Slow thinking about ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius.

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I’ve never seen my soul either. And yet I revere it. That’s how I know the gods exist and why I revere them—from having felt their power, over and over.

‘Meditations’ is a classic read about Stoic philosophy by Marcus Aurelius, the powerful Roman Emperor & philosopher, who ruled from 161 to 180 AD. Marcus wrote these notes in Greek, even though Latin was his native language. There are many translations available, including in modern English. The one I read has been written by Gregory Hays: it is a highly recommended & popular version.

Marcus was a philosopher & used to deeply believe in reflecting on life as a habit. As Marcus said, “And not to think of philosophy as your instructor, but as the sponge and egg white that relieves ophthalmia—as a soothing ointment, a warm lotion. Not showing off your obedience to the logos, but resting in it. Remember: philosophy requires only what your nature already demands. What you’ve been after is something else again—something unnatural.”

Through these notes, he talks to himself, about the right way of living & his challenges & efforts to live up to that way. Marcus wrote these notes for himself, without meaning for them to be read by others. Hence, they are largely unstructured, follow no logical pattern and appear very repetitive.

As I read these notes, I felt that there are just 3 fundamental principles that they are based on. In the post below, I first look at these 3 principles. I then list select passages from the book that really appealed to me; for easy reading, I have grouped these passages into 6 behaviors that Marcus repeatedly talks about. These 6 behaviors themselves are derived from the 3 underlying principles.

Marcus said, “To read attentively—not to be satisfied with “just getting the gist of it.” Remember this as u read this long post 🙂

The 3 fundamental principles of Marcus’s philosophy.

The three principles are

  • Living as per the logos, the rational inherent in nature / our universe. Following this ensures we live right, ensures justice. Our nature can only do whats right for the entire universe; even when it appers to harm us. Anything that hurts nature, hurts us too; as Marcus says, “What injures the hive injures the bee.”
  • Controlling the only 3 things in our control: our thoughts, words & action.
  • Acceptance everything that is beyond our control (which is everything except our own thoughts, words & action).

To explain, I have simply quoted from Gregory’s own introduction to his translation of Marcus’s book.

A. Logos – the rational of our universe/nature.

“Of the doctrines central to the Stoic worldview, perhaps the most important is the unwavering conviction that the world is organized in a rational and coherent way. More specifically, it is controlled and directed by an all-pervading force that the Stoics designated by the term logos. The term (from which English “logic” and the suffix “-logy” derive), at a basic level, designates rational, connected thought—whether envisioned as a characteristic (rationality, the ability to reason) or as the product of that characteristic (an intelligible utterance or a connected discourse). Logos operates both in individuals and in the universe as a whole. In individuals, it is the faculty of reason. On a cosmic level, it is the rational principle that governs the organization of the universe. In this sense, it is synonymous with “nature,” “Providence,” or “God.” All events are determined by the logos and follow an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Stoicism is thus from the outset a deterministic system that appears to leave no room for human free will or moral responsibility. In reality, the Stoics were reluctant to accept such an arrangement and attempted to get around the difficulty by defining free will as a voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable. According to this theory, man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon. If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged. In the same way, humans are responsible for their choices and actions, even though these have been anticipated by the logos and form part of its plan. Even actions which appear to be—and indeed are—immoral or unjust advance the overall design, which taken as a whole is harmonious and good. They, too, are governed by the logos.”

B. Control the only 3 things that you can (your own thoughts, words & actions).

“The discipline of perception requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought: that we see things dispassionately for what they are. For example, my impression that my house has just burned down is simply that—an impression or report conveyed to me by my senses about an event in the outside world. By contrast, my perception that my house has burned down and I have thereby suffered a terrible tragedy includes not only an impression but also an interpretation imposed upon that initial impression by my powers of hypolepsis (i.e perception). It is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to accept it. I may be a good deal better off if I decline to do so. It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is, therefore, to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.”

