Philosophical Summaries: Marcus Aurelius' Meditations

Expressed in over forty thousand words and separated into twelve "books", the Meditations by the Roman Emperor (161 to 180 CE) Marcus Aurelias has been recognised as one of the major contributions to the philosophy of Stoicism even if almost certainly written for his own consideration during a military campaign, rather than for wider publication. Indeed, the earliest manuscript title in Kione Greek was "ta eis heauton" ("to himself"). In particular, in these days of a devastating and ongoing global pandemic there has been a revised interest in Stoicism and especially Aurelius' Meditations.

With the exception of Book I, it is difficult to discern a temporal, logical, or thematic order, although some attempts have been made (e.g., Gourinat, 2012). Writing for himself has meant that they are written in an unassuming manner, even for an Emperor. But it also means that the books do seem to lack a sense of development; one often finds a returning to questions that have been previously considered, with a new angle, but similar dispositions. Whilst there is often pithy insight to be gained from these considerations, their repetition does lead one to consider whether Marcus was documenting his own attempts to use Stoic philosophy to stave off the challenges that it must confront with depression from the past, anxiety of the future, dissatisfaction with the natural world, and discontent with the behaviour of oneself and that of others.

The first book gives a rather charming dedication and thanks to the various personal influences in Aurelias' life; his grandfather, father, mother, and a number of friends and teachers, such as Marcus Cornelius Fronto. Many of these influences indicate a strong contribution to the philosophy that Aurelias develops (e.g., moderate temperament and self-governance, avoiding fault-finding, a love of truth etc) as one can expect; these are, after all, dedications of influence. From his teacher Rusticus, Aurerlias notes specifically the influence of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus; however nowhere in the text does Aurelias specifically identify as a Stoic, although the work is clearly in that tradition.

Perhaps the most striking passages, especially to a modern reader, in the Meditations are those which relate to dealings with other people. In a celebrated phrase, advice is given on how to deal with downright unpleasant people: 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. It is doubtful whether this is what people think of the first thing in the morning, but it certainly serves as a reminder that the bad behaviour of others comes from ignorance; both in the sense that they don't know what they are doing and in the sense that they ignore the opportunity to learn. Indeed, Marcus suggests that those who harm others actually cause greater harm to themselves. Whilst this may be difficult to discern in the case of various violent crimes against the individual, Marcus is pointing out that by actions, "who abideth on still in his deception and ignorance".

It is important to recognise that this is not meant in a dismissive manner. Throughout the Meditations one is struck by the level that Marcus is determined to emphasise a certain unity among all human beings based on existential criteria; "We are all made for mutual assistance", he writes albeit with an implicit sense of an social order where some rule and others are ruled. A great part of this is our shared mortality, "Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant; all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed", which is part of nature's continuous change, "All things are changing; and thou thyself art in continuous mutation and in a manner in continuous destruction and the whole universe to."

For those of a spiritual and religious disposition, the Meditations offers a great deal, albeit in a manner that fits closest to a naturalistic polytheism, and explicitly rejects conventional worshop. "Rememberest the gods, and that they wish not to be flattered, but wish all reasonable beings to be made like themselves". Piety is important to Aurelias, but it is associated primarily with acting in accord with nature. To Marcus this includes moral behavoiur towards others: "To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away." Much can be said about the naturalistic fallacies that Aurelias and classic Stoics engage in, as did the many philosopher of the Enlightenment who returned to their works. But there is a psychologically healing element to them, especially when related to our shared mortality. In the dotted reasoning, the natural is not evil, death is natural, and therefore death should not be treated with fear or as an evil occurrence; "it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature."

The combination of these features; the ignorance others, the shortness of life, the inability to change the past or to be certain about the future, leads to perhaps the most useful and challenging for each and all of us as individuals, and that is how we live our own lives. For what it is worth, this has become the foundation of contemporary Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and its emphasis on the dichotomy (more like a continuum) of control. There is an emphasis, over and over again, throughout the books for one to take control of themselves and their own lives, rather than unduly worrying about the past, the future, or what other people think. Obviously some of this is very difficult. The experiences of the past can weigh like a nightmare (and as actual nightmares) on the lives of the present. The fears of the future can lead to complete paralysis. The opinions of others and their social rejection can generate loneliness, shame, and a loss of self-esteem. There is a sickening emptiness that results from unrequited love.

But through all this, Marcus advocates a continuous improvement in the self, the development of virtue. "Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one." These words are used carefully, as "virtue" has often been seen as some sort of ineffable innate moral character within a person. Yet when reading the Meditations from the perspective of these are one's notes to a self, there is sense of an individual using their best faculties of reason to face challenges and build the best possible version of themselves, working with principles of right action and right speech: "If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it." Ultimately, in part inspired by the likes of Marcus, I come to a particular by-line for the Stoic philosophy with practical intent: Take responsible and thoughtful control of what you can. Which includes your own feelings about things that you cannot.

Dedicated to a great friend and philosopher, Rick Barker, on the first anniversary of his death. Rick always displayed an even-tempered and accurate contemplative observation of the actions and drives of others, which he combined with his passionate interest of knowledge.

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lev.lafayette's picture

Of course Marcus Aurelis was a bit disparaging towards sensuality

"and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus." (Book Six, Meditations - note that this line was often expunged in Victorian-era editions).

It might seem strange for someone who had 13 children to say such a thing. Maybe he thought it was a social duty.