Marcus Aurelius

Matthew Arnold

First published in The Victoria Magazine, II, 1–9, November, 1863; reprinted in Essays in Criticism, 1865.

The text for this edition is from Selections from the prose works of Matthew Arnold, edited with introduction and notes by William Savage Johnson. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913.

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Table of Contents

Marcus Aurelius1

Mr. Mill2 says, in his book on Liberty, that “Christian morality is in great part merely a protest against paganism; its ideal is negative rather than positive, passive rather than active.” He says, that, in certain most important respects, “it falls far below the best morality of the ancients.” Now, the object of systems of morality is to take possession of human life, to save it from being abandoned to passion or allowed to drift at hazard, to give it happiness by establishing it in the practice of virtue; and this object they seek to attain by prescribing to human life fixed principles of action, fixed rules of conduct. In its uninspired as well as in its inspired moments, in its days of languor and gloom as well as in its days of sunshine and energy, human life has thus always a clue to follow, and may always be making way towards its goal. Christian morality has not failed to supply to human life aids of this sort. It has supplied them far more abundantly than many of its critics imagine. The most exquisite document after those of the New Testament, of all the documents the Christian spirit has ever inspired,—the Imitation,3—by no means contains the whole of Christian morality; nay, the disparagers of this morality would think themselves sure of triumphing if one agreed to look for it in the Imitation only. But even the Imitation is full of passages like these: “Vita sine proposito languida et vaga est”;—“Omni die renovare debemus propositum nostrum, dicentes: nunc hodie perfecte incipiamus, quia nihil est quod hactenus fecimus”;—“Secundum propositum nostrum est cursus profectus nostri”;—“Raro etiam unum vitium perfecte vincimus, et ad quotidianum profectum non accendimur”; “Semper aliquid certi proponendum est”; “Tibi ipsi violentiam frequenter fac.” (A life without a purpose is a languid, drifting thing;—Every day we ought to renew our purpose, saying to ourselves: This day let us make a sound beginning, for what we have hitherto done is nought;—Our improvement is in proportion to our purpose;—We hardly ever manage to get completely rid even of one fault, and do not set our hearts on daily improvement;—Always place a definite purpose before thee;—Get the habit of mastering thine inclination.) These are moral precepts, and moral precepts of the best kind. As rules to hold possession of our conduct, and to keep us in the right course through outward troubles and inward perplexity, they are equal to the best ever furnished by the great masters of morals—Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

But moral rules, apprehended as ideas first, and then rigorously followed as laws, are, and must be, for the sage only. The mass of mankind have neither force of intellect enough to apprehend them clearly as ideas, nor force of character enough to follow them strictly as laws. The mass of mankind can be carried along a course full of hardship for the natural man, can be borne over the thousand impediments of the narrow way, only by the tide of a joyful and bounding emotion. It is impossible to rise from reading Epictetus4or Marcus Aurelius without a sense of constraint and melancholy, without feeling that the burden laid upon man is well-nigh greater than he can bear. Honor to the sages who have felt this, and yet have borne it! Yet, even for the sage, this sense of labor and sorrow in his march towards the goal constitutes a relative inferiority; the noblest souls of whatever creed, the pagan Empedocles5 as well as the Christian Paul, have insisted on the necessity of an inspiration, a joyful emotion, to make moral action perfect; an obscure indication of this necessity is the one drop of truth in the ocean of verbiage with which the controversy on justification by faith has flooded the world. But, for the ordinary man, this sense of labor and sorrow constitutes an absolute disqualification; it paralyzes him; under the weight of it, he cannot make way towards the goal at all. The paramount virtue of religion is, that it has lighted up morality; that it has supplied the emotion and inspiration needful for carrying the sage along the narrow way perfectly, for carrying the ordinary man along it at all. Even the religions with most dross in them have had something of this virtue; but the Christian religion manifests it with unexampled splendor. “Lead me, Zeus and Destiny!” says the prayer of Epictetus, “whithersoever I am appointed to go; I will follow without wavering; even though I turn coward and shrink, I shall have to follow all the same.”6 The fortitude of that is for the strong, for the few; even for them the spiritual atmosphere with which it surrounds them is bleak and gray. But, “Let thy loving spirit lead me forth into the land of righteousness”;7—“The Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory”;8—“Unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings,”9says the Old Testament; “Born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God”;10—“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”;11—“Whatsoever is born of God, overcometh the world,”12 says the New. The ray of sunshine is there, the glow of a divine warmth;—the austerity of the sage melts away under it, the paralysis of the weak is healed; he who is vivified by it renews his strength; “all things are possible to him “;13 “he is a new creature.”14

Epictetus says: “Every matter has two handles, one of which will bear taking hold of, the other not. If thy brother sin against thee, lay not hold of the matter by this, that he sins against thee; for by this handle the matter will not bear taking hold of. But rather lay hold of it by this, that he is thy brother, thy born mate; and thou wilt take hold of it by what will bear handling.”15 Jesus, being asked whether a man is bound to forgive his brother as often as seven times, answers: “I say not unto thee, until seven times, but until seventy times seven.”16 Epictetus here suggests to the reason grounds for forgiveness of injuries which Jesus does not; but it is vain to say that Epictetus is on that account a better moralist than Jesus, if the warmth, the emotion, of Jesus’s answer fires his hearer to the practice of forgiveness of injuries, while the thought in Epictetus’s leaves him cold. So with Christian morality in general: its distinction is not that it propounds the maxim, “Thou shalt love God and thy neighbor,”17 with more development, closer reasoning, truer sincerity, than other moral systems; it is that it propounds this maxim with an inspiration which wonderfully catches the hearer and makes him act upon it. It is because Mr. Mill has attained to the perception of truths of this nature, that he is,—instead of being, like the school from which he proceeds, doomed to sterility,—a writer of distinguished mark and influence, a writer deserving all attention and respect; it is (I must be pardoned for saying) because he is not sufficiently leavened with them, that he falls just short of being a great writer.

