Wise thoughts from Marcus Aurelius: Meditations.

Wise words from  Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Roman Emperor and philosopher (AD 121-80)

Marcus Aurelius learned Stoic teaching by reading the Discourses of the philosopher Epictetus. (AD C50-C120). Stoicism is a deterministic, pantheistic and materialistic philosophy in which everything which happens is ruled by a supreme Logos or Reason. Marcus Aurelius calls this reason various names including God, the gods, Nature, Zeus, providence, fate, necessity or law. In the material world, reason, the supreme power is fire, air or force; in humanity it is soul, reason, mind or breath.

In Stoicism man’s chief end is happiness expressed in virtue. God or Nature  guides every kind of growth into perfection..a natural life ruled by reason resulting in virtue. This will ensure that person is not tossed around by emotion or passion and is insulated against every event or trauma in life including death because self-discipline, unflinching fortitude, just and virtuous dealing and complete freedom from passion are the marks of the virtuous person. Stoicism encourages kindness towards others including those who do evil things (they need “instruction”) and rates ethical, just and true behaviour as the highest good. There is no life after death and mankind’s task is to live a virtuous life seeing death as part of the natural order. In what comes as a serious shock Marcus Aurelius is quite at ease with suicide if living in a reasonable society is not possible. It is possible to live on earth as you mean to live hereafter. But if men will not let you, then quit the house of life; though not with any feeling of ill-usage. ‘The hut smokes; I move out.’ No need to make a great business of it. Nevertheless, so long as nothing of the kind obliges me to depart, here I remain, and none shall hinder me from doing what I choose—and what I choose is to live the life that Nature enjoins for a reasonable member of a social community.

In sum, Stoicism means a life of steely determination to live calmly, reasonably and virtuously and to encourage others to do the same. Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald , or a purple robe insists perpetually, ‘Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true. [Book 8:15]

Meditations was written in Greek and consists of twelve “note” books of philosophical observations…there is no consistent argument, just a series of remarks and discussions, some just a sentence, others up to three pages. In addition to Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius drew frequently from Plato and Euripides and less often from Hesiod, Homer and Aristophanes and some of his quotations are from sources now unknown. Many of these  notes and ideas were noted down during Marcus Aurelius’s lengthy  and very tough campaigns against the Barbarian hordes on the Danube frontier.

The following quotations are from: Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translated and notes by Maxwell Staniforth and Preface by A C Grayling, London, The Folio Society, 2002.

Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt from my grandfather Verus  Book 1:1

My mother set me an example of piety and generosity, avoidance of all uncharitableness—not in actions only, but in thought as well —and a simplicity of life quite unlike the usual habits of the rich.  Book 1:3

To my great grandfather I owed the advice to dispense with the education of schools and have good masters at home instead— and to realise that no expense should be grudged for this purpose! Book 1: 4

Thanks to Diognetus I learnt not to be absorbed in trivial pursuits…[eg stamp collecting??]  Book 1:6

From Rusticus …I was to be accurate in my reading, and not content with a mere general idea of the meaning;  Book 1:7

It was the critic Alexander who put me on my guard against unnecessary fault-finding . People should not be sharply corrected for bad grammar, provincialisms, or mispronunciation….Book 1:10

To my mentor Fronto I owe the realisation that malice, craftiness, and duplicity  are the concomitants of absolute power; and that our patrician families tend for the most part to be lacking in the feelings of ordinary humanity.

Alexander the Platonist cautioned me against frequent use of the words ‘I am too busy’ in speech correspondence, except in cases of real necessity; saying that no one ought to shirk the obligations due to society on the excuse of urgent affairs. Book 1:12

Catulus the Stoic counselled me never to make light of a friend’s rebuke… Book 1:13

From my brother [note: Marcus Aurelius did not have a brother…Staniforth: most probably a corrupt text..] I learnt to love my relations, to love the truth, and to love justice……and became acquainted with the conception of a community based on equality and freedom of speech for all, and a monarchy concerned primarily to uphold the liberty of the subject.  He showed me the need for a fair and dispassionate appreciation of philosophy, an addiction to good works, open-handedness, a sanguine temper, and confidence in the affection of my friends. Book 1:14

