Notes from Introduction
The first part of the book is an Introduction by the translator George Hay, which provides useful context.
- "He would have claimed to be, at best, a diligent student and a very imperfect practitioner of a philosophy developed by others. As for the imperial throne, that came almost by accident."
- Marcus was born in A.D 121, the year of his grandfather's 2nd consulship. He was brought up by his grandfather - his father died when he was young.
- In 137, when Marcus was sixteen, a crucial event took place. The reigning emperor, Hadrian, was childless. ... Hadrian owed his throne to his adoption by his predecessor and distant relative, Trajan. Following Trajan’s example, Hadrian had designated the distinguished aristocrat Lucius Ceionius Commodus to succeed him. In 137, however, Ceionius died unexpectedly, and Hadrian was forced to cast about for a new successor. His choice fell on the childless senator Antoninus, whom he selected with the proviso that Antoninus should in turn adopt Marcus (his nephew by marriage) along with Ceionius’s son Lucius Verus, then aged seven. Marcus took on the family name of his adopted father, becoming Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
- On August 31, 161, Antoninus died, leaving Marcus as his sole successor. Marcus immediately acted to carry out what appears to have been Hadrian’s original intention (perhaps ignored by Antoninus) by pushing through the appointment of his adopted brother, Lucius Verus, as co-regent.
- Two years later (AD. 180) Marcus died at age fifty-eight, the first emperor to pass on the throne to his son since Vespasian a century before. Sadly, Commodus’s performance did not bear out whatever promise Marcus had discerned in him. He was to be remembered as a dissolute tyrant.
- Roman upper class are essentially bilingual - Latin and Greek. Greek remained overwhelmingly the language of philosophy. Marcus composed his own Meditations in Greek.
- Rhetoric is a key skill to active political career.
The composition of the Meditations is normally dated to the 170s—Marcus’s last decade. That this was a dark and stressful period for him can hardly be doubted. In the ten years between 169 and 179 he had to cope with constant fighting on the frontier, the abortive revolt of Cassius, and the deaths of his colleague Verus; his wife, Faustina; and others. Though he could hardly have anticipated the century of turmoil that would follow his death, he may have suspected that his son and successor, Commodus, was not the man he hoped. That in these circumstances Marcus should have sought consolation in philosophy is only natural. But understanding what Marcus looked for from his philosophical studies requires a certain amount of orientation. To understand the Meditations in context, we must familiarize ourselves not only with Stoicism, the philosophical system that underlies the work, but also with the role of philosophy in ancient life more generally.
The careers of twentieth-century analytic philosophy often seem remote from what the American philosopher Thomas Nagel terms “mortal questions”: the problems involved in making ethical choices, constructing a just society, responding to suffering and loss, and coming to terms with the prospect of death. Indeed, most of us would be inclined to see these issues as the province of religion rather than philosophy.
For Marcus and his contemporaries, the situation was very different.... "It (philosophy) 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."
Philosophy in the modern sense is largely the creation of one man, the fifth-century B.C. Athenian thinker Socrates. But it is primarily in the Hellenistic period that we see the rise of philosophical sects, promulgating coherent “belief systems” that an individual could accept as a whole and which were designed to explain the world in its totality. Of these Hellenistic systems the most important, both for Romans in general and for Marcus in particular, was the Stoic school.
Of the doctrines central to the Stoic worldview, perhaps the most important is the unwavering conviction that the world is organized in a rational and coherent way. More specifically, it is controlled and directed by an all-pervading force that the Stoics designated by the term logos. The term (from which English “logic” and the suffix “-logy” derive) has a semantic range so broad as to be almost untranslatable. At a basic level it designates rational, connected thought—whether envisioned as a characteristic (rationality, the ability to reason) or as the product of that characteristic (an intelligible utterance or a connected discourse). Logos operates both in individuals and in the universe as a whole. In individuals it is the faculty of reason. On a cosmic level it is the rational principle that governs the organization of the universe.1 In this sense it is synonymous with “nature,” “Providence,” or “God.”
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.
Early and middle Stoicism was a holistic system. It aimed to embrace all knowledge, and its focus was speculative and theoretical. Roman Stoicism, by contrast, was a practical discipline—not an abstract system of thought, but an attitude to life.
Stoicism and the Meditations
Chrysippus and his followers had divided knowledge into three areas: logic, physics and ethics, concerned, respectively, with the nature of knowledge, the structure of the physical world and the proper role of human beings in that world.
The questions that the Meditations tries to answer are primarily metaphysical and ethical ones: Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? How should we deal with pain and misfortune? How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist?
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.
Chief among these are inappropriate value judgments: the designation as “good” or “evil” of things that in fact are neither good nor evil.... 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.
