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of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes
(Written on campaign in modern-day Serbia and Hungary, c180)
Marcus Aurelius was known as one of the 'Five Good Emperors'. His 'Meditations' are a collections of notes on the stern and solid philosophy of Stoicism, founded by Zeno of the Stoa Poikile (Painted Colonnades) in 3rd century BC Cyprus. It was much favoured by the Roman elite, in contrast to the easy-going rival creed of Epicurius
Based on the 1862 translation by George Long. Abridged: GH
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Emperor of Rome, his First Book, concerning himself. Wherein he recordeth, what and of whom, whether Parents, Friends, or Masters; by their good examples, or good advice and counsel, he had learned:
I - THE CULTIVATION OF A PHILOSOPHICAL MIND
THE example of my grandfather Verus taught me to be candid and to control my temper. By the memory of my father's character I learnt to be modest and manly. My mother taught me regard for religion, to be generous and open-handed, and neither to do an ill turn to anyone nor even to think of it. She bred me also to a plain and inexpensive way of living.
I owe it to my grandfather that I had not a public education, but had good masters at home. From my tutor I learnt not to identify myself with popular sporting interests, but to work hard, endure fatigue, and not to meddle with other people's affairs. Diognetus taught me to bear freedom and plain dealing in others, and gave me a taste for philosophy. Rusticus first set me to improve my character, and prevented me from running after the vanity of the Sophists.
Apollonius showed me how to give my mind its due freedom, to disregard everything that was not true and reasonable and to maintain an equable temper under the most trying circumstances. Sextus taught me good humour, to be obliging and to bear with the ignorant and thoughtless. From Maximus I learnt to command myself and to put through business efficiently, without drudging or complaint.
From my adoptive father I learnt a smooth and inoffensive temper and a greatness proof against vanity and the impressions of pomp and power; I learnt that it was the part of a prince to check flattery, to have his exchequer well furnished, to be frugal in his expenses, not to worship the gods to superstition, but to be reserved, vigilant and well poised.
I thank the gods that my grandfathers, parents, sister, preceptors, relatives, friends and domestics were almost all persons of probity and that I never happened to disoblige any of them. By the goodness of the gods I was not provoked to expose my infirmities. I owe it to them also that my wife is so deferential, affectionate and frugal; and that when I had a mind to look into philosophy I did not spend too much time in reading or logic-chopping. All these points could never have been guarded without a protection from above.
II - PHILOSOPHY, THE MIND'S GREATEST SOLACE
PUT yourself in mind, every morning, that before that night you will meet with some meddlesome, ungrateful and abusive fellow, with some envious or unsociable churl. Remember that their perversity proceeds from ignorance of good and evil; and that since it has fallen to my share to understand the natural beauty of a good action and the deformity of an ill one; since I am satisfied that the disobliging person is of kin to me, our minds being both extracted from the Deity; since no man can do me a real injury because no man can force me to misbehave myself; I cannot therefore hate or be angry with one of my own nature and family. For we are all made for mutual assistance, no less than the parts of the body are for the service of the whole; whence it follows that clashing and opposition are utterly unnatural.
This being of mine consists of body, breath and that part which governs. Put away your books and face the matter itself. As for your body, value it no more than if you were just expiring; it is nothing but a little blood and bones. Your breath is but a little air pumped in and out. But the third part is your mind. Here make a stand. Consider that you are an old man, and do not let this noble part of you languish in slavery any longer. Let it not be overborne with selfish passions; let it not quarrel with fate, or be uneasy at the present, or afraid of the future. Providence shines clearly through the work of the gods. Let these reflections satisfy you, and make them your rule to live by. As for books, cease to be eager for them, that you may die in good humour heartily thanking the gods for what you have had.
Remember that you are a man and a Roman, and let your actions be done with dignity, gravity, humanity, freedom and justice; let every action be done as though it were your last. Have neither insincerity nor self-love. Man has to gain but few points in order to live a happy and godlike life.
And what, after all, is there to be afraid of in death? If the gods exist, you can suffer no harm; and if they do not exist, or take no care of us mortals, a world without gods or Providence is not worth a man's while to live in. But the being of the gods, and their concern in human affairs, is beyond dispute; and they have put it in every man's power not to fall into any calamity properly so called.