That which gives to the moral writings of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius their peculiar character and charm, is their being suffused and softened by something of this very sentiment whence Christian morality draws its best power. Mr. Long18 has recently published in a convenient form a translation of these writings, and has thus enabled English readers to judge Marcus Aurelius for themselves; he has rendered his countrymen a real service by so doing. Mr. Long’s reputation as a scholar is a sufficient guarantee of the general fidelity and accuracy of his translation; on these matters, besides, I am hardly entitled to speak, and my praise is of no value. But that for which I and the rest of the unlearned may venture to praise Mr. Long is this: that he treats Marcus Aurelius’s writings, as he treats all the other remains of Greek and Roman antiquity which he touches, not as a dead and dry matter of learning, but as documents with a side of modern applicability and living interest, and valuable mainly so far as this side in them can be made clear; that as in his notes on Plutarch’s Roman Lives he deals with the modern epoch of Cæsar and Cicero, not as food for schoolboys, but as food for men, and men engaged in the current of contemporary life and action, so in his remarks and essays on Marcus Aurelius he treats this truly modern striver and thinker not as a Classical Dictionary hero, but as a present source from which to draw “example of life, and instruction of manners.” Why may not a son of Dr. Arnold19 say, what might naturally here be said by any other critic, that in this lively and fruitful way of considering the men and affairs of ancient Greece and Rome, Mr. Long resembles Dr. Arnold?

One or two little complaints, however, I have against Mr. Long, and I will get them off my mind at once. In the first place, why could he not have found gentler and juster terms to describe the translation of his predecessor, Jeremy Collier,20—the redoubtable enemy of stage plays,—than these: “a most coarse and vulgar copy of the original?” As a matter of taste, a translator should deal leniently with his predecessor; but putting that out of the question, Mr. Long’s language is a great deal too hard. Most English people who knew Marcus Aurelius before Mr. Long appeared as his introducer, knew him through Jeremy Collier. And the acquaintance of a man like Marcus Aurelius is such an imperishable benefit, that one can never lose a peculiar sense of obligation towards the man who confers it. Apart from this claim upon one’s tenderness, however, Jeremy Collier’s version deserves respect for its genuine spirit and vigor, the spirit and vigor of the age of Dryden. Jeremy Collier too, like Mr. Long, regarded in Marcus Aurelius the living moralist, and not the dead classic; and his warmth of feeling gave to his style an impetuosity and rhythm which from Mr. Long’s style (I do not blame it on that account) are absent. Let us place the two side by side. The impressive opening of Marcus Aurelius’s fifth book, Mr. Long translates thus:—

“In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed clothes and keep myself warm?—But this is more pleasant.— Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion?”

Jeremy Collier has:—

“When you find an unwillingness to rise early in the morning, make this short speech to yourself: ‘I am getting up now to do the business of a man; and am I out of humor for going about that which I was made for, and for the sake of which I was sent into the world? Was I then designed for nothing but to doze and batten beneath the counterpane? I thought action had been the end of your being.’”

In another striking passage, again, Mr. Long has:—

“No longer wonder at hazard; for neither wilt thou read thy own memoirs, nor the acts of the ancient Romans and Hellenes, and the selections from books which thou wast reserving for thy old age. Hasten then to the end which thou hast before thee, and, throwing away idle hopes, come to thine own aid, if thou carest at all for thyself, while it is in thy power.”21

Here his despised predecessor has:—

“Don’t go too far in your books and overgrasp yourself. Alas, you have no time left to peruse your diary, to read over the Greek and Roman history: come, don’t flatter and deceive yourself; look to the main chance, to the end and design of reading, and mind life more than notion: I say, if you have a kindness for your person, drive at the practice and help yourself, for that is in your own power.”

It seems to me that here for style and force Jeremy Collier can (to say the least) perfectly stand comparison with Mr. Long. Jeremy Collier’s real defect as a translator is not his coarseness and vulgarity, but his imperfect acquaintance with Greek; this is a serious defect, a fatal one; it rendered a translation like Mr. Long’s necessary. Jeremy Collier’s work will now be forgotten, and Mr. Long stands master of the field, but he may be content, at any rate, to leave his predecessor’s grave unharmed, even if he will not throw upon it, in passing, a handful of kindly earth.

Another complaint I have against Mr. Long is, that he is not quite idiomatic and simple enough. It is a little formal, at least, if not pedantic, to say Ethic and Dialectic, instead of Ethics and Dialectics, and to say “Hellenes and Romans” instead of “Greeks and Romans.” And why, too,—the name of Antoninus being preoccupied by Antoninus Pius,22—will Mr. Long call his author Marcus Antoninus instead of Marcus Aurelius? Small as these matters appear, they are important when one has to deal with the general public, and not with a small circle of scholars; and it is the general public that the translator of a short masterpiece on morals, such as is the book of Marcus Aurelius, should have in view; his aim should be to make Marcus Aurelius’s work as popular as the Imitation, and Marcus Aurelius’s name as familiar as Socrates’s. In rendering or naming him, therefore, punctilious accuracy of phrase is not so much to be sought as accessibility and currency; everything which may best enable the Emperor and his precepts volitare per ora virum23 It is essential to render him in language perfectly plain and unprofessional, and to call him by the name by which he is best and most distinctly known. The translators of the Bible talk of pence and not denarii, and the admirers of Voltaire do not celebrate him under the name of Arouet.24

