Key Points from Book: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

by Marcus Aurelius, translation by Gregory Hays

Ancient philosophy certainly had its academic side. Athens and other large cities had publicly financed chairs of philosophy, and professional philosophers taught, argued and wrote, as they do today. But philosophy also had a more practical dimension. It was not merely a subject to write or argue about, but one that was expected to provide a “design for living”—a set of rules to live one’s life by. This was a need not met by ancient religion, which privileged ritual over doctrine and provided little in the way of moral and ethical guidelines. Nor did anyone expect it to. That was what philosophy was for.

All events are determined by the logos, and follow in an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Stoicism is thus from the outset a deterministic system that appears to leave no room for human free will or moral responsibility. In reality the Stoics were reluctant to accept such an arrangement, and attempted to get around the difficulty by defining free will as a voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable. According to this theory, man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon. If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged. In the same way, humans are responsible for their choices and actions, even though these have been anticipated by the logos and form part of its plan. Even actions which appear to be—and indeed are —immoral or unjust advance the overall design, which taken as a whole is harmonious and good. They, too, are governed by the logos.

It may be worthwhile, however, to draw attention to one pattern of thought that is central to the philosophy of the Meditations (as well as to Epictetus), and that has been identified and documented in detail by Pierre Hadot. This is the doctrine of the three “disciplines”: the disciplines of perception, of action and of the will. The discipline of perception requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought: that we see things dispassionately for what they are.

It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.

Marcus, like most of his contemporaries, took it for granted that human society was hierarchical, and this is borne out by the images he uses to describe it. Human society is a single organism, like an individual human body or a tree. But the trunk of the tree is not to be confused with the leaves, or the hands and feet with the head. Our duty to act justly does not mean that we must treat others as our equals; it means that we must treat them as they deserve. And their deserts are determined in part by their position in the hierarchy. Stoicism’s emphasis on the orderliness of the universe implies a similar orderliness and harmony in its parts, and part of its appeal to upper-class Romans may have been that it did not force its adherents to ask difficult questions about the organization of the society they lived in.5

The third discipline, the discipline of will, is in a sense the counterpart to the second, the discipline of action. The latter governs our approach to the things in our control, those that we do; the discipline of will governs our attitude to things that are not within our control, those that we have done to us (by others or by nature). We control our own actions and are responsible for them. If we act wrongly, then we have done serious harm to ourselves (though not, it should be emphasized, to others, or to the logos). By contrast, things outside our control have no ability to harm us. Acts of wrongdoing by a human agent (torture, theft, or other crimes) harm the agent, not the victim. Acts of nature such as fire, illness, or death can harm us only if we choose to see them as harmful.

Marcus quotes Plato repeatedly (especially in Book 7), and Socratic or Platonic elements can be discerned elsewhere too. One example is the so-called Socratic paradox, the claim that no one does wrong willingly, and that if men were able to recognize what is right, they would inevitably do it. “They are like this,” Marcus says of other people, “because they can’t tell good from evil” (2.1), and he repeats this assertion elsewhere.

while Epicurus acknowledged the existence of gods, he denied that they took any interest in human life. As for humans, our role is simply to live as best we can, making the most of what pleasures are available to us and insulating ourselves as far as possible from pain and anxiety. In particular, we are to feel no anxiety about death, which consists simply in the dissolution of our component atoms. This process is not only inevitable, but harmless, for the simple reason that after death there is no “us” to suffer harm.

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.

At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.

Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.

People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.

In comparing sins (the way people do) Theophrastus says that the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger: which is good philosophy. The angry man seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more self-indulgent, less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked by pain to anger. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire.

The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?

Then what can guide us? Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.

Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people— unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.

The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. (Is this fair? Is this the right thing to do?) < . . . > not to be distracted by their darkness. To run straight for the finish line, unswerving.

Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous. The object of praise remains what it was—no better and no worse.

“If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”

Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren’t, but they’re still aware of it—still regard it as a debt. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return. A horse at the end of the race . . . A dog when the hunt is over . . . A bee with its honey stored . . . And a human being after helping others. They don’t make a fuss about it. They just go on to something else, as the vine looks forward to bearing fruit again in season.

Remember: Matter. How tiny your share of it. Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate. How small a role you play in it.

Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.

If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.

The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.

Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.

Is my intellect up to this? If so, then I’ll put it to work, like a tool provided by nature. And if it isn’t, then I’ll turn the job over to someone who can do better—unless I have no choice. Or I do the best I can with it, and collaborate with whoever can make use of it, to do what the community needs done. Because whatever I do— alone or with others—can aim at one thing only: what squares with those requirements.

Let the body avoid discomfort (if it can), and if it feels it, say so. But the soul is what feels fear and pain, and what conceives of them in the first place, and it suffers nothing. Because it will never conclude that it has. The mind in itself has no needs, except for those it creates itself. Is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. Knows no obstructions, except those from within.

To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose.

Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them—that it would upset you to lose them.

For times when you feel pain: See that it doesn’t disgrace you, or degrade your intelligence—doesn’t keep it from acting rationally or unselfishly. And in most cases what Epicurus said should help: that pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.

External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now. If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight? And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it?

No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity.

Yes, boorish people do boorish things. What’s strange or unheard-of about that? Isn’t it yourself you should reproach—for not anticipating that they’d act this way? The logos gave you the means to see it—that a given person would act a given way—but you paid no attention. And now you’re astonished that he’s gone and done it. So when you call someone “untrustworthy” or “ungrateful,” turn the reproach on yourself. It was you who did wrong. By assuming that someone with those traits deserved your trust. Or by doing them a favor and expecting something in return, instead of looking to the action itself for your reward. What else did you expect from helping someone out? Isn’t it enough that you’ve done what your nature demands? You want a salary for it too? As if your eyes expected a reward for seeing, or your feet for walking. That’s what they were made for. By doing what they were designed to do, they’re performing their function.

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable . . . then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature.

When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that. When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position. Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize that they acted under compulsion (what else could they do?).

The natural can never be inferior to the artificial; art imitates nature, not the reverse. In which case, that most highly developed and comprehensive nature—Nature itself—cannot fall short of artifice in its craftsmanship.

Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: not to do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own selfcontrol, but in an honest, upright way. Like Phocion (if he wasn’t just pretending). That’s what we should be like inside, and never let the gods catch us feeling anger or resentment.

That to expect bad people not to injure others is crazy. It’s to ask the impossible. And to let them behave like that to other people but expect them to exempt you is arrogant—the act of a tyrant.

“If you don’t have a consistent goal in life, you can’t live it in a consistent way.”

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us—or a wise human being, even—and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions—instead of our own.

About Journeyman

A global macro analyst with over four years experience in the financial market, the author began his career as an equity analyst before transitioning to macro research focusing on Emerging Markets at a well-known independent research firm. He read voraciously, spending most of his free time following The Economist magazine and reading topics on finance and self-improvement. When off duty, he works part-time for Getty Images, taking pictures from all over the globe. To date, he has over 1200 pictures over 35 countries being sold through the company.
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