Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Marcus Aurelius and source checking

"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones." -  Marcus Aurelius

I really do love this quote, and agree with the sentiment it espouses. Virtue for the sake of virtue is something anyone can aspire towards, and is one of the central principals of virtue ethics. That one can attain immortality of sorts through memory of ones descendants is something I do agree with.  There is a problem however; there is no indication that Marcus Aurelius ever said anything of the sort. Rather, there are at least two dead giveaways within the quote which betray that he would not have written it.

I'll start with the first one, Marcus Aurelius was a devout polytheist and there is no indication in his thoughts about doubting the existence of the gods, (II.11, trans. Martin Hammond). A great deal of his thoughts were centered on the role the gods played in the affairs of men. So it would be difficult to believe, that despite his very apparent devotion and certitude which is presented throughout the entirety of "The Meditations", he would have qualms about the existence of gods.

Secondly and perhaps the more obvious of the two "tells", is that the quote implies that living on in the memories of your loved ones is something to aspire to, through leading a virtuous life. He dismisses this notion outright, to quote but a few:

"Everything material rapidly disappears in the universal substance; every cause is rapidly taken up into the universal reason; and the memory of everything is rapidly buried in eternity." (VII.10, trans. Martin Hammond)

"Soon you will have forgotten all things: soon all things will have forgotten you." (VII.21, trans. Martin Hammond)

"Turn it inside out and see what it is like, what it becomes in age, sickness and death. Life is short both for praiser and praised, for the remembering and the remembered. And this, moreover, in just a cranny of one continent: even here not all are attuned to each other, or even an individual to himself. And the whole earth is a mere point in space." (VIII.21, trans. Martin Hammond)

The notion that memories (or fame) as a basis for action is something he rejects quite unequivocally.

And herein is the problem with not cross checking your sources to see if the person you are quoting, actually said what you're attributing to them. Even a quick Google search will turn up the fact that the quote is uncertain in origin, and only mistakenly attributed to Marcus Aurelius.

A little due diligence goes a long way.


  1. This is satire, right? I mean it's hilarious either way, but I hope for your sake that it's satire.

  2. No, it is not meant to be satire. The fact of the matter is that there really is no evidence that Aurelius can be accredited with the quote above.

    I did provide a few references from "the Meditations" to show why, from Aurelius's own writings, attributing it to him makes no sense; the sentiment espoused in the quote is wholly rejected.

    I am wondering, however, why you think this is written in a satirical manner?

  3. Thank you for posting this, found it during my own due diligence. I appreciate that you took the time to write this out to share with the rest of us.

  4. Actually, that seems to be where most of my blog's traffic comes from. Which is, if nothing else, interesting for a one off post.

    Thank you for your compliment.

  5. The earliest Internet citation (to anyone) I’ve found for this quote was a signature on a 2004-02-25 comment on the white supremacist site Stormfront.org by “MrsBadger88” of Central NC. Google Books turns up no print citations at all prior to that date.

  6. Well said, however it's not inconceivable to attribute a good life for your love one's memories while simultaneously dash all memories for the end times. Two frames of reference for time are being attributed as one here.

    1. It isn't anything to do with any sort of eschatological narrative, only that memories are fleeting, and as such no basis for ethical behaviour. Therefore the idea of him exhorting "legacy" as a means to induce ethical behaviour is contradictory to a position he states quite emphatically, and throughout "Meditations".

    2. Hi
      Here's another quote widely attributed to Aurelius, would like to get your view:
      "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.
      Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth."
      (End quote)

      Does that sound authentic?

    3. 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 the above question at egregores - http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=7817911217098974229&postID=8949512032690576368&page=1&token=1388328524165, where I found the link to your page)


  7. To be perfectly honest, no, it does not sound like something Aurelius would have been likely to have said; though despite this particular post being held as authoritative, I am no scholar nor authority of Marcus Aurelius.

    Having said that, my suggestion would be to read "Meditations", and see for yourself.

  8. A similar argument to the misquote can (apparently) be found in (Martin, Michael (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Temple University Press. pp. 232–238) which forms it as the Atheist's Wager.


    I haven't read it but it doesn't seem to mention the part about unjust gods.