Marcus Aurelius and the Education of the Brain

Marcus_AureliusMarcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 CE. In many ways, Marcus Aurelius was the epitome of what Plato proposed as the “Philosopher King.” According to Plato, only kings that were also philosophers would be able to create an ideal city-state. Marcus Aurelius was exactly that: a Philosopher King.

This article looks at the teachings of Marcus Aurelius from the Back-to-the-Body Perspective. The writings of Marcus Aurelius are chock-full of insights on how to educate the brain, in such a way that the brain will serve the will of the stomach and the purpose of the heart. Certainly those writings need to be complemented by the education of the stomach and the education of the heart; still, one can gain much from what Marcus Aurelius has to say.

Living by the Brain that Follows the Will and the Purpose

In The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius states the following:

From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason. (The Meditations. iBooks.)

In this one passage, the Philosopher King stresses the three elements of human personality, namely, stomach, brain, and heart (click here for an explanation of the meaning of these metonymies), as follows:

  • Freedom of will: this has to do with the “stomach”;
  • Steadiness of purpose: this has to do with “heart”;
  • Reason: this has to do with “brain.”

Deviation comes when a “brain” begins to set its own purpose instead of receiving a purpose from the will. This happens in ideology. When people allow themselves to become influenced by an ideology, they shut down their will and heart and begin to act on the basis of the ideology. Even though their will revolts and their heart screams, they shut everything down and just follow the ideology. What will be the result of all this? The result will be destruction.

Hence, a better way of life is to keep a clear will, which comes from life itself, and then set a purpose of the heart based on that will. Thus, we maintain the sensitivity of the heart.

Sensitivity of the Heart

Sentivite_HeartMarcus Aurelius offers advice on how to maintain a sensitive heart. For example, to help people improve their grammatical expression without offending them with a correction, he offers the following way:

From Alexander the grammarian, [I learned] to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion. (The Meditations. iBooks.)

This shows the extent to which he endeavored to live his life in a sensitive way to everyone. Here is another example on how to maintain a sensitive heart by avoiding a feeling of harm:

Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away. (The Meditations. iBooks.)

Once again, we see how Marcus Aurelius uses the brain to serve the purpose of maintaining harmony with everyone.

Strength of Stomach

Marcus Aurelius also has advice on how to maintain one’s own strength. In the following passage, for example, he show a way to act in a pure and just way:

How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure; or as Agathon says, look not round at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along the line without deviating from it. (The Meditations. iBooks.)

In the Back-to-the-Body Perspective, “stomach” has to do with what we do. And we can do better by worrying less about what people do and think, and instead focusing more on doing well ourselves.

Maintaining Balance

BalanceWe can see, then, that the Back-to-the-Body Perspective can be fleshed out by The Meditations, written by the Philosopher King Marcus Aurelius. In other words, there is much work that has already been done in terms of ideas and education. What is needed is to maintain a good balance of the three aspects of the personality: the stomach, the brain, and the heart. The stomach has a will; the heart sets a purpose based on the stomach’s will; and the brain follows that purpose through reason. And all is well.

I conclude with a quote:

O! now men bound together in fellowship did not so lightly forsake one another; they no longer wandered adrift among one another like sand in the storm of the wilderness; nor did youth and age mock each other; nor did the stranger lack a host; and compatriots never again isolated themselves from one another; and lovers never again lost pleasure in each other; by your wellsprings, nature, they refreshed themselves. (Friedrich Hölderlin. Hyperion. iBooks.)

Paulo-Juarez Pereira
August 1, 2014 (Getting ready to see a soccer game between Real Madrid and Manchester United in Ann Arbor, Michigan)
Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA

Photo Credits
Picture: Marcus Aurelius
Author: Erik Drost
Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Picture: Awaken Love
Author: Janice Magracia
Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Picture: Balance
Author: Kristy Hom
Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


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