“The discipline of action (our spoken words & actions), relates to our relationship with other people. Human beings, for Marcus as for the Stoics generally, are social animals, a point he makes often. All human beings possess not only a share of the logos but also the ability to use it (that is what makes us human and distinguishes us from other animals). But it would perhaps be more accurate to say that we are participants in the logos, which is as much a process as a substance. Marcus himself more than once compares the world ruled by logos to a city in which all human beings are citizens, with all the duties inherent in citizenship. As human beings, we are part of nature, and our duty is to accommodate ourselves to its demands and requirements—“to live as nature requires,” as Marcus often puts it. To do this we must make proper use of the logos we have been allotted, and perform as best we can the functions assigned us in the master plan of the larger, cosmic logos, of which it is a part. This requires not merely passive acquiescence in what happens, but active cooperation with the world, with fate, and, above all, with other human beings. We were made, Marcus tells us over and over, not for ourselves but for others, and our nature is fundamentally unselfish. In our relationships with others, we must work for their collective good, while treating them justly and fairly as individuals.”

C. Acceptance of what you cannot control.

“The discipline of will governs our attitude to things that are not within our control, those that we have done to us (by others or by nature). We control our own actions and are responsible for them. If we act wrongly, then we have done serious harm to ourselves (though not, it should be emphasized, to others, or to the logos). By contrast, things outside our control have no ability to harm us. Acts of wrongdoing by a human agent (torture, theft, or other crimes) harm the agent, not the victim. Acts of nature such as fire, illness, or death can harm us only if we choose to see them as harmful. When we do so, we question the benevolence and providence of the logos, and thereby degrade our own logos. This, of course, we must not do. Instead, we must see things for what they are (here the discipline of perception is relevant) and accept them, by exercising the discipline of will, or what Epictetus calls (in a phrase quoted by Marcus) “the art of acquiescence.” For if we recognize that all events have been foreseen by the logos and form part of its plan and that the plan in question is unfailingly good (as it must be), then it follows that we must accept whatever fate has in store for us, however unpleasant it may appear, trusting that, in Alexander Pope’s phrase, “whatever is, is right.” This applies to all obstacles and (apparent) misfortunes, and in particular to death—a process that we cannot prevent, which therefore does not harm us, and which accordingly we must accept willingly as natural and proper.”

The 6 behaviours for leading the ‘right’ life

All of Marcus’s notes talk about 6 behaviors that are required for living the right way.

The first 3 behaviors are related to each other and are derived by combining the first two principles, i.e logos + control. They are essentially about controlling what we can and ensuring we control them the right way. Behaviour nos. 2 & 3 are actually subsets of the first one.

The next 3 behaviors (nos. 4, 5 & 6) are also related to each other and are derived by combining the first and the third principles, i.e logos + acceptance. They are about accepting what we cannot control and accepting them the right way. 5 & 6 are actually just specific cases of the 4th behavior.

In each section below, I have given a very brief summary before quoting select passages from Gregory’s translation of Marcus’s book.

1. Control what u can: thoughts, words, actions and ensure you do right.

You only control three things: your own thoughts, words & actions. No one else can control them. Make sure you think right, speak right & act right. You get it right when you behave as per the logos.

Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.

Not to be overwhelmed by what you imagine, but just do what you can and should.

I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me. But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.

Disgraceful: for the soul to give up when the body is still going strong.

Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision—and your own mind.

Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it —turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.

A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained. To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring. How? By working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, humility.

As you move forward in the logos, people will stand in your way. They can’t keep you from doing what’s healthy; don’t let them stop you from putting up with them either. Take care on both counts. Not just sound judgments, solid actions—tolerance as well, for those who try to obstruct us or give us trouble in other ways. Because anger, too, is weakness, as much as breaking down and giving up the struggle. Both are deserters: the man who breaks and runs, and the one who lets himself be alienated from his fellow humans.

Remember how brief is the attentiveness required. And then our lives will end. And why is it so hard when things go against you? If it’s imposed by nature, accept it gladly and stop fighting it. And if not, work out what your own nature requires, and aim at that, even if it brings you no glory. None of us is forbidden to pursue our own good.

2. Control your thoughts. Think right.

You can & should control your thoughts. No one else can control them. Reflect deeply on your thoughts themselves to get them right. Eliminate false perceptions that your mind itself builds up. Eliminate needless thoughts. Think only right thoughts; thoughts that are in harmony with nature/logos.

Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.

Your ability to control your thoughts —treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions—false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.

Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.

Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?” But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.

Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. —Then where is harm to be found? In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer.

To shrug it all off and wipe it clean—every annoyance and distraction—and reach utter stillness. Child’s play.

What am I doing with my soul? Interrogate yourself, to find out what inhabits your so-called mind and what kind of soul you have now. A child’s soul, an adolescent’s, a woman’s? A tyrant’s soul? The soul of a predator—or its prey?

The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.

Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love—something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid. Perceptions like that —latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time—all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust— to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.

Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when he has you in his spell.

Awaken; return to yourself. Now, no longer asleep, knowing they were only dreams, clear-headed again, treat everything around you as a dream.

You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad.” And so of course when the “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible—or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.

The mind in itself has no needs, except for those it creates itself. Is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. Knows no obstructions, except those from within.

Disgraceful: that the mind should control the face, should be able to shape and mold it as it pleases, but not shape and mold itself.

“And why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice!”

No chorus of lamentation, no hysterics.

In all that happens, keep before your eyes those who experienced it before you, and felt shock and outrage and resentment at it. And now where are they? Nowhere. Is that what you want to be like? Instead of avoiding all these distracting assaults—leaving the alarms and flight to others—and concentrating on what you can do with it all? Because you can use it, treat it as raw material. Just pay attention, and resolve to live up to your own expectations. In everything. And when faced with a choice, remember: our business is with things that really matter.

For times when you feel pain: See that it doesn’t disgrace you, or degrade your intelligence— doesn’t keep it from acting rationally or unselfishly. And in most cases what Epicurus said should help: that pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.

To live life in peace, immune to all compulsion. Let them scream whatever they want. Let animals dismember this soft flesh that covers you. How would any of that stop you from keeping your mind calm— reliably sizing up what’s around you—and ready to make good use of whatever happens?

Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense.

Don’t be overheard complaining about life at court. Not even to yourself.

The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever. Not to see this is ignorance. To see it and not seek safety means misery.

Nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That—but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick—that I can see. But “that he might die of it,” no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you. Or extrapolate. From a knowledge of all that can happen in the world.

Either the gods have power or they don’t. If they don’t, why pray? If they do, then why not pray for something else instead of for things to happen or not to happen? Pray not to feel fear. Or desire, or grief. If the gods can do anything, they can surely do that for us. —But those are things the gods left up to me. Then isn’t it better to do what’s up to you—like a free man—than to be passively controlled by what isn’t, like a slave or beggar? And what makes you think the gods don’t care about what’s up to us? Start praying like this and you’ll see. Not “some way to sleep with her”—but a way to stop wanting to. Not “some way to get rid of him”—but a way to stop trying. Not “some way to save my child”—but a way to lose your fear. Redirect your prayers like that, and watch what happens.

How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them.

When you start to lose your temper, remember: There’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being—and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners.

Who is responsible for our own restlessness. That no one obstructs us. That it’s all in how you perceive it.

3. Control what you speak and what you do. Speak right. Do right.

You can control your words and actions. No one else can control them. Eliminate needless words & actions. Only the right words/actions as per nature/logos.

The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. (Is this fair? Is this the right thing to do?) <…> not to be distracted by their darkness. To run straight for the finish line, unswerving.

Not to be driven this way and that, but always to behave with justice and see things as they are.

If an action or utterance is appropriate, then it’s appropriate for you. Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say. The others obey their own lead, follow their own impulses. Don’t be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature— along the road they share.

Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying … or busy with other assignments. Because dying, too, is one of our assignments in life. There as well: “to do what needs doing.”

“Then the only proper response for me to make is this: ‘You are much mistaken, my friend, if you think that any man worth his salt cares about the risk of death and doesn’t concentrate on this alone: whether what he’s doing is right or wrong, and his behavior a good man’s or a bad one’s.’

Dig deep; the water—goodness—is down there. And as long as you keep digging, it will keep bubbling up.

What matters is what kind of soul he had. Whether he was satisfied to treat men with justice and the gods with reverence and didn’t lose his temper unpredictably at evil done by others, didn’t make himself the slave of other people’s ignorance, didn’t treat anything that nature did as abnormal, or put up with it as an unbearable imposition, didn’t put his mind in his body’s keeping.

To speak to the Senate—or anyone—in the right tone, without being overbearing. To choose the right words.

He has stripped away his body and —realizing that at some point soon he will have to abandon mankind and leave all this behind—has dedicated himself to serving justice in all he does, and nature in all that happens. What people say or think about him, or how they treat him, isn’t something he worries about. Only these two questions: Is what he’s doing now the right thing to be doing? Does he accept and welcome what he’s been assigned? He has stripped away all other occupations, all other tasks. He wants only to travel a straight path—to God, by way of law.

