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What was Marcus Aurelius's view of and interactions with Christianity?

What was Marcus Aurelius's view of and interactions with Christianity?

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I know that Christians were persecuted during Marcus Aurelius's lifetime. I believe he mentions them only once in his Meditations, in which he scorns them. But that's really all I know about the subject. Do we know anything more about his view of or his interactions with Christianity? What were his words and his deeds on the matter? And what actions by Christians (or even by his mentors) may have colored his view of Christianity?

Preliminary research

From the introduction of my copy of Meditations, I know a few basic things.

  • He only mentions them once in his meditations, and in so doing, scorns them.
  • Christians were persecuted during his lifetime.
  • Saint Justin (who wrote an apology for Christianity) was martyred during his lifetime.
  • The prefect (Junius Rusticus) who tried Justin Martyr was a mentor to Aurelius.

It seems there may be one interesting encounter which is recorded regarding Marcus Aurelius and the Christian population at the time. Marcus gives some credit to prayer by Christians within his forces to an event during his campaign in the north (here from Apology):

For having cast themselves on the ground, they prayed not only for me, but also for the whole army as it stood, that they might be delivered from the present thirst and famine. For during five days we had got no water, because there was none; for we were in the heart of Germany, and in the enemy's territory. And simultaneously with their casting themselves on the ground, and praying to God (a God of whom I am ignorant), water poured from heaven, upon us most refreshingly cool, but upon the enemies of Rome a withering(3) hail.

and this apparently caused a declaration before the Senate :

Founding upon this, then, let us pardon such as are Christians, lest they pray for and obtain such a weapon against ourselves. And I counsel that no such person be accused on the ground of his being a Christian. But if any one be found laying to the charge of a Christian that he is a Christian, I desire that it be made manifest that he who is accused as a Christian, and acknowledges that he is one, is accused of nothing else than only this, that he is a Christian; but that he who arraigns him be burned alive. And I further desire, that he who is entrusted with the government of the province shall not compel the Christian, who confesses and certifies such a matter, to retract; neither shall he commit him. And I desire that these things be confirmed by a decree of the Senate. And I command this my edict to be published in the Forum of Trajan, in order that it may be read.

So, it appears that he experienced what he interpreted as a miraculous intervention, enough that he forbade punishment of Christians merely for their faith. Please note the author of the above document is not Marcus Aurelius himself, but the individual mentioned in the question, Justin Martyr, so this writing is obviously 'biased' from a Christian viewpoint.

The view expressed in Apology, does not seem to be held by some later historians however. Gibbon, in his HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, discusses this in Chapter XVI: Conduct Towards The Christians, From Nero To Constantine.-Part V:

The edict of Marcus Antoninus is supposed to have been the effect of his devotion and gratitude for the miraculous deliverance which he had obtained in the Marcomannic war. The distress of the legions, the seasonable tempest of rain and hail, of thunder and of lightning, and the dismay and defeat of the barbarians, have been celebrated by the eloquence of several Pagan writers. If there were any Christians in that army, it was natural that they should ascribe some merit to the fervent prayers, which, in the moment of danger, they had offered up for their own and the public safety. But we are still assured by monuments of brass and marble, by the Imperial medals, and by the Antonine column, that neither the prince nor the people entertained any sense of this signal obligation, since they unanimously attribute their deliverance to the providence of Jupiter, and to the interposition of Mercury.During the whole course of his reign, Marcus despised the Christians as a philosopher, and punished them as a sovereign.

Marcus Aurelius

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Marcus Aurelius, in full Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, original name (until 161 ce ) Marcus Annius Verus, (born April 26, 121 ce , Rome [Italy]—died March 17, 180, Vindobona [Vienna, Austria] or Sirmium, Pannonia), Roman emperor (161–180), best known for his Meditations on Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius has symbolized for many generations in the West the Golden Age of the Roman Empire.

Why is Marcus Aurelius important?

Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome. His reign (161–180 CE) marked the end of a period of internal tranquility and good government. After his death the empire quickly descended into civil war. He has symbolized the Golden Age of the Roman Empire for many generations in the West.

What was Marcus Aurelius’s family like?

Marcus Aurelius came from a prominent Roman family. His paternal grandfather served as consul twice, and his maternal grandmother was heiress to one of the most massive of Roman fortunes. Marcus married his cousin Annia Galeria Faustina, the emperor Antoninus Pius’s daughter. Together they had at least 12 children, including Commodus, Marcus’s successor.

How did Marcus Aurelius become emperor?

When Marcus Aurelius was 17 years of age, his uncle became the emperor Antoninus Pius (reigned 138–161) and adopted him and another young man as his successors. Marcus had a long apprenticeship at the side of Antoninus, learning the business of government and assuming public roles, before peacefully assuming power upon Antoninus’s death.

What did Marcus Aurelius write?

Marcus Aurelius wrote the Meditations, his reflections in the middle of campaigning and administration. The extent to which he intended it to be seen by others is uncertain. It shows the strong influence of Stoicism on Marcus and has been held by generations as the thoughts of a philosopher-king.

How Did Early Christians Respond to Plagues?

COVID-19 is spreading across the globe as I write these words. In my section of the world, people are stockpiling hand sanitizers, facemasks, toilet paper and bottled water, and some have already self-quarantined. The focus of these efforts, naturally, is protection of self and others from the spread of the virus. But in the midst of all this worry, let’s take a moment and reflect on how Christians dealt with plagues in the past. Twenty-first century followers of Jesus might profit from viewing a page from our own Christian history as we consider how to navigate this looming crisis known to most as Coronavirus—that is, how to navigate this peril as Christians.

Sociologist and historian Rodney Stark mounted a powerful argument that one of the principal reasons Christianity grew while Roman paganism waned in the 1 st -4 th centuries was because of the mercy Christians displayed toward people who physically suffered, and in particular, how Christians showed mercy during two plagues that ravaged the Roman Empire. Below I will include a few paragraphs from Stark’s book, "The Triumph of Christianity." Perhaps we can draw some insight from these historical reflections as we weigh whether to hide out in our houses, or wisely and carefully venture out to care for the weak and suffering.

What can we draw from these reflections by a social historian about the practices of early Christians during the two great plagues of the 2 nd and 3 rd centuries A.D.? By all means, practice scrupulous hygiene, both for your own sake and for the sake of others. Wash your hands, cough into your arm, elbow-bump instead of shaking hands. Even stay away from public meetings that your local health authorities recommend you avoid. But if one of your Christian brothers or sisters, or one of your non-Christian neighbors, contracts the disease and needs you to serve them—or (may it not come to this!) if our health systems get overwhelmed and need some extra volunteers—consider serving simply because you are a Christian. Let me reiterate, by all means, take into account every precaution laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and your local authorities—but by all means, also continue to show mercy and serve others as Christ taught us to do. This is what Christians have done throughout the centuries in the midst of suffering and death. According to Stark, it is also one of the main reasons Christianity flourished during the first four centuries of its existence. Let us not be driven by fear, no matter what transpires in the days and weeks ahead. Rather, let us be guided by the One who declared a blessing upon those who show mercy.[2]


[1] Excerpted from Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 114-119.

Today two Christian friends put up the following message on each of their Facebook pages [slightly edited]: “If you are in the [City Name] area and need to self-quarantine due to exposure or health issues, I’m available to shop for you. Please consider making this offer to your friends who are > 65 or in poor health.” Thanks Kent Ostby and Jill Beasley for modeling one practical way of showing mercy during this period


Marcus’s choice of his only surviving son as his successor has always been viewed as a tragic paradox. Commodus (reigned as sole emperor 180–192) turned out badly, though two things must be borne in mind: emperors are good and bad in the ancient sources according as they did or did not satisfy the senatorial governing class, and Commodus’s rapid calling off of the northern campaigns may well have been wiser than his father’s obsessive and costly expansionism. But those who criticize Marcus for ensuring the accession of Commodus are usually under the misapprehension that Marcus was reverting to crude dynasticism after a long and successful period of “philosophic” succession by the best available man. This is historically untenable. Marcus had no choice in the matter: if he had not made Commodus his successor, he would have had to order him to be put to death.

