The Philosophies of the Stoic Marcus Aurelius and the Christian St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas

[Posted 5 June 2020 - Anthony Hui - Introduction to Political Philosophy]

The Stoic Marcus Aurelius and the Christian St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas 

An Introduction to their Political Philosophies and Beliefs with Personal Commentary 

The Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Christian St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas were important philosophers who developed and advanced their political and/or theological perspectives, which ultimately shaped Western political theory and civilization—some by elucidating particular attitudes towards life and reasoning and others by turning towards the religious nature of life and setting a strong Christian tradition.

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned as the last of the “Five Good Emperors,” was an active leader who participated in military campaigns, which led him to write his magnum opus, Meditations, a work that underscored his Stoic beliefs. Stoicism originated in Hellenistic Greece “many years before Marcus Aurelius and even the Roman Empire existed” and was considered to be pessimistic in nature. Even though Marcus Aurelius did not establish Stoicism, he served as an example of combining Stoicism with active writing and rule. With this in mind, it was his Stoic beliefs towards an apathetic life, existence with reason, and death which influenced his political philosophy. The Stoic Aurelius in his Meditations believed that “we have no personal control over the natural world, nor over human nature” we should “ought to look at life … [through] the use of reason” and “recognize that we have very little power over external circumstances.” He says with logic, we can understand how certain themes like death are “unavoidable and that we should accept it with equanimity rather than sadness.” Aurelius regarding death, says how “17. Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good” (Caste 63). Here, he clearly delineates how human life is not eternal or long lasting but rather transient as “death hangs over thee,” and therefore, one should live a good life while one has time existing in hand. His notion of the relationship between the transience of earthly life and one’s good existence with reason underscores his political philosophy that anyone, including those who rule and those who obey, should understand that life will end and therefore should first take control and power over their lives and strive to make it good, whether it be by ruling justly or by being obedient. Aurelius’ political philosophy also considers the “quasi-pleasure” of a citizen’s “Civic Virtue,” something a Roman citizen should engage in during their life and ultimately be “good.” Aurelius also reinforces this philosophy on the inevitability of death when he writes “5. Death … a mystery of nature … not a thing of which any man should be ashamed” (62). In this case, Aurelius further corroborates on how death is not something one should be ashamed of because it is a natural action that affects everyone and should not hinder human action. These two quotes underscore Aurelius’ belief in an apathetic life, which is that one “should not have to worry about the pain threshold or anything else,” as death is natural and inevitable to all. His philosophical belief in an apathetic life of being unworried and calm can be reinforced with his view on life. He states the aphorism, “48. … To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are … Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew” (67). This serves as a clear example of his pessimistic and apathetic view towards life because he states how human life is short and that one should just live life by passing through time and end the journey in nature with content, just like how a olive is content on being ripe, and thus its duty in life growing on the tree is done by falling dead on the floor—ripe. It is evident here that Aurelius has a pessimistic view on living and knows that what we do today is short lived and will stay today but our souls will move through time and eventually die and arrive with nature. Or in other words, one should understand the short lived and “worthless” humans and their actions are, and, as he mentions in 50., it is not the ultimate goal to live the longest when there is no “difference between him who lives three days and him who lives for three generations” (67). Altogether, these points strengthen his political philosophy of living an apathetic life and being understanding, accepting, and unfearing death. When I read his Meditations, I mostly agree when Aurelius states that “17. Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good” (63). This is because I agree that death is inevitable and that we will all die and therefore, what we do currently is within our power. It also reminds me of living life to the fullest, where one should do what they like when they have control and power over their actions and decisions. But this leads to my slight disagreement over his last part, “be good,” as I think is too idealistic as different people have different goals while they live; and ultimately, I think it depends on situational factors and what their perspective of “good” is. I certainly believe that some people, who are scammers or a murderer, wreak havoc on others, and are therefore living an evil and ungood life.