Living and dying, honour and infamy. Pleasure and pain, riches and poverty - all these are common to the virtuous and the depraved, and therefore intrinsically neither good not evil. We live but for a moment; our being is in a perpetual flux, our faculties are dim, our bodies tend ever to corruption; the soul is an eddy, fortune is not to be guessed at and posthumous fame is oblivion. To what, then, may we trust? Why, to nothing but philosophy. This is, to keep the interior divinity from injury and disgrace, and superior to pleasure and pain, without any dissembling and pretence, and to acquiesce in one's appointed lot.
III - OF RESOLUTENESS FOR THAT WHICH IS BEST
OBSERVE that the least things and effects in nature are not without charm and beauty, as the little cracks in the crust of a loaf, though not intended by the baker, are agreeable and invite the appetite. Thus figs, when they are ripest, open and gape; and olives, when they are near decaying, are peculiarly attractive. The bending of an ear of corn, the frown of a lion, the foam of a boar, and many other like things, if you take them singly, are far from beautiful; but seen in their natural relations are characteristic and effective. So if a man have but inclination and thought to examine the product of the universe, he will find that the most unpromising appearances have their own appropriate charm.
Do not spend your thoughts upon other people, nor pry into the talk, fancies and projects of another, nor guess at what he is about, or why he is doing it. Think upon nothing but what you could willingly tell about, so that if your soul were laid open there would appear nothing but what was sincere, good-natured and public-spirited. A man thus qualified is a sort of priest and minister of the gods, and makes a right use of the divinity within him. Be cheerful; depend not at all on foreign supports, nor beg your happiness of another; do not throw away your legs to stand upon crutches.
If, in the whole compass of human life, you find anything preferable to justice and truth, temperance and fortitude, or to a mind self-satisfied with its own rational conduct and entirely resigned to fate, then turn to it as to your supreme happiness. But if there be nothing more valuable than the divinity within you, if all things are trifles in comparison with this, then do not divide your allegiance. Let your choice run all one way, and be resolute for that which is best. As for other speculations, throw them once for all out of your head.
IV - OF LOYALTY TO THE PRINCIPLES OF WISDOM
IT is the custom of people to go to unfrequented places and to the seashore and to the hills for retirement; and you yourself have often desired this solitude. But, after all, this is only a vulgar fancy, for it is in your power to withdraw into yourself whenever you have a mind to it. One's own heart is a place the most free from crowd and noise in the world if only one's thoughts are serene and the mind well ordered. Make, therefore, frequent use of this retirement, therein to refresh your virtue. And to this end be always provided with a few short, uncontested notions, to keep your understanding true. Do not forget to retire to this solitude of yours; let there be no straining or struggling in the matter, but move at ease.
If understanding be common to us all, then reason, its cause, must be common, too. And so also must the reason which governs conduct by commands and prohibitions be common to us all. Mankind is therefore under one common law and so are fellow-citizens; and the whole world is but one commonwealth, for there is no other society in which mankind can be incorporated.
Do not suppose that you are hurt, and your complaint will cease.
If a man affronts you, do not defer to his opinion, or think just as he would have you do.
No; look upon things as reality presents them. When incense is thrown upon the altar, one grain usually falls before another; but it matters not.
Adhere to the principles of wisdom, and those who now take you for a monkey or a beast will make a god of you in a week.
A thing is neither better nor worse for being praised. Do virtues stand in need of a good word, or are they the worse for a bad one? An emerald will shine none the less though its worth be not spoken of.
Whatever is agreeable to You, O Universe, is so to me, too. Your operations are never mis-timed. Whatever Your seasons bring is fruit for me, O Nature. From You all things proceed, subsist in You, and return to You. The poet said, 'Dear City of Cecrops'; shall we not say, 'Dear City of God'?
The greater part of what we say and do is unnecessary; and if this were only retrenched we should have more leisure and less disturbance. This applies to our thoughts also, for impertinence of thought leads to unnecessary action.
Mankind are poor, transitory things; one day in life, and the next turned to ashes. Therefore manage this minute wisely and part with it cheerfully; and like a ripe fruit, when you drop, make your acknowledgments to the tree that bore you.
V - OF SINCERITY IN ACTIONS
WHEN you feel unwilling to rise early in the morning, make this short speech to yourself: 'I am getting up now to do the business of a man; and am I out of humour for going about that I was made for, and for the sake of which I was sent into the world? Was I then designed for nothing but to doze beneath the counterpane?' Surely action is the end of your being. Look upon the plants and birds, the ants, spiders and bees, and you will see that they are all exerting their nature and busy in their station. Shall not a man act like a man?