The qualities I admired in my father were….his complete indifference to meretricious honours; his industry, perseverance, and willingness to listen to any project for the common good … Book 1:16

To the gods I owe…finally, that with all my addiction to philosophy I was yet preserved from either falling a prey to some sophist or spending all my time at a  desk poring over textbooks and rules of logic or grinding at natural science. Book 1:17

Are you distracted by outward cares? Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the good and learn to curb your restlessness. Book 2:7

In your actions let there be a willing promptitude, yet a regard for the common interest; due deliberation, yet no irresolution; and in your sentiments no pretentious over-refinement. Avoid talkativeness, avoid officiousness. Book 3:5

If mortal life can offer you anything better than justice and truth, self-control and courage — that is, peace of mind in the evident conformity of your actions  to the laws of reason…Book 3:6

keep your principles constantly in readiness for the understanding of things both human and divine; never in the most trivial action forgetting how intimately the two are related.  Book 3:13

Nowhere can a man find a quieter or more untroubled  retreat than in his own soul; above all,  he who possesses resources in himself, which he need only contemplate to secure immediate ease of mind—the ease that is but another word for a well-ordered spirit. Book 4:3

Do not copy the opinions of the arrogant, or let them dictate your own, but look at things in their own light. Book 4:11

Life, in a word, is short; then snatch your profit from the passing hour, by obedience to reason and just dealing. Book4:26

Either a universe that is all order, or else a farrago thrown together at random yet somehow forming a universe. But can there be some measure of order subsisting in yourself, and at the same time disorder in the greater whole? Book4:27

Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it. Book 4:31

If, then, you would avoid discouragement, never become unduly absorbed in things that are not of the first importance. Book 4:32

to do justice is the only wisdom. Book 4:37

You have no real love for yourself; if you had, you would love your nature, and your nature’s will.  Book 5:1

Cultivate these, then, for they are wholly within your power: sincerity, for example, and dignity; industriousness, and sobriety. Avoid grumbling; be frugal, considerate, and frank; be temperate in manner and speech; carry yourself with authority.  Book 5:5

philosophy wills only what your nature wills… Book 5:9

….Cultivate these, then, for they are wholly within your power: sincerity, for example, and dignity; industriousness, and sobriety. Avoid grumbling; be frugal, considerate, and frank; be temperate in manner and in speech; carry yourself with authority.  Book 5:5

philosophy wills only what your own nature wills…

can there be anything more agreeable than the exercise of the intellect? Book 5:9

look at the characters of your own associates; even the most agreeable of them are difficult to put up with ; and for the matter of that, it is difficult enough to put up with one’s own self.  Book 5:10

Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts….Book 5:16

the chief good of a rational being is fellowship with his neighbours—for it has been made clear long ago that fellowship is the purpose behind our creation. Book 5:16

Do not fall a too hasty prey to first impressions. Book 5:36

…even dying is part of the business of life; and there too no more is required of us than ‘to see the moment’s work well done.’ Book 6:2

To refrain from imitation is the best revenge. Book 6:6

…pretentiousness is the arch deceiver, and never more delusive than when you imagine your work is most meritorious  Book 6:14

In all things call upon the gods for help—yet without too many scruples about the length of your prayers; three hours so spent will suffice.  Book 6:23  hmmm!

…no pain is contrary to the nature of man, as man, so long as he is doing man’s work. And if it accords with nature, it cannot be evil. Book 6:33

All proceeds from the one source, springing either directly or derivatively from the universal sovereign reason. Even the lion’s open jaws, the deadly poison, and all other things that do hurt…Book 6:36

with things formed by Nature, the power that fashions them is still within them, and remains in them. All the more, then, should you have it in reverence, and be assured that if only you live and act according to its will, you will have all things according to your liking.  Book 6:40

when we limit our notions of good and evil strictly to what is within our own power, there remains no reason either to bring accusations against God or to set ourselves at variance with men.  Book 6:41

he who directs all things will find some good use to make of you, and give you your place among his helpmates and fellow labourers. Book 6:42

