich people or philosophers can afford to be Stoics. The rest of us have to suffer the horrible stress of the rat race and the human condition, the 'being eaten by the lion' on a daily basis.

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johnqeniac

Sunday, January 30, 2022 -- 12:31 PM

This reminds me of the old

This reminds me of the old joke:

"A Stoic, a Zen Buddhist, a member of the Oath Keepers, and a lion walk into a bar. A furious gun battle ensues..."

...but I can't remember the rest of it. Could you remind me how the rest of it goes?
Thanks,
Greg Slater

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, February 5, 2022 -- 6:24 AM

Just for grins:

Just for grins:
...the lion, being unarmed and pacifist, waited until the smoke cleared and had lunch.

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Chiaramandres

Thursday, May 2, 2024 -- 2:26 PM

Dostoevsky's quote I recently

Dostoevsky's quote I recently came across in Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning," says "There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings." How would Marcus Aurelius define worthiness in this context?

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alexseen's picture

alexseen

Monday, May 13, 2024 -- 3:47 AM

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taylor167

Wednesday, June 19, 2024 -- 8:09 PM

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adammaurer

Thursday, July 11, 2024 -- 8:19 AM

Josh believes that

Josh believes that eliminating our ability to be sad would also eliminate our ability to be joyful, but Ray contends that genuine happiness is the result of carrying out good deeds. trellis christchurch nz

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