Reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is an exercise in frustration, if only because about 50% of them are so bloody good while the other half just screams for a mind like Straton’s to take apart all the ungrounded assumptions.
Now, to be fair, Straton also occasionally seems to assume the existence of gods, though with the Ancient Greeks it’s always hard to tell whether they mean gods literally or metaphorically, and the evidence in Straton’s case points towards a thinking that’s closer to Einstein’s idea of God than to regular theism.
But Marcus Aurelius, man, he just takes all of ethics for granted! When he’s talking about materialism he can be brilliant, even chilling, especially when he’s talking about his own place in history, how transient everything is – a fact we can confirm just by looking up Roman history in Wikipedia – and sometimes he’ll drop fantastic lines like this:
Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.
But then he doesn’t observe his own advice! He makes broad generalizations about what is natural and what is good without ever providing some sort of logic to back this up. (Appeals to what is “natural” generally get my hackles up, since the concept is utterly vague. We’re the products of nature, are we not natural? Is not everything we do natural?)
And there’s a, well, a kind of Buddhist oh-well-just-think-about-your-own-virtue kind of attitude to a lot of it, a concern with the self rather than with society, which lends itself perfectly to upholding the status quo. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor, after all, and his “blameless character and temperate way of life” (Herodotus) didn’t exactly contribute to the future of Roman civilization.
Still highly recommended reading, of course. I’m just bitching, as one does.