But, after these trifling complaints are made, one must end, as one began, in unfeigned gratitude to Mr. Long for his excellent and substantial reproduction in English of an invaluable work. In general the substantiality, soundness, and precision of Mr. Long’s rendering are (I will venture, after all, to give my opinion about them) as conspicuous as the living spirit with which he treats antiquity; and these qualities are particularly desirable in the translator of a work like that of Marcus Aurelius, of which the language is often corrupt, almost always hard and obscure. Any one who wants to appreciate Mr. Long’s merits as a translator may read, in the original and in Mr. Long’s translation, the seventh chapter of the tenth book; he will see how, through all the dubiousness and involved manner of the Greek, Mr. Long has firmly seized upon the clear thought which is certainly at the bottom of that troubled wording, and, in distinctly rendering this thought, has at the same time thrown round its expression a characteristic shade of painfulness and difficulty which just suits it. And Marcus Aurelius’s book is one which, when it is rendered so accurately as Mr. Long renders it, even those who know Greek tolerably well may choose to read rather in the translation than in the original. For not only are the contents here incomparably more valuable than the external form, but this form, the Greek of a Roman, is not exactly one of those styles which have a physiognomy, which are an essential part of their author, which stamp an indelible impression of him on the reader’s mind. An old Lyons commentator finds, indeed, in Marcus Aurelius’s Greek, something characteristic, something specially firm and imperial; but I think an ordinary mortal will hardly find this: he will find crabbed Greek, without any great charm of distinct physiognomy. The Greek of Thucydides and Plato has this charm, and he who reads them in a translation, however accurate, loses it, and loses much in losing it; but the Greek of Marcus Aurelius, like the Greek of the New Testament, and even more than the Greek of the New Testament, is wanting in it. If one could be assured that the English Testament were made perfectly accurate, one might be almost content never to open a Greek Testament again; and, Mr. Long’s version of Marcus Aurelius being what it is, an Englishman who reads to live, and does not live to read, may henceforth let the Greek original repose upon its shelf.

The man whose thoughts Mr. Long has thus faithfully reproduced, is perhaps the most beautiful figure in history. He is one of those consoling and hope-inspiring marks, which stand forever to remind our weak and easily discouraged race how high human goodness and perseverance have once been carried, and may be carried again. The interest of mankind is peculiarly attracted by examples of signal goodness in high places; for that testimony to the worth of goodness is the most striking which is borne by those to whom all the means of pleasure and self-indulgence lay open, by those who had at their command the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. Marcus Aurelius was the ruler of the grandest of empires; and he was one of the best of men. Besides him, history presents one or two sovereigns eminent for their goodness, such as Saint Louis or Alfred. But Marcus Aurelius has, for us moderns, this great superiority in interest over Saint Louis or Alfred, that he lived and acted in a state of society modern by its essential characteristics, in an epoch akin to our own, in a brilliant centre of civilization. Trajan talks of “our enlightened age” just as glibly as the Times25 talks of it. Marcus Aurelius thus becomes for us a man like ourselves, a man in all things tempted as we are. Saint Louis26 inhabits an atmosphere of mediæval Catholicism, which the man of the nineteenth century may admire, indeed, may even passionately wish to inhabit, but which, strive as he will, he cannot really inhabit. Alfred belongs to a state of society (I say it with all deference to the Saturday Review27 critic who keeps such jealous watch over the honor of our Saxon ancestors) half barbarous. Neither Alfred nor Saint Louis can be morally and intellectually as near to us as Marcus Aurelius.

The record of the outward life of this admirable man has in it little of striking incident. He was born at Rome on the 26th of April, in the year 121 of the Christian era. He was nephew and son-in-law to his predecessor on the throne, Antoninus Pius. When Antoninus died, he was forty years old, but from the time of his earliest manhood he had assisted in administering public affairs. Then, after his uncle’s death in 161, for nineteen years he reigned as emperor. The barbarians were pressing on the Roman frontier, and a great part of Marcus Aurelius’s nineteen years of reign was passed in campaigning. His absences from Rome were numerous and long. We hear of him in Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Greece; but, above all, in the countries on the Danube, where the war with the barbarians was going on,—in Austria, Moravia, Hungary. In these countries much of his Journal seems to have been written; parts of it are dated from them; and there, a few weeks before his fifty-ninth birthday, he fell sick and died.28 The record of him on which his fame chiefly rests is the record of his inward life,—his Journal, or Commentaries, or Meditations, or Thoughts, for by all these names has the work been called. Perhaps the most interesting of the records of his outward life is that which the first book of this work supplies, where he gives an account of his education, recites the names of those to whom he is indebted for it, and enumerates his obligations to each of them. It is a refreshing and consoling picture, a priceless treasure for those, who, sick of the “wild and dreamlike trade of blood and guile,” which seems to be nearly the whole of what history has to offer to our view, seek eagerly for that substratum of right thinking and well-doing which in all ages must surely have somewhere existed, for without it the continued life of humanity would have been impossible. “From my mother I learnt piety and beneficence, and abstinence not only from evil deeds but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” Let us remember that, the next time we are reading the sixth satire of Juvenal.29 “From my tutor I learnt” (hear it, ye tutors of princes!) “endurance of labor, and to want little and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.” The vices and foibles of the Greek sophist or rhetorician—the Græculus esuriens30—are in everybody’s mind; but he who reads Marcus Aurelius’s account of his Greek teachers and masters, will understand how it is that, in spite of the vices and foibles of individual Græculi, the education of the human race owes to Greece a debt which can never be overrated. The vague and colorless praise of history leaves on the mind hardly any impression of Antoninus Pius: it is only from the private memoranda of his nephew that we learn what a disciplined, hard-working, gentle, wise, virtuous man he was; a man who, perhaps, interests mankind less than his immortal nephew only because he has left in writing no record of his inner life,—caret quia vate sacro.31

Of the outward life and circumstances of Marcus Aurelius, beyond these notices which he has himself supplied, there are few of much interest and importance. There is the fine anecdote of his speech when he heard of the assassination of the revolted Avidius Cassius,32 against whom he was marching; he was sorry, he said, to be deprived of the pleasure of pardoning him. And there are one or two more anecdotes of him which show the same spirit. But the great record for the outward life of a man who has left such a record of his lofty inward aspirations as that which Marcus Aurelius has left, is the clear consenting voice of all his contemporaries,—high and low, friend and enemy, pagan and Christian,—in praise of his sincerity, justice, and goodness. The world’s charity does not err on the side of excess, and here was a man occupying the most conspicuous station in the world, and professing the highest possible standard of conduct;—yet the world was obliged to declare that he walked worthily of his profession. Long after his death, his bust was to be seen in the houses of private men through the wide Roman empire. It may be the vulgar part of human nature which busies itself with the semblance and doings of living sovereigns, it is its nobler part which busies itself with those of the dead; these busts of Marcus Aurelius, in the homes of Gaul, Britain, and Italy, bear witness, not to the inmates’ frivolous curiosity about princes and palaces, but to their reverential memory of the passage of a great man upon the earth.

