Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is said to have penned Meditations during his time amongst the Quadi people on the banks of the River Danube. Their lands bordered the Roman Empire and Bohemia. Scholars consider his philosophical reflections historically and culturally significant even today, over 1800 years after they were written.
Aurelius was born in Rome of Spanish origin. His father died when he was a child, and his grandfather, a relation to Roman Emperor Hadrian, raised him. As a young boy, Aurelius was drawn to the teachings of Stoic Philosophy and guided by Junius Rusticus towards Discourses, written by Epictetus. Stoicism subsequently influenced Marcus’ thinking and writing, although scholars consider his diary entries to be less than elegant. Regardless, his reflections were no less meaningful.
Meditations has been translated into many languages many times throughout history, and some doubt exists to its complete accuracy. Such variation is to be expected given the age of the original text and the number of hands the document may have passed through. Nonetheless, they represent deep and compelling thoughts on the nature of our humanity and our place in the universe.
The following verses are drawn from Book 2 of Meditations. Incidentally, as we might expect from a journal or diary, the original work had no title. Previously, it was said to have been titled To Himself. It was assigned the title, Meditations, in more recent times. The following are the first seven reflections from Marcus’ diary. Following each, I offer my interpretation and commentary.
Book 2, Meditation 1: Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill. But I, because I have seen that the nature of good is the right, and of ill the wrong, and that the nature of the man himself who does wrong is akin to my own (not of the same blood and seed, but partaking with me in mind, that is in a portion of divinity), I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in the wrong, nor can I be angry or hate he who is akin to me; for we have come into the world to work together, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against one another, therefore, is to work in opposition to Nature, and to be angry with another or to turn away from him is to tend to antagonism.
Although I can appreciate the well-intended thrust of the first passage, in all practical reality, it’s impossible. To forcibly bring ourselves to act in this way is a form of denial of base motivations and drives. We can try to hold to the idea that all humanity is one race, but the construction of our psychology doesn’t allow us to act accordingly. We are in large part, not in control of our intentions and actions. We operate on impulse based on the beliefs, core values, societal structures and ideologies to which we have been raised. No matter how hard we try to fix ourselves and hold to idealistic notions of love thy fellow man, it all falls short. Eventually, we let ourselves down.
So what shall we do? Berate ourselves for acting contrary to Aurelius’ first premise?
This would be self-flagellation, one which traditional teachings of the Christian church, for example, have long promoted. And we know where that has brought us. So what do we do then? Do we allow ourselves to treat our fellow human beings with contempt and disrespect? Of course not. My idea here is that we can’t avoid that which we are, and to do so creates more significant problems later. We must, on the contrary, be true to ourselves and learn from our actions. Change for the better will be its consequence. Anything else is sickening self-righteousness.
Book 2, Meditation 2: This, whatever it is that I am, is flesh and vital spirit and the governing self. Disdain the flesh: blood and bones and network, a twisted skein of nerves, veins, arteries. Consider also what the vital spirit is: a current of air, not even continuously the same, but every hour being expelled and sucked in again. There is then a third part — the governing self. Put away your books, be distracted no longer; they are not your portion. Instead, as if on the point of death, reflect like this; ‘you are an old man, suffer this governing part of you no longer to be in bondage, no longer to be a puppet pulled by selfish impulse, no longer to be indignant with what is allotted in the present or to suspect what is allotted in the future.’
Here it seems Aurelius recognises he has not long left and perhaps perceives the beginning of a separation of body and that which animates it. He refers to the mass of blood and veins and nerves as being a form of bondage of his ultimate ruling self. The body has had its time in charge, now it's time for the true self to take command. Things of the world are no longer his concern.
He is, in essence here, having a conversation with himself. I can relate to this. In my comments above on Meditation 1, I suggested that there is nothing we can do about our selfish primal drives, the ones that rule us. For Marcus, just as it is for all of us, the time has arrived when soon he can break free of those ties. The fascination with worldly things and with the apparent passage of time will quickly disappear for him.
Book 2, Meditation 3: The work of the gods is full of Providence: the work of Fortune is not divorced from Nature or the spinning and winding of the threads ordained by Providence. All flows from that other world; and there is, besides, necessity and the wellbeing of the whole universe, of which you are a part. Now to every part of Nature that is good which the nature of the Whole brings, and which preserves that nature; and the whole world is preserved as much by the changes of the compound bodies as by the changes of the elements which compose those bodies. Let this be sufficient for you; let these be continually your doctrines. But put away your thirst for books, that so you may not die murmuring, but truly reconciled and grateful from your heart to the gods.
