‘Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you’: Marcus Aurelius, reflective practitioner. Reflective Practice. 10.4 (2009): 429-436. Part 2

As outlined above, many of the sections of each book are epigrammatic and abstract. This is frustrating for the historian, for the personal diary of a Roman Emperor is, one would imagine, a priceless primary source. It also makes it difficult to identify which, if any, specific incidents may have inspired ‘awareness of unsettling thoughts’, and the subsequent critical analysis as outlined in Raw et al.’s (2005) model. Many of the sections are general moral reflections, exhortations to the self to live up to one’s own standards. Phrases such as ‘always remember’ recur some 40 times over the course of the text.
Some sections deal directly with his role as ruler:

Take heed not to be transformed into a Caesar, not to be dipped in the purple dye, for it does happen. Keep yourself therefore, simple, good, pure, grave, unaffected, the friend of justice, religious, kind, affectionate, strong for your proper work. Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you. Reverence the gods, save men. Life is brief; there is but one harvest of earthly existence, a holy disposition and neighborly acts. In all things like a pupil of Antoninus; his energy on behalf of what was done in accord with reason, his equability everywhere, his serene expression, his sweetness, his disdain of glory, his ambition to grasp affairs. (Book VI, Section 30)
This section is full of imperatives – ‘take heed’, ‘keep yourself’, ‘wrestle to be the man’, ‘reverence’ – before returning to the example of his foster father and imperial predecessor. This recurs often in the Meditations. As outlined above, the first book of the Meditations is different in tone and structure from the others, being a catalogue of people to whom Marcus is grateful, and what he is grateful for. By some distance the longest of these sections is on Antoninus. Thus it could be considered that Antoninus became for Marcus an ideal Emperor to be emulated, as close as one could get to the Stoic ‘sage.’ The section quoted immediately above continues:

Also, how he let nothing at all pass without first looking well into it and understanding it clearly; how he would suffer those who blamed him unjustly, not blaming them in return; how he refused to entertain slander; how exactly he scrutinised men’s characters and actions, was not given to reproach, not alarmed by rumour, not suspicious, not affecting to be wise; how he was content with little, in lodging, in his bed, in dress, in food, in service, how he loved work and was long‐suffering.
Thus Antoninus reflected the Stoic conception of virtue. As a reflective practitioner, Marcus returned the examples of Antonius and of the virtue of ‘philosophy’ as touchstones. One could consider that they provide the framework for critical analysis of the situations Marcus was faced with that provoked reflective thought. Not surprisingly, another repeated theme is that it is possible to live a philosophical life as an Emperor. It was often felt that philosophy and the eminence that went with being Emperor were diametrically opposed. Some of this attitude derived from philosophers – it was the view of the Epicureans that involvement in public affairs inevitably brought pain. Political actors, too, were often disdainful of philosophy – the view of Agrippina, Nero’s mother, as reported in Suetonius, was that philosophy was a hindrance to a future ruler (cited in Rutherford, 1989b, p. 178).
Marcus often returns to this topic:

As are your repeated imaginations so will your soul be, for the soul is dyed by its imaginations. Dye it, then, in a succession of imaginations like these: for instance, where it is possible to live, there also it is possible to live well: but it is possible to live in a palace, therefore it is also possible to live well in a palace. (Book V, Section 16)
This tension was obviously one of the main preoccupations of Marcus. As outlined above, self‐improvement was key to Stoic practice, and as Emperor clearly the pressures of affairs seemed to militate against this. Marcus uses a maternal metaphor to reconcile himself to this tension:
Had you a step‐mother and a mother at the same time, you would wait upon the former but still be continually returning to your mother. This is now what the palace and your philosophy are to you. Return to her again and again, and set up your rest in her, on whose account that other life appears tolerable to you and you tolerable in it. (Book VI, Section 12)
It is noteworthy that at the end of this section Marcus accuses himself – looking beyond difficulty in the court to difficulties in his inner self. Immersion in his ‘mother’, philosophy, will make him ‘tolerable’ in the world of the court. Therefore we see Marcus repeatedly reflecting on his role as Emperor, and trying to see beyond his immediate reactions and frustrations.
Another saying is also significant, as it sees Marcus going beyond this tension to identify his role as being ideally suited for philosophical practice:

