“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill will, and selfishness— all of them due to the offender’s ignorance of what is good and evil. That people of a certain type should behave as they do is inevitable. To wish it otherwise were to wish the fig-tree would not yield its juice.Marcus Aurelius (A.D.121-181) ruled Rome during a time of great danger: famine; plague; flood; and barbarian invasion.Forsaking the comforts of his palace, Aurelius chose to share hardship with his soldiers living in tents in the field as together they held off the barbarians at the Danube. Marcus Aurelius is considered one of the few good Roman Emperors, and is best known to modern audiences from the movie “Gladiator,” in which he was played by Richard Harris.
There is much I love about the philosopher-king, and I detect a generosity of spirit with this ancient.He understands that kindness to our fellow creatures is incumbent upon us and that we must school ourselves to be tolerant of their failings; make allowances for their ignorance; forgive their misdeeds; and help them in their need.
While in his tent at night, Marcus Aurelius composed, pragmatic principles for wise living as they occurred to him. Those saying have been collected into “Meditations,” a manual for practical living rather than abstract truth.I share a selection of his thoughts. (I edited Maxwell Stanforth’s prim translation (1964), to make it more colloquial and gender-inclusive [if possible] for the modern reader.)
Focus your action.
“Resolve firmly, to act like a Roman— with dignity, humanity, independence, and justice. Free your mind from all other considerations.”
Don’t take anything personally.
“Stop thinking that you have been wronged, and with it will go the feeling.Reject your sense of injury, and the injury itself disappears. Everything that happens is as normal and expected as the spring rose or the summer fruit; this is true of sickness, death, slander, intrigue, and all other things that delight or trouble foolish men.”
Die with a Blessing on Your Lips.
“Observe how transient and trivial is all mortal life; yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of ashes. Spend, therefore, these fleeting moments on earth as Nature would have you spend them, and then go to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in its season, with a blessing for the earth that bore it and a thanksgiving to the tree that gave it life.”
“When your end comes do not murmur, but meet it with a good grace and with gratitude in your heart to the gods. It is time now to realize the nature of the universe to which you belong and of that controlling Power whose offspring you are; and to understand that your time has a limit set to it.Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone, and never in your power again.”
“Happy is the soul which, at whatever moment the call comes for release from the body, is equally ready to face extinction or survival.”
“You will never be remarkable for quick-wittedness.So what? There are still a host of other qualities to cultivate that are within your power: sincerity, dignity, industriousness, and sobriety. Carry yourself with authority.See how many qualities there are which could be yours at this moment.”
Accept Life’s Misfortune
“Is your cucumber bitter? Throw it away.Are there briars in your path?Turn aside. That is enough.Do not ask, “Why were things of this sort ever brought into the world?” The student of nature will only laugh at you; just as a carpenter or a shoemaker would laugh, if you found fault with the shavings and scraps from their work which you saw in the shop.”
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your attitude toward it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
“Among the truths you will do well to remember: first, external things can never touch the soul, but stand inert outside it, so that disquiet can arise only from fancies within; and secondly, that all visible objects change in a moment, and will be no more.The whole universe is change, and life itself is but what you deem it.”
With my mother’s milk, I suckled the credo: “Duty; Honor; Country.”In my formative years, the philosophy of the stoics (Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca) appealed to me and helped me to find the courage and strength I needed for the metaphoric battlefields of life.
Two currents run side-by-side in ancient philosophy: one naturalistic (atoms, Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius), the other mystical (god, Plato, Plotinus, and St. Paul). My favorite philosophers were the ones (Socrates, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius) who merge these two currents in an attempt to do justice to the unformulable complexity of life.
Yet, even as I have appreciated what I perceived as a balance in Marcus Aurelius, I now acknowledge that one must not take stoic philosophy too literally. Indeed, balance requires leaving a little room for the happiness in Epicureanism, properly understood. It is a false choice to say, “I must choose between either stoicism or hedonism.” The work of a life-time is obtaining Aristotle’s middle way.
I have also learned that, contrary to Aurelius, we should not always expect the worst from people, rather it is sometimes better to expect the best, as people often conform to our expectations of them. Indeed, tactics are situational, and it is a fool who memorizes a few simple slogans and proceeds to employ them in all circumstances. But, nonetheless, those simple precepts are worth learning because they are often accurate.
Although I think this book can help those with anxiety, I do not recommend this book for people who beat themselves up in a never-ending war with themselves. They must learn gentleness with themselves not stoicism, but I do recommend this book for people needing a dose of stern reality—perhaps those who think that they are helpless, or who think that nothing is ever their fault, or who crumble at the first sign of difficulty. Use this book. “Use it to advance your enlightenment, or life will be gone and never in your power again.”
February 22, 2013
Steve’s Stoic Reviews:
Epictetus Discourses (The Slave)
Seneca Letters (Nero’s Suicide)
Marcus Aurelius Meditations (The Emperor)
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