BMCR 1998.11.35

The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Translated by Michael Chase

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English-language readers of Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life (Blackwell, 1995) and students of Stoicism will welcome Michael Chase’s translation of Hadot’s 1992 La Citadelle IntĂ©rieure. In The Inner Citadel, Hadot applies to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations his characteristic interpretative approach: treating ancient philosophy as a “way of life,” in particular one which provides its students with “spiritual exercises” to enable them to make progress towards wisdom, and treating ancient philosophical texts with attention to the “forms of discourse,” or constraints of genre, tradition, and audience that affected their production. Hadot’s extended application of this approach to Marcus gives readers an opportunity to evaluate its fruitfulness. Below, I give a brief chapter-by-chapter summary of Hadot’s interpretation of Marcus’ Meditations, commenting along the way on some general issues in The Inner Citadel : (1) the treatment of Marcus’ eclecticism vs. Stoic orthodoxy, (2) the value of indifferents, (3) the Stoics’ account of the relationship between the disciplines of logic, physics, and ethics, especially in their theoretical and practical dimensions.

An initial chapter, “The Emperor-Philosopher,” programmatically sets out Hadot’s view of what it meant to be a philosopher in antiquity—namely, to transform one’s life so as to live philosophically, rather than merely to study philosophy—and discusses Marcus’ relations to his contemporaries. Chapter 2, “A First Glimpse of the Meditations,” argues that the Meditations consists of “hypomnemata” or “personal notes”: Marcus wrote them in his own hand, day by day, and did not intend them for publication, but rather for his own use—to help him live his life according to certain essential rules. He sought to write these reflections in a style that would be psychologically effective on, and persuasive to, himself—hence the highly literary flavour of the Meditations. Thus, the Meditations are spiritual exercises, exercises of self-transformation, par excellence. In Chapter 3, “The Meditations as Spiritual Exercises” Hadot suggests that in writing the Meditations, Marcus is following Epictetus’ advice to “write down every day” the fundamental dogmas and principles of Stoicism. Hadot identifies three dogmas (rules for practical conduct expressing an inner disposition): to be contented with whatever happens, to conduct oneself justly towards others, and to apply rules of discernment to one’s inner representations. These dogmas correspond to the three disciplines, also found in Epictetus, of desire (which ranges over universal nature), action (which ranges over human nature), and judgment (which ranges over our faculty of judgment). When we live by these dogmas and discipline desire, action and judgment, we develop the inner attitudes of consent to destiny, justice and altruism, and objectivity. Marcus engages in the spiritual exercise of writing the Meditations in order to enliven these dogmas for himself so that he can internalize them — by which Hadot means that they “become achievements of awareness, intuitions, emotions, and moral experiences which have the intensity of a mystical experience or a vision” (51).

Here, Hadot leaves unremarked some tensions between Marcus and Stoic orthodoxy. According to Stoic orthodoxy, the state of virtue is fully and purely rational. However, Hadot’s characterization of internalization suggests that virtue is not only an intellectual state, but also an emotional one. Further, the idea that one needs persuasive literary devices to work on the imagination in the pursuit of virtue implies that there are non-rational parts of the soul, the existence of which orthodox Stoics deny. Finally, this leads to a worry about whether there are rational constraints on the process by which one internalizes the dogmas: will any persuasive technique at all count as a Stoic spiritual exercise as long as it leads one to acquire the appropriate dogmas?