Two things, however, before one turns from the outward to the inward life of Marcus Aurelius, force themselves upon one’s notice, and demand a word of comment; he persecuted the Christians, and he had for his son the vicious and brutal Commodus.33 The persecution at Lyons, in which Attalus34 and Pothinus suffered, the persecution at Smyrna, in which Polycarp35 suffered, took place in his reign. Of his humanity, of his tolerance, of his horror of cruelty and violence, of his wish to refrain from severe measures against the Christians, of his anxiety to temper the severity of these measures when they appeared to him indispensable, there is no doubt: but, on the one hand, it is certain that the letter, attributed to him, directing that no Christian should be punished for being a Christian, is spurious; it is almost certain that his alleged answer to the authorities of Lyons, in which he directs that Christians persisting in their profession shall be dealt with according to law, is genuine. Mr. Long seems inclined to try and throw doubt over the persecution at Lyons, by pointing out that the letter of the Lyons Christians relating it, alleges it to have been attended by miraculous and incredible incidents. “A man,” he says, “can only act consistently by accepting all this letter or rejecting it all, and we cannot blame him for either.” But it is contrary to all experience to say that because a fact is related with incorrect additions, and embellishments, therefore it probably never happened at all; or that it is not, in general, easy for an impartial mind to distinguish between the fact and the embellishments. I cannot doubt that the Lyons persecution took place, and that the punishment of Christians for being Christians was sanctioned by Marcus Aurelius. But then I must add that nine modern readers out of ten, when they read this, will, I believe, have a perfectly false notion of what the moral action of Marcus Aurelius, in sanctioning that punishment, really was. They imagine Trajan, or Antoninus Pius, or Marcus Aurelius, fresh from the perusal of the Gospel, fully aware of the spirit and holiness of the Christian saints, ordering their extermination because he loved darkness rather than light. Far from this, the Christianity which these emperors aimed at repressing was, in their conception of it, something philosophically contemptible, politically subversive, and morally abominable. As men, they sincerely regarded it much as well-conditioned people, with us, regard Mormonism; as rulers, they regarded it much as Liberal statesmen, with us, regard the Jesuits. A kind of Mormonism, constituted as a vast secret society, with obscure aims of political and social subversion, was what Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius believed themselves to be repressing when they punished Christians. The early Christian apologists again and again declare to us under what odious imputations the Christians lay, how general was the belief that these imputations were well-grounded, how sincere was the horror which the belief inspired. The multitude, convinced that the Christians were atheists who ate human flesh and thought incest no crime, displayed against them a fury so passionate as to embarrass and alarm their rulers. The severe expressions of Tacitus, exitiabilis superstitio—odio humani generis convicti,36 show how deeply the prejudices of the multitude imbued the educated class also. One asks oneself with astonishment how a doctrine so benign as that of Jesus Christ can have incurred misrepresentation so monstrous. The inner and moving cause of the misrepresentation lay, no doubt, in this,—that Christianity was a new spirit in the Roman world, destined to act in that world as its dissolvent; and it was inevitable that Christianity in the Roman world, like democracy in the modern world, like every new spirit with a similar mission assigned to it, should at its first appearance occasion an instinctive shrinking and repugnance in the world which it was to dissolve. The outer and palpable causes of the misrepresentation were, for the Roman public at large, the confounding of the Christians with the Jews, that isolated, fierce, and stubborn race, whose stubbornness, fierceness, and isolation, real as they were, the fancy of a civilized Roman yet further exaggerated; the atmosphere of mystery and novelty which surrounded the Christian rites; the very simplicity of Christian theism. For the Roman statesman, the cause of mistake lay in that character of secret assemblages which the meetings of the Christian community wore, under a State-system as jealous of unauthorized associations as is the State-system of modern France.

A Roman of Marcus Aurelius’s time and position could not well see the Christians except through the mist of these prejudices. Seen through such a mist, the Christians appeared with a thousand faults not their own; but it has not been sufficiently remarked that faults really their own many of them assuredly appeared with besides, faults especially likely to strike such an observer as Marcus Aurelius, and to confirm him in the prejudices of his race, station, and rearing. We look back upon Christianity after it has proved what a future it bore within it, and for us the sole representatives of its early struggles are the pure and devoted spirits through whom it proved this; Marcus Aurelius saw it with its future yet unshown, and with the tares among its professed progeny not less conspicuous than the wheat. Who can doubt that among the professing Christians of the second century, as among the professing Christians of the nineteenth, there was plenty of folly, plenty of rabid nonsense, plenty of gross fanaticism? who will even venture to affirm that, separated in great measure from the intellect and civilization of the world for one or two centuries, Christianity, wonderful as have been its fruits, had the development perfectly worthy of its inestimable germ? Who will venture to affirm that, by the alliance of Christianity with the virtue and intelligence of men like the Antonines,—of the best product of Greek and Roman civilization, while Greek and Roman civilization had yet life and power,—Christianity and the world, as well as the Antonines themselves, would not have been gainers? That alliance was not to be. The Antonines lived and died with an utter misconception of Christianity; Christianity grew up in the Catacombs, not on the Palatine. And Marcus Aurelius incurs no moral reproach by having authorized the punishment of the Christians; he does not thereby become in the least what we mean by a persecutor. One may concede that it was impossible for him to see Christianity as it really was;—as impossible as for even the moderate and sensible Fleury37 to see the Antonines as they really were;—one may concede that the point of view from which Christianity appeared something anti-civil and anti-social, which the State had the faculty to judge and the duty to suppress, was inevitably his. Still, however, it remains true that this sage, who made perfection his aim and reason his law, did Christianity an immense injustice and rested in an idea of State-attributes which was illusive. And this is, in truth, characteristic of Marcus Aurelius, that he is blameless, yet, in a certain sense, unfortunate; in his character, beautiful as it is, there is something melancholy, circumscribed, and ineffectual.

