Marcus Aurelius: The Education of a Philosopher

Some notes on what we learn about Stoicism from Marcus Aurelius’ teachers, and what he says he admired most about them.

Bust of Young Marcus AureliusWhat did Marcus Aurelius learn from his Stoic teachers?  We have many references to his philosophical teachers, especially Stoics, who provided him with living role-models of virtue.  So what did he find most praiseworthy and admirable in these men?  Marcus tells us, in particular, that they provided him with examples of integrity, patience, and self-mastery, but also cheerfulness, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness, all of which were also important Stoic traits.

The opening sentence of the Historia Augusta states that Marcus Aurelius “throughout his whole life, was a man devoted to philosophy and was a man who surpassed all emperors in the integrity of his life.”  We’re told he was an earnest child who, as soon as he was old enough to be handed over from the care of his nurses to “notable instructors”, embarked on his study of philosophy.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.  He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]

These were the typical attire and practices of philosophers in the ancient Socratic tradition, particularly the Cynics and Stoics.  As we’ll see below, Marcus himself suggests the idea for sleeping on a camp-bed and adopting other aspects of the “Greek training” came from Diognetus, his painting tutor.  Marcus was seventeen years old when Antoninus Pius adopted him into the imperial family, so it’s implied that at this age he was already studying Stoicism under Apollonius of Chalcedon.  The history continues:

Furthermore, his zeal for philosophy was so great that, even after he joined the imperial family, he still used to go to Apollonius’ house for instruction.  He also attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea (Plutarch’s nephew), Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus and Cinna Catulus – all Stoics.  He went to lectures by Claudius Severus too, as he was attracted to the Peripatetic School.  But it was chiefly Junius Rusticus, whom he admired and followed – a man acclaimed in both private and public life and extremely well practised in the Stoic discipline.

Marcus praises his Stoic teachers’ virtues in the first chapter of The Meditations but here we’re also told that he held them in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.  We know something about most of these men, with the exception of the Stoic Cinna Catulus.

At the end of Book 1, Mrcus thanks the gods “That I got to know Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus”, all three of whom were Stoic teachers.  It’s typically presumed by scholars that these were his three most significant teachers. Marcus also studied Platonism under Alexander of Seleucia, known as Peloplaton (“Clay Plato”), and Aristotelianism under Claudius Severus.  There’s no mention of any specific Epicurean teacher, although Marcus was apparently familiar with Epicurean writings.


Marcus said, intriguingly, that his painting tutor, Diognetus, showed him:

[…] not to resent plain speaking [parrhêsia]; and to become familiar with philosophy and be a hearer first of Baccheius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to write dialogues as a boy; and to set my heart on a camp bed and a pelt and whatever else accords with the Greek training [agôgê].(Meditations, 1.6)

The allusion to philosophy here naturally suggests that parrhêsia may be used in the sense associated with the Cynic philosophers’ way of life, of which it was a central element.  Although this is merely an impression the passage gives, it’s reinforced by the reference to sleeping on a military-style camp bed, under a crude pelt, which some scholars have taken to be a reference to the Spartan agôgê, elements of which were assimilated into the Cynic and Stoic lifestyle.  Unfortunately, however, beyond this cryptic reference, we know nothing of Diognetus, or the three lecturers to whom he referred Marcus.  It’s striking that this passage refers to philosophy, though, and is followed by passages in honour of Marcus’ main philosophy tutors.

Junius Rusticus

From Rusticus, to become aware of the fact that I needed correction and training [therapeia] for my character; and not to be turned aside into an zealous sophistry; nor compose speculative treatises, or deliver little sermons, or try to show off being an ascetic or unselfish man; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and fine language; and not to go about the house in my robes, or commit any such breach of good taste and to write letters without affectation, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to shew oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial overview; nor to be too quick in agreeing with every chatterbox; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me with out of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

Statue of Young Marcus AureliusThe Stoic Junius Rusticus was Marcus’ most important teacher.  The book of Epictetus that Marcus refers to here as as “memoir” or notes must surely be the Discourses we know today, which he quotes elsewhere.  However, there were originally eight Discourses, of which only four survive today.  So it’s possible that Marcus had also read the lost books of Epictetus.  Marcus was aged around fourteen when Epictetus died, and it’s unlikely the two ever met.  However, Junius Rusticus was aged around thirty-five and so it’s tempting to speculate that he’d met and studied with Epictetus and later communicated his philosophical teachings to Marcus, along with a copy of the Discourses from his personal library.