But Hadot’s neglect of questions of orthodoxy may be the result of two methodological assumptions, one of which he makes explicit in the Conclusion to his book. First, his conception of what makes a Stoic has less to do with adherence to tradition or doctrinal detail than with adherence to certain fundamentals: “What defined a Stoic above all else was the choice of a life in which every thought, every desire, and every action would be guided by no other law than that of universal Reason” (308), to be “conscious of the fact that no being is alone, but that we are parts of a Whole, constituted by the totality of human beings as well as by the totality of the cosmos…. The Stoic feels absolutely serene, free, and invulnerable, insofar as he has become aware that there is no other evil than moral evil, and that the only thing that counts is the purity of moral conscience. Finally, the Stoic believes in the absolute value of the human person” (311). A second assumption, not made explicit in The Inner Citadel but suggested by his methodological writings, would be that ancient philosophy developed through “creative misreading,” “contamination,” and other such processes, so that even as a philosopher tried to be faithful to his tradition, he strayed. We can see this methodological assumption at work in the opening section of Chapter 4, which explains as an appropriation of non-Stoic philosophers to Stoic thought statements by Marcus that might have been taken as evidence of his eclecticism. For example, Hadot claims that when Marcus says “All things are by law (nomisti)” ( Meditations 7.31), he is quoting Democritus but taking what Democritus meant to be “by convention” as “by law”; again, when Marcus cites Monimus the Cynic’s “Everything is judgment” (2.15), he takes the Cynic’s declaration that human opinion is vanity to be making the Stoic point that it is only our judgments that can trouble us, but they are vanity (56).

But this interpretative strategy will not explain all apparent heterodoxy. Hadot mentions in Chapter 4 Marcus’ approval of Theophrastus’ view that there are degrees of vice (57). This is not a Stoic reading of a non-Stoic philosopher, and to stave off the charge of eclecticism or heterodoxy, Hadot cites Epictetus’ view that misdeeds done out of or for love are lesser faults than those done out of ambition (58) — thus using the reputedly orthodox Stoicism of Epictetus (82) to reduce the importance for Stoicism of the doctrine that all faults are equal. But Epictetus merely says that it is easier to pity the former than the latter — a psychological observation rather than an endorsement ( Discourses 4.1.147) — and from Marcus’ text it looks as if Marcus is not only stepping out of line but aware of it: he calls his appeal to Theophrastus a “koinoteron” way of speaking (2.10).

Chapter 4 (“The Philosopher-Slave and the Emperor-Philosopher”) gives some of the philosophical, and particularly Stoic, background to Marcus’ writings. Hadot establishes that Marcus was greatly influenced by his reading of Epictetus, argues that Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus are also “hypomnemata” and suggests that the Encheiridion, like Marcus’ Meditations, was a response to the Stoic requirement that one always have Stoic dogmas at hand. Hadot’s account of the genre of the Meditations is attractive. But on points of doctrine, Hadot’s discussion of the Stoic background is somewhat unsatisfactory. For example, his presentation of the Stoic doctrine of indifferents makes the Stoics look more confused than they were. First, Hadot attributes to the Stoics the view that, “the only value is moral good, which depends on our freedom, and … everything that does not depend on our freedom — poverty, wealth, sickness, and health — is neither good nor bad, and is therefore indifferent … we must not make any distinction between indifferent things; in other words, we must love them equally.” But a few lines later, he distinguishes this view from Aristo’s view that “that which was indifferent was completely ‘undifferentiated’ and no element of daily life had any importance in and of itself” on the grounds that, “Orthodox Stoics, while they recognized that the things which do not depend on us are indifferent, nevertheless admitted that we could attribute to them a moral value, by conceding the existence of political, social, and family obligations, linked to the needs of human nature in accordance with reasonable probability” (71-72).

Now either moral good and evil are the only things that have value or they aren’t and indifferents have value too — and in this case, one will have to explain the difference between these two kinds of value (as Cicero attempts to do in De Finibus 3). But saying that the kind of value indifferents have is “moral” only makes them seem more likely to be good or bad. There is, however, a clear solution to this problem: only moral good and evil have value, but the content of moral good and evil, or virtue and vice, is given by what one does with (i.e. how one selects among) indifferents. What one should do with indifferents is to select those that are according to nature (e.g. usually health) and reject those that are contrary to nature (e.g. usually sickness), and a Stoic therefore needs a thorough understanding of nature in order to know what indifferents are and aren’t according to nature.

