Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

May 9, 2022

Meditations
Marcus Aurelius
Adapted by George Chrystal from the 1742 Foulis translation
(Walter J. Black, 1941) [c.180]
120 p.

Marcus Aurelius, he of the golden name and the laudable reputation, has for me always had something of an aura, as it were, about him. Even the terse title of his famous book promised something sturdy and placid, something on which to sit and rest myself. I am happy to have finally made the time for it.

It is rare to have a book, especially one of this kind, written by a man of such eminence. He was Roman emperor, the most powerful man in the world he knew, yet his book is not about conquest or war or even greatness in any worldly sense. It is a book about the interior life, for the most part: about virtue, and the good life, and preparing for death, and learning to be happy. He wrote it for himself.

It is an aphoristic book. Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time as emperor on the road, in the field of battle, and it seems he jotted down his thoughts when he had a fleeting opportunity to do so. The book it most reminded me of, at least structurally, was Pascal’s Pensées. Not the least of its merits is that it stands as a reproach to those of us who think we’re “too busy” to do something worthwhile.

Because of its fractured format, it’s a good book to dip into, and a difficult one to summarize. Today my aim is simply to pluck at a few dominant ideas that I noticed, and to preserve for my own benefit some passages that struck me as especially worthy.

***

Much of the book is occupied with the question of what constitutes good character. Let’s start with an extended sketch that he gives early in his meditations when he is recounting what he learned from various mentors and exemplars:

The counsels of Maximus taught me to command myself, to judge clearly, to be of good courage in sickness and other misfortunes, to be moderate, gentle, yet serious in disposition, and to accomplish my appointed task without repining. All men believed that he spoke as he thought; and whatever he did, they knew it was done with good intent. I never found him surprised or astonished at anything. He was never in a hurry, never shrank from his purpose, was never at a loss or dejected. He was no facile smiler, but neither was he passionate or suspicious. He was ready to do good, to forgive, and to speak the truth, and gave the impression of unperverted rectitude rather than of a reformed character. No man could ever think himself despised by Maximus, and no one ever ventured to think himself his superior. He had also a good gift of humour.

There we have a winsome and compelling portrait of a good man; who would not wish to be spoken of in such a way? One of the character traits in this sketch is integrity: to be what one appears to be, to be candid and honest in one’s dealings with people, to say what one means. This is a matter that comes up frequently throughout the book, and is expressed in different ways. For instance, he tells us that we should

Never esteem aught of advantage which will oblige you to break your faith, or to desert your honour; to hate, to suspect, or to execrate any man; to play a part; or to set your mind on anything that needs to be hidden by wall or curtain. (III.7)

Or, again,

If you discharge your present duty with firm and zealous, yet kindly, observance of the laws of reason; if you regard no by-gains, but keep pure within you your immortal part, as if obliged to restore it at once to him who gave it; if you hold to this with no further desires or aversions, and be content with the natural discharge of your present task, and with the heroic sincerity of all you say or utter, you will live well. And herein no man can hinder you. (III.12)

It might be that certain jealous or envious people will cast aspersions at a man who lives thus candidly before the world, ascribing to him secret hidden motives that he does not have, but this, says Marcus, is nothing to be concerned about:

Though others may not believe that he lives thus in simplicity, modesty, and contentment, he neither takes this unbelief amiss from any one, nor quits the road which leads to the true end of life, at which he ought to arrive pure, calm, ready to take his departure, and accommodated without compulsion to his fate. (III.16)

This is appealing to me; here is something to aspire to. But I fear, on good grounds, that I would fail, as I have failed at lesser challenges. A charge open to Marcus, as it is open to anyone who sets up an ideal, is that it is unrealistic: people just aren’t that good. We are all hobbled by various weaknesses and corruptions. This side of things is muted in the book, but not absent. At one point, for instance, he offers counsel on how to resist the lure of avarice:

Dwell not on what you lack so much as on what you have already. Select the best of what you have, and consider how passionately you would have longed for it had it not been yours. Yet be watchful, lest by this joy in what you have you accustom yourself to value it too highly; so that, if it should fail, you would be distressed. (VII.27)

This is a kind of therapy for temptation and weakness of will. In another place he offers advice to those who, though trying to live in accordance with reason — a Stoic ideal — find that they have fallen into error:

Remember that to change your course, and to follow any man who can set you right is no compromise of your freedom. The act is your own, performed on your own impulse and judgment, and according to your own understanding. (VIII.16)

To be in error is a fault, but to discover an error is an opportunity to exercise both freedom and gratitude. But he goes beyond even such rosy therapies and glass-half-full ruminations once or twice:

This your suffering is well merited, for you would rather become good to-morrow than be good to-day. (VIII.22)

I would bet that St Augustine read Marcus Aurelius.

