In this lesson, I’ll provide a brief introduction to Stoic Ethics, and particularly the Stoic goal of life. Knowing these teachings will allow you to understand The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius at a much deeper level. So let’s dive right in.
One of the books written by Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was entitled On Life According to Nature. Living in agreement or in accord with nature became something of a slogan associated with Stoicism. It defines the goal of life for Stoics, which was one of the main things distinguishing them from other schools of philosophy. Almost five hundred years after Zeno, Marcus still refers to the Stoic goal as “living in agreement with nature”. He concluded the first book of The Meditations, by particularly thanking the gods for having had so many concrete examples of what it truly meant to lead a life in accord with nature, from role models among his family and tutors.
However, this slogan can appear cryptic to modern readers of The Meditations. We’re told that the Stoics viewed it as synonymous with “living in accord with virtue”. It’s complicated by the fact that nature has several aspects for Stoics and they particularly distinguished between our own internal nature as human beings and the Nature of the cosmos as a whole – Nature in the big sense. The Stoics believed that human nature is inherently rational, capable of reason, and also social - we naturally care about certain other people and form communities. So sometimes living in agreement with nature is understood as fulfilling our potential and living harmoniously across three levels.
We live with integrity, true to ourselves, by fulfilling our potential for reason and wisdom.
We live in harmony with the rest of mankind by trying to understand them and treating them justly, fairly, and kindly.
And we live at one with the nature of the universe as a whole by accepting or adapting to the events that happen to befall us in life, and always viewing them in terms of the bigger picture.
Marcus appears to be talking in terms of these three levels throughout The Meditations. For example, he says in Meditations 6.16: “To reverence and honour your own mind will make you content with yourself, and in harmony with society, and in agreement with the gods.” This threefold structure helps us to understand how living in accord with nature could equate to living virtuously for the Stoics. As we’ll see, Stoic virtue consists in living wisely and with equanimity across all three levels. However, it also appears to correspond with what are known as the three topics in the field of Stoic philosophy, or the threefold Stoic curriculum.
The Stoics traditionally divided the study of philosophy into three parts: Logic, Physics, and Ethics. We’re told Zeno taught them in that order, although other Stoics apparently changed them around in various ways. It’s worth knowing that these terms meant something slightly different to the Stoics than they do today. Logic included both dialectical reasoning and the study of rhetoric, and also some aspects of the theory of knowledge, a bit like modern cognitive psychology. Ethics included politics, and also some aspects of what we would call psychology therapy today. Stoic Physics included cosmology and theology, because the Stoics were pantheists who viewed the cosmos itself as divine.
They used several metaphors to describe the topics of philosophy. One was that Physics is like a fertile plot of land with trees growing on it, Logic is like an orchard wall protecting it, and Ethics is like the fruit the trees bear. We’re told that some Stoics taught that these topics overlapped significantly, whereas other Stoics did not. We can see there was considerable disagreement among the Stoics over the school’s five hundred year history about the scope and relative importance of these subjects. It’s generally perceived that the Roman Stoics Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, seem much more interested in Ethics than in Physics or Logic, at least in the writings that survive today.
Marcus several times says he’s glad he didn’t get sidetracked into spending too much time studying the finer details of Logic or Physics, but that he focused on living like a Stoic, by applying Stoic Ethics in daily life. In The Meditations he says virtually nothing about Logic. At one point he says all that he needs to know about Stoic Physics can be summed up in a few sentences. However, he does refer very frequently to Stoic pantheism, seemingly drawing on the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, and he seems very committed to belief in a provident God. Nevertheless, there are a number of intriguing passages, about nine in total, where he appears to argue that whether or not someone agrees with Stoic Physics and belief in Providence, either way Stoic Ethics still holds true. This is known as the “God or atoms” argument, and it also appears to have been mentioned by Epictetus and Seneca, so probably derived from an earlier source that all three shared in common.
These three parts of philosophy – Logic, Ethics, and Physics – appear to correspond to the three levels I mentioned earlier. Logic has to do with following reason and fulfilling our own inner capacity for living rationally. Ethics is mainly concerned about our relationship with the rest of mankind. Physics, which includes Stoic theology, studies our relationship with Nature as a whole, or with Zeus. We’ll return to this threefold structure shortly and see how it also potentially relates to the Stoic virtues.