Marcus was a statesman, perhaps, but one of no great calibre nor was he really a sage. In general, he is a historically overrated figure, presiding in a bewildered way over an empire beneath the gilt of which there already lay many a decaying patch. But his personal nobility and dedication survive the most remorseless scrutiny he counted the cost obsessively, but he did not shrink from paying it.

On Good Advice

16) “Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

Many people undervalue how important our deepest thoughts can be. Our actions and words do not define who we are it is our thoughts, the way we think and what we choose to think about.

Who we are is most determined by what we think—the rest just falls into place.

17) “If it’s endurable, then endure it. If it’s not endurable, then stop complaining. Your destruct will mean its end as well.”

Pain and suffering is inevitable, and complaining about it does nothing but waste your own time. If it won’t kill you, then just know that it will pass.

And if it will kill you, then find peace in the fact that your end will come with its own end.

18) “Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life.”

We cannot control the past or the future, but we can control the present. We can control our actions that happen right here, right now.

If you fully embrace that your life happens in the present, then you will stop reminiscing the past or dreaming about the future instead, you’ll start building in the present.

And we want to be remembered the way we lived if this were your last day on earth, would you be happy with the way they will remember you?

19) “At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to what power rules it and from what source you spring that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”

It is so easy to daydream our lives away. To think that we have an endless amount of time to achieve our hopes and dreams, therefore we don’t have to take ourselves seriously in the present. But if you never stop yourself and force yourself to move forward, life will never take you to where you want to be. The end, death, is coming at us, slowly but surely, and every day we waste is another day we will never get back.

Public duties

Public duties began when he became consul in 140 AD and by 161 AD, he was Emperor. He married his cousin two years before being sworn in and they must have been rather busy, since their offspring reached the massive count of 13. Tragically, only four daughters and one son outlived him, which was, no doubt, something of a trial for one who held so dearly the people close to him.

Marcus Aurelius wasn’t the only reigning Emperor at the time, by the way, but ruled jointly with Lucius Verus, who was by no means as well liked and who pretty much took a back seat in the running of things until his death from measles in 169 AD. Marcus had no ties to Christianity, except perhaps the fact that he chose to keep it firmly outlawed in his state.

Three Key Takeaway Lessons from Meditations

  1. The most important lesson to take away from Meditations is that our minds have great power. We can choose how we perceive events and we can always choose to be virtuous. If we practice, we can instantly erase any bad impressions from our mind. We are completely in control of our thoughts and actions. Remember the two quotes: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
  1. People will always do awful (or at least unpleasant) things and we are only responsible our own virtue. We can choose to be good even when we are surrounded by wrong. When another harms us, we can react with kindness, advising them of their errors if possible but being okay with it if they ignore this advice. When another angers us, we must immediately consider their point of view, remember that we have our own faults, and respond with positivity and indifference to any supposed harm done to us.
  2. The deepest lesson in Meditations relates to our mortality and the shortness of life. We shall soon be replaced, and we ought not waste our lives being distressed. We should focus on doing good for the others with the unknowable amount of time we have left to live. To make this a part of our lives we must reflect regularly on the fact that we will die. This can result in some of the deepest understandings available to humans, therefore death should be confronted no matter how unpleasant it may be to think about. We should reflect on all the people that have come before us, what is left of them now, and what will later be left of us.