Marcus mentions that it was from Rusticus he learned that his own character needed correction.  That’s important because one of the most psychologically significant roles of a philosophical mentor, especially in Stoicism, was to act as a sort of mirror to younger students and help them become aware of their own blind-spots.  Galen, for example, wrote at length about the necessity of having a wise teacher to provide this kind of insight because we’re naturally oblivious to our own prejudices and character flaws.

He also learned from Rusticus to avoid becoming lost in sophistry or useless philosophical speculation, something Epictetus never tires of warning his students against.  Again, Marcus admires Rusticus for avoiding too much rhetoric and for his plain speaking, like Diognetus.

Intriguingly, when Marcus writes that Rusticus provides a good example of how to be willingly reconciled to those who have lost their temper with you, he may well be referring to his own short-fuse.  Marcus elsewhere thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17).  Perhaps Rusticus was sometimes too blunt in his moral criticisms of the young Marcus and provoked him to anger, but was willing to compromise and be reconciled if Marcus was willing to reconsider his actions.

Apollonius of Chalcedon

The Historia Augusta suggests that Apollonius of Chalcedon was Marcus’ first philosophy teacher and that he saw him before being adopted into the imperial family of Antoninus Pius, aged seventeen, and continued to study with him thereafter.

From Apollonius I learned freedom and unwavering caution; and to focus on nothing else, even for a moment, except reason; and to be always the same, in acute pain, on losing a child, and in long illness; and to see vividly through a living role-model that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the least of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed. (Meditations, 1.8)

The start of this passage can be read as referring to Stoic mindfulness, or Apollonius showing continual attention to his own ruling-faculty and to reason.  What does it mean to be simultaneously both resolute and yielding, or willing to let go?  This could be read as a reference to the famous Stoic “reserve clause”: the Stoic is totally committed to doing what is up to him, or acting virtuously, but he seeks external things lightly, with the caveat that they may go otherwise.

Sextus of Chaeronea

Sextus of Chaeronea was the nephew of the famous Platonic philosopher Plutarch.  According to Philostratus, Marcus was still attending lectures by Sextus late in life, perhaps around 177 AD, after the rebellion of Avidius Cassius, and before he returned to the northern frontier.

The Emperor Marcus was an eager disciple of Sextus the Boeotian philosopher, being often in his company and frequenting his house. Lucius, who had just come to Rome, asked the Emperor, whom he met on his way, where he was going to and on what errand, and Marcus answered, “it is good even for an old man to learn; I am now on my way to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know.” And Lucius, raising his hand to heaven, said, “O Zeus, the king of the Romans in his old age takes up his tablets and goes to school.”

Marcus writes of him in The Meditations:

From Sextus, kindness, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the concept of living in accord with nature; and a serious demeanour without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that intercourse with him was more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly revered by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and organizing, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles [dogmas] necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion and yet full of natural affection; and he could express his approval without a noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without being pretentious. (Meditations, 1.9)

The references to Stoic terminology in this passage are striking.  Sextus showed Marcus the virtuous Stoic feeling of kindness (eumenes) and what it really means to “live in accord with nature”, the Stoic goal of life.  He also showed him what it means to reconcile Stoic indifference (apatheia) with natural affection (philostorgia).

Claudius Maximus

Claudius Maximus is mentioned later than the other Stoic teachers, although it’s believed he died around 161 AD the same year Marcus became emperor.  He was a Roman politician, who served as consul, governor of Pannonia Superior, and then proconsul of Africa.  Marcus mentions the death of Maximus and his wife briefly in The Meditations (8.25).

From Maximus I learned self-mastery, and not to be turned aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a good-tempered character combining gentleness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I noticed that everybody felt he believed in what he said, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his frustration, neither, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do things for the benefit of others, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he gave the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been set right. I saw, too, that no man could ever either think that he was looked down upon by Maximus or think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way. (Meditations, 1.15)

Marcus begins by referring to Maximus’ as a model of Stoic self-mastery (enkrateia) and focus on the goal of living rationally.  He was cheerful in all circumstances, not gloomy as some people imagine Stoics.  He was sincere and authentic but gentle and honourable in his dealings with others, whom he always sought to help.  He was never surprised or shocked by anything, things the Stoics took to be a sign of philosophical naivety.  What he says about Maximus being someone whom one imagines could never be turned astray rather than having to be set on the right path, is recalled later in The Meditations (3.5), where he writes “You should stand upright, not be set upright.”

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