The Meditations – The Emperor’s Handbook (Marcus Aurelius)
By C. Scot Hicks and David V.Hicks
[Intro] Marcus himself seemed impossibly good. His father died when he was three years old, and his mother and grandfather Verus (meaning “true” or “sincere”) raised him. As a boy, he was universally admired for his serious demeanor and friendly disposition. Even the aged emperor Hadrian, visiting his grandfather’s home, marked him as destined to rule and was so taken with and perhaps amused by the child’s gravitas and noble-bearing that he playfully nicknamed him “Verissimus” (“truest” or “most earnest”), a nickname that stuck and later appeared on coins. Untainted by the incalculable wealth and absolute power that had corrupted many of his notorious predecessors, this boy grew to manage one of the most complex enterprise of all time in the midst of personal and geopolitical catastrophes, any one of which would have undone most men.
[Intro] Unachievable, but still worth striving for… Marcus’ belief that we are what we think and desire.
[Intro] Is it not ironic that the type of freedom Marcus thought unachievable, political freedom, we now regard as the only freedom possible, while the freedom of mind that Marcus prized so highly now seems unattainable? In the world after Darwin, Marx, and Freud, Marcus forces us to re-examine our concept of freedom and to ask ourselves how much political freedoms are worth if we are the slaves of false opinion and harmful desire. Are we really free in our doing if we are not free in our thinking?
[1.16] From my (adoptive) father, I learned:
- Courtesy and unswerving loyalty to decisions taken after hard thought;
- Indifference to pomp and praise;
- Industry and steadiness;
- A keen interest in any proposal for the public good;
- Reward given strictly to merit;
- The knowledge of when to press on and when to ease up;
- Chaste habits and the love of companionship
… In business meeting, he [Marcus’ father] never accepted a first impression or a plausible answer without subjecting it to detailed and searching inquiry…
My father taught me
- To refuse public applause and to eschew all forms of flattery;
- To be vigilant in managing the affairs of the empire, to be frugal in spending from the public purse, and to put up with the inevitable grumbling that will follow from those who want something for nothing;
…No one ever […] failed to recognize in him the qualities of a mature and accomplished man insensible to flattery and able to govern himself as well as others.
From my father, I learned
- A cheerful and friendly disposition, within reason;
- Prudent care for the body…
- A true regard for those who have mastered a particular skill or subject – the art of public speaking…- and a genuine desire to see that each of these receives the honor due him.
…Whatever he did he did out of a sense of duty to meet a real need, not to gain popularity.
“It’s up to you!”
[2.5] Every hour be firmly resolved, as becomes a Roman and a man, to accomplish the work at hand with fitting and unaffected dignity, goodwill, freedom, and justice. Banish from your thought all other considerations. This is possible if you perform each act as if it were your last, rejecting every frivolous distraction, every denial of the rule of reason, every pretentious gesture, vain show, and whining complaint against the decrees of fate. Do you see what little is required of a man to live a well-tempered and god-fearing life? Obey these precepts, and the gods will ask nothing more.
[2.6] Go on abusing yourself, O my soul! Not long and you will lose the opportunity to show yourself any respect. We have only one life to live, and yours is almost over. Because you have chosen not to respect yourself, you have made your happiness subject to the opinions others have of you.
[2.8] Not knowing what other people are thinking is not the cause of much human misery, but failing to understand the workings of one’s own mind is bound to lead to unhappiness.
[2.11] Act, speak, and think like a man ready to depart this life in the next breath. If there are gods, you have no reason to fear your flight from the land of the living, for they will not let any harm come to you; and if there are no gods, or they are indifferent to the affairs of men, why wish to go on living in a world without them or without their guidance and care?…
[2.14] Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that a man can lose only the life he is living, and he can live no other life than the one he loses. Whether he lives a long time or a short time amounts to the same thing, for the present moment is of equal duration for everyone, and that is all any man possess…
[2.17] What is man? His life a point in time, his substance a watery fluxion, his perception dim, his flesh food for worms, his soul a vortex, his destiny inscrutable, his fame doubtful. In sum, the things of the flesh are a river, the things of the soul all dream and smoke; life is war and a posting abroad; posthumous fame ends in oblivion.
What then can guide us through this life? Philosophy, only philosophy. It preserves the inner spirit, keeping it free from blemish and abuse, master of all pleasures and pains, and prevents it from acting without a purpose or with the intention to deceive, ensuring that we lack nothing, whatever others may do or not do. It accepts the accidents of fate as flowing from the same source as we ourselves, and above all, it waits for death contentedly, viewing it as nothing more than the natural dispersal of those elements composing every living thing. If the constant transformation of one element into another is in no way dreadful, why should we fear the sudden dispersal and transformation of all our bodily elements? This conforms with nature, and nothing natural is bad.