**

Marcus had to deal with difficult people — not just irritating people, but people scheming against him for something, and perhaps in the grip of a particular vice. We all have to do this from time to time, according to our state in life. Marcus has some counsel for such situations.

Say this to yourself in the morning: Today I shall have to do with meddlers, with the ungrateful, with the insolent, with the crafty, with the envious and the selfish. All these vices have beset them, because they know not what is good and what is evil. But I have considered the nature of the good, and found it beautiful: I have beheld the nature of the bad, and found it ugly. I also understand the nature of the evil-doer, and know that he is my brother, not because he shares with me the same blood or the same seed, but because he is a partaker of the same mind and of the same portion of immortality. I therefore cannot be hurt by any of these, since none of them can involve me in any baseness. I cannot be angry with my brother, or sever myself from him, for we are made by nature for mutual assistance, like the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth. (II.1)

There are a few ideas here: evildoers don’t know what they are doing, not truly; evil committed against me cannot hurt me, not truly; my own good is consonant with, rather than opposed to, the good of others. Each is debatable, of course, but each is important to Marcus’ way of seeing things. As to the last point, for instance, he cites (or coins) a neat aphorism: “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee. (VI.54)”.

The notion that a good man cannot be harmed by others comes up again and again. At times it is expressed metaphysically:

Material things cannot touch the soul at all, nor have any access to it: neither can they bend or move it. The soul is bent or moved by itself alone, and remodels all things that present themselves from without in accordance with whatever judgment it adopts within. (V.19)

The mind can convert and change everything that impedes its activity into matter for its action; hindrance in its work becomes its real help, and every obstruction makes for its progress. (V.20)

At other times it is stated in moral terms:

Let any one say or do what he pleases, I must be a good man. It is just as gold, or emeralds, or purple might say continually: “Let men do or say what they please, I must be an emerald, and retain my lustre.” (VII.15)

Or, conversely,

The sinner sins against himself. The wrong-doer wrongs himself by making himself evil. (IX.4)

Socrates used to say something very much like this, and there is a kernel of hard truth in it. I may be made to suffer for my integrity, but so long as I’m willing to undergo that suffering, so long as I value my integrity more than I fear the suffering, I cannot be compelled to forsake it. This is a stern moralism, but attractive. Consistently, Marcus counsels us to aim, in freedom, at what is right according to justice, and accept the consequences.

In the present matter what is the soundest that can be done or said? For, whatever that may be, you are at liberty to do or say it. Make no excuses as if hindered. You will never cease from groaning until your disposition is such that what luxury is to men of pleasure, that to you is doing what is suitable to the constitution of man on every occasion that is thrown or falls in your way. You should regard as enjoyment everything which you are at liberty to do in accordance with your own proper nature; and this liberty you have everywhere. (X.33)

We are to look at what is intrinsically right, without regard to extrinsic factors like approbation, reward, or suffering. Keep your eye on the ball. He is especially keen to discount the importance of rewards for good deeds. No doubt he was surrounded by sycophants seeking an imperial back scratch for services rendered, but he would have none of it:

When you have done a kind action, another has benefited. Why do you, like the fools, require some third thing in addition—a reputation for benevolence or a return for it? (VII.73)

Instead, he sketches for us an ideal to contrast with the fool:

Some men, when they have done you a favour, are very ready to reckon up the obligation they have conferred. Others, again, are not so forward in their claims, but yet in their minds consider you their debtor, and well know the value of what they have done. A third sort seem to be unconscious of their service. They are like the vine, which produces its clusters and is satisfied when it has yielded its proper fruit. The horse when he has run his course, the hound when he has followed the track, the bee when it has made its honey, and the man when he has done good to others, make no noisy boast of it, but set out to do the same once more, as the vine in its season produces its new clusters again. “Should we, then, be among those who in a manner know not what they do?” Assuredly. (V.6)