2. Living Stoically

Although he acknowledges that he struggles to live as a philosopher, Marcus urges himself to that life, spelling out what it involves in Stoic terms:

&hellipyou are no longer able to have lived your whole life as a philosopher since youth and it is clear to many others and to you yourself that you are far from philosophy. So you are confused: the result is that obtaining the reputation of a philosopher is no longer easy for you &hellip If you have seen truly where the matter lies, then leave behind your reputation and be content even if you live the remainder of life, however long [it may be], as your nature wills. Consider what it wills, and let nothing else distract you. For your experience tells you how much you have strayed: nowhere in so-called reasonings, wealth, reputation, enjoyment, nowhere do you find living well. So where is it? In doing those things which human nature seeks. And how will one do these things? If one has doctrines from which [flow] one&rsquos impulses and actions. Which doctrines? Those concerning goods and evils: that nothing is good for a human being which does not make them just, temperate, courageous, free that nothing is bad, which does not make them the contraries of the aforementioned. (viii.1, emphasis mine)

In saying that living well lies in doing what his human nature seeks, Marcus is echoing generations of Stoic philosophers. Cleanthes says the goal (telos) is &lsquoliving in agreement with nature&rsquo Chrysippus, &lsquoliving according to the experience of what happens by nature&rsquo Diogenes, &lsquobeing reasonable in the selection and rejection of what is according to nature&rsquo Archedemus, &lsquoliving completing all appropriate actions&rsquo Antipater, &lsquoliving continually selecting what is according to nature and rejecting what is contrary to nature&rsquo (Arius Didymus 6a). These formulae indicate that the goal is to act in accordance with nature, and to be in a certain cognitive state in relation to one&rsquos acts according to nature: in agreement, on the basis of experience, being reasonable, continually (dienekôs, i.e. consistently, stably?), all of which imply understanding.

But how is a Stoic to put this into practice? What is it to do what one&rsquos human nature seeks, in the particular circumstances in which one finds oneself? Surely it does not mean doing whatever is one&rsquos strongest desire to do in the moment.

In the passage quoted, Marcus explains how one might do what is in one&rsquos nature by saying that one must modify one&rsquos beliefs about good and bad, as these inform one&rsquos impulses and actions. He says, for example, that if we believe that pleasure is good and pain evil, then we will be resentful of the pleasures enjoyed by the vicious and the pains suffered by the virtuous. And if we are resentful of what happens, we will be finding fault with Nature and will be impious (ix.3). But while false beliefs about good and bad hinder us from following nature and acting virtuously, how can their removal by itself enable us to follow nature and act virtuously? Once I know that pleasure and pain are neither good nor evil but are indifferent for my happiness, I still need to know how I should respond to this pleasure and that pain, in order to be following nature. The first century Stoic philosopher Seneca argues in his Letters to Lucilius for the usefulness of concrete advice for certain types of situations (praecepta) on the grounds that having eliminated vice and false opinion, one will not yet know what to do and how to do it (94.23), for inexperience, not only passion, prevents us from knowing what to do in each situation (94.32) Seneca also says that nature does not teach us what the appropriate action is in every case (94.19). Perhaps Marcus thinks that there is, in every choice situation, something one can do that is productive of virtue (he says, &lsquonothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, temperate, courageous, free&rsquo on the other hand, &lsquomake&rsquo may have the sense of constituting rather than producing, in which case the reference to the virtues in the passage isn&rsquot action-guiding at all). Alternatively, he may think that what produces virtue is not the content of one&rsquos action, but the thoughts that go along with it. But what thoughts are these? Surely, if virtue is to have any content, thinking &lsquoonly virtue is good&rsquo is not going to be sufficient.