[3.2] … The world is full of wonders… that will appeal only to those who study nature closely and develop a real affinity for her works.
[3.3] … So what the point of it all? Simply this. You embarked; you sailed; you landed. Now, disembark! If it is to start a new life, you will find the gods there too. If it is to lose all consciousness, you will be liberated from the tyranny of pleasure and pain and from your bondage to an earthly shell that is vastly inferior to the master contained in it. For the spirit is intelligent and godlike whereas the body is blood and dust.
[3.4] … He never – except to achieve some great good on behalf of others – worries about what someone else might be saying, doing, or thinking. He minds his own business and keeps his gaze fixed on the pattern of his own destiny, making sure that he performs his work well and believing that his fate is good since it is subject to the universal good.
He remembers his kinship with all rational beings and never abandons his natural inclination to care for others, but he listens only to the opinions of those who live in conscious accord with nature… He attaches no importance whatsoever to the praise of these men, who can find no reason to praise themselves.
[3.5] Do not act unwillingly, or selfishly, or impulsively, or tentatively. Do not dress your talk in much fine talk. Be short in speech and restrained in action. Let the god who dwells within you command a manly man, a seasoned veteran, a statesman, a Roman, a leader who stands ready to give up his life when the retreat is sounded, without requiring an oath or looking for witnesses. Show by a cheerful look that you don’t need the help or comfort of others. Standing up – not propped up.
[3.6] … “from the titillation of the senses,” obeys the gods, and serves mankind… Simply and freely choose what is best and never let go of it.
“But the best is whatever works to my advantage,” you say.
Then study your advantage carefully. If it’s to the advantage of your reasonable self, seize hold of it. If it’s merely to the advantage of your animal self, admit it and don’t try to pretend it’s more than that. Only be sure of your judgment.
[3.7] All his life he has cared only about this: to take no detours from the high road of reason and social responsibility.
[3.8] In the mind of a disciplined and pure man, you will find no sign of infection, no running sores, no wounds that haven’t healed. It will not be this man’s fate to quit life unfulfilled like the actor who fails to complete his lines and walks offstage before the play is ended. What is more, there is nothing obsequious or conceited about him; he neither depends on others nor is afraid to ask for help; he answers no man for who he is and for what he does, yet he hides nothing.
[3.9] Treat with utmost respect your power of forming opinions…
[3.10] Tossing aside everything else, hold fast to these few truths. We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment. The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found. Little of life we know, little the plot of earth on which we dwell, little the memory of even the most famous who have lived, and this memory itself is preserved by generations of little men, who know little about themselves and far less about those who died long ago.
[3.11] … I will treat him kindly and fairly as the law of my being demands, while bearing in mind that pleasure has no power to weaken or pain to harm me unless I let them.”
[3.12] if you pursue the matter at hand along the straight path of reason, advancing with intensity, vigor, and grace, and without being distracted along the way; if you keep your divine spirit pure and blameless, as though this were the moment to give it back; if expecting nothing and fearing nothing, you are content to act in accord with nature and to speak with heroic honesty – then you will live well. And no power on earth can stop you.
[3.14] Stop jumping off the track. You don’t have time to reread your diaries, or the lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans, or the passages from their writing that you’ve collected for your old age. Throw off vain hope and sprint to the finish. If you care about yourself at all, come to your own aid while there’s still time.
[3.15] They fail to see all that it means to steal, to plant, to buy, to live in peace, to do what is right. To see all this requires an organ other than the eye.
[3.16] Body, soul, mind – the body for sensations, the soul for the impulse to act, the mind for guiding principles… Having all this in common with the likes of these, there remains only one distinguish mark of the good man: his love and delight in the thread of his own destiny and his refusal to soil or upset with an orgy of sensations the divine spirit dwelling within him, where a serene peace reigns and God is obeyed and no untrue words are spoken and no unjust deeds performed. Even if everyone questions his ability to live so simply, modestly, and happily, he doesn’t let their doubts disturb him or divert him from the road leading to his life’s destination, which he intends to reach pure and peaceful and prepared to take his leave in unforced allegiance to his fate.