This is a matter that I’ve often thought about. I’m a person who, on those rare occasions when I do some good for a friend, does not expect anything in return. The matter is forgotten. Likewise, when someone does me a good turn, I don’t feel any pressing obligation to return the favour. I am grateful; I say ‘thank you’; and then I move on. I don’t keep accounts, for better or for worse. This can be irritating to my wife, who is much more sensitive to the intricacies of obligation and debt. But I am in agreement with Marcus on this point; I do what I see as my duty, or as right, and why should I place another under a debt for doing so? And when I receive a good from someone, can I not receive it as a gift, or must it place me under some obligation to reciprocate? Well, it is simpler, at least, to be as the horse, the hound, and the bee.

Wrapped up in Marcus’ counsel that we should simply do the right thing is his belief that we should not particularly care about the outcome. We do our part, he says, and the rest is not up to us.

Try to persuade men to agree with you; but whether they agree or not, pursue the course you have marked out when the principles of justice point that way. Should one oppose you by force, act with resignation, and shew not that you are hurt, use the obstruction for the exercise of some other virtue, and remember that your purpose involved the reservation that you were not to aim at impossibilities. What, after all, was your aim? To make some good effort such as this. Well, then, you have succeeded, even though your first purpose be not accomplished. (VI.50)

We encroach here on the Stoic belief that we should strive for detachment from success, fame, and wealth. Instead, we should accept, in humility and simplicity, whatever happens, be it good or bad by conventional standards of judgment. Such things — merely external things that happen to us — are of no ultimate importance:

Now death and life, glory and reproach, pain and pleasure, riches and poverty—all these happen equally to the good and to the bad. But, as they are neither honourable nor shameful, they are therefore neither good nor evil. (II.11)

When under the sway of our passions, we grow attached to things that are transitory and bound to pass away. We want things to be this way, and not that way. But this is a recipe for unhappiness, for all things are transitory, and even if we attain what we want, it will not last. Instead, we ought to receive everything that happens with a kind of detached indifference:

The healthy eye ought to look on everything visible, and not to say, “I want green,” like an eye that is diseased. Sound hearing or sense of smell ought to be ready for all that can be heard or smelt; and the healthy stomach should be equally disposed for all sorts of food, as a mill for all that it was built to grind. So also the healthy mind should be ready for all things that happen. That mind which says, “Let my children be spared, and let men applaud my every action,” is as an eye which begs for green, or as teeth which require soft food. (X.35)

Again, this way of thinking has a certain appeal. For a Christian it must be a limited appeal, for Jesus taught us to ask for our daily bread, rather than to <i>not</i> ask for it. The Christian way is to love rather than to be indifferent. And Marcus’ belief that it is better not to desire particular goods does occasionally cross the line into something that feels perverse:

You will think little of a pleasing song, a dance, or a gymnastic display, if you analyse the melody into its separate notes, and ask yourself regarding each, “Does this impress me?” You will blush to own it; and so also if you analyse the dance into its single motions and postures, and if you similarly treat the gymnastic display. In general then, except as regards virtue and virtuous action, remember to recur to the constituent parts of things, and by dissecting to despise them; and transfer this practice to life as a whole. (XI.2)

This just seems like a therapy for how not to like things: by conceptualizing them in a way that makes them not likeable.

*

A final theme of Marcus’ meditations that I’ll touch on is a familiar one: the brevity of life. This is a common enough trope in the ancient world; we saw it when we were reading Seneca a few moons ago, and it is a perpetual favourite of moralists the world over. All the same, Marcus invests the familiar tune with his own distinctive voice. He emphasizes the moral urgency that human life acquires because of its limits:

Order not your life as though you had ten thousand years to live. Fate hangs over you. While you live, while yet you may, be good. (IV.17)

And he concludes his entire set of meditations with a memorable passage on the inevitability and unpredictability of death:

You have lived, O man, as a citizen of this great city; of what consequence to you whether for five years or for three? What comes by law is fair to all. Where then is the calamity, if you are sent out of the city, by no tyrant or unjust judge, but Nature herself who at first introduced you, just as the praetor who engaged the actor again dismisses him from the stage? “But,” say you, “I have not spoken my five acts, but only three.” True, but in life three acts make up the play. For he sets the end who was responsible for its composition at the first, and for its present dissolution. You are responsible for neither. Depart then graciously; for he who dismisses you is gracious. (XII.36)

All the world’s a stage.

