Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
Meditations (Ta eis heauton) is a collection of thoughts and observations on ideas concerning Stoic philosophy written by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who ruled from from 161 to 180. It was written for his own benefit somewhere around 170 - 180 A.D. and it's thought these meditations weren't intended to be shared, and so the first time it was published was 1559 in its original Greek and not until 1634 in English. These writings have been divided into twelve books. Here's some of my notes on each book:
In this section Aurelius writes on things he has learned from people close to him, such as the importance of diplomacy over rhetoric, avoiding superstition, tradition, the avoidance of tyranny, and the importance of self-control. Here's two of my favourite quotes:
12. Alexander the Platonist cautioned me against frequent use of the words "I am too busy" in speech or 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.
13. Catulus the Stoic counselled me never to make light of a friend's rebuke, even when unreasonable, but to do my best to restore myself to his good graces; to speak up readily in commendation of my instructors, as we read in the memoirs of Domitius and Athenodotus; and to cultivate a genuine affection for my children.Book II
Here Aurelius writes on the idea of 'good' and 'good behaviour' and how good and bad work together to produce a whole. He then writes about the gods, and fortune and fate, and then on death. Much of the emphasis in this section, I believe, is on harmony. Here's another favourite quote:
1. 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 offenders'ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow-creature similarly endowed with reason and share of the divine): therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man's two hands, feet, or eyelids, or like the upper and lower rows of teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature's law - and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction?Book III
Aurelius continues the theme of death and long life, pointing out that a long life is not the same as quality of life. He then writes on how fast time goes by and thus we should not put off anything that may be done now. He shows his indifference to death and then turns the subject towards happiness, and the importance of reason, self-control, and focus. A favourite quote:
4. Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbours, unless with a view to some mutual benefit. To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why, or what he is saying, or thinking, or scheming - on a word, anything that distracts you from the fidelity to the Ruler within you [reason] - means a loss of opportunity for some other task. See then that the flow of your thoughts is kept free from idle or random fancies, particularly those of an inquisitive or uncharitable nature...
Here Aurelius continues the theme of focus and direction, and warns against distraction such as judging others or allowing others to interrupt our flow. Life, he again writes, is transient and death inevitable, and it is more important to think about what good one can bring in life than to worry about what will happen to us or our reputation after death. A favourite quote:
51. Ever run the short way; and the short way is the way of nature, with perfect soundness in each word and deed as the goal. Such an aim will give you freedom from anxiety and strife, and from all compromise and artifice.Book V
In Book V Aurelius essentially tells us to take the smooth with the rough, arguing that that is the way of life and we born into the inevitability of suffering. One should not expect rewards for doing what we ought to do, pointing to the natural world where animals, bees for example, work hard without expectation. Some favourite quotes:
17. To pursue the unattainable is insanity, yet the thoughtless can never refrain from doing so.
34. Press on steadily, keep to the straight road in your thinking and doing, and your days will ever flow on smoothly. The soul of man, like the souls of all rational creatures, has two things in common with the soul of God: it can never be thwarted from without, and its good consists in righteousness of character and action, and in confining every wish thereto.Book VI
Half-way through now, and Aurelius talks about the 'wholeness' of the universe and, attributing god-lie qualities to Reason, says that everything that happens is for a purpose. Change is inevitable, and the importance of philosophy, as he's mentioned many times so far, is of the utmost, as is social action instead of hedonism. Some favourite quotes:
12. If you had a stepmother at the same time as a mother, you would do your duty by the former, but would still turn continually to your mother. Here, you have both: the court and philosophy. Time and again turn back to philosophy for refreshment; then even the court life, and yourself in it, will seem bearable.
17. Above, below, and around us whirl the elements in their courses. But virtue knows no such motions: she is a thing more divine, moving serenely onward in ways past understanding.
19. Because a thing is difficult for you, do not therefore suppose it to be beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper for man to do, assume that it must fall within your own capacity.
43. Does the sun think to do the rain's work? Or Asclepius that of Demeter? And how is it with the stars? Are they not all different, yet all work in concert to the one end?
In this Aurelius writes on the inevitability of evil, and the importance of change; how it can essentially refresh one's mind and thus not get dragged down by the bad ways of others. He then notes that not everyone is suited to certain tasks, and one must think of the good of society and the universe before pursuing them, and, if necessary, passing them on to another who is more suited. Goodness and virtue however should be steadfast: simplicity and integrity must be held dear. He then records certain lessons he has learned from, for example, Plato and Euripides, and then talks about the cyclical nature of life. Some favourite quotes:
1. What is evil? A thing you have seen times out of number. Likewise with every other sort of occurrence also, be prompt and remind yourself that this, too, you have witnessed many times before. For everywhere, above and below, you will find nothing but the selfsame things; they fill the pages of all history, ancient, modern, and contemporary; and they fill our cities and homes today. There is no such thing as novelty; all is trite as it is transitory.
11. To a reasoning being, an act that accords with nature is an act that accords with reason.
62. The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in as much as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.