Chapters 5-8 are the heart of Hadot’s book, attempting to make good on the thesis that the Meditations are spiritual exercises written to internalize Epictetus’ three disciplines. In chapter 5, “The Stoicism of Epictetus,” Hadot traces the development of the Stoic conception of the parts of philosophy through Epictetus. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics treat physics, ethics, and dialectics as equally related to one logos, divine Reason, and although they see these as pertaining to three different sectors of reality and pedagogically separate, they consider them to be interentailing and unified in practice, like the virtues — indeed, the parts of philosophy are virtues. Somewhat confusingly, Hadot says here that the three disciplines are not bodies of theoretical doctrine, but rather are the inner dispositions and practical conduct of the sage (79), without considering that they might be both. Hadot goes on to claim that the Stoics see logic, ethics, and physics, not as parts of philosophy (for they see philosophy as an organic whole) but rather as parts of the discourse concerning philosophy, separated only for pedagogical purposes (81). But the textual evidence for this claim is mixed: Diogenes Laertius notes some disagreement among Stoics as to whether it is only philosophical discourse or also philosophy itself that has parts (7.39-41); Cicero has philosophy partitioned ( Academica 1.40); Hadot himself later cites the very same passage from Diogenes Laertius (7.40) to talk about the parts of philosophy rather than of its discourse (90). Finally, Hadot cites a passage in Epictetus ( Discourses 4.4.11-18) that allegedly contrasts logic as a part of theoretical discourse with lived logic, the discipline of judgment. But Epictetus is drawing a much simpler distinction, between two attitudes (presumably his students’) towards one field: the bad attitude of studying logic to show off, and the good attitude of studying logic to put it into practice and apply it to one’s judgments in life. On this picture, there is a theoretical discipline, logic, which one can either apply or fail to apply to one’s life.

The distinction Hadot wants to insist on between ‘theoretical’ and ‘lived’ philosophy is the distinction between the study of the rules of reasoning, the laws of the cosmos and human behaviour, and the rules humans should obey on the one hand, and reasoning well, living as a part of the whole cosmos, and acting well on the other (82). Epictetus’ three disciplines enable us to do the latter, that is, to train the three functions of the guiding principle (hegemonikon) — desire, impulse and judgment — which are up to us: training in desire enables the philosopher to avoid frustration over the things that happen due to destiny, training in impulse and action, to act in an orderly way towards other people, guided by rational probability, and training in judgment, to withhold assent from anything unless he has sufficient reason for it, especially from adding anything subjective to his judgments (86).

Chapter 6, “The Discipline of Assent,” identifies the “inner citadel”: this is the soul’s guiding principle, which cannot be touched by destiny or the way things are since it is free to assent or not to assent to the judgments thought forms about presentations (phantasiai). The most fundamental spiritual exercise consists in delimiting one’s sense of oneself to one’s guiding principle, and indeed, to one’s guiding principle in the present — for in that alone is one free, and active. One’s guiding principle thus offers one the possibility of happiness, for only one’s judgments, not destiny or the way things are, can affect one’s happiness. The judgments one should strive for are simply those that do not go beyond presentations but stick to an objective presentation of reality (phantasia kataleptike). Marcus equates objective presentation with physical definition, which demystifies and reduces objects and events to their material and physical functions: thus gastronomic delicacies are reduced to “the corpse of a fish, the corpse of a bird or a pig,” purple clothing to “sheep’s hair moistened in the blood of shellfish,” sexual intercourse to “the rubbing together of abdomens, accompanied by the spasmodic ejaculation of a sticky liquid” (104-5, cf. Meditations 6.13) The judgment (hypolepsis) one might add to a presentation to make it false, and thus damaging, is, interestingly, a value judgment — not a judgment, e.g., that the sun really is a foot across. Thus what we have to assent to or withhold assent from are “those inner discourses we pronounce not about the reality of things but their value” (111, cf. 107, 110, 112, 122).