2.1 The Deliberative Content Problem: The Good, The Bad, and the Indifferent

To appreciate Marcus&rsquos distinctive contribution to the question of how to live as a Stoic, it will be useful to begin with a background in early Stoic ethics. Stoicism teaches that virtue is the only good for oneself, that vice is the only evil, and that everything else is indifferent so far as one&rsquos happiness is concerned. That is to say, only virtue can contribute to our happiness only vice can contribute to our unhappiness. Poverty, ill-repute, and ill-health are not bad, for their possession does not make us unhappy wealth, fame and good are not good because their possession does not make us happy. If one asks, &lsquohow shall I act? On what can I base my choices between health and sickness, wealth and poverty, so that my choices are rational and not arbitrary?&rsquo, then the textbook Stoic answer is that among indifferents some are to be preferred as being in accordance with nature (Diogenes Laertius vii.101&ndash5 Arius Didymus 7a&ndashb, Epictetus ii.6.9 [for these passages see Long and Sedley 1987, section 58]). So whereas it is absolutely indifferent how many hairs one has on one&rsquos head or whether the number of stars in the sky is even or odd, we do, and in most cases should, prefer and select wealth, fame and good health over poverty, ill-repute and sickness, because these are (in most cases) in accordance with nature. Cicero gives one reason why there must be value-differences among indifferents: if everything aside from virtue and vice were absolutely indifferent, the perfected rationality of the Stoic wise person would have no function to carry out (On Ends iii.50). Wisdom&rsquos exercise would consist in flipping coins to select one indifferent over another.

When we select things that are according to nature and reject things that are contrary to nature, our actions are appropriate (kathêkonta for Marcus&rsquo use of this term, see i.2, iii.1.2, iii.16.2, vi.22, vi.26.3), and an appropriate action is an action for which there is a reasonable (eulogon) justification. An appropriate action counts as a morally perfect or virtuous action (katorthôma) when it is done from understanding, i.e., from the wise and stable cognitive state possessed only by the fully virtuous person (Arius Didymus 8). Although the talk of the appropriate action having a reasonable justification might suggest that more than one action could be appropriate for a situation, or that what is appropriate could be relativized to the ordinary person&rsquos grasp of the situation (as some utilitarians consider that action right which maximizes expected rather than actual utility), so that &lsquoreasonable justification&rsquo would be like the law&rsquos &lsquoreasonable doubt&rsquo or &lsquoreasonable person&rsquo, the Stoics&rsquo use of &lsquoreasonable&rsquo in other contexts, such as the definition of the good emotions (eupatheiai) (Diogenes Laertius vii.116), the end (Arius Didymus 6a), and the virtues of reasoning and rhetoric (SVF iii.264, 268 291, 294), clearly takes the standard of reasonableness to be the right reason of the fully virtuous person. This points to there being only one appropriate action per situation, a conclusion which is confirmed by Chrysippus&rsquo claim that the fully virtuous person performs all appropriate actions and leaves no appropriate action unperformed (iii.510). (This discussion of the &lsquoreasonable&rsquo and appropriate action follows Brennan 1996, 326&ndash29.)

The appropriate action, for which there is a reasonable justification, is not in all cases the one that obtains or pursues the preferred indifferents for the agent. According to our evidence, while it is our nature to preserve our bodily constitution (Diogenes Laertius vii.85&ndash86), there are situations in which we ought to give up our lives (Cicero On Duties iii.89&ndash115, On Ends iii.60), for example, to save our country (for discussion of this issue, see Barney 2003 and Brennan 2005). Further, Chrysippus seems to have said that if he knew he was fated to be ill, then he would have an impulse towards illness, but lacking this knowledge he should select the things that are well-adapted (tôn euphuesterôn) to obtaining what is in accordance with nature (Epictetus Discourses ii.6.9). This seems to suggest that in the absence of knowledge that one is fated to be ill, one should select health, but either this selection is not guaranteed to be in accordance with nature or to result in an appropriate action, or a selection (e.g. the selection of health) can be in accordance with nature even though what it aims at (e.g. obtaining or enjoying health), is not. So perhaps knowing the preferred indifferents guides actions only in the way that Ross&rsquos identification of prima facie duties is supposed to help with moral decision-making, namely, by making certain considerations salient to deliberation (for this picture, see Vogt 2008, 173&ndash178), but the account is silent about how to weigh indifferents against each other in a particular situation. Alternatively, it may be that something&rsquos being according to nature gives the agent only epistemic reasons for selection rather than practical reasons responsive to some intrinsic value of the indifferents (for this view see Klein 2015).