64. When in pain, always be prompt to remind yourself that there is nothing shameful about it and nothing prejudicial to the mind at the helm, which suffers no injury either in its rational or social aspects. In most cases the sayings of Epicurus should prove helpful, that 'Pain is never unbearable or unending, so long as you remember its limitations and do not indulge in fanciful exaggerations'. Bear in mind also that, though we do not realise it, many other things which we find uncomfortable are, in fact, of the same nature as pain: feelings of lethargy, for example, or a feverish temperature, or loss of appetite. When inclined to grumble at any of these, tell yourself that you are giving in to pain.
65. When men are inhuman, take care not to feel towards them as they do towards other humans.
A good life, Aurelius writes, does not mean a luxurious one but a one that is spent understanding good and evil and exercising self-control. Though Aurelius is not a philosopher, he may still philosophise, and that is time well-spent. Kindness is key to a good life, as is quiet contemplation. Some favourite quotes:
6. Universal Nature's task is to shuffle, transpose, interchange, remove from one state and transfer to another. Everywhere there is change; and yet we need fear nothing unexpected, for all things are ruled by age-long wont, and even the manner or apportioning them does not vary.
19. Everything - a horse, a vine - is created for some duty. This is nothing to wonder at: even the sun-god himself will tell you, 'There is a work that I am here to do,' and so will all the other sky-dwellers. For what task, then, were you yourself created? For pleasure? Can such a thought be tolerated?
27. We have three relationships: one to this bodily shell which envelops us, one to the divine Cause which is the source of everything in all things, and one to our fellow-mortals around us.
The subject turns to lies and injustice, which are one and the same. He then writes on how the rational are attracted to the rational and irrational to the irrational, and how evil is judged by action and not thought. A favourite quote:
4. The sinner sins against himself; the wrongdoer wrongs himself, becoming the worst by his own actions.
Marcus Aurelius writes that we are naturally social creatures and thus must follow nature and promote the good of the social unit. He then writes further on death, saying that it is natural and leads to renewal, and all living things are in the state of decay. Some quotes:
10. A spider is proud of catching a fly; so is one man of trapping a hare, or another of netting a sprat, or a third of capturing boars and bears or Sarmatians. If you go into the question of principles, are these anything but robbers of one and all?
16. Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.
32. Let no one have the right to say truthfully of you that you are without integrity or goodness; should any think such thoughts, see that they are without foundation. This all depends upon yourself, for who else can hinder you from attaining goodness and integrity? If you cannot live so, you need only resolve to live no longer; for in that case not even reason itself could requite your continuance.
In this penultimate part Marcus Aurelius writes on drama: how tragedies warn us about how bad life can be, and how Old Comedy can too be educational (he writes that New Comedy is not; when I read this I thought of the difference between Aristophanes' early plays and his last few plays and I was inclined to agree). He then writes on the purity of the soul when it sticks to its path, and it's easy to spot those who are virtuous and pure of soul. He then, again, writes on the importance of self-control. Some favourite quotes:
4. Have I done an unselfish thing? Well then, I have my reward. Keep this thought ever present, and persevere.
12. The soul attains her perfectly rounded form when she is neither straining out for something nor shrinking back into herself; neither disseminating herself piecemeal nor yet shrinking down in collapse; but is bathed in a radiance which reveals to her the world and herself in their true colours.
In the final part of Meditations Aurelius writes on how the only thing we fully possess and are in control of is our minds, and because of that anyone can live a good life, and that we should always strive to be good, even when we fail we can keep trying. Some quotes:
3. You are composed of three parts: body, breath, and mind. The first two merely belong to you in the sense that you are responsible for their care; the last alone is truly yours. If, then, you put away from this real self - from your understanding, that is - everything that others do or say and everything you yourself did or said in the past, together with every anxiety about the future, and everything affecting the body or its partner breath that is outside your own control, as well as everything that swirls about you in the eddy of outward circumstance, so that the powers of your mind, kept thus aloof and unspotted from all that destiny can do, may live their own life in independence, doing what is just, consenting to what befalls, and speaking what is true - if, I say, you put away this master-faculty of yours at every such clinging attachment, and whatever lies in the years ahead or the years behind, teaching yourself to become what Empedocles calls a 'totally rounded orb, in its own rotundity joying', and to be concerned solely with the life which you are now living, the life of the present moment, then until death comes you will be able to pass the rest of your days in freedom from all anxiety, and in kindliness and good favour with the deity within you.
7. Mediate upon what you ought to be in body and soul when death overtakes you: meditate upon the brevity of life, and the measureless gulfs of eternity behind it and before, and upon the frailty of everything material.
Meditations is a wonderful book, an absolute treasure trove in fact, on life and living. Marcus Aurelius offers much invaluable advice on living well, the transience of life, on death, good and evil, and many other questions that we continue to debate and indeed debated before this work. This is a book I will no doubt turn to again, and I do believe it's an absolute must-read for every single person living! It's always good to return to this work, there always seems to be some pertinent advice no matter what the occasion or feeling.