How Marcus Aurelius wrote The Meditations

The Art of Paraphrasing Philosophical Maxims

The Art of Paraphrasing Philosophical Maxims

If thou would’st master care and pain,
Unfold this book and read and read again
Its blessed leaves, whereby thou soon shalt see
The past, the present, and the days to be
With opened eyes; and all delight, all grief,
Shall be like smoke, as empty and as brief.

This epigram is found at the end of a Vatican manuscript of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, one of the most widely-read spiritual and philosophical classics of all time. Readers of The Meditations are usually aware that Marcus was a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. However, they often don’t realize how much more we know about him.

Marcus studied rhetoric under Fronto for many years, and learned certain techniques from him that appear to have shaped the writing of The Meditations.

In my recent book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, I drew upon the surviving evidence to make connections between Marcus’ life and thought. We have three main contemporary biographical sources: The Historia Augusta, Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana, and Herodian’s History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus.

In addition to these, one of our most important sources is a cache of letters belonging to Marcus’ family friend and rhetoric tutor Marcus Cornelius Fronto. These were discovered in the early 19th century by the Italian scholar Angelo Mai. They give us a remarkable window into the private life of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher.

We learn, for instance, that Marcus was, in private, an exceptionally warm and affectionate man. He also shows evidence of being adept at diplomacy and at resolving conflicts between his friends. As we’ll see, Marcus studied rhetoric under Fronto for many years, and learned certain techniques from him that appear to have shaped the writing of The Meditations.

Stoics versus Sophists

Fronto was officially Marcus’ main Latin rhetoric tutor. The Meditations, of course, is actually written in Greek. Marcus was also a student of the most celebrated Greek rhetorician of his day, Herodes Atticus. Both of these men were part of the broad cultural movement known as The Second Sophistic and they can both be described as Sophists. Although, from the time of Socrates onward, there was a historical rivalry and conflict between Sophists and philosophers, perhaps especially Stoics, they were more what we call today frenemies. Indeed, some of Socrates’ best friends were Sophists and he liked to quote their sayings and speeches, although often putting his own twist on their words.

Sophists, especially by Marcus’ time, were typically very well-read in philosophy, although they approached it more a source of arguments and ideas than as a way of life. Despite the historical conflict between Sophists and Stoics, therefore, it should come as no surprise if we find one or two topics being discussed by Marcus and Fronto cropping up in The Meditations. However, what caught the eye of scholars was the obvious similarity between the method of writing described by Fronto and the format of The Meditations.

Fronto’s Method: Finding the Right Words

Fronto says that he greatly admires the writings of Cicero as the very “head and source of Roman eloquence.” Nevertheless, having scoured Cicero’s writings for this purpose, Fronto claims that he finds in them “very few words indeed that are unexpected and unlooked for”, by which he means unusual words and phrases of the sort encountered mainly in old poetry. Fronto describes how these must be “hunted out” with great care and the stored up in the memory of an orator as though in a treasurehouse.

By an unexpected and unlooked-for word I mean one which is brought out when the hearer or reader is not expecting it or thinking of it, yet so that if you withdrew it and asked the reader himself to think of a substitute, he would be able to find either no other at all or one not so fitted to express the intended meaning. Wherefore I commend you greatly for the care and diligence you shew in digging deep for your word and fitting it to your meaning. — Fronto

A great orator spends time finding the perfect word, or phrase, to express his meaning. He avoids cliché where possible. Fronto stresses that he doesn’t just mean using obscure words in a pretentious manner. He means taking more care than normal to express our ideas very clearly.

But, as I said at first, there lies a great danger in the enterprize lest the word be applied unsuitably or with a want of clearness or a lack of refinement, as by a man of half-knowledge, for it is much better to use common and everyday words than unusual and far-fetched ones, if there is little difference in real meaning. — Fronto

Of course, anyone can do this. However, most of us fall into the habit of over-using the most common words and phrases. These don’t hold our attention or stimulate the imagination, though, and a more careful choice of words can allow our meaning to ring out more loudly and clearly. A master rhetorician like Fronto would invest a great deal of his life in the process of refining his vocabulary in this way.

I hardly know whether it is advisable to shew how great is the difficulty, what scrupulous and anxious care must be taken, in weighing words, for fear the knowledge should check the ardour of the young and weaken their hopes of success. — Fronto

Fronto’s Method: Making Paradoxes Intelligible

Although Marcus trained extensively in rhetoric, for many years, he became progressively more drawn toward the study of philosophy. Fronto obviously considered Marcus to be a very gifted student. He’s very concerned about the risk of losing him to philosophy. He therefore likes to remind Marcus that rhetoric and philosophy should be viewed as complementary disciplines. Philosophers need to know how to express their ideas powerfully and clearly.