Also characteristic of the rational soul: Affection for its neighbors. Truthfulness. Humility. Not to place anything above itself—which is characteristic of law as well. No difference here between the logos of rationality and that of justice.

“And your profession?” “Goodness.”

4. Accept what you cannot control. Accept it the right way.

You cannot control anything apart from your own thoughts, words & actions. So accept everything else: whatever happens in this universe, your life, how other people behave, your own death. Accept it the right way; without regrets. It is what nature/logos has planned. Embrace it. Amor Fati (love/embrace your fate).

He does only what is his to do, and considers constantly what the world has in store for him—doing his best, and trusting that all is for the best. For we carry our fate with us—and it carries us.

That every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll see.

To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.

So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.

Just as you overhear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such and-such for him” (like riding, or cold baths, or walking barefoot …), say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. There “prescribed” means something like “ordered, so as to further his recovery.” And so too here. What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny… and fit together in a harmonious pattern. For there is a single harmony. Just as the world forms a single body comprising all bodies, so fate forms a single purpose, comprising all purposes.

And in that case, let’s accept it—as we accept what the doctor prescribes. It may not always be pleasant, but we embrace it—because we want to get well. Look at the accomplishment of nature’s plans in that light—the way you look at your own health— and accept what happens (even if it seems hard to accept). Accept it because of what it leads to: the good health of the world.

Accept what nature prescribes for you. Its part of a plan. 

What stands in the way becomes the way.

Other people’s mistakes?Leave them to their makers.

To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony.

Remember: you shouldn’t be surprised that a fig tree produces figs, nor the world what it produces. A good doctor isn’t surprised when his patients have fevers, or a helmsman when the wind blows against him.

To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.

People find pleasure in different ways. I find it in keeping my mind clear. In not turning away from people or the things that happen to them. In accepting and welcoming everything I see. In treating each thing as it deserves. Ever be fulfilled, ever stop desiring—lusting and longing for people and things to enjoy? Or for more time to enjoy them? Or for some other place or country—“a more temperate clime”? Or for people easier to get along with? And instead be satisfied with what you have, and accept the present—all of it.

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable … then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well.

People who feel hurt and resentment: picture them as the pig at the sacrifice, kicking and squealing all the way. Like the man alone in his bed, silently weeping over the chains that bind us. That everything has to submit. But only rational beings can do so voluntarily.

To be angry at something means you’ve forgotten: That everything that happens is natural.

5. Accept what other people think, say or do. Accept them the right way.

You cannot control what other people think, say or do: so acceptance is the only way. Accept them and their behaviors the right way: without any regrets. Love & embrace them for they make up the universe with you. You are here for them. The universe has put them here for a reason; they behave the way they do for a reason, it’s how the universe wants them to behave.

Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.

Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous. The object of praise remains what it was—no better and no worse. This applies, I think, even to “beautiful” things in ordinary life—physical objects, artworks.

Then what is to be prized? An audience clapping? No. No more than the clacking of their tongues. Which is all that public praise amounts to—a clacking of tongues. So we throw out other people’s recognition. What’s left for us to prize? I think it’s this: to do (and not do) what we were designed for. That’s the goal of all trades, all arts, and what each of them aims at: that the thing they create should do what it was designed to do. The nurseryman who cares for the vines, the horse trainer, the dog breeder—this is what they aim at. And teaching and education— what else are they trying to accomplish? So that’s what we should prize. Hold on to that, and you won’t be tempted to aim at anything else.

And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free—free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. Plotting against those who have them— those things you prize.

The way people behave. They refuse to admire their contemporaries, the people whose lives they share. No, but to be admired by Posterity—people they’ve never met and never will— that’s what they set their hearts on. You might as well be upset at not being a hero to your great-grandfather.

Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.

Look at who they really are, the people whose approval you long for, and what their minds are really like. Then you won’t blame the ones who make mistakes they can’t help, and you won’t feel a need for their approval. You will have seen the sources of both— their judgments and their actions.

It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.

You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they’ll still go on doing it. If it’s in your control, why do you do it? If it’s in someone else’s, then who are you blaming? Atoms? The gods? Stupid either way. Blame no one. Set people straight, if you can.

If not, just repair the damage. And suppose you can’t do that either. Then where does blaming people get you? No pointless actions.

Convince them not to. If you can. And if not, remember: the capacity for patience was given us for a reason. The gods are patient with them too, and even help them to concrete things: health, money, fame…. Such is the gods’ goodness. And yours, too, if you wanted. What’s stopping you?