There is something unstoic about isolating value-judgments from all other judgments — as if value-judgments somehow float freely on top of factual judgments so that one’s value-judgments are a matter of one’s will, as if will and intellect can be separated. But given that our value-judgments are a function of our knowledge or ignorance, they cannot be up to us in quite the way Hadot suggests. Rather, it must be that it is up to us to understand nature so that all our judgments can be true rather than false. This is one reason why the distinction is false, between “theoretical or abstract knowledge and ignorance” and “a knowledge and a non-knowing which engage the individual,” where the latter but not the former are supposed to be the kind of knowledge that is virtue (126), and where the latter but not the former is “equally present in all human beings” (121). The Stoics believe precisely that theoretical knowledge (knowledge of how nature is) is practical.

Chapter 7 (“The Discipline of Desire”) begins with the claim that Marcus gives a “more precise grounding” to Epictetus’ distinction between impulse and desire through a systematic description of reality (128). Desire is passive, our attitude towards the external events that comprise nature; impulse, on the other hand, is active, the causality that comes from within us. So the discipline of desire is a lived physics, through which one learns to desire only what is willed by universal nature. Marcus certainly fills out the content of this lived physics much more than Epictetus. As Hadot points out, it is the physics of Heraclitus, and it teaches us to view time as a succession of instants; this has the effect of making difficulties and hardships more bearable—because the present alone belongs to us. (The present is, according to Hadot’s dubiously reconstruction of Chrysippus (135-37), that which is fixed by the subject’s consciousness.) Physical definition has further beneficial results: redefine death as decomposition, and it is no more or less emotionally charged than the account of the decomposition of some stone. The study of the metamorphosis of things into one another as they decompose and are regenerated gives one a view of the totality of substance and time. Finally, this view of the totality reveals to one the homogeneity of things — their interconnection as well as their repetitiveness — all of which lead one to have the right attitude towards the realm of indifferents. In general, reductionistic physics enables us to view each moment with increased attention, and, having learned how things are interconnected, to say yes to the whole totality of instants when we consent to one. Chapter 8, “The Discipline of Action,” turns to impulse, for which the norm is conformity with human nature: we are to act in the service of the whole (of society), respect the hierarchy of values between types of action and love all human beings since we are all members of one body. The concrete acts we are to undertake are given by our instinct, the appropriate, and by our duties. When we act, we are to act resolutely, but to want the outcome of our action with reservation, since that is not in our control and we must desire only what is the will of nature (193-200, 204-5).

But Hadot starts off on the wrong foot because he does not attend to the rationale for Epictetus’ distinction between impulse and desire — which Marcus follows. As Brad Inwood showed in Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism, Epictetus distinguishes between desire (orexis), which we have for the (apparent) good, and impulse (horme), which is for the fitting or appropriate. Epictetus urges us to suspend all desire so long as we are not wise (i.e. so long as we do not know what the good is, or what it is that nature wills) and to act instead on the basis of impulse with reservation. Thus we are not meant to desire anything with reservation—that is too difficult psychologically, and in any case, we are to desire not externals, but what is up to us, i.e., virtue ( Encheiridion 2, Discourses 3.24.23-4, 85). It is just that we cannot give content to this desire until after we have become wise, and in the meantime, we need guidance in action. So physics is necessary not just for the training of desire, but also for the guidance of action — for without physics, how is one to know what is appropriate, how is one to adopt the right impulses for action? Hadot’s claims about the practical unity of philosophy would have been better supported by this sort of account, which would have required him to give up the neat one-to-one correspondence between (a) physics, one’s attitude towards the cosmos, and the discipline of desire; (b) logic, one’s refraining from making value-judgments but sticking with the presentation as it is given, and the discipline of judgment; and (c) ethics, one’s attitude towards other human beings, and the discipline of action. Hadot does go some distance in this direction: to establish that physics corresponds to (or is) the discipline of desire, he argues in chapter 7 that even if the theory of desire belongs to ethics, the lived practice of the discipline of desire implies an attitude towards the cosmos that requires an understanding of nature, and that in addition to giving one a rational foundation for disciplining desire, the study of physics enables one to enjoy the spectacle of the universe with God’s vision, and to admire God’s works in nature.