About 300 years after the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Rome fell to the Visigoths in 476 CE. From then on, the entirety of Europe went into the Dark Ages, which would span from the 5th century to the start of the Renaissance in the 15th century. It was in this era where Christian thought and philosophy arose. One philosopher and theologian was St. Augustine of Hippo, who believed in the notion of “Two Cities”—the Earthly “City of Man” and the Heavenly “City of God”—which underscored his belief of Christianity’s importance and God’s glory in determining human nature and state. In The City of God, Augustine notes several striking differences between the Earthly and Heavenly realms. The Earthly city is formed “by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; [but] the Heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self;” the Earthly “glories in itself” while the Heavenly glories “in the Lord;” the Earthly “seeks glory from men” whereas the Heavenly seeks “the greatest glory from God.” (73). These are obvious striking contrasts between the “City of Man” and the “City of God,” and it is evident that Augustine emphasizes the concept of God and His effect on state (city) and human nature. This is because the citizens in the Heavenly have a human nature to glory God and the state seeks glory from God. This is a contrast to the Earthly, where they have a human nature to glory and love themselves and have a nature to do so “even to the contempt of God” (73). To add credence, Augustine then interjects another important juxtaposition on the human nature of the citizens in the Earthly and the Heavenly realms by focusing on wisdom. He states how the wise men of the Earthly city “have sought to profit to their own bodies or souls… and those who known God “glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain… and their foolish heart was darkened … professing themselves to be wise … glorying in their own wisdom and being possessed by pride” (73). In this excerpt, Augustine elucidates two important tenets that apply to the unbelievers and believers of the Earthly city; one, he believes that the human nature of even the wisest is selfish and self-centered, as they glory their own wisdom and their pride, and two, even the believers are not really “believing” in God as they do not understand His grace and would ultimately “change the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” (74). This rather negative viewpoint of Augustine on the Earthly is juxtaposed by the positive human nature of citizens in the Heavenly, who embrace “no human wisdom but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saint… holy angels as well as holy men, ‘that God may be all in all’” (74). Here, Augustine wants to convey God’s grace that will not only positively affect the individual in the Heavenly, but also reward society. He also illustrates the human nature of piety in the Heavenly realm which according to him, will bring happiness and reward. Finally, in a political standpoint, Augustine lends his insight on how the state functions and operates according to the two systems and underscores the positives of Christianity. His political philosophy is evident when he discusses peace in both cities, where the Earthly city, because it is “often divided against itself by litigations, war, [and] quarrels,” “peace is purchased by toilsome wars” that comes from glorious victories but “the Heavenly city possesses this peace by faith … the attainment of that peace every good action towards God,” which captures the importance of Christian devotion and faith to God as a medium for an eternal era of peace (74-76). With my reading of The City of God, I personally disagree with his idea that our soul, and not our actual brain, is the “seat of thought.” The biggest support I believe in is that of science, as the brain is scientifically proven to allow us to think and interpret various laws. I also disagree how a “good life required a ‘good will’” and the grace of God. I disagree with this statement because I do not believe that God’s grace entails living a good life, which has definitions that vary by person. I believe so because unlike his intended audience in that era, which were majority Christians in Europe, there are many different religions and systems with their own culture and beliefs. Therefore, I disagree with this under the premise of generalization as it cannot apply to other religions and belief systems. However, one thing I partially agree with Augustine that in the Earthly city, “princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling” as there are certain historical and current cases where a ruler, sometimes a dictator or a benevolent monarch, has a love to rule as that it is their human nature. In other words, it is possible.

The final Christian thinker and theologian of the Dark Ages is St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’ political philosophy revolved on the supreme power of God and how His rule can be seen by the four different laws he ordained in the other: Eternal, Natural, Divine and Human. In particular, his Natural Law deals with his views on human nature including morality and the interpretation of right and wrong. Aquinas wanted humans to abide by the God implanted Natural Laws because they serve as a platform for humans to reason with their conscience. More specifically, Aquinas believed that Natural Laws serve as a reasoning platform for the honest, thoughtful, and non-selfish judgement of everyday situations like murder and compassion. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas underscores the importance of Natural Law in human nature by stating a connection with the highest Eternal Law. He writes, in the Second Article of “Question 91: Of the Various Kinds of Law,” that there is Natural Law in us and that “natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law” (87). This is because he says “since all things subject to Divine providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law” and because rational creatures like humans partake “somewhat of the eternal law” it is ultimately “this participation of the external law … [that] is called the natural law” (87). With this in mind, Aquinas, under the premise of Natural Law, elucidates the notion of a human’s free will, which is God’s gift to humans, could break Natural Law. Additionally, Aquinas was a naturalist who firmly believed that “everything in nature has a purpose, usually directed towards human beings.” Altogether, Aquinas’ Law based system emphasizes the importance of Christianity and its interpretation in the state and government. This is evident in history where European states had a strong presence of the Church that determined the daily activities of society and its citizens. In other words, no separation of church and state, which has political significance. With his beliefs in consideration, I agree with Aquinas' concept of Human Law, which are laws regulating how humans act towards each other in society as I liken it to modern day rules that we citizens must obey like stopping at a red light or punishment for an arsonist. On the other hand, I disagree with Aquinas on his notion of Eternal Law, defined as “the most important law and the one by which governs the universe: the course of the stars… the circling of the Sun around the earth, the four seasons.” Out of all four of his laws, this is the one I mostly disagree with because as a modern person living in the 21st century, this is merely not backed by science. However, I understand his context during his time as scientific advancement was stagnant and certain ideas like a heliocentric model would not be disproven till 400 years later. But, altogether as a whole, I disagree that the universe is ruled and commanded by the Divine and that the Divine is the source of actions that are now proven to be wholly unscientific.

Marcus Aurelius 

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Thomas Aquinas 

Source Texts:
  • Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Book IV; 1-51
  • St. Augustine of Hippo: The City of God; Excerpts, Book XIV Chap 28 and Book XV Chap 4
  • St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica: Question 90 "Of the Essence of Law" and Question 91 "Of the Various Kinds of Law"