Nor, in my opinion, can philosophers dispense with such artifices any more than orators. — Fronto

He tells Marcus repeatedly to paraphrase philosophical maxims, and other wise sayings, perhaps such as the quotes from Greek poets that we find in The Meditations alongside sayings from Socrates, Epictetus, and others.

You must turn the same maxim twice or thrice, just as you have done with that little one. And so turn longer ones two or three times diligently, boldly. — Fronto

Marcus enjoys these exercises but sometimes finds them hard work.

Now, if never before, I find what a task it is to round and shape three or five lines and to take time over writing. — Marcus Aurelius

Fronto explains to Marcus that he pushed him to find the right words to express himself clearly precisely because of his philosophical nature. Even as a young man, Marcus was wrestling with profound ideas, which are not easily expressed in plain English, or even plain Greek or Latin.

You had, [Marcus] Antoninus, but one danger to fear, and no one of outstanding ability can escape it — that you should limp in respect of copiousness and choiceness of words. For the greater the thoughts, the more difficult it is to clothe them in words, and no small labour is needed to prevent those stately thoughts being ill-clothed or unbecomingly draped or half-naked. — Fronto

Socrates and the Stoics were famous for their paradoxes, a word which literally means “contrary to (popular) opinion” in Greek. We have whole lists of words that we’re told the Stoics were at pains to explain were being used in a novel and technical sense — different from the way they were normally used. For instance, Diogenes Laertius, one of our main sources for early Stoic teachings struggles to explain the following distinction:

Now they [the Stoics] say that the wise man is “passionless” [has apatheia], because he is not prone to fall into [passions]. But they add that in another sense the term “apatheia” is applied to the wretched man, when, that is, it means that he is hard and unrelenting. — Diogenes Laertius

Or to put it more simply, they mean that the goal of Stoicism is to be self-possessed and free from unhealthy emotions but not to be cold-hearted or unemotional as though our hearts were made of stone. Philosophers are experts at making subtle conceptual distinctions and working out their implications. Rhetoricians, however, are experts at explaining ideas more clearly so that we can better understand what is meant.

Fronto refers — in Greek, the language of philosophy—to the problem of handling “new and paradoxical ideas” or arguments. This passage, in particular, could easily be viewed as describing the approach followed by Marcus in writing The Meditations.

I warn you, therefore, again and again, my Marcus, and beseech you to remember, as often as you conceive in your mind a startling thought, think over it with yourself and turn and try it with various figures of speech and dress it out in splendid words. For there is a danger that what is new to the hearers and unexpected may seem ridiculous unless it be embellished and made figurative. — Fronto

Fronto has no problem using unusual words or phrases, as long as the audience understand them. However, he feels very strongly that radical new ideas, such as the paradoxes of Stoicism, will confuse people and be misunderstood unless philosophers learn to take more care and express them clearly. Fronto was concerned that Marcus, given his position as Caesar, and later as emperor, needed to be especially careful in this regard.

Speaking the Truth

If we didn’t know this, it would perhaps come as a surprise to find that Marcus praises Fronto, a Sophist, for teaching him how to put the truth into words.

It is that I learn from you to speak the truth. That matter (of speaking the truth) is precisely what is so hard for gods and men: in fact, there is no oracle so truth-telling as not to contain within itself something ambiguous or crooked or intricate, whereby the unwary may be caught and, interpreting the answer in the light of their own wishes, realize its fallaciousness only when the time is past and the business done. — Marcus Aurelius

Again, although it’s difficult enough to grasp the truth ourselves, if we wish to share our wisdom with others that’s even more hard work.

Interestingly, although Fronto tells Marcus to paraphrase the same philosophical maxims repeatedly as an intellectual exercise he nevertheless thinks that to do so in a speech or essay is obnoxious. In fact, he’s absolutely eviscerates Seneca for having done so.

You will say, there are certain things in his [Seneca’s] books cleverly expressed, some also with dignity. Yes, even little silver coins are sometimes found in sewers; are we on that account to contract for the cleaning of sewers? The first and most objectionable defect in that style of speech is the repetition of the same thought under one dress and another, times without number. — Fronto

In Marcus’ case, though, we find something else. We find him struggling with the same ideas over and over again in The Meditations, rephrasing them in different ways, not for the sake of others but for his own sake. The approach Fronto taught him, of finding exactly the right words by repeatedly paraphrasing maxims, has become a method of rendering Stoic wisdom clearer, more impactful, and more memorable, in the privacy of his own mind. Indeed, “The Meditations” was the title given to Marcus’ notes by modern editors. The earliest manuscript version was titled in Greek: To Himself.

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