For of his having such a son as Commodus, too, one must say that he is not to be blamed on that account, but that he is unfortunate. Disposition and temperament are inexplicable things; there are natures on which the best education and example are thrown away; excellent fathers may have, without any fault of theirs, incurably vicious sons. It is to be remembered, also, that Commodus was left, at the perilous age of nineteen, master of the world; while his father, at that age, was but beginning a twenty years’ apprenticeship to wisdom, labor, and self-command, under the sheltering teachership of his uncle Antoninus. Commodus was a prince apt to be led by favorites; and if the story is true which says that he left, all through his reign, the Christians untroubled, and ascribes this lenity to the influence of his mistress Marcia, it shows that he could be led to good as well as to evil. But for such a nature to be left at a critical age with absolute power, and wholly without good counsel and direction, was the more fatal. Still one cannot help wishing that the example of Marcus Aurelius could have availed more with his own only son. One cannot but think that with such virtue as his there should go, too, the ardor which removes mountains, and that the ardor which removes mountains might have even won Commodus. The word ineffectual again rises to one’s mind; Marcus Aurelius saved his own soul by his righteousness, and he could do no more. Happy they who can do this! but still happier, who can do more!

Yet, when one passes from his outward to his inward life, when one turns over the pages of his Meditations,—entries jotted down from day to day, amid the business of the city or the fatigues of the camp, for his own guidance and support, meant for no eye but his own, without the slightest attempt at style, with no care, even, for correct writing, not to be surpassed for naturalness and sincerity,—all disposition to carp and cavil dies away, and one is overpowered by the charm of a character of such purity, delicacy, and virtue. He fails neither in small things nor in great; he keeps watch over himself both that the great springs of action may be right in him, and that the minute details of action may be right also. How admirable in a hard-tasked ruler, and a ruler too, with a passion for thinking and reading, is such a memorandum as the following:—

“Not frequently nor without necessity to say to any one, or to write in a letter, that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse the neglect of duties required by our relation to those with whom we live, by alleging urgent occupation.”38

And, when that ruler is a Roman emperor, what an “idea” is this to be written down and meditated by him:—

“The idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed.”39 And, for all men who “drive at practice,” what practical rules may not one accumulate out of these Meditations:—

“The greatest part of what we say or do being unnecessary, if a man takes this away, he will have more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly, on every occasion a man should ask himself: ‘Is this one of the unnecessary things?’ Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts, for thus superfluous acts will not follow after.”40

And again:—

“We ought to check in the series of our thoughts everything that is without a purpose and useless, but most of all the over curious feeling and the malignant; and a man should use himself to think of those things only about which if one should suddenly ask, ‘What hast thou now in thy thoughts?’ with perfect openness thou mightest immediately answer, ‘This or That’; so that from thy words it should be plain that everything in thee is simple and benevolent, and such as befits a social animal, and one that cares not for thoughts about sensual enjoyments, or any rivalry or envy and suspicion, or anything else for which thou wouldst blush if thou shouldst say thou hadst it in thy mind.”41

So, with a stringent practicalness worthy of Franklin, he discourses on his favorite text, Let nothing be done without a purpose. But it is when he enters the region where Franklin cannot follow him, when he utters his thoughts on the ground-motives of human action, that he is most interesting; that he becomes the unique, the incomparable Marcus Aurelius. Christianity uses language very liable to be misunderstood when it seems to tell men to do good, not, certainly, from the vulgar motives of worldly interest, or vanity, or love of human praise, but “that their Father which, seeth in secret may reward them openly.” The motives of reward and punishment have come, from the misconception of language of this kind, to be strangely overpressed by many Christian moralists, to the deterioration and disfigurement of Christianity. Marcus Aurelius says, truly and nobly:—

“One man, when he has done a service to another, is ready to set it down to his account as a favor conferred. Another is not ready to do this, but still in his own mind he thinks of the man as his debtor, and he knows what he has done. A third in a manner does not even know what he has done, but he is like a vine which has produced grapes, and seeks for nothing more after it has once produced its proper fruit. As a horse when he has run, a dog when he has caught the game, a bee when it has made its honey, so a man when he has done a good act, does not call out for others to come and see, but he goes on to another act, as a vine goes on to produce again the grapes in season. Must a man, then, be one of these, who in a manner acts thus without observing it? Yes.”42

And again:—

“What more dost thou want when thou hast done a man a service? Art thou not content that thou hast done something conformable to thy nature, and dost thou seek to be paid for it, just as if the eye demanded a recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking?”43

Christianity, in order to match morality of this strain, has to correct its apparent offers of external reward, and to say: The kingdom of God is within you.

I have said that it is by its accent of emotion that the morality of Marcus Aurelius acquires a special character, and reminds one of Christian morality. The sentences of Seneca44 are stimulating to the intellect; the sentences of Epictetus are fortifying to the character; the sentences of Marcus Aurelius find their way to the soul. I have said that religious emotion has the power to light up morality: the emotion of Marcus Aurelius does not quite light up his morality, but it suffuses it; it has not power to melt the clouds of effort and austerity quite away, but it shines through them and glorifies them; it is a spirit, not so much of gladness and elation, as of gentleness and sweetness; a delicate and tender sentiment, which is less than joy and more than resignation. He says that in his youth he learned from Maximus, one of his teachers, “cheerfulness in all circumstances as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity”: and it is this very admixture of sweetness with his dignity which makes him so beautiful a moralist. It enables him to carry even into his observation of nature, a delicate penetration, a sympathetic tenderness, worthy of Wordsworth; the spirit of such a remark as the following has hardly a parallel, so far as my knowledge goes, in the whole range of Greek and Roman literature:—