And when others stray off course, you can always try to set them straight, because every wrongdoer is doing something wrong – doing something the wrong way. And how does it injure you anyway? You’ll find that none of the people you’re upset about has done anything that could do damage to your mind. But that’s all that “harm” or “injury” could mean.

So when you call someone “untrustworthy” or “ungrateful,” turn the reproach on yourself. It was you who did wrong. By assuming that someone with those traits deserved your trust. Or by doing them a favor and expecting something in return, instead of looking to the action itself for your reward. What else did you expect from helping someone out? Isn’t it enough that you’ve done what your nature demands? You want a salary for it too? As if your eyes expected a reward for seeing or your feet for walking.

Don’t expect anything more from others. But do what u have to do and don’t expect rewards.

How they act when they eat and sleep and mate and defecate and all the rest. Then when they order and exult, or rage and thunder from on high. And yet, just consider the things they submitted to a moment ago, and the reasons for it—and the things they’ll submit to again before very long.

Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: not to do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them.

That if they’re right to do this, then you have no right to complain. And if they aren’t, then they do it involuntarily, out of ignorance. Because all souls are prevented from treating others as they deserve, just as they are kept from truth: unwillingly. Which is why they resent being called unjust, or arrogant, or greedy—any suggestion that they aren’t good neighbors.

That you don’t know for sure it is a mistake. A lot of things are means to some other end. You have to know an awful lot before you can judge other people’s actions with real understanding.

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.

6. Accept that you & yours will die one day. Accept it the right way.

You & yours are destined to die one day: you cannot stop it. Embrace the fact; without fear, anxiety, or regret: that is the right way. Understand that your time is limited; it is nothing compared to the time that has elapsed before you or will come after you are gone.

Don’t worry about other people. You have limited time.

That sort of person is bound to do that. You might as well resent a fig tree for secreting juice. (Anyway, before very long you’ll both be dead—dead and soon forgotten.)

Many lumps of incense on the same altar. One crumbles now, one later, but it makes no difference.

Constant awareness that everything is born from change. The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to alter what exists and make new things like it. All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. You think the only seeds are the ones that make plants or children? Go deeper.

Don’t let yourself forget how many doctors have died, after furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds. How many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about others’ ends. How many philosophers, after endless disquisitions on death and immortality. How many warriors, after inflicting thousands of casualties themselves. How many tyrants, after abusing the power of life and death atrociously, as if they were themselves immortal. How many whole cities have met their end: He like, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and countless others.

And all the ones you know yourself, one after another. One who laid out another for burial, and was buried himself, and then the man who buried him—all in the same short space of time. In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint. Like an olive that ripens and falls. Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.

A trite but effective tactic against the fear of death: think of the list of people who had to be pried away from life. What did they gain by dying old? In the end, they all sleep six feet under— Caedicianus, Fabius, Julian, Lepidus, and all the rest. They buried their contemporaries, and were buried in turn.

Why would I care about anything except the eventual “dust to dust”? And why would I feel any anxiety? Dispersal is certain, whatever I do.

Death. The end of sense-perception, of being controlled by our emotions, of mental activity, of enslavement to our bodies.

Keep this constantly in mind: that all sorts of people have died — all professions, all nationalities. Follow the thought all the way down to Philistion, Phoebus, and Origanion. Now extend it to other species. We have to go there too, where all of them have already gone: … the eloquent and the wise —Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates … … the heroes of old, the soldiers and kings who followed them … … Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Archimedes … … the smart, the generous, the hardworking, the cunning, the selfish … . and even Menippus and his cohorts, who laughed at the whole brief, fragile business.

All underground for a long time now. And what harm does it do them? Or the others either—the ones whose names we don’t even know? The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.

It doesn’t bother you that you weigh only x or y pounds and not three hundred. Why should it bother you that you have only x or y years to live and not more? You accept the limits placed on your body. Accept those placed on your time.

All those people who came into the world with me and have already left it.

Look at the past—empire succeeding empire—and from that, extrapolate the future: the same thing. No escape from the rhythm of events. Which is why observing life for forty years is as good as a thousand. Would you really see anything new?

“… with food and drink and magic spells Seeking some novel way to frustrate death.”

Fear of death is fear of what we may experience. Nothing at all, or something quite new. But if we experience nothing, we can experience nothing bad.