***

The Meditations is unquestionably a great book; it doesn’t need me to praise it. Reading as a Christian, I see its wisdom as limited in various respects, but that it contains genuine wisdom I do not doubt. Stoicism probably never found a better spokesman than Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps the thing that struck me most, as I was reading, was just how immediately it spoke to me. I would go so far as to say that for no book from the ancient world, with the notable and important exception of Augustine’s Confessions, have I felt the centuries melt away as I did with this. Marcus speaks to me as a contemporary, and that is a remarkable achievement.

***

[Aphorism]
The best revenge is not to copy him that wronged you. (VI.6)

[Aphorism]
Men will go their ways nonetheless, though you burst in protest. (VIII.4)

[Human nature and reason]
In the reasoning being to act according to nature is to act according to reason. (VII.11)

[Philosophy]
Had you at one time both a step-mother and a mother, you would respect the former, yet you would be more constantly in your mother’s company. Your court and your philosophy are step-mother and mother to you. Return then frequently to your true mother, and recreate yourself with her. Her consolation can make the court seem bearable to you, and you to it. (VI.12)

[Love those around you]
Adapt yourself to the things which your destiny has given you: love those with whom it is your lot to live, and love them with sincere affection. (VI.39)

[Choose the best]
Frankly and freely choose the best, and keep to it. The best is what is for your advantage. If now you choose what is for your spiritual advantage, hold it fast; if what is for your bodily advantage, admit that it is so chosen, and keep your choice with all modesty. Only see that you make a sure discrimination. (III.6)

[Change and transitoriness]
Consider frequently how swiftly things that exist or are coming into existence are swept by and carried away. Their substance is as a river perpetually flowing; their actions are in continual change, and their causes subject to ten thousand alterations. Scarcely anything is stable, and the vast eternities of past and future in which all things are swallowed up are close upon us on both hands. Is he not then a fool who is puffed up with success in the things of this world, or is distracted, or worried, as if he were in a time of trouble likely to endure for long. (V.23)

[Good zeal]
For what should we be zealous? For this alone, that our souls be just, our actions unselfish, our speech ever sincere, and our disposition such as may cheerfully embrace whatever happens, seeing it to be inevitable, familiar, and sprung from the same source and origin as we ourselves. (IV.34)

[Metaphysical beauty]
Whatever is beautiful at all is beautiful in itself. Its beauty ends there, and praise has no part in it. Nothing is the better or the worse for being praised; and this holds also of what is beautiful in the common estimation: of material forms and works of art. Thus true beauty needs nothing beyond itself, any more than law, or truth, or kindness, or honour. For none of these gets a single grace from praise or one blot from censure. (IV.19)

[Simplicity]
Most things you say and do are not necessary. Have done with them, and you will be more at leisure and less perturbed. On every occasion, then, ask yourself the question, Is this thing not unnecessary? And put away not only unnecessary deeds but unnecessary thoughts, for by so doing you will avoid all superfluous actions. (IV.24)

[Talking himself out of bed in the morning]
In the morning, when you find yourself unwilling to rise, have this thought at hand: I arise to the proper business of man, and shall I repine at setting about that work for which I was born and brought into the world? Am I equipped for nothing but to lie among the bed-clothes and keep warm? “But,” you say, “it is more pleasant so.” Is pleasure, then, the object of your being, and not action, and the exercise of your powers? Do you not see the smallest plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees, all doing their part, and working for order in the Universe, as far as in them lies? And will you refuse the part in this design which is laid on man? Will you not pursue the course which accords with your own nature? You say, “I must have rest.” Assuredly; but nature appoints a measure for rest, just as for eating and drinking. In rest you go beyond these limits, and beyond what is enough; but in action you do not fill the measure, and remain well within your powers. You do not love yourself; if you did, you would love your nature and its purpose. (V.1)

2 Responses to “Marcus Aurelius: Meditations”


  1. Thank you for this very thorough review! I read this book many years ago, during a whole year, a page or two every day. It is probably time for a re-read.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thank you for the kind words, but there is a difference between being prolix and being thorough! There is much more in the book than I was able to spotlight here.

    I, too, read it in bits and pieces over a long period of time; that approach suits the material.


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