Two further topics of interest are discussed in these chapters. In chapter 7, Hadot argues that Marcus’ “Either Providence or atoms” expresses not eclecticism but rather the view that whether the physics of the Stoics (providence) or Epicureans (atoms) is true, one must live according to Stoic ethics (i.e. according to reason). Further, the fact that we do live as Stoics shows that providence, rather than atoms, must be the case—for atoms would not allow order to reign even within us (149-51). According to Hadot, the idea of Providence also allows Marcus to explain apparent evil both philosophically—as following indirectly rather than directly from the will of Providence—and religiously, as willed by a personalized daimon to teach one some lesson. Chapter 8 takes up the issue of motivation at some length. On the one hand, the reason to do good for others seems to be that we are parts of the same whole, and it brings us joy as well as straightforward benefit, to be part of a whole that has been benefited (cf. Meditations 6.14: practice virtue as a boon to yourself, thinking of yourself as the limb of a body.) On the other hand, Hadot thinks Marcus demands more purity of motive than this — the virtuous person is not supposed to be conscious of his virtuous action, he is supposed to act virtuously in the way a vine bears grapes (200-3). But, one might object, this cannot mean that the virtuous person does not have access to the reasons to be virtuous, or even to his reasons for being virtuous (cf. 5.2). Hadot says finally that Stoicism is not a philosophy of self-love because its fundamental tonality is of love of the All (212). But this does not distinguish between the end (love of the All) one reaches when educated, and the initial and assumed motivation (to Stoicism), which is eudaimonistic. Finally, Hadot discusses the question, which he thinks is very much Marcus’ question, of how and why we should seek indifferents for others when they have no value in the Stoic’s own eyes. The answer comes from the idea of justice as merit: justice, which it is his job as emperor and man to do, consists in giving to each the goods that they merit — to be just, he must dole out indifferents (217-22).

According to a short ninth chapter (“Virtue and Joy”), virtue is a state in which we fulfill the function for which we were made, follow both our nature and universal nature, and consent to the order — social, natural, and discursive. Here, Hadot discusses Marcus’ attempt to fit the four virtues into Epictetus’ three-fold distinction between functions of the soul and disciplines. For a second time, Hadot yields to the temptation to compare this three-fold distinction with Plato’s tripartition of the soul (233, cf. 88). But there is a deep confusion in Hadot’s reading of Plato: contrary to Hadot, Plato’s Republic does not have it that wisdom is the virtue of philosophers, courage the virtue of the military auxiliaries and moderation that of the “artisans.” For one thing, Socrates points out the virtue of moderation is like a harmony, not in one class but distributed across the three classes, and obtaining when the desires of the lower classes are dominated by those of the higher ( Republic 431b-432a), for another, he qualifies the military’s courage as ‘political’ ( Republic 430c) In fact, the Republic has it that genuine virtue (of whatever variety) is possessed only by philosophers, and that the best the rest are capable of is a lesser, ‘political’ virtue based on true belief rather than knowledge. In the context of this discussion, Hadot’s misreading makes Marcus and other Stoics seem to depart from Plato rather than following him as they are when they claim that virtue is a single condition of the whole soul, which requires knowledge. (The virtues are not, as Hadot claims, simply enumerated without theorization elsewhere in Plato (233), for some passages which were important for the Stoics see e.g. Euthydemus 278e-82a, Meno 88b-d, Protagoras 329d)

