In a 1992 interview Gary Wills asked Bill Clinton what book had most profoundly influenced him. Clinton’s reply was the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, an answer which amazed Wills; for, as he comments, the Meditations is a work ‘that turns its readers continually inward and warns against frittering oneself away in externals. This is not an easy influence to trace in Clinton’s career.’ 1 In a follow-up piece, written in the wake of the Starr report, Wills further points out that the author of Clinton’s favourite book ‘didn’t think much of sex’. 2 The American president is by no means alone in his improbable appreciation of the moral and religious advice jotted down by a second-century Roman emperor for his own guidance. When Penguin Books recently celebrated its 60th anniversary by publishing 60 short books at 60p each, they included a selection from Marcus Aurelius which turned out to be one of the bestsellers on the list. The high regard in which the Meditations are now held has made it the most widely known document of ancient Stoicism in the modern world, 3 outstripping both the Enchiridion of the former slave Epictetus and the moral treatises of Seneca, not to mention the many ancient Stoic works which survive only in fragments. But the Meditations did not achieve this prominent position among ancient Stoic writings until the second half of the seventeenth century. My aim in this article is to tell the story of Marcus Aurelius’s rise to philosophical fame. In keeping with the theme of the present volume, humanist erudition will be a crucial element in the plot.
For fifteenth- and sixteenth-century scholars the most important Stoic authors were Seneca and Epictetus—Cicero, though full of useful information about Stoicism, was regarded as a fellow-traveller rather than a paid-up member of the sect. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are noticeably absent from the Renaissance canon of Stoic authorities. This is readily explained by the very different transmission
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Publication information: Book title: Humanism and Early Modern Philosophy. Contributors: Jill Kraye - Editor, M. W.F. Stone - Editor. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 2000. Page number: 107.
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