Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Live A Good Life": About that totally bogus Marcus Aurelius quote that has been floating around

The image is a bust of Caracalla by Bartolomeo Cavaceppi.
Anyone who is familiar with the ancient Stoic philosophers knows that they were staunch defenders of traditional religion, including especially the worship of the traditional Gods and Goddesses and the dutiful enactment of rituals and other outward expressions of the ancient Pagan cults.

In particular, central to the Stoic conception of "the good life" is piety toward the Goddesses and Gods.

This pious attitude concerning the Gods is expressed very clearly and frequently in our two most important primary sources on Stoicism: the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Discourses of Epictetus, as well as in our most extensive source of information concerning Stoic views of religion: Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods (although a Platonist, Cicero is considered a very accurate source of information on Stoicism, and was especially sympathetic to Stoic views on religion).

We can also examine the works of Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus, the early founders of Stoicism, thanks to the work of P.A. Meijer who has collected together, translated and commented upon the remaining fragments of their writings on religious subjects in his masterful book "Stoic Theology". Meijer makes it very clear that the earliest Stoics strongly asserted that both "veneration" (the performance of traditional worship) and "piety" (the proper attitude toward the Gods) were essential to living well.


Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, online:

Epictetus' Discourses, online:

Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods (translated by P.G. Walsh):

P.A. Meijer's Stoic Theology:

18th century bust of Caracalla by Bartolomeo Cavaceppi at the Getty Museum:

Various sightings of the bogus Marcus Aurelius quote from around teh internets (often found in people's "signature block"):
Oct 14th 2009

August 24, 2007

June 14, 2007



6 October 2003


betoquintas said...

closest quote simillar to the bogus:
Undertake each action as one aware he may next moment depart out of life. To depart from men, if there be really Gods, can have nothing terrible in it. The Gods will involve you in no evil. If there are no Gods, or, if they have no regard to human affairs, why should I desire to live in a world without Gods, and without providence? But Gods there are, undoubtedly, and they regard human affairs; and have put it wholly in our power, that we should not fall into what is * truly evil.

Sionnach Gorm said...

Owing to the pervasivness of this quote, and the penchant many otherwise sensible folks have for quoting it, I wrote about this last June.

Maybe if more Pagans actually read the authors they are supposed to be quoting, this misattribution wouldn't still be floating around.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Roberto: yes I think that quote is the closest one will find in Marcus' actual writings. To my mind there is a very significant difference between what he says here and what is attributed to him in the bogus quote.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Gorm: thanks for that link. In a follow-up post I plan to put together a list other posts, like yours, that have also identified this quote as bogus (including, if I can find it again, the post that clued me in to the correct identity of the image of Caracalla that often accompanies this bogus quote).

Anonymous said...

who cares its a brilliant statement whoever came up with it. GET A LIFE

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Dear Anonymous,

In the first place, someone "cared" enough to claim that the quote comes from Marcus Aurelius. Maybe you do not care about this, but those who claim it is from Marcus obviously do think that it makes a difference, otherwise they would not bother to make that claim. And their claim is wrong.

In the second place, the quote is not at all "brilliant". To put it in very plainly, the quote is bullshit, and it grossly misreprsents Stoic philosophy.

The Stoics held piety to be among the most important of the virtues. But this bogus quote claims that it doesn't matter "how devout you are". This directly contradicts Marcus' beliefs and Stoicism generally.

R. Hawkins said...

It doesn't matter who said it, who is credited with it or whether it's Stoic or not. It's simply a "right" way of looking at life (IMO).

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Robert, Anyone who doesn't understand enough about Stoic philosophy to immediately recognize that the attribution to Marcus is completely ridiculous is essentially devoid of even the slightest understanding of the most basic facts of Western intellectual culture. Such ignorance obviously doesn't bother a lot of people, but I am proud not to be one of them.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm fishing around trying to get opinions on the authenticity of another widespread Marcus Aurelius quote, it goes like this:

"Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth".

Does that sound genuine?

(I also posted this question at, found the link on this page)

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Anonymous,
It's not an actual quote, but rather a very loose and somewhat misleading paraphrase of something that Marcus actually did write. I say it is misleading because Marcus, as a Stoic, did believe that the human mind is capable of directly and accurately perceiving objective reality as it really is. In fact, this is a pretty fundamental Stoic concept.

In at least one place in the Meditations, Book 2 section XIII, Marcus appears to attribute the quote that "all is opinion" to the Cynic philosopher Monimus, and Marcus gives a qualified endorsement to this "as far as it is true." Here is a link:

In Book 12, Marcus states "remember that all is opinion" without attributing it to anyone else, but then just a few lines later he exhorts "see what things are in themselves", which clearly assumes that the mind is capable of seeing past mere "opinion" and directly perceiving objective truth. Here is a link to that book:

Unknown said...

Caracalla's name was changed at age 7 to Marcus Aurelius Septimius Bassianus Antoninus to create a connection to the family of the late emperor. So technically, it is a picture of Marcus Aurelius. Just the wrong Marcus Aurelius.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Sam - thanks for that fascinating tidbit!

@advokat.dyavola on Instagram said...

This is a real quote. It comes from Atheism: A Philosophical Justification by Michael Martin, and is called the Atheist's Wager. It's his answer to Pascal's Wager, which states:


I personally side with Marin on this one.

Anonymous said...

Ok, someone find me an original photograph of Marcus Aurelius. We'll be sure to use that in the next meme so this guy wont have a cow.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Anyone with any passing familiarity with antiquity would immediately recognize the most well known image of Marcus, executed during his lifetime - and would also immediately recognize that the image in question, the bust of Caracalla, bears very little resemblance to Marcus.

eddiecoyote said...

Good post by Massimo here...

"It seems clear that Marcus Aurelius believed in god(s). It is possible to rationalize some of his generic references to them as not necessarily reflecting faith, but rather a generic piety. This one, for instance: “To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good.” (I.17).

But in other places he is pretty explicit, here for instance: “Since it is possible that you might depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly. But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve you in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, why would I wish to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But in truth they do exist, and they do care for human things, and they have put all the means in man’s power to enable him not to fall into real evils.” (II.11)"

The rest is found at this link:

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi eddiecoyote - thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

I don't think that one can really conclude that Marcus believed that "it doesn’t matter whether the universe is governed by a providential divinity (in whatever form) or by random chaos (as the Epicureans thought)."

When he argues like that, Marcus is employing a very popular (and powerful) type of rhetorical strategy where one demonstrates that even using one's opponents own logic and assumptions one still reaches the same conclusion.

There is absolutely no room for any doubt whatsoever that the Stoics worshipped the traditional Gods of the Greco-Roman world. Of course their understanding of the Gods, and of religious matters generally, was far more subtle and sophisticated than that of the average Pagan-in-the-street. But Marcus and other Pagan philosophers were just as pious as Christian philosophers are. If we accept that Augustine and Aquinas "believe" in the same God as the average ignorant Christian, then we should also accept that Socrates, Marcus, etc, also believed in the same Gods as their fellow less-intellectually-inclined Pagans.

It is a testament to the great appeal of Stoicism that people want to project their own beliefs (or lack thereof) onto the Stoics. But we should allow the Stoics to speak for themselves, and they unanimously and unambiguously assert their belief in the traditional Gods.