How vividly it strikes you that no other calling in life is so fitted for the practice of philosophy as this in which you now find yourself. (Book XI, Section 7)
To return to Tight’s (1998) concern with the potential of imposed reflective practice to become a stale chore, within the professions it is important not only that reflective practice occur, but that it be seen to occur. Reflective diaries that can be read and scrutinised, supervision sessions that can be counted and minuted – all ultimately for the sake of proving that reflection exists. Marcus Aurelius wrote what would later become known as his Meditations without any external compulsion. There was no authority demanding evidence of reflective practice.
Furthermore, some of the pressures that Marcus describes of sheer busy‐ness leading to a tension between the workaday world of administrating the empire and the reflective work of philosophy are obviously familiar to practitioners today. While reflective practice is increasingly popular amongst medical professionals, it is still viewed with a certain amount of reserve by many. The tendency is to see it as a luxury, at best an optional extra, at worst a distraction from ‘real work.’ Marcus’Meditations show that this tension has always been with us, and that Marcus himself drew strength and support from philosophical practice.
It will strike some readers as ironic that I am using a Roman Emperor as an example and exemplar of a reflective practitioner. Marcus presided over mass slavery and the persecution of Christians. He was not simply an imperialist – he was Empire. It may seem ludicrous to describe being Emperor as a profession in the same sense we use it when discussing contemporary reflective practice in health care or in other areas. Whatever the power of the professions, few professionals have anything like the power of a Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus himself, however, reminds us repeatedly of his humanity and our common humanity with him. He does not refer to even the most virtuous emperors as divine, writing that:

In the first place, be not troubled, for all things are according to Universal Nature, and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere, even as Hadrian and Augustus are no more. (Book VIII, Section 5)
The Marcus that emerges is not saintly or otherworldly – as Rutherford remarks in the introduction to his edition of theMeditations, ‘from his own words we can deduce that he often found it hard to restrain his temper, and hence that the many references to anger in the Meditations are not merely conventional’ (Rutherford, 1989b, p. xvii). Many of the values that were universally held in his society are repugnant to us today. Nevertheless, he emerges from the Meditations as a man reflecting on his work and striving to improve it and himself – a model of the reflective practitioner.
One could identify certain characteristics of his writings that may be useful to other reflective practitioners. For instance, he uses Antoninus as a role model and returns repeatedly to his example. Thus, modelling effective practitioners, often suggested as a framework for professional reflective practice, has a precedent. He also demonstrates great personal commitment to his reflective practice, and works within the framework of his overall philosophical approach to life. He also manages to identify the tensions between his imperial role and philosophical inclinations and, while acknowledging them, comes to see how these roles are complementary.

REFERENCES

  • 1. Brunt, P.A. 1974. Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations. Journal of Roman Studies, 64: 1–20.
  • 2. Epictetus. 1928. The discourses as reported by Arrian, the manual, and fragments, Edited by: Oldfather, W.A. Harvard, MA: Loeb Classics.
  • 3. Foucault, M. 1984. The history of sexuality: Volume 3 – The care of the self, London: Penguin Books.
  • 4. Gibbon, E. 2000. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Edited by: Wormesley, D. Harmondsworth, , UK: Penguin.
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  • 10. Raw, J., Brigden, D. and Gupta, R. 2005. Reflective diaries in medical practice. Reflective Practice, 6(1): 165–169.
  • 11. Rutherford, R.B. 1989a. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus: A study, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • 12. Rutherford, R.B. and Farquharson, A.S.L., eds. 1989b. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • 13. Schön, D. 1987. The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action, New York: Basic Books.
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  • 15. Tight, M. 1998. Lifelong learning: Opportunity or compulsion?. British Journal of Educational Studies, 46(3): 251–263.[Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®]
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