We might wonder why anything should be called according to nature, or preferred, if there are circumstances in which it is not. Why not reserve the label &lsquoaccording to nature&rsquo for what is fated? The heterodox Stoic Aristo of Chios denied that any indifferents were to be preferred by nature, pointing out that the same thing could be preferred in one circumstance and dispreferred in another (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 11.64&ndash7). However, the orthodox Stoics seem to insist that preferability, and being in accordance with nature, is an intrinsic character of some things, and Diogenes Laertius reports a distinction between appropriate actions that do not depend on circumstances, such as looking after one&rsquos health and sense-organs, and appropriate actions that are appropriate only in certain circumstances, such as mutilating oneself (Diogenes Laertius vii.108&ndash9). So it is not true of all, but only some, appropriate actions that their appropriateness is circumstantial. Perhaps the idea is that while it is only true for the most part that health (or strength or well functioning sense organs) is in accordance with nature, this does not mean that the naturalness of health (strength, well functioning sense organs) depends on the circumstances. On this view, what health is for a species is defined by the species&rsquo nature, and that is unconditionally according to its nature.

The fact that our sources understand what is according to nature both in terms of cosmic nature or what is fated and in terms of the individual natures out of which the nature of the cosmos is built up raises the question of conflict, for instance when my health, which is in accordance with my nature, is not fated, or in accordance with cosmic nature. Such conflict can be avoided for human beings by appeal to our rational nature, on the one hand, and providential cosmic nature, on the other: our rationality enables us to appreciate and will what is according to cosmic nature because the latter is best for the whole. On the specific question of why we ought to prefer, as in accordance with nature, the interest of the community to our own, Brennan 2005 appeals to the Stoic doctrine of oikeiôsis: we have a natural tendency to care for others, at first our family and friends and ultimately our fellow-citizens and fellow-humans (154&ndash59). We may wonder how this impulse could be strong enough to overcome self-interest however, Brennan observes that the Stoic&rsquos realization that indifferents do not contribute to happiness weakens one barrier to impartial deliberation: if indifferents were good, the Stoic would want them for herself since they are not good, she deliberates about how to distribute them as justice demands (164&ndash65). Since considerations of virtue cannot (on pain of circularity) enter into her deliberations, what gives &lsquojustice&rsquos demands&rsquo content (at least in Cicero, and Cicero attributes similar views to Chrysippus) are considerations of the community&rsquos utility and respect for property-rights (206&ndash26). These indifferents are to be preferred as more in accordance with nature than, for example, one&rsquos individual utility.

As we shall see, Marcus&rsquo way of addressing the deliberative content problem is in one respect like Cicero&rsquos: the characterization of right conduct comes from ideas about what justice demands, and the content of justice comes from outside Stoic ethics proper. In Marcus&rsquo case, it comes from the idea that the cosmos is a city and that all rational beings are fellow-citizens of this city. The role of citizen brings with it certain conventional expectations of conduct which Marcus transfers to citizenship of the cosmopolis.

Marcus Aurelius

Resumo: Retoma-se o debate a respeito do "bom governo" de Marco Aurélio, assumido já nas fontes antigas e desenvolvido pelos historiadores modernos, a fim de questionar a representação e concepção da politeía possível em Meditações. Procura-se cotejar o uso do termo com outros autores antigos, tais como Políbio e Platão, para evidenciar a mudança semântica e política no uso feito por Marco Aurélio.
Palavras-chave: Império Romano cultura política democrática republicanismo linguagem política historiografia.

Abstract: The debate about the Marcus Aurelius's "good government", once assumed in ancient sources and developed by modern historians, is retaken in order to question the representation and conception of the possible politeía in Meditations. It is sought to compare the use of the term along with others ancients authors, such as Polybius and Plato, to evidence the semantic and political change in the use made by Marcus Aurelius.
Keywords: Roman Empire democratic political culture republicanism political language historiography.