There is a gestalt aspect to this world and the broader universe. Everything plays a part, and there is not one animate or inanimate thing that has priority over another. All things will have their time, and all must fade back from where it came. The organism that materialises from the point of the source is self-fulfilling and self-organising.
Maybe I’m not in a sufficiently learned position to suggest it, but there are parallels here with Hinduism and Buddhism. Like Indra’s net, everything is implicated in, and implicates everything else. I suppose it might be fair to say, at least from my perspective, that no matter what ideology we refer, everyone is preaching the same thing. There is one energy, and all aspects of physical reality move out from and fall back into that.
Book 2, Meditation 4: Remember how long you have been putting off these things, and how many times the gods have given you days of grace, and yet you do not use them. Now is it high time to perceive the kind of Universe whereof you are a part and the nature of the governor of the Universe from whom you subsist as an effluence, and that the term of your time is circumscribed, and that unless you use it to attain calm of mind, time will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity to use it will not be yours again.
Again, realising he is close to death, Arellius converses with himself regarding the urgency that he must accept his demise. Yet at the same time, he asks himself to accept that he flows from something more significant. As with every one of us, he seems to wrestle with the apparent split in his identity, especially the mortal aspect.
It’s something I consider often. It’s a little scary but also exciting to contemplate that this aspect of me will one day disappear. Maybe there will be a memory of it somewhere, floating in a nebulous mist in space. Who knows? I don’t think our limited perception can realise this while we are alive. We have to accept we won’t know until we know.
Book 2, Meditation 5: Each hour be minded, valiantly as becomes a Roman and a man, to do what is to your hand, with precise . . . and unaffected dignity, natural love, freedom and justice; and to give yourself repose from every other imagination. And so you will, if only you do each act as though it were your last, freed from every random aim, from willful turning away from the directing Reason, from pretence, self-love and displeasure with what is allotted to you. You see how few things a man need master in order to live a quiet and godfearing life; for the gods themselves will require nothing more of him who keeps these precepts.
Here I feel that he and I are on the same page. I have been writing in recent times of the ultimate merit in doing our work, first, for the inherent enjoyment that we get from it. Ulterior motivations, ideas of success, reward and applause, take us away from the moment and away from what matters. What we are doing now is all that matters because there is nowhere else we can ever be effective. So having our minds focused on things other than what we are doing now is self-defeating.
When we immerse ourselves in our work, be that washing dishes, peeling spuds, writing, lifting weights, whatever, there is an opportunity to be happy and fulfilled. Until we learn how to do that, we will be lost in an imaginary future — a future that never arrives.
Book 2, Meditation 6: You are doing yourself violence, violence, my soul; and you will have no second occasion to do yourself honour. Brief is the life of each of us, and this of yours is nearly ended, and yet you do not reverence yourself, but commit your well-being to the charge of other men’s souls.
Focus outside ourselves, concern for what other people are doing and thinking about us, serves only to distract us from our point of effectiveness. It stops the creative mind dead. Life is infinitely short, how long in linear time we have is anyone’s guess, so why spend it wastefully on what other people think. I know it’s hard, but we must stay inward looking even when the time arrives when we have to work with others.
Book 2, Meditation 7: Do things from the outside break in to distract you? Give yourself a time of quiet to learn some new good thing and cease to wander out of your course. But, when you have done that, be on your guard against a second kind of wandering. For those who are sick to death in life, with no mark on which they direct every impulse or in general every imagination, are triflers, not in words only but also in their deeds.
Again here, Aurelius warns us against the danger of distraction and influence of others. If it was important 2000 years ago in Rome, it’s most certainly relevant in this age of distraction. Marcus Aurelius suggests that we must find time for solitude, time to be alone where we can work and learn new things — a vital ingredient in the creative process.
Most people spend their lives seeking purpose and validation in others, so we must be careful not to be drawn into that exchange. In such a scenario, we tend to sacrifice our most authentic selves to appease the needs of the others. As such, results rarely turn out too well.
All ancient writings, given that they pass through many cultures and modes of interpretation, become corrupted. However, if we are prepared to look deeper, I think we can find a grain of truth. Marcus Aurelius’ diary, although sometimes referred to as crude according to some scholars, has that grain of truth for me.
I’m not reading it like a traditional book. It need not be read that way. Instead, I’ll pick it up and flick through its pages. Where I stop, I always tend to find something meaningful. Maybe I can apply it, perhaps not. But it no doubt will make me think.
Thank you for this insightful review of some of Marcus Aurelius’s ponderings. As always, I appreciate and look forward to your letters – you get to the point without highfalutin verbiage – so refreshing, so timely and so spot on!
Many thanks for reading Gayle!