“Figs, when they are quite ripe, gape open; and in the ripe olives the very circumstance of their being near to rottenness adds a peculiar beauty to the fruit. And the ears of corn bending down, and the lion’s eyebrows, and the foam which flows from the mouth of wild boars, and many other things,—though they are far from being beautiful, in a certain sense,—still, because they come in the course of nature, have a beauty in them, and they please the mind; so that if a man should have a feeling and a deeper insight with respect to the things which are produced in the universe, there is hardly anything which comes in the course of nature which will not seem to him to be in a manner disposed so as to give pleasure.”45

But it is when his strain passes to directly moral subjects that his delicacy and sweetness lend to it the greatest charm. Let those who can feel the beauty of spiritual refinement read this, the reflection of an emperor who prized mental superiority highly:—

“Thou sayest, ‘Men cannot admire the sharpness of thy wits.’ Be it so; but there are many other things of which thou canst not say, ‘I am not formed for them by nature.’ Show those qualities, then, which are altogether in thy power,—sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with thy portion and with few things, benevolence, frankness, no love of superfluity, freedom from trifling, magnanimity. Dost thou not see how many qualities thou art at once able to exhibit, as to which there is no excuse of natural incapacity and unfitness, and yet thou still remainest voluntarily below the mark? Or art thou compelled, through being defectively furnished by nature, to murmur, and to be mean, and to flatter, and to find fault with thy poor body, and to try to please men, and to make great display, and to be so restless in thy mind? No, indeed; but thou mightest have been delivered from these things long ago. Only, if in truth thou canst be charged with being rather slow and dull of comprehension, thou must exert thyself about this also, not neglecting nor yet taking pleasure in thy dulness.”46

The same sweetness enables him to fix his mind, when he sees the isolation and moral death caused by sin, not on the cheerless thought of the misery of this condition, but on the inspiriting thought that man is blest with the power to escape from it:—

“Suppose that thou hast detached thyself from the natural unity,—for thou wast made by nature a part, but thou hast cut thyself off,—yet here is this beautiful provision, that it is in thy power again to unite thyself. God has allowed this to no other part,—after it has been separated and cut asunder, to come together again. But consider the goodness with which he has privileged man; for he has put it in his power, when he has been separated, to return and to be united and to resume his place.”47

It enables him to control even the passion for retreat and solitude, so strong in a soul like his, to which the world could offer no abiding city:—

“Men seek retreat for themselves, houses in the country, seashores, and mountains; and thou, too, art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquillity. Constantly, then, give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself; and let thy principles be brief and fundamental, which as soon as thou shalt recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all discontent with the things to which thou returnest.”48

Against this feeling of discontent and weariness, so natural to the great for whom there seems nothing left to desire or to strive after, but so enfeebling to them, so deteriorating, Marcus Aurelius never ceased to struggle. With resolute thankfulness he kept in remembrance the blessings of his lot; the true blessings of it, not the false:—

“I have to thank Heaven that I was subjected to a ruler and a father (Antoninus Pius) who was able to take away all pride from me, and to bring me to the knowledge that it is possible for a man to live in a palace without either guards, or embroidered dresses, or any show of this kind; but that it is in such a man’s power to bring himself very near to the fashion of a private person, without being for this reason either meaner in thought or more remiss in action with respect to the things which must be done for public interest.... I have to be thankful that my children have not been stupid nor deformed in body; that I did not make more proficiency in rhetoric, poetry, and the other studies, by which I should perhaps have been completely engrossed, if I had seen that I was making great progress in them; ... that I knew Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus; ... that I received clear and frequent impressions about living according to nature, and what kind of a life that is, so that, so far as depended on Heaven, and its gifts, help, and inspiration, nothing hindered me from forthwith living according to nature, though I still fall short of it through my own fault, and through not observing the admonitions of Heaven, and, I may almost say, its direct instructions; that my body has held out so long in such a kind of life as mine; that though it was my mother’s lot to die young, she spent the last years of her life with me; that whenever I wished to help any man in his need, I was never told that I had not the means of doing it; that, when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of a sophist.”49

And, as he dwelt with gratitude on these helps and blessings vouchsafed to him, his mind (so, at least, it seems to me) would sometimes revert with awe to the perils and temptations of the lonely height where he stood, to the lives of Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Domitian,50 in their hideous blackness and ruin; and then he wrote down for himself such a warning entry as this, significant and terrible in its abruptness:—

“A black character, a womanish character, a stubborn character, bestial, childish, animal, stupid, counterfeit, scurrilous, fraudulent, tyrannical!”51

Or this:—

“About what am I now employing my soul? On every occasion I must ask myself this question, and inquire, What have I now in this part of me which they call the ruling principle, and whose soul have I now?—that of a child, or of a young man, or of a weak woman, or of a tyrant, or of one of the lower animals in the service of man, or of a wild beast?”52

The character he wished to attain he knew well, and beautifully he has marked it, and marked, too, his sense of shortcoming:—

“When thou hast assumed these names,—good, modest, true, rational, equal-minded, magnanimous,—take care that thou dost not change these names; and, if thou shouldst lose them, quickly return to them. If thou maintainest thyself in possession of these names without desiring that others should call thee by them, thou wilt be another being, and wilt enter on another life. For to continue to be such as thou hast hitherto been, and to be torn in pieces and defiled in such a life, is the character of a very stupid man, and one overfond of his life, and like those half-devoured fighters with wild beasts, who though covered with wounds and gore still entreat to be kept to the following day, though they will be exposed in the same state to the same claws and bites. Therefore fix thyself in the possession of these few names: and if thou art able to abide in them, abide as if thou wast removed to the Happy Islands.”53

For all his sweetness and serenity, however, man’s point of life “between two infinities” (of that expression Marcus Aurelius is the real owner) was to him anything but a Happy Island, and the performances on it he saw through no veils of illusion. Nothing is in general more gloomy and monotonous than declamations on the hollowness and transitoriness of human life and grandeur: but here, too, the great charm of Marcus Aurelius, his emotion, comes in to relieve the monotony and to break through the gloom; and even on this eternally used topic he is imaginative, fresh, and striking:—

“Consider, for example, the times of Vespasian. Thou wilt see all these things, people marrying, bringing up children, sick, dying, warring, feasting, trafficking, cultivating the ground, flattering, obstinately arrogant, suspecting, plotting, wishing for somebody to die, grumbling about the present, loving, heaping up treasure, desiring to be consuls or kings. Well then that life of these people no longer exists at all. Again, go to the times of Trajan. All is again the same. Their life too is gone. But chiefly thou shouldst think of those whom thou hast thyself known distracting themselves about idle things, neglecting to do what was in accordance with their proper constitution, and to hold firmly to this and to be content with it.”54


“The things which are much valued in life are empty, and rotten, and trifling; and people are like little dogs, biting one another, and little children quarrelling, crying, and then straightway laughing. But fidelity, and modesty, and justice, and truth, are fled

‘Up to Olympus from the wide-spread earth.’

