Marcus Aurelius: The Meditations (167 CE)


The emperor Marcus Aelius Aurelius Antoninus who reigned from 161-160 was the only Roman emperor besides Julius Caesar whose writings were to become part of the canon of Western classics. His Meditations are a loosely-organized set of thoughts relating to the stoic philosophy which had been popular among the better-educated citizens of Rome for some centuries. It stressed self-discipline, virtue, and inner tranquillity. Aurelius was also a social reformer who worked for the improvement of the lot of the poor, slaves, and convicted criminals. Non-Christians in the Western World have often looked to him as a role model. He was also a fierce persecutor of Christianity, doubtless because he felt that the religion threatened the values that had made Rome great. Aurelius was not an original or brilliant thinker, but his Meditations reflect well the stoic strain in Greco-Roman civilization. The emphasis on morality combined with emotional detachment is strongly reminiscent of Buddhist thought, with which Stoicism has often been compared.

What arguments does Aurelius offer to help people accept death? How persuasive do you find them? How does this philosophy emphasize the independence of the individual? Does this emphasis on the individual result in selfishness? What theme does Aurelius share with the poem by Horace in this volume?



From Book Four:

Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, at the seashore, and in the mountains; and you tend to desire such things very much. But this is a characteristic of the most common sort of men, for it is in your power whenever you will to choose to retreat into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retreat than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately perfectly tranquil; and I affirm that tranquillity is nothing other than the proper ordering of the mind.

Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.

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, do not consider the the depraved morals of others, but cling to the straight and narrow path without deviating from it.

He who has a powerful desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will himself also die very soon; then again also they who have succeeded them, until the whole remembrance shall have been extinguished as it is transmitted through men who foolishly admire and then perish. But suppose that those who will remember are even immortal, and that the remembrance will be immortal, what good will this do you?

What is evil in you does not subsist in the ruling principle of another; nor in any part or transformation of your physical body. Where is it then? It is in that part of you in which has the power of forming opinions about evils (1). Let this power then not form such opinions, and all is well. And if that which is nearest to it the poor body is burnt, filled with excrescences and decay, nevertheless let the part which forms opinions about these things be quiet; that is, let it judge that nothing is either bad or good which can happen equally to the bad man and the good. For that which happens equally to him who lives contrary to nature and to him who lives according to nature, is neither according to nature nor contrary to nature (2).

Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.

You are a little soul carrying about a corpse, as Epictetus used to say.

It is no evil for things to undergo change, and no good for things to come into being as a consequence of change.

Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.

If any god told you that you shall die tomorrow, or certainly on the day after to-morrow, you would not care much whether it was on the third day or on the next, unless you had a very degraded spirit for how small is the difference? So think it no great thing to die after as many years as you can count rather than tomorrow. (3)

Think continually how many physicians are dead after often fretting over the sick; and how many astrologers after predicting with great pretensions the deaths of others; and how many philosophers after endless discourses on death or immortality; how many heroes after killing thousands; and how many tyrants who have used their power over men's lives with terrible insolence as if they were immortal; and how many cities are entirely dead, so to speak, Helice and Pompeii and Herculaneum, and innumerable others. Add to the total all whom you have known, one after another. One man after burying another has been laid out dead, and another buries him: and all this in a short time. To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are, and what was yesterday a little mucus to-morrow will be a mummy or ashes. Pass then through this little space of time in the way of nature, and end your journey in contentment, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew.

Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break, but which stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.

From Book Five:

Live with the gods. And he does live with the gods who constantly shows them that his own soul is satisfied with that which is assigned to him, and that it does all that the daemon (4) wishes, which Zeus has given to every person as his guardian and guide, as a portion of himself. And this daemon is everyone's knowledge and reason.

The best way of avenging yourself is not to become like the wrongdoer.

When we have meat before us and such food we receive the impression that this is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian wine is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep's wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see what kind of things they are. Just in the same way ought we to act all through life, and where there are things which appear most worthy of our approval, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For outward show is a wonderful perverter of the reason, and when you are most sure that you are engaged in matters worth your while, it is then that it cheats you most. . . .

Most of the things which ordinary people admire have to do with objects of the most general kind, those which are held together by cohesion or natural organization, such as stones, wood, fig trees, vines, olives. But those which are admired by men who are a little more reasonable have to do with the things which are held together by a living principle, such as flocks and herds. Those which are admired by men who are still more enlightened are the things which are held together by a rational soul, not however a universal soul, but rational so far as it is a soul skilled in some art, or expert in some other way, or simply rational so far as it possesses a number of slaves. But he who values a rational soul, a universal soul which is fitted for political life, values nothing else except this; and above all things he keeps his soul in a condition and in activities suitable to reason and social life, and he cooperates in this with those who are of the same kind as himself.

So keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, free from pretense, a friend of justice, a worshipper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in performing all proper acts. Strive to be the sort of person which philosophy wishes to make of you. Revere the gods and help others. Life is short. There is only one fruit of this earthly life: a pious disposition and social acts. Asia, Europe are corners of the universe; all the sea a drop in the universe; Athos (5) a little clod of the universe: all the present time is a point in eternity. All things are little, changeable, perishable. All things come from thence, from that universal ruling power either directly proceeding or by way of sequence. And accordingly the lion's gaping jaws, and that which is poisonous, and every harmful thing, like thorns, like mud, are after-products of the grand and beautiful. Do not then imagine that they are of another kind from that which you venerate, but form a just opinion of the source of all.

He who has seen present things has seen all, both everything which has taken place from all eternity and everything which will be for time without end; for all things are of one kin and of one form.

Translated by George Long, revised by Paul Brians


Notes

(1) Like Buddhists and Hindus, Stoics believe that true evil exists only within the mind. It cannot be imposed from outside.

(2) Like Taoists, Stoics argue that conformity to the ways of nature is best.

(3) The point is that death's inevitability must be accepted sometime; and it is well to be prepared for it at any time.

(4) A personal guardian spirit, here equated to the mind.

(5) A tall mountain in northeastern Greece.


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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. No copies are available of the first edition; however, we are in the process of editing the second edition, which will be published in time for Fall, 1996. If, after examining the table of contents of the complete volume, you are interested in considering it for use at your own campus, please contact Paul Brians.

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