The second discipline, that of action, relates to our relationship with other people. Human beings, for Marcus as for the Stoics generally, are social animals. ...we are participants in the logos. As human beings we are part of nature, and our duty is to accommodate ourselves to its demands and requirements—“to live as nature requires,”... This requires not merely passive acquiescence in what happens, but active cooperation with the world, with fate and, above all, with other human beings. We were made, Marcus tells us over and over, not for ourselves but for others, and our nature is fundamentally unselfish. In our relationships with others we must work for their collective good, while treating them justly and fairly as individuals.
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.
The discipline of will governs our attitude to things that are not within our control,
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. When we do so, we question the benevolence and providence of the logos, and thereby degrade our own logos. This, of course, we must not do. Instead we must see things for what they are (here the discipline of perception is relevant) and accept them, by exercising the discipline of will, or what Epictetus calls (in a phrase quoted by Marcus) “the art of acquiescence.”
Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:
- to accept this event with humility [will];
- to treat this person as he should be treated [action];
- to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in [perception].
“Objective judgment … Unselfish action … Willing acceptance … of all external events.”
I suspect that if asked what it was that he studied, his answer would have been not “Stoicism” but simply “philosophy.”
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.
The Stoic world is ordered to the nth degree; the Epicurean universe is random, the product of the haphazard conjunctions of billions of atoms. To speak of Providence in such a world is transparently absurd, and 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.
“Eat, drink and be merry” was popularly supposed to be the Epicureans’ motto, though Epicurus himself had been quite explicit in identifying pleasure with intellectual contemplation rather than the vulgar enjoyment of food and sex.
Though a minority view, Epicureanism was, nonetheless, the only potential rival to Stoicism in offering a systematic cosmology, as Marcus acknowledges on a number of occasions by the stark dichotomy “Providence or atoms” (4.3, 10.6, 11.18, 12.14).
The Meditations: Genre, Structure and Style
The Meditations is not tentative and exploratory, like the notes of Wittgenstein or Weil, and it contains little or nothing that is original. It suggests not a mind recording new perceptions or experimenting with new arguments, but one obsessively repeating and reframing ideas long familiar but imperfectly absorbed.
They are “spiritual exercises” composed to provide a momentary stay against the stress and confusion of everyday life: a self-help book in the most literal sense.
... the individual entries were composed not as a record of Marcus’s thoughts or to enlighten others, but for his own use, as a means of practicing and reinforcing his own philosophical convictions.
It explains the predominance of the imperative in the text; its purpose is not to describe or reflect (let alone to “meditate”), but to urge, direct, and exhort.7 And it explains also the repetitiveness that strikes any reader of the work almost immediately—the continual circling back to the same few problems. The entries do not present new answers or novel solutions to these problems, but only familiar answers reframed. It was precisely this process of reframing and reexpressing that Marcus found helpful.
"Marcus does not offer us a means of achieving happiness, but only a means of resisting pain. The Stoicism of the Meditations is fundamentally a defensive philosophy"
"One example that will strike almost any reader is the sense of mortality that pervades the work."
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.
...accepts death in a cheerful spirit... It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.
...if we live longer, can we be sure our mind will still be up to understanding the world—to the contemplation that aims at divine and human knowledge?
People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn.
To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint.
Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.
Now you anticipate the child’s emergence from its mother’s womb; that’s how you should await the hour when your soul will emerge from its compartment.
All that you see will soon have vanished, and those who see it vanish will vanish themselves, and the ones who reached old age have no advantage over the untimely dead.
Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot. Or that everything was born to die.
To bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before. And will happen again
As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.”
The time and stopping point are set by nature—our own nature, in some cases (death from old age); or nature as a whole, whose parts, shifting and changing, constantly renew the world, and keep it on schedule. Nothing that benefits all things can be ugly or out of place. The end of life is not an evil—it doesn’t disgrace us. (Why should we be ashamed of an involuntary act that injures no one?). It’s a good thing—scheduled by the world, promoting it, promoted by it. This is how we become godlike—following God’s path, and reason’s goals.
Restrain anger (how to deal with others)
"A persistent motif is the need to restrain anger and irritation with other people, to put up with their incompetence or malice, to show them the errors of their ways."
"Affection for the natural world contrasts with a persistent sense of disgust and contempt for human life and other human beings—a sense that it is difficult to derive from (or even reconcile with) Stoicism. As P. A. Brunt puts it, “Reason told Marcus that the world was good beyond improvement, and yet it constantly appeared to him evil beyond remedy.” The courtiers who surround him are vain and obsequious, while the people he deals with on a daily basis are “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly” (2.1). One of the most frequently recurring points in the Meditations is the reminder that human beings are social animals, as if this was a point Marcus had a particularly hard time accepting. The gods care for mortals, he reminds himself, “and you—on the verge of death—you still refuse to care for them.”"
"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."
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.