[4.2] Never act without purpose and resolve, or without the means to finish the job
[4.3] What makes you anxious anyway? The wrong of others? Well, consider the following: reasonable men and women are made for one another; patience is a part of justice; and no one willingly does wrong. Think of all those who filled their days with anger, suspicion, hatred, and fighting – and are now dust. Think of them and what has become of their wrongdoing. This ought to calm you down.
… Whatever you do, don’t be troubled or anxious, but be free, and look at things like a man, a human being, a citizen, a part of the creation that must die. Chief among the thoughts close at hand, keep these two: first, that nothing outside the mind can disturb it – trouble comes from the mind’s opinion of what lies outside it; and second, that everything you now see will change in a moment and soon be no more. Can you even begin to count the changes you have already witnessed?
This world is change. This life, opinion.
[4.5] Death, like birth, is one of nature’s mysteries, the combining of primal elements and dissolving of the same into the same. Nothing about death should shame or upset us, for it is entirely in keeping with our nature as rational animals and with the law governing us.
[4.6] What do you expect from people like him? Certain effects naturally and necessarily flow from certain causes. To want him to behave otherwise is like asking the sap not to flow in a fig tree. Besides, what’s the point of fretting about it? In a moment, you will both be dead, and a moment later, no one will even be able to remember your names.
[4.8] What doesn’t make a man worse cannot make his life worse, nor can it harm him either from within or without.
[4.9] Nature insists upon whatever benefits the whole.
[4.10] “Whatever happened happens justly”
[4.11] Don’t look at the world through the eyes of an insolent and unhappy man, or judge things as he would; but see life as it truly is.
[4.12] Arm yourself for action with these two thoughts: first, do only what your sovereign and lawgiving reason tells you is for the good of others; and second, do not hesitate to change course if someone is able to show you where you are mistaken or point out a better way. But be persuaded only by arguments based on justice and the common good, never by what appeals to your taste for pleasure or popularity.
[4.13] Do you possess reason? “Yes”. Then why not use it? Once reason goes to work for you, what more do you need?
[4.15] Many grains of incense will fall upon the same altar. One drops early, another late – it makes no difference.
[4.17] Don’t act as though you’ll live to be a thousand. Your days are numbered like everyone else’s. in what remains of your allotted time, while you still can, become good.
[4.18] How much time and effort a man saves by paying no attention to what his neighbor says or does or thinks, and by concentrating on his own behavior to make it holy and just! The good man isn’t looking around for cheaters. He dashes straight for the finish and leans into the tape.
[4.19] The man who pants after praise and yearns to “make history” forgets that those who remember him will die soon after he goes to his grave, as will those who succeed the first generation of them that praise him, until after passing from one generation to the next, through many generations, the bright flame of his memory will flutter, fade, and go out. But what if those who praise you never died, and they sang your praise forever? What difference would that make? That the praise will do nothing for you dead isn’t my point. What will it do for you now that you’re still alive, except perhaps to offer a means to some other end? Meanwhile, you neglect nature’s means of achieving the same ends directly while worrying about how you’ll be remembered after you’re dead.
[4.24] Democritus said, “If you would be happy, limit your activities to a few.”… On each occasion, therefore, a man should ask himself, “Do I really need to say or do this?”
[4.26] Life is short. Save the moment by doing what is reasonable and right. Be serious, but not with fears and frets and frowns.
[4.29] The man who fails to understand what goes on in the world is as much a stranger to the world as he who is ignorance of how the world is made.
[4.31] Cherish your gifts, however humble, and take pleasure in them. Spend the rest of your days looking only to the gods from whom comes every good gift and seeing no man as either master or slave.
[4.32] A man’s interest in an object should be no greater than its intrinsic worth.
[4.33] In the end, what would you gain from everlasting remembrance? Absolutely nothing. So what is left worth living for? This alone: justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive, and a disposition glad of whatever comes, welcoming it as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same source and fountain as yourself.
[4.39] You cannot be harmed by the law of another man’s being, nor can any change or alteration in your circumstances hurt you. Where is the injury then? It is in your sense of injury – in the part of you that form a judgment about such things.
[4.44] Everything is as natural and familiar as a spring rose or a summer grape. This includes disease, death, slander, treason, and all those things that gladden and sadden the hearts of fools.
[4.49] “How lucky that I am not broken by what has happened and am not afraid of what is about to happen. The same blow might have struck anyone, but not many would have absorbed it without capitulation or complaint.”
[4.51] Always run the shortest course, the one laid out by nature. This will enable you to speak and act sensibly; it will free you from bickering and petty ambition; and it will remove your anxieties and affections.