The Victorian Marcus Aurelius: Mill, Arnold, and the Appeal of the Quasi-Christian

Document Type


Publication Date


Journal / Book Title

Journal of Victorian Culture


For John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, and their later Victorian respondents, the Stoic writer and second-century CE Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius represented a test-case for the sufficiency of the ostensibly masculine practices of askesis and detachment as ethical ideals, specifically in the context of Christianity. A brief passage in Mill's On Liberty (1859) comparing Stoic ethics with Christian ethical practice provoked an extended response from Arnold in an 1863 review essay. Mill and Arnold both used comparisons with Christianity to trace the contours and to explore the limits of Marcus Aurelius's ‘lovable’ nature; in doing so, Arnold in particular enacted a peculiar kind of historical sympathy for both the Marcus Aurelius that was and for a missed rapprochement between classical and Christian ethics. For a series of later writers, including freethinkers, religious conservatives and liberal Christians, Marcus Aurelius either promised or threatened to reconcile Stoicism with Christianity. Assessing the emperor in the light of Christianity became a means both for producing or denying a link to the classical past and for describing the condition of Christianity in England. A key point of contention for these writers and a landmark in the broader debate over Victorian secularization was the question of Marcus Aurelius' role in the torture and killing of 48 Christians at Lugdunum (Lyons) in 177 CE.



Journal ISSN / Book ISBN

1355-5502, 1750-0133 (electronic)

Published Citation

Behlman, Lee. “The Victorian Marcus Aurelius: Mill, Arnold, and the Appeal of the Quasi-Christian.” Journal of Victorian Culture, vol. 16, no. 1, Apr. 2011, pp. 1–24.