Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
Six years before his death the Emperor Marcus Aurelius sat down in his tent to formulate his thoughts on human life and destiny. We cannot be sure that the Ta eis heauton—“to himself”—was intended for the public eye; probably so, for even saints are vain, and the greatest man of action has moments of weakness in which he aspires to write a book. Marcus was not an expert author; most of the training that his tutor Fronto had given him in Latin was wasted now, since he wrote in Greek; besides, these “Golden Thoughts” were penned in the intervals of travel, battles, revolts, and many tribulations; we must forgive them for being disconnected and formless, often repetitious, sometimes dull. The book is precious only for its contents—its tenderness and candor, its half-conscious revelations of a pagan-Christian, ancient-medieval soul.
Like most thinkers of his time, Aurelius conceived philosophy not as a speculative description of infinity, but as a school of virtue and a way of life. He hardly bothers to make up his mind about God; sometimes he talks like an agnostic, acknowledging that he does not know; but having made that admission, he accepts the traditional faith with a simple piety. “Of what worth is it to me,” he asks, “to live in a universe without gods or Providence?” He speaks of deity now in the singular, now in the plural, with all the indifference of Genesis. He offers public prayer and sacrifice to the old divinities, but in his private thought he is a pantheist, deeply impressed with the order of the cosmos and the wisdom of God. He has a Hindu’s sense of the interdependence of the world and man. He marvels at the growth of the child out of a little seed, the miraculous formation of organs, strength, mind, and aspiration out of a little food. He believes that if we could understand we should find in the universe the same order and creative power as in man. “All things are implicated with one another, and the bond is holy. . . . There is a common reason in all intelligent beings; one god pervades all things, one substance, one law, one truth. . . . Can a clear order subsist in thee, and disorder in the All?”
He admits the difficulty of reconciling evil, suffering, apparently unmerited misfortune, with a good Providence; but we cannot judge the place of any element or event in the scheme of things unless we see the whole; and who shall pretend to such total perspective? It is therefore insolent and ridiculous for us to judge the world; wisdom lies in recognizing our limitations, in seeking to be harmonious parts of the universal order, in trying to sense the Mind behind the body of the world and cooperating with it willingly. To one who has reached this view “everything that happens happens justly”—i.e. as in the course of nature; nothing that is according to nature can be evil; everything natural is beautiful to him who understands. The universal reason determines all things, the inherent logic of the whole; and every part must welcome cheerfully its modest role and fate. “Equanimity” (the watchword of the dying Antoninus) “is the voluntary acceptance of the things that are assigned to thee by the nature of the whole.”
Everything harmonizes with me that harmonizes with thee, O universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late which is in due time for thee. Everything is fruit to me that thy seasons bring, O Nature. From thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return.
Knowledge is of value only as a tool of the good life. “What, then, can direct a man? One thing only—philosophy” not as logic or learning, but as a persistent training in moral excellence. “Be thou erect, or be made erect.” God has given every man a guiding daimon, or inner spirit—his reason. Virtue is the life of reason.
These are the principles of the rational soul. It traverses the whole universe, and surveys its form, and extends itself into the infinity of time, and embraces the cyclical renewal of all things, and comprehends that those who come after us will see nothing new, nor have those before us seen anything more; but in a manner he who is forty years old, if he has any understanding at all, has seen, by virtue of this uniformity, all things that have been or will be.
Marcus thinks his premises compel him to Puritanism. “Pleasure is neither good nor useful.” He renounces the flesh and all its works, and talks at times like some Anthony in the Thebaid:
Observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are, and what was yesterday a little mucus, tomorrow will be a mummy or ashes. . . . The whole space of man’s life is but little, and yet with what troubles it is filled . . . and with what a wretched body it must be passed! . . . Turn it inside out, and see what kind of thing it is.
The mind must be a citadel free from bodily desires, passions, anger, or hate. It must be so absorbed in its work as hardly to notice the adversities of fortune or the barbs of enmity. “Every man is worth just so much as the things about which he busies himself.” He reluctantly concedes that there are bad men in this world. The way to deal with them is to remember that they, too, are men, the helpless victims of their own faults by the determinism of circumstance. “If any man has done thee wrong, the harm is his own; it is thy duty to forgive him.” If the existence of evil men saddens you, think of the many fine persons you have met, and the many virtues that are mingled in imperfect characters. Good or bad, all men are brothers, kinsmen in one God; even the ugliest barbarian is a citizen of the fatherland to which we all belong. “As Aurelius I have Rome for my country; as a man, the world.” Does this seem an impracticable philosophy? On the contrary, nothing is as invincible as a good disposition, if it be sincere. A really good man is immune to misfortune, for whatever evil befalls him leaves him still his own soul.
Will this [evil] that has happened prevent thee from being just, magnanimous, temperate, prudent . . . modest, free? . . . Suppose that men curse thee, kill thee, cut thee in pieces: what can these things do to prevent thy mind from remaining pure, wise, sober, and just? If a man stand by a limpid, pure spring and curse it, the spring never ceases to send up clean water; if he cast dirt into it, or filth, it will speedily wash them out and be unpolluted again. . . . On every occasion that brings thee trouble, remember to apply this principle: that this is not a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune. . . . Thou seest how few the things are to which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life that flows on quietly and is like the existence of the gods.
Marcus’ life, however, did not flow on quietly; he had to kill Germans while writing this Fifth Gospel, and in the end he faced death with no consolation in the son who would succeed him, and no hope of happiness beyond the grave. Soul and body alike return to their original elements.
For as the mutation and dissolution of bodies make room for other bodies doomed to die, so the souls that are removed into the air, after life’s existence, are transmuted and diffused . . . into the seminal intelligence of the universe, and make room for new souls. . . . Thou hast existed as a part; thou shalt disappear in that which produced thee. . . . This, too, nature wills. . . . Pass, then, through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end thy journeys in content, just as an olive falls when it is ripe, blessing the nature that produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew.