26 November 2007

The Reflections of an Emperor

Over the thanksgiving holiday, I was able to read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. Aurelius, Emperor of the Roman Empire, wrote the book to himself as form of self-encouragement. Aurelius is the last of the "five good Emperors" according to British historian Edward Gibbon. Aurelius' Stoicism is part of the Humanist tradition, and so I enjoyed reading the book immensely. Here are a few passages from the book: you can find the full text online if you wish to read more.
"Waste not the remainder of your life in thoughts about others, except when you are concerned with some unselfish purpose. For you are losing an opportunity to do something else, when you have thoughts such as: 'What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking, and what is he contriving' -- and whatever else of the kind makes us forget to observe our own ruling principle. We ought to check in the course of our thoughts everything that is without purpose and useless, but of all most meddling and malicious. A man should train himself to think only of those things about which if you were suddenly asked, "'What have you now in your thoughts?' - with perfect openness you might immediately answer, This or That, so that from your words it should be plain that everything in you is sincere and kindly, and befitting a social animal, and one that cares not for thoughts of pleasure or sensual enjoyment or any rivalry or envy or suspicion, or anything else for which you would blush if you were say it was on your mind." - Book III, s. 4

"If the faculty of understanding is common to us all, the reason also, through which we are rational beings, is common. If this is so, common also is that reason which tells us what to do, and what not to do. If this is so, there is a law common to all men also. If this is so, we are fellow citizens and members of some political community, and thus the world is in a way one commonwealth." - Book IV, s. 4

"Do not have the opinion of things that he has who does you wrong, or that he wishes you to have, but look at them as they are in truth." - Book IV, s.11

"A man should always have these two rules in readiness: first, to do only what the reason of your ruling and legislating faculty suggests for the service of men; second, to change your opinion, whenever anyone at hand sets you right and unsettles you in an opinion. But this change of opinion should come only when you are persuaded that something is just or to the public advantage, and the like, not because it appears pleasant or increases your reputation." - s. 12

"Have you reason? 'I have'. Why, then, do you not use it? For if it does its proper work, what else do you wish?" - s. 13

"Do not act as if you would live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good." - s. 17

"Whatever is any way beautiful is beautiful in itself, and has its end in itself, and praise is no part of it. Neither worse then nor better is a thing made by being praised. I say this too of things called beautiful by the vulgar, for example, material things and works of art. That which is really beautiful has no need of anything, no more than law, no more than truth, no more than generosity or modesty. Which of these things is made beautiful by being praised, or spoiled by being blamed? Is a jewel like an emerald damaged if it is not praised? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a dagger, a flower, a shrub?"- s. 20

"Examine men's ruling principles, especially of the wise, what kind of things they avoid, and what kind that they pursue." - s. 38

"Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it." - s. 49

When in the morning you rise unwillingly, let this thought be with you: 'I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am about to do the things for which I was brought into the world? Or was I made to lie under the bedclothes and keep myself warm? ' 'But that is more pleasant', you say. Do you live then to take your pleasure, and not at all for action and exertion? Do you not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees, working together to set in order their several parts of the universe? And are you unwilling to do the work of a human being, not eager to do what belongs to do your nature? 'But I must have rest also.' You must; nature, however, has fixed bounds to this. She has fixed bounds too to both eating and drinking, yet you go beyond these bounds, beyond what is enough; yet in your work it is not so, and you stop short of what you can do. So you love not yourself, for if you did, you would love your nature and her will. " - Book V, s. 1

"Be not unhappy, or discouraged, or dissatisfied, if you do not succeed in acting always by the right principles; but when you have failed, try again, and be content if most of your acts are consistent with man's nature. Love that to which you return; do not return to philosophy as if she were a schoolmaster, but behave like those who have sore eyes and apply a bit of sponge or an egg, or like another who applied a plaster of a water lotion. For thus you will not fail to obey reason, and will find rest in it. And remember that philosophy requires only the things which your nature requires." - s. 9

"Reason and the reasoning art -- philosophy -- are powers sufficient to themselves and for their own work. They start from a first principle, which is their own, and make their way to the end which they set before them, and this is why reasonable acts are called right acts, for they proceed by the right road." - s. 14

"Honor what is best in the universe; this is what controls all things and direct all things. In like manner, honor also what is best in yourself; and this is akin to the other. For in yourself, also, it is that which controls everything and your life is directed by it." - s. 21

"Let that part of your soul which leads and governs be undisturbed by motions of the flesh, whether of pleasure or pain; let it not mingle with them, but let it set a wall around itself and keep those emotions in their place. But when the emotions rise up to the mind by virtue of the sympathy that naturally exists in a body which is all one, then you must not strive to resist the feeling, for it is natural; but let not your ruling part add to the feeling the opinion that is is either good or bad." - s. 26

"If any man can convince and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek truth, by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance." - Book VI, s. 21

"Take care that you turn not into a Caesar, that you are not dyed with that dye; for such things happen. Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, free of affectations, a friend of justice, [...] kind, affectionate, strenuous in all right acts. Strive to advance toward what philosophy tried to make you. [...] Help men. Life is short. There is only one fruit of this earthly life, a pious disposition and social acts. Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus. Remember his constancy in rational behavior, his even temper in all things, [...] the serenity of his countenance, his sweetness, his disregard of empty fame, and his effort to understand things; how he would never let anything pass without having first carefully examined it and understood it; how he bore with those who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return; how he did nothing in a hurry; how he refused to listen to calumnies; how exact an examiner of manners and actions he was, not given to reproach people, nor timid, nor suspicion, nor pedantic; [...] his firmness and steadiness in friendship; how he tolerated freedom of speech in those who opposed his opinions; the pleasure he had when any man showed him anything better; and how religious he was without superstition. Imitate all this and you may have as good a conscience as he had when your last hour comes." - s. 30

"Accustom yourself to listen carefully to another man's words, and as much as possible be in the speaker's mind." - s. 53

"Let not the future disturb you. You will face it with the same reason which you now use for present things." - . Book VII, p. 8

"Whatever anyone else does or says, my duty is to be good; just as gold, or an emerald, or purple always says: 'Whatever anyone else does or says, I must be an emerald and keep my color.'" - s. 15

"It is peculiar to man to love even those who do him wrong. This happens, if when they do wrong you remember they are kinsmen, and wrong you through ignorance and unintentionally, and soon both of you will die; above all, that the wrongdoer has done you no harm, for he has not made your mind worse than it was before." - s. 22

"When a man has done you any wrong, immediately consider with what notions of good and evil he acted in doing wrong. When you have seen this, you will pity him and will neither wonder not be angry. For either you think the same thing to be good that he does or something of the same kind; it is your duty then to pardon him; but if you do not hold the same notions of good or evil, you will more readily be charitable to him who is in error." - s. 26

"Think less of what you have not than of what you have; of the things you have select the best; then reflect how eagerly you would have labored for them, if you had them not. At the same time, however, take care you do not through being pleased with them accustom yourself to do overvalue them aas to be distressed if ever you should lose them." - s. 27

"Retire into yourself. The nature of the rational principle that rules us is to be content with itself when it does what is just, and so secures tranquility." - s. 28

"Subdue the imagination. Check the drives of impulse. Confine your care to the present. Understand well what happens to you and to others. [...] Think of your last hour. Let the harm done by another man stay where the harm was done." - s. 29

"Pay attention to what is being said. Let your understanding keep pace with what is being done and the causes of it." - s. 30

"Dig within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if you will ever dig." - s. 59

"Life is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets, however unexpected." - s. 61

"Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go cheerfully." - s. 33

"Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them." - s. 59

"Do not despise death, but be well content with it, since this too is one of those things which nature wills." - Book IX, s. 3

"Wipe out fancy; check desire; extinguish appetite; keep your ruling faculty in control." - s. 7

Epicurus says, 'In sickness my conversation was not about my bodily sufferings, nor did I talk on such subjects to those who visited m; but I continued to discourse on the nature of things as before, keeping to the main point, how the mind, while participating in such movementgs as go on in the poor flesh, shall be free from disturbance and maintain its proper good. Nor did I', he adds, 'give the physicians an opportunity of putting on solemn looks, as if they were doing something great, but my life went on well and happily.' Do, then, the same that he did[...]". - s. 41

"No longer talk about the kind of man a good man ought to be, but be one." - Book X, s. 16

"When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings [...]. By attending to this you will quickly forget your anger." - s. 30

"How undsound and insincere is he who says 'I have determined to deal with you in a fair way.' What, do you have to give notice of fairness? It will show soon enough in action. Truth will be plainly written on your forehead. A man's character shows itself in his voice and eyes, just as lovers may read everything in each other's eyes. A man who is honest and good ought to be like a man who has a strong odor: anyone who comes near must smell whether he choose or not. " - Book XI, s. 15

Consider these things: First, what is my relationship to men; we are made for one another. [...] Fourth, consider that you also do many things wrong, that you are man like others; and even if you abstain from certain faults, you still have the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern for reputation, or some such mean motive, you refrain from wrongdoing. Fifth, consider that you do not even know whether men are doing wrong or not, for many things are done with a certain reference to circumstances. In short, a man must learn a great deal to enable him to pass a correct judgment on another man's acts. Sixth, consider when you are vexed or grieved that man's life is only a moment, and after a short time we all lie stretched in death. Seventh, that it is not men's acts which disturb us, [...] but it is our own opinions regarding them. [...] Eighth, consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves, at which we are angry and vexed. Ninth, consider that benevolence is invincible if it be genuine, and not merely an effected smile and playing a part. [...] Remember these nine rules, as if you had received them as a gift from the Muses, and begin at last to be a man so long as you live. But you must equally avoid flattering men and being vexed at them, for both are unsocial and lead to harm." s. 18

"If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it." - Book XII, s. 17

1 comment:

Greg said...

Although I am in no way a stoic, I enjoyed Meditations immensely. You might also enjoy Seneca: Letters From a Stoic, I don't know if it can be found online however.

Take care,