Domain of the Philosopher
The Meditations [by Marcus Aurelius] is customarily, and no doubt rightly, classified by librarians under the heading of “Philosophy” But this may give the reader a misleading impression, unless he understands the place which philosophy held in the ancient world. From what he knows of the writings of its twentieth-century [C.E.] exponents, he is unlikely to conclude that its chief aim and end is the attainment of personal virtue. This, he imagines, is the province of religion, not of philosophy. But in classical times things were different. Morality, the good life, man’s relations with the gods—all these were the domain of the philosopher, not the priest. Roman religion in the Imperial age had no concern with moral problems. Its business was simply the performance of such appropriate rites as would ensure the gods’ protection for the State, or avert the effects of their displeasure. It was a formal system of public ceremonies carried out by State officials, and provided no answers to the doubts and difficulties of human souls. Yet then, as now, men found themselves perplexed by the great questions that are the common concern of us all. What is the composition of this universe around us, and how did it come into being? Is it ordered by blind chance, or a wise Providence? If gods exist, do they interest themselves in mortal affairs? What is the nature of man, and his duty here, and his destiny hereafter? It was not the priests but the philosophers who claimed to supply the answers to such inquiries. Their answers, it is true, were not unanimous; there were rival systems of philosophy, and each proffered its own solution (as, for that matter, the different world-religions of our own day still do); But all were agreed that the sole right to pronounce with authority in the fields of metaphysics, theology, and ethics belonged to philosophy.
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