Chapter 10, “Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations,” begins with the laudable goal of avoiding the pitfalls of psychobiography on the one hand and erasure of author on the other. It is striking that Hadot never gives any arguments against the latter — especially given that a rigorous application of the methods to avoid the former does lead one in the direction of effacing the author. Against the former, Hadot repairs to the notion of “forms of discourse”, that is, to the distinction between what is required of the author by the genre, school, tradition, within which he writes, and what the author wishes to do with these prefabricated elements. Appeal to the prefabricated elements allows Hadot to dismiss a certain amount of pointless psychobiography of Marcus — according to which Marcus was an opium addict, a depressive personality, a sufferer from gastric ulcers — but Hadot is not above psychologizing Marcus himself. So, for example, Hadot determines that Marcus was candid, naive, simple; that he sought tenderness, affection, warmth; that he had an acute capacity for objective self-evaluation; that conflict between doing his appointed work at the Court and living philosophically was the drama of his life. But why aren’t these impressions the results of prefabricated elements in the Meditations as well? What in the text allows us to get at “the real Marcus”? It is reasonable to suppose that if we can talk about Marcus’ subjective states at all, we should use Stoic terms of description and evaluation since this is what Marcus was doing with himself. But apart from following this limited interpretative directive, it is difficult to see how one can be any more specific in retrieving authorship. Further, one wonders whether it is reasonable to take as psychological what remains once one has completed the identification of the prefabricated. For example, Hadot describes the organization of the Meditations as the result of “interwoven composition” in which Marcus moves from one thought to another as it strikes him (264), but perhaps what we are encountering here is just the explanatory limit of the method of identifying prefabricated elements in the text. It might be not the flow of Marcus’ own thoughts that leads him to move from one theme to another but a view about how thoughts do flow, or should flow.

The Inner Citadel is a rich and substantial book and will certainly affect future scholarship on Marcus Aurelius. One wishes the author had engaged more with the English-language scholarship on Stoicism (such as Inwood’s work mentioned above) and considered objections and alternatives to his interpretations — but perhaps that is just wishing that he wrote more in the style of analytically-trained historians of philosophy.

See “Forms of Life and Forms of Discourse in Ancient Philosophy,” Inaugural lecture to the Chair of the History of Hellenistic and Roman Thought, reprinted in Philosophy as a Way of Life (tr. Michael Chase, Blackwell, 1995), esp. pp. 57-60 and 62-65. Confusingly, Hadot characterizes Marcus’ spiritual exercises as divided into two therapies: of the word — using striking formulas, rational or imagistic forms of persuasion — and of writing — to internalize Stoic principles. But surely writing is a technique that uses words and the use of words to persuade oneself is aimed ultimately at internalizing Stoic principles. There don’t seem to be two therapies, but one, which can be specified in terms of its techniques as well as in terms of its goal. See e.g. Plutarch, De virtue morali 441c (= Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers [LS] 61 β Diogenes Laertius 7.89 (= LS 61A). “Philosophy, Exegesis and Creative Mistakes,” essay 2 in Philosophy as a Way of Life. Diogenes Laertius 7.127 (= LS 61I) Hadot here opposes the view of the present as an infinitesimal point with that of the present as fixed by the subject’s consciousness. He attributes to Chrysippus the following odd argument. (i) Walking (e.g.) is present to, i.e. belongs to, me when I am walking. (ii) The past and future do not currently belong to me. (iii) Even if I think about them, they are independent of me. (iv) Therefore, the present has reality only in relation to my consciousness, thought, initiative, freedom. I do not see how (4) follows; in particular, how the ‘only in relation to my consciousness’ follows. The Chrysippus passage distinguishes between the present as infinitesimal (“in the proper sense of the term”) and not the present as fixed by a duration of consciousness, but rather the present as fixed by the length of an activity (“in the extended sense”). Inwood, Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism (Oxford, 1985), pp. 117-126.