The Selfless Mind of Marcus Aurelius
Nunen, R.M. van
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Its personal and practical character, combined with the rare position of its author as Roman emperor (A.D. 161-180) sets Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations apart from other Roman Stoic texts such as the writings of Seneca and the discourses of Epictetus as reported by Arrian, giving us a perspective on the theory and practice of (Stoic) philosophy in ancient Rome that cannot be found anywhere else. Its philosophical background and purpose are, however, not immediately clear and it lacks a definitive focus. A central theme in the text is Marcus’ relation to himself, but it is difficult to determine to which philosophical conception of himself, both as a person and as a human being, Marcus subscribed. Stoicism, and therefore perhaps also the Stoic conception of a person as a psychological and psychophysical unity, was clearly the biggest influence on Marcus. In addition to this the text reveals implicit and explicit references to, as well as quotations and paraphrases of a number of other traditions ranging from Heraclitus and Plato to Democritus and Epicurus. This, along with Marcus’ notoriously inconsistent and fluctuating terminology and focus, are the main reasons why there is as of yet no agreement about what Marcus considered himself to be. Combinations of passages taken from any and all parts of the work could be used to argue for a traditional Stoic physicalist position while others could be used to support a Platonic dualist conception of the relationship between mind and body. Also, recent scholarship has increasingly favoured research formulated in terms of “the self”, rather than the soul or the mind, importing the ambiguity of this theme in contemporary philosophy into discussions of ancient philosophy. My aim in this project is to investigate whether Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations provides us with some conception of a separate, irreducible self. The first part of this investigation confronts the question whether Marcus, inspired by Plato’s identification of the true self with a divine and immaterial intellect, understood the mind or intellect as a separate and irreducible part of a human being. The discussion will then continue onto two related, and often confused, senses in which Marcus could be said to provide us with a conception of a separate and irreducible self. The first is that of the self as involving a unique and private sphere of experience that is separated from the experience of others and irreducible to perception of the physical processes that underlie this experience. The second one is that of the self as the subject and owner of our psychological experiences which is separate from and irreducible to these experiences.