In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them. But when they obstruct our proper tasks, they become irrelevant to us—like sun, wind, animals. Our actions may be impeded by them, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. ... The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
Don’t be irritated at people’s smell or bad breath. What’s the point? With that mouth, with those armpits, they’re going to produce that odor. —But they have a brain! Can’t they figure it out? Can’t they recognize the problem? So you have a brain as well. Good for you. Then use your logic to awaken his. Show him. Make him realize it. If he’ll listen, then you’ll have solved the problem. Without anger
All of us are working on the same project. Some consciously, with understanding; some without knowing it. (I think this is what Heraclitus meant when he said that “those who sleep are also hard at work”—that they too collaborate in what happens.) Some of us work in one way, and some in others. And those who complain and try to obstruct and thwart things—they help as much as anyone. The world needs them as well.
...to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.
You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.
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.
When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?
It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.
When you have to deal with someone, ask yourself: What does he mean by good and bad? If he thinks x or y about pleasure and pain (and what produces them), about fame and disgrace, about death and life, then it shouldn’t shock or surprise you when he does x or y. In fact, I’ll remind myself that he has no real choice.
People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them.
When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: Is a world without shamelessness possible? No. Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them. The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members.
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.
Take care on both counts. Not just sound judgments, solid actions—tolerance as well, for those who try to obstruct us or give us trouble in other ways. Because anger, too, is weakness, as much as breaking down and giving up the struggle. Both are deserters: the man who breaks and runs, and the one who lets himself be alienated from his fellow humans.
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 self-control, 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 you don’t know for sure it is a mistake. A lot of things are means to some other end. You have to know an awful lot before you can judge other people’s actions with real understanding.
When you lose your temper, or even feel irritated: that human life is very short. Before long all of us will be laid out side by side.
How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them.
...along with not getting angry at others, try not to pander either. Both are forms of selfishness; both of them will do you harm.
When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that.
Be present, be at peace (how to live)
Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.
Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions.
The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.
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.
Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.
This is what you deserve. You could be good today. But instead you choose tomorrow.
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
...death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful—and hence neither good nor bad.
To welcome with affection what is sent by fate.
“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?” But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.
So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.
Interrogate yourself, to find out what inhabits your so-called mind and what kind of soul you have now.
No surplus words or unnecessary actions.
What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do by my own.
...true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.
...if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free—free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. Plotting against those who have them—those things you prize. People who need those things are bound to be a mess—and bound to take out their frustrations on the gods. Whereas to respect your own mind—to prize it—will leave you satisfied with your own self, well integrated into your community and in tune with the gods as well—embracing what they allot you, and what they ordain.
Surrounded as we are by all of this, we need to practice acceptance. Without disdain. But remembering that our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.
Nature did not blend things so inextricably that you can’t draw your own boundaries—place your own well-being in your own hands. It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that. And this too: you don’t need much to live happily. And just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others, obeying God.
The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long you’ll be no one, nowhere—like Hadrian, like Augustus. The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.
If it’s in your control, why do you do it? If it’s in someone else’s, then who are you blaming? Atoms? The gods? Stupid either way. Blame no one. Set people straight, if you can. If not, just repair the damage. And suppose you can’t do that either. Then where does blaming people get you? No pointless actions.
The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure.
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.
Indifference to external events. And a commitment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good. What you were born to do.
Either the gods have power or they don’t. If they don’t, why pray? If they do, then why not pray for something else instead of for things to happen or not to happen? Pray not to feel fear. Or desire, or grief. If the gods can do anything, they can surely do that for us. —But those are things the gods left up to me. Then isn’t it better to do what’s up to you—like a free man—than to be passively controlled by what isn’t, like a slave or beggar? And what makes you think the gods don’t care about what’s up to us? Start praying like this and you’ll see. Not “some way to sleep with her”—but a way to stop wanting to. Not “some way to get rid of him”—but a way to stop trying. Not “some way to save my child”—but a way to lose your fear. Redirect your prayers like that, and watch what happens.
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.
Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.
“We need to master the art of acquiescence. We need to pay attention to our impulses, making sure they don’t go unmoderated, that they benefit others, that they’re worthy of us. We need to steer clear of desire in any form and not try to avoid what’s beyond our control.”
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.
That everything that happens is natural. That the responsibility is theirs, not yours.
That whatever happens has always happened, and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.
...mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its control
...calmly obeying God—saying nothing untrue, doing nothing unjust. And if the others don’t acknowledge it—this life lived with simplicity, humility, cheerfulness—he doesn’t resent them for it, and isn’t deterred from following the road where it leads: to the end of life. An end to be approached in purity, in serenity, in acceptance, in peaceful unity with what must be.
You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.
To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint.
To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.
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.
“Kingship: to earn a bad reputation by good deeds.”
Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility to treat this person as he should be treated to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.
Epithets for yourself: Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Disinterested.
To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.
It is crazy to want what is impossible. And impossible for the wicked not to do so.
Salvation: to see each thing for what it is—its nature and its purpose. To do only what is right, say only what is true, without holding back.