Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.26

William O. Stephens, Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum guides for the perplexed.   New York:  Continuum, 2012.  Pp. xiv, 191.  ISBN 9781441108104.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Rogier L. van der Wal, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (


In the well-known series A Guide for the Perplexed, volumes have appeared on many great thinkers from antiquity – Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, the Stoics and Suetonius among them. The series is very popular: a few hundred titles have so far been published. The titles (as outlined on their back covers) are meant to be clear, concise and accessible introductions to thinkers, writers and subjects that students and readers may find especially challenging, explaining key themes and ideas and guiding the reader towards a thorough understanding of demanding material.

A fine addition to this collection is the recent volume by William O. Stephens on Marcus Aurelius. Stephens has written widely on Stoic ethics, and his writing has a lucid and pleasant style. The book comprises five chapters and an appendix about Ridley Scott’s 2000 film Gladiator. There are only a few illustrations: a bust of the young Marcus from the Roman Capitoline Museum, a simple genealogy, and two maps (one of Marcus's Roman Empire and one of the Northern Frontiers).

The first chapter introduces Marcus Aurelius and his Sitz im Leben, and gives a chronological overview of his life. This offers a concise picture of the man, the emperor, and the thinker; the latter part, however, is rather brief and deals mainly with his legacy. We learn that a long line of distinguished men – such as René Descartes, Henry More, and David Hume, but also Bill Clinton and Wen Jiabao – read and reread Marcus’s small book and were influenced by it. This chapter highlights Marcus's life in chronological order, an approach that is both natural and common, and that is in line with existing biographies by, e.g., Anthony Birley, Pierre Grimal and Jörg Fündling.1

In this first chapter, there is also a short section about the title of Marcus's book, called ‘Judging a book by its title’, where Stephens makes a convincing argument for his preference for Memoranda over titles like Meditations or To Himself. There is no evidence for any of these titles having been used by Marcus himself. But the overly simple ‘To Himself’ does not offer any hint of what readers can expect, and the more common ‘Meditations’ may easily lead to incorrect associations. ‘Memoranda’, on the other hand, communicates the right impression; in the words of C.R. Haines, approvingly quoted by Stephens: ‘it suggests both the miscellaneous character of the work and something about its intended function’. Stephens also points to the many places throughout the book where remembering and keeping in mind play a role. Perhaps from now on, we will prefer to refer to Marcus Aurelius's work by this apt title.

In the second chapter, influences of Heraclitus and Epictetus are amply demonstrated, as evidenced by the divine law of logos; cosmic holism; sleeping, waking, and remembering (and the role of ‘wake-up calls’ to oneself concerning what is demanded from us); the harmony of opposites (and the view from above, taking a high vintage point); the role of rivers and fire as metaphors; the vast preference for mind over body; life seen as a theater; and the view of a human being’s character as his fate. Heraclitus and Marcus Aurelius both meditate on human life and destiny in the context of biological death, and the same applies to Epictetus. The latter was also the man who first and foremost promoted seeing Plato’s Socrates as a Stoic hero, and who taught Marcus the importance of spiritual exercise.

The remaining chapters deal with specific themes. These chapters are a somewhat more demanding read than the first and second, but they provide a good and complete survey of the main themes in the Memoranda.

Chapter 3, ‘Wholes and Parts’, discusses Marcus's analytical approach to problems of ontology. Stephens shows how Marcus usually investigates a whole by breaking it down into its parts, and how sometimes he thus loses sight of the qualities of the whole. Examples of this are music and dance: naturally a melody can still move us even though individual notes do not, and the same applies to a dance performance. On the other hand, there is the fundamental supportive notion of cosmic holism. Concerning the good life, Marcus states that the whole cannot be impressive if each of the parts are unimpressive. Within the social body, like attracts like and there is a natural impulse towards association, notwithstanding the strife and conflicts that will also occur. But Marcus believes that the uniting forces, in the end, will always be stronger. Occasionally, Stephens also indicates what is missing in the Memoranda, for instance a clear stance on the problem of theodicy. Death is seen by Marcus as a transformation, not as destruction. There is an optimistic tone throughout the book, infused by the view of humans as cosmopolitans according to nature.

The Memoranda abound with reflections on time, impermanence and forgetting. In chapter 4, ‘Time, Transience, and Eternity’, Stephens offers an overview of these. There is nothing new under the sun, all that happens has happened before. In Marcus's view, the fact that time quickly erases everything can form a proper cure for emotional maladies. Everything must be seen in the right perspective, which Stephens calls ‘the “big picture” perspective’. Past and future do not matter and do not have power over us; there is only the gift of the present (compare the modern notion of mindfulness). Here we recognize Heraclitus: time as a rushing river. Time is the great vanquisher of all human arrogance, and there is no need to fear death; instead, we should not postpone making progress in cultivating our virtue.

Finally, in Chapter 5, ‘Virtues, Vices, and Junk’, Marcus is shown to have considered most things in life as worthless ballast. In his view, only a few of the things that we habitually consider to be worthwhile and valuable are truly so. For Marcus, the mind is all-important. Things concerning the body are no more than ‘ashes, bones, and smoke’. Fame is insignificant, even for an emperor. In life, there are only four objectives to aim for: to honor and revere the gods, to treat human beings with justice, to be tolerant of (erring) others and to be strict with yourself, striving to perfect your character. It is the task of philosophy to teach us modesty and humility, the virtues (including justice) and straightforwardness. Marcus's predecessor and adoptive father Antoninus Pius is presented as a model of ethical conduct. It is important that we try to understand others as well as we can (but part of it is beyond our control, the lesson Marcus learned from Epictetus). We owe the people around us a great deal, as neatly summarized by Stephens on page 158.

The volume ends with a very short Epilogue about how to craft the soul of a Stoic, through self-perception, self- examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants. The Memoranda are written as an exercise in these things, rather than being a How to Rule an Empire for Dummies handbook, Stephens writes.

Then there is the Appendix, a short essay of ten pages on Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator, justified by the impact this film has had on popular culture. The story of the film is retold and commented upon in a sympathetic way. Seen as an education in Stoicism, or rather as a journey of progress, the message of the film may be summarized as: what matters is doing the right thing when alive. Justice is more important than vengeance, however sweet. The appendix does not comment on the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of Commodus; this is regrettable, as our views on Commodus have been revised considerably by the publications of Olivier Hekster.2

Finally, there are five pages of endnotes (of which almost two pages concern the film); a Glossary of eight pages, a very brief section with suggestions for further reading, and a subject and a name index.

Although occasionally we may still be perplexed by the Memoranda and its author, the book under review can be recommended as a reliable and helpful guide. The freshman gets a good overview, and the picture we get is more or less complete. More could have been said about the relation between Marcus and his teacher Fronto and their correspondence, and the delicate balance between philosophy and rhetoric, but the size of the book and the overall purpose of the series that it belongs to, pose certain restrictions.3


1.   Anthony Birley, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography, New York: Routledge, originally 1966; new edition 2000; Pierre Grimal, Marc Aurèle, Paris 1991; Jörg Fündling, Marc Aurel, Darmstadt 2008
2.   Olivier Hekster, Commodus: An Emperor at the Crossroads, Amsterdam 2002; downloadable at See also: Olivier Hekster, ‘Emperors and Empire: Marcus Aurelius and Commodus’, in: Aloys Winterling (Hrsg.), Zwischen Strukturgeschichte und Biographie, Oldenburg 2011, 317-328
3.   The interested reader may find more on this in the suggestions for further reading on page 184.

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