If the gods took counsel together about myself, and what should befall me, then their counsel was good. For it were hard to conceive of divinity counselling unwisely. After all, what incentive would they have to work my hurt? Where would be the gain, either to themselves or the universe  which is their chief care? Book 6:44

In this life one thing only is of precious worth; to live out one’s day in truthfulness and fair dealing, and in charity even with the false and unjust. Book 6:47

The man of ambition thinks to find his good in the operations of others; the man of pleasure in his own sensations; but the man of understanding in his own actions. Book 6:51

a  man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions. Book 7:3

…God is one, pervading all things; Book 7:9

Just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, “Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true.”  Book 7:15

Happiness, (εὐδαιμωνια), by derivation means ‘a good god within’; that is, a good master-reason. Book 7:17

Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours. At the same time, however, beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind. Book 7:27

Put on the shining face of simplicity and self-respect, and of indifference to everything outside the realms of virtue or vice. Love mankind. Walk in God’s ways. Book 7:31

Of pain. If it is past bearing, it makes an end  of us; if it lasts, it can be borne. Book 7:33

If a man has greatness of mind, and the breadth of vision to contemplate all time and all reality, can he regard human life as a thing of any great consequence?’ — ‘No, he cannot.’—‘So he won’t think death anything to be afraid of?’— ‘No.’  [Plato: The Republic, 486] Book 7:35

Chief of all features in a man’s constitution, therefore, is his duty to his kind. Next after that comes his obligation to resist the murmurs of the flesh. …..And thirdly, the constitution of a rational being should make him incapable of indiscretion. Book 7:55

Dig within. There lies the well-spring of good; ever dig, and it will ever flow. Book 7:59

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing… Book 7:61

the needs of a happy life are very few. Mastery of dialectics or physics may have eluded you, but that is no reason to despair of achieving freedom, self-respect, unselfishness, and obedience to the will of God.  Book 7:67

When you have done a good action, and another has had the benefit of it, why crave for yet more in addition—applause for your kindness, or some favour in return—as the foolish do. Book 7:73

Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just—though with courtesy, modesty and sincerity.  Book 8:5

an opportunity of pleasure is something no good man would ever repent of having let pass. If follows, therefore, that pleasure is neither good nor helpful. Book 8:10

so a rational being has power to turn each hindrance into material for himself, and use it to set forward his own endeavours.  Book 8:35

a mind that is free from passion is a very citadel. Book 8:48

Dilatory action, incoherent conversation, vague impressions; a soul too inwardly cramped; a soul too outwardly effusive; a life without room for leisure—avoid such things…..How be lord yourself…by safeguarding the right to be your own master every hour of the day, in all charity, simplicity and modesty. Book 8:51

it is a sin to pursue pleasure as a good and to avoid pain as an evil…if he is bent on the pursuit of pleasure, he will not stop at acts of injustice, which again is manifestly sinful….He therefore who does not view with equal unconcern pain or pleasure…clearly commits a sin. Book 9:1

Despise not death; smile, rather, at its coming; it is among the things that Nature wills….Never, then, will a thinking man view death lightly, impatiently, or scornfully; he will wait for it as but one more of Nature’s progress. Book 9:3

A man does not sin by commission only, but often by omission. Book 9:5

Everything bears fruit; [including evil and immorality] man, God , the whole universe, each in its proper season.  Book 9:10

Work yourself hard, but not as if you were being made a victim, and not with any desire for sympathy or admiration. Book 9:12

do not expect Plato’s ideal commonwealth….Philosophy is a modest professor, all simplicity and plain dealing. Never try to seduce me into solemn pretentiousness. Book 9:29

…When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all things are yours, that all comes from the gods, and that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their good pleasure and ordained by them for the safety and welfare of the perfect living whole — so good, so just, so beautiful—which gives life to all things..Book 10:1

For when a man realises that at any moment he may have to leave everything behind him and depart from the company of his fellows…every care, every distraction is laid aside; his only ambition is to walk in the straight paths of law, and by do doing to become a follower of God. Book 10:11

Now your remaining years are few. Live them, then, as though on a mountain-top Book 10:15

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.  Book 10:16

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