What then is there which still detains thee here?”55

And once more:—

“Look down from above on the countless herds of men, and their countless solemnities, and the infinitely varied voyagings in storms and calms, and the differences among those who are born, who live together, and die. And consider too the life lived by others in olden time, and the life now lived among barbarous nations, and how many know not even thy name, and how many will soon forget it, and how they who perhaps now are praising thee will very soon blame thee and that neither a posthumous name is of any value, nor reputation, nor anything else.”56

He recognized, indeed, that (to use his own words) “the prime principle in man’s constitution is the social”;57 and he labored sincerely to make not only his acts towards his fellow-men, but his thoughts also, suitable to this conviction:—

“When thou wishest to delight thyself, think of the virtues of those who live with thee; for instance, the activity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth.”58

Still, it is hard for a pure and thoughtful man to live in a state of rapture at the spectacle afforded to him by his fellow-creatures; above all it is hard, when such a man is placed as Marcus Aurelius was placed, and has had the meanness and perversity of his fellow-creatures thrust, in no common measure, upon his notice,—has had, time after time, to experience how “within ten days thou wilt seem a god to those to whom thou art now a beast and an ape.” His true strain of thought as to his relations with his fellow-men is rather the following. He has been enumerating the higher consolations which may support a man at the approach of death, and he goes on:—

“But if thou requirest also a vulgar kind of comfort which shall reach thy heart, thou wilt be made best reconciled to death by observing the objects from which thou art going to be removed, and the morals of those with whom thy soul will no longer be mingled. For it is no way right to be offended with men, but it is thy duty to care for them and to bear with them gently; and yet to remember that thy departure will not be from men who have the same principles as thyself. For this is the only thing, if there be any, which could draw us the contrary way and attach us to life, to be permitted to live with those who have the same principles as ourselves. But now thou seest how great is the distress caused by the difference of those who live together, so that thou mayest say: ‘Come quick, O death, lest perchance I too should forget myself.’"59

O faithless and perverse generation! how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you?60 Sometimes this strain rises even to passion:—

“Short is the little which remains to thee of life. Live as on a mountain. Let men see, let them know, a real man, who lives as he was meant to live. If they cannot endure him, let them kill him. For that is better than to live as men do.”61

It is remarkable how little of a merely local and temporary character, how little of those scoriæ which a reader has to clear away before he gets to the precious ore, how little that even admits of doubt or question, the morality of Marcus Aurelius exhibits. Perhaps as to one point we must make an exception. Marcus Aurelius is fond of urging as a motive for man’s cheerful acquiescence in whatever befalls him, that “whatever happens to every man is for the interest of the universal”;62 that the whole contains nothing which is not for its advantage; that everything which happens to a man is to be accepted, “even if it seems disagreeable, because it leads to the health of the universe.”63 And the whole course of the universe, he adds, has a providential reference to man’s welfare: “all other things have been made for the sake of rational beings.”64 Religion has in all ages freely used this language, and it is not religion which will object to Marcus Aurelius’s use of it; but science can hardly accept as severely accurate this employment of the terms interest and advantage. To a sound nature and a clear reason the proposition that things happen “for the interest of the universal,” as men conceive of interest, may seem to have no meaning at all, and the proposition that “all things have been made for the sake of rational beings” may seem to be false. Yet even to this language, not irresistibly cogent when it is thus absolutely used, Marcus Aurelius gives a turn which makes it true and useful, when he says: “The ruling part of man can make a material for itself out of that which opposes it, as fire lays hold of what falls into it, and rises higher by means of this very material”;65—when he says: “What else are all things except exercises for the reason? Persevere then until thou shalt have made all things thine own, as the stomach which is strengthened makes all things its own, as the blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it”;66—when he says: “Thou wilt not cease to be miserable till thy mind is in such a condition, that, what luxury is to those who enjoy pleasure, such shall be to thee, in every matter which presents itself, the doing of the things which are conformable to man’s constitution; for a man ought to consider as an enjoyment everything which it is in his power to do according to his own nature,—and it is in his power everywhere.”67 In this sense it is, indeed, most true that “all things have been made for the sake of rational beings”; that “all things work together for good.”

In general, however, the action Marcus Aurelius prescribes is action which every sound nature must recognize as right, and the motives he assigns are motives which every clear reason must recognize as valid. And so he remains the especial friend and comforter of all clear-headed and scrupulous, yet pure-hearted and upward striving men, in those ages most especially that walk by sight, not by faith, but yet have no open vision. He cannot give such souls, perhaps, all they yearn for, but he gives them much; and what he gives them, they can receive.

