Disjunctions and Natural Philosophy in Marcus Aurelius

Classical Quarterly 69 (2):858-879 (2019)
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Abstract

In hisMeditations, Marcus Aurelius repeatedly presents a disjunction between two conceptions of the natural world. Either the universe is ruled by providence or there are atoms. At 4.3, we find perhaps its most succinct statement: ἀνανεωσάμενος τὸ διεζευγμένον τό⋅ ἤτοι πρόνοια ἢ ἄτομοι (recall the disjunction: either providence or atoms). The formulation of the disjunction differs; at 7.32, being composed of atoms is contrasted with a stronger sort of unity (ἕνωσις) that may survive death. In 10.6 and 11.18 Marcus simply offers φύσις (nature, construed in the Stoic manner as providentialist and causally efficacious) in opposition. On the surface, the contrast between the theory of atomism and the acceptance of providence seems to not warrant the term ‘disjunction’; it seems possible to accept both atomism and a causally determined providential universe. Yet, it is agreed on all sides, in the recent literature, that the relevant contrast for Marcus is not between the atomist and the non-atomist views of the constitution of the natural world as such but between two entailments that follow from the atomist Epicurean and the non-atomist Stoic advocacy of these positions. The contrast is between the providential ordering of the Stoic universe and the chaotic chance-ridden Epicurean model.

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Benjamin Harriman
University of Edinburgh

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