Community Reviews

Note to Self: Don’t Be a Dick

I find a comparison of the conversion experience of Marcus Aurelius with those of St. Paul and St. Augustine irresistible. Nothing shows more plainly the effect of Christianity on Western culture. More specifically, Christianity created a cult of language which the world has been trying to overcome ever since. Marcus Aurelius has left a legacy in his Meditations of what the world is like without that cult.

Saul of Tarsus was knocked from his horse, spent several year Note to Self: Don’t Be a Dick

I find a comparison of the conversion experience of Marcus Aurelius with those of St. Paul and St. Augustine irresistible. Nothing shows more plainly the effect of Christianity on Western culture. More specifically, Christianity created a cult of language which the world has been trying to overcome ever since. Marcus Aurelius has left a legacy in his Meditations of what the world is like without that cult.

Saul of Tarsus was knocked from his horse, spent several years in meditation, presumably among followers of Jesus, emerged as Paul, and then came up with the startling idea of faith, a religious category unknown among Greeks, Romans, Jews or any other religion practised among human beings. This faith required accepting the story he told about Jesus as incontrovertibly true (this was minimal the gospels had not yet been written and he had no first hand knowledge of Jesus). The practical implication of Paul’s idea of faith was, and remains, the establishment of a language superior to human intellect to which intellect must submit.

The experience of Augustine of Hippo is less dramatic but has an underlying similarity to that of Paul. Augustine during a period of acute psychic distress hears a child's voice telling him to "take this and read it.” This is in response to his recognition, probably already inspired by Paul, that his life had become a habit he was unable to break. So he reads in Paul’s letter to the Romans to “behave decently.” But this can be achieved according to Paul only by “clothing yourself in the Lord Jesus Christ,” that is by unquestioning belief in Paul’s story about Jesus.

Marcus Aurelius also had a conversion experience in his mid-20’s, quite possibly at about the same age as Paul and Augustine. By tradition, this experience was provoked, as with Augustine, by the reading of a letter. Crucially, however, there was no voice urging him to do so. He already was an avid reader and had what we would call today a spiritual director in the Stoic philosopher Junius Rusticus. The content of the letter by a Stoic philosopher dead more than 400 years concerned fine points of the law. Yet it had a profound effect on Marcus, causing a complete upheaval in his life. But exactly opposite to that of Paul and Augustine.

Instead of adopting an attitude of anything resembling faith, Marcus suddenly relativises everything he has learned, that is to say, all the language he has assimilated about life principles, philosophical doctrines, and spiritual methods. He is abruptly and decisively wary of language. He makes this clear to his mentor as he reports his intentions:

Clearly Marcus has come to a realisation that behaviour toward one’s fellow not knowledge of purported truths is the crucial core of ethics. Language of any kind whatsoever cannot substitute for the actual relationship one has with others. Actions not words are the substance of ethics and ethical actions can only be achieved by acting. Even the genre of the Meditations reflects a suspicion of language. It is not a thesis, or a memoir, nor even a complete story, much less a gospel. The Meditations are ‘merely’ notes to himself, reminders. Much of the content is directly precisely toward the self-encouragement to act rather than think correctly. For example:

Here is the contradiction for Pauline faith. We have no word for it, but it represents an ethical attitude which is remarkably close to that of James the brother of Jesus and of Judaism in general. It is neither atheistic nor agnostic. But it is deeply human and humane. It typifies what ancient philosophy was about, namely how to act not how to think. Behaviour is what matters. One might use ideas to arrive at or explain correct behaviour but the ideas are always subsidiary to the behaviour. Pauline faith is fatal to such an ethic. The world of the second century was on a cusp and had no realisation of it. Very soon it would plunge into the ethical abyss of faith. We only have Marcus’s notes to himself to remind us what the world could have been like. . more

Watch the video: Gladiator - Maximus Decimus Meridius (June 2022).


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