Yet no, it is not for what he thus gives them that such souls love him most! it is rather because of the emotion which lends to his voice so touching an accent, it is because he too yearns as they do for something unattained by him. What an affinity for Christianity had this persecutor of the Christians! The effusion of Christianity, its relieving tears, its happy self-sacrifice, were the very element, one feels, for which his soul longed; they were near him, they brushed him, he touched them, he passed them by. One feels, too, that the Marcus Aurelius one reads must still have remained, even had Christianity been fully known to him, in a great measure himself; he would have been no Justin;—but how would Christianity have affected him? in what measure would it have changed him? Granted that he might have found, like the Alogi68 of modern times, in the most beautiful of the Gospels, the Gospel which has leavened Christendom most powerfully, the Gospel of St. John, too much Greek metaphysics, too much gnosis;69 granted that this Gospel might have looked too like what he knew already to be a total surprise to him: what, then, would he have said to the Sermon on the Mount, to the twenty-sixth chapter of St. Matthew? What would have become of his notions of the exitiabilis superstitio, of the “obstinacy of the Christians”? Vain question! yet the greatest charm of Marcus Aurelius is that he makes us ask it. We see him wise, just, self-governed, tender, thankful, blameless; yet, with all this, agitated, stretching out his arms for something beyond,—tendentemque manus ripæ ulterioris amore.70

1 Reprinted from The Victoria Magazine, II, 1–9, November, 1863, in Essays in Criticism, 1865.

2 John Stuart Mill (1806–73), English philosopher and economist. On Liberty (1859) is his most finished writing.

3 The Imitation of Christ (Imitatio Christi), a famous medieval Christian devotional work, is usually ascribed to Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471), an Augustinian canon of Mont St. Agnes in the diocese of Utrecht.

4 Epictetus. Greek Stoic philosopher (born c. A.D. 60). He is an earnest preacher of righteousness and his philosophy is eminently practical. For Arnold’s personal debt to him see his sonnet To a Friend.

5 Empedocles. A Greek philosopher and statesman (c. 490–430 B.C.). He is the subject of Arnold’s early poetical drama, Empedocles on Etna, which he later suppressed for reasons which he states in the Preface to the Poems of 1853. See Selections, pp. 1–3. [Transcriber’s note: This approximates to the section following the text reference for Footnote 1 in this e-text.]

6 Encheiridion, chap. LII.

7 Ps. CXLIII, 10; incorrectly quoted.

8 Is. LX, 19.

9 Mal. IV, 2.

10 John I, 13.

11 John III, 5.

12 1 John V, 4.

13 Matt. XIX, 26.

14 2 Cor. V, 17.

15 Encheiridion, chap. XLIII.

16 Matt. XVIII, 22.

17 Matt. XXII, 37–39, etc.

18 George Long (1800–79), classical scholar. He published Selections from Plutarch’s Lives, 1862; Thoughts of Marcus Aurelius, 1862; etc.

19 Thomas Arnold (1795–1842), English clergyman and headmaster of Rugby School, father of Matthew Arnold.

20 Jeremy Collier (1650–1726). His best-known work is his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, 1698, a sharp and efficacious attack on the Post–Restoration drama. The Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus, his Conversation with himself, appeared in 1701.

21 Meditations, III, 14.

22 Antoninus Pius. Roman Emperor, A.D. 138–161, and foster-father of M. Aurelius.

23 To become current in men’s speech.

24 The real name of Voltaire was François Marie Arouet. The name Voltaire was assumed in 1718 and is supposed to be an anagram of Arouet le j(eune).

25 See Function of Criticism, Selections, p. 36.[Transcriber’s note: This approximates to the section following the text reference for Footnote 36 in this e-text.]

26 Louis IX of France (1215–70), the leader of the crusade of 1248.

27 The Saturday Review, begun in 1855, was pronouncedly conservative in politics. It devoted much space to pure criticism and scholarship, and Arnold’s essays are frequently criticized in its columns.

28 He died on the 17th of March, A.D. 180.[Arnold.]

29 Juvenal’s sixth satire is a scathing arraignment of the vices and follies of the women of Rome during the reign of Domitian.

30 See Juvenal, Sat. 3, 76.

31 Because he lacks an inspired poet (to sing his praises). Horace, Odes, IV, 9, 28.

32 Avidius Cassius, a distinguished general, declared himself Emperor in Syria in 176 A.D. Aurelius proceeded against him, deploring the necessity of taking up arms against a trusted officer. Cassius was slain by his own officers while M. Aurelius was still in Illyria.

33 Commodus. Emperor of Rome, 180–192 A.D. He was dissolute and tyrannical.

34 Attalus, a Roman citizen, was put to death with other Christians in A.D. 177.

35 Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and one of the Apostolic Fathers, suffered martyrdom in 155 A.D.

36 Tacitus, Ab Excessu Augusti, XV, 44.

37 Claude Fleury (1640–1723), French ecclesiastical historian, author of the Histoire Ecclésiastique, 20 vols., 1691.

38 Med., I, 12.

39 Ibid., I, 14.

40 Ibid., IV, 24.

41 Ibid., III, 4.

42 Ibid., V, 6.

43 Ibid., IX, 42.

44 Lucius Annæus Seneca (c. 3 B.C.-A.D. 65), statesman and philosopher. His twelve so-called Dialogues are Stoic sermons of a practical and earnest character.

45 Med., III, 2.

46 Ibid., V, 5.

47 Ibid., VIII, 34.

48 Ibid., IV, 3.

49 Ibid., I, 17.

50 Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Domitian. Roman Emperors, 14–37 A.D., 37–41 A.D., 54–68 A.D., and 81–96 A.D.

51 Med., IV, 28.

52 Ibid., V, 11.

53 Ibid., X, 8.

54 Ibid., IV, 32.

55 Ibid., V, 33.

56 Ibid., IX, 30.

57 Ibid., VII, 55.

58 Ibid., VI, 48.

59 Ibid., IX, 3.

60 Matt. XVII, 17.

61 Med., X, 15.

62 Ibid., VI, 45.

63 Ibid., V, 8.

64 Ibid., VII, 55.

65 Ibid., IV, 1.

66 Ibid., X, 31.

67 Ibid.

68 Alogi. An ancient sect that rejected the Apocalypse and the Gospel of St. John.

69 Gnosis. Knowledge of spiritual truth or of matters commonly conceived to pertain to faith alone, such as was claimed by the Gnostics, a heretical Christian sect of the second century.

70 The correct reading is tendebantque (Æneid, VI, 314), which Arnold has altered to apply to the present case.

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