So this is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that happen to us. Now you anticipate the child’s emergence from its mother’s womb; that’s how you should await the hour when your soul will emerge from its compartment. Think about your life: childhood, boyhood, youth, old age. Every transformation a kind of dying. Was that so terrible?

Think about life with your grandfather, your mother, your adopted father. Realize how many other deaths and transformations and endings there have been and ask yourself: Was that so terrible? Then neither will the close of your life be—its ending and transformation.

You can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind— things that exist only there—and clear out space for yourself: … by comprehending the scale of the world … by contemplating infinite time … by thinking of the speed with which things change —each part of every thing; the narrow space between our birth and death; the infinite time before; the equally unbounded time that follows.

If you’ve immersed yourself in the principles of truth, the briefest, most random reminder is enough to dispel all fear and pain: … leaves that the wind Drives earthward; such are the generations of men. Your children, leaves. Leaves applauding loyally and heaping praise upon you, or turning around and calling down curses, sneering and mocking from a safe distance. A glorious reputation handed down by leaves. All of these “spring up in springtime”—and the wind blows them all away. And the tree puts forth others to replace them. None of us have much time. And yet you act as if things were eternal—the way you fear and long for them.. Before long, darkness. And whoever buries you mourned in their turn.

Remember that, when the time comes. You’ll be less reluctant to leave if you can tell yourself, “This is the sort of life I’m leaving. Even the people around me, the ones I spent so much time fighting for, praying over, caring about—even they want me gone, in hopes that it will make their own lives easier. How could anyone stand a longer stay here?” And yet, don’t leave angry with them. Be true to who you are: caring, sympathetic, kind. And not as if you were being torn away from life. But the way it is when someone dies peacefully, how the soul is released from the body—that’s how you should leave them. It was nature that bound you to them—that tied the knot. And nature that now unties you. I am released from those around me. Not dragged against my will, but unresisting. There are things that nature demands. And this is one of them.

As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.” Don’t tempt fate, you say. By talking about a natural event? Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?

The condition of soul and body when death comes for us. Shortness of life. Vastness of time before and after. Fragility of matter.

That before long you’ll be no one, and nowhere. Like all the things you see now. All the people now living. Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born.

Criticism of Marcus’s philosophy

While there is a lot to appreciate & learn from Marcus, there are three main areas that bother me about his thoughts.

A. Does not motivate to fight for big, worthy causes.

Marcus’ focus seems to be too much on acceptance of what is, rather than controlling & changing what we can. Our planet is full of big challenges to be solved – hunger, disease, inequality & oppression, climate change….the list is long. Such challenges get solved by those who are dream big and passionately devote their life to such causes. They are ambitious, actively work to fight opposing forces in various forms, seek to control/influence the thoughts, words, and actions of the rest of the world & choose to not accept failure easily. They rise especially after they have fallen.

Is there no place for such people in Marcus’s philosophy? What would he have said to Arjun on the battlefield of Kurushetra, had he been in Krishna’s place? Most of us, I am sure, will be loathed to agree with this view of his; “When a slave runs away from his master, we call him a fugitive slave. But the law of nature is a master too, and to break it is to become a fugitive. To feel grief, anger or fear is to try to escape from something decreed by the ruler of all things, now or in the past or in the future. And that ruler is law, which governs what happens to each of us. To feel grief or anger or fear is to become a fugitive—a fugitive from justice.”

B. Pessimistic/austere nature of philosophy.

Marcus seems to have a fairly bleak worldview where he is more focused on mitigating pain, disappointment, death and shuns positive emotions like joy, pleasure, sense of achievement. This comment may be true of Stoics in general. As Marcus said, “But no truly good person would feel remorse at passing up pleasure. So it cannot be to your benefit, or good.” Is it wrong to have fun with friends & family? Listen to music? Go on a leisurely hike?

C. What is right (logos) is not clearly defined.

This may be more something has been left unanswered rather than something I feel he has got wrong. Marcus often refers to living in accordance with nature and its rationale. However, it is mostly not clear how one is to recognize that rationale and determine what is good and justified? Would it be justified to resort to violence to defend the life of a weak one? Who were the heroes and villains during the world wars? Is capitalism wrong or right? How can one learn to read the logos to resolve ethical dilemmas that are being debated across the world, e.g. human migration, abortion, covid lockdowns?

What do your think of this interpretation of Meditations? Let me know. Sharing your thoughts with me is something you control and in harmony with your logos 🙂

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