Be not ashamed of any action which is in accordance with nature, and never be misled by the fear of censure or reproach. Where honesty prompts you to say or do anything, let not the opinion of others hold you back. Go straight forward, pursuing your own and the common interest.
Some men, when they do you a kindness, ask for the payment of gratitude; others, more modest, remember the favour and look upon you as their debtor. But there are yet other benefactors who forget their good deeds; and these are like the vine, which is satisfied by being fruitful in its kind and bears a bunch of grapes without expecting any thanks for it. A truly kind man never talks of a good turn that he has done, but does another as soon as he can, just like a vine that bears again the next season.
We commonly say that Aesculapius has prescribed riding for one patient, walking for another, a cold bath for a third. In the same way we may say that the nature of the universe has ordered this or that person a disease, loss of limbs or estate, or some such other calamity; For as, in the first case, the word 'prescribed' means a direction for the health of the patient, so, in the latter, it means an application suitable for his constitution and destiny.
Be not uneasy, discouraged or out of humour, because practice falls short of precept in some particulars. If you happen to be vanquished, come on again, and be glad if most of what you do is worthy of a man.
We ought to live with the gods. This is done by being contented with the appointment of providence and by obeying the orders of that divinity which is God's deputy; and this divine authority is no more or less than that soul and reason which every man carries within him.
VI - OF LIBERALITY IN OUTLOOK
THE best way of revenge is not to imitate the injury. Be always doing something serviceable to mankind; and let this constant generosity be your pleasure, not forgetting a due regard to God.
The world is either an aggregation of atoms, or it is a unity ruled by law and providence. If the first, what should I stay for, where nature is a chaos and things are blindly jumbled together? But if there is a providence, I adore the great Governor of the world, and am at ease and cheerful in the prospect of protection.
Suppose you had a stepmother and a mother at the same time; though you would pay regard to the first, your converse would be principally with the latter. Let the court and philosophy represent these two relations to me.
If an antagonist in the circus tears our flesh with his nails, or tilts against us with his head, we do not cry out foul play, nor are we offended, nor do we suspect him afterwards as a dangerous person. Let us act thus in the other instances of life. When we receive a blow, let us think that we are but at a trial of skill and depart without malice or ill will.
It is enough to do my duty; as for other things, I will not be disturbed about them.
The vast continents of Europe and of Asia are but corners of the creation; the ocean is but a drop, and Mount Athos but a grain in respect of the universe; and the present instant of time is but a point to the extent of eternity.
When you have a mind to divert your fancy, try to consider the good qualities of your acquaintance - such as the enterprising vigour of this man, the modesty of another, the liberality of a third, and so on. Let this practice be always at hand.
VII - OF PATIENCE AND TOLERATION
WHAT is wickedness? It is nothing new. When you are in danger of being shocked, consider that the sight is nothing but what you have frequently seen already. All ages and histories towns and families, are full of the same stories; there is nothing new to be met with, but all things are common and quickly over.
Nature works up the matter of the universe like wax; now it is a horse; soon you will find it melted down and run into the figure of a tree, then a man, then something else. Only for a brief time is it fixed in any species.
Antisthenes said: 'It is the fate of princes to be ill spoken of for their good deeds.'
Consider the course of the stars as if you were driving through the sky and kept them company. Such contemplations as these scour off the rust contracted by conversing here below.
Rational creatures are designed for the advantage of each other. A sociable temper is that for which human nature was principally intended.
It is a saying of Plato's that no one misses the truth by his own goodwill. The same may be said of honesty, sobriety, good nature and the like. Remember this for it will help to sweeten your temper.
Though the gods are immortal, and have had their patience tried through so many ages, yet they even provide liberally for us. And are you tired with evil men already, who are an unhappy mortal yourself?
VIII - OF THE TRIPLE RESPONSIBILITY
EVERY man has three relations to acquit himself in; his body, God, and his neighbours.
Have you seen a hand or a foot cut off and removed from the body? Just such a thing is the man who is discontented with destiny or cuts himself off by selfishness from the interest of mankind. But here is the fortunate aspect of the case - it lies in his power to set the limb on again. Consider the peculiar bounty of God to man in this privilege: He has set him above the necessity of breaking off from nature and providence at all; but supposing this misfortune to have occurred, it is in man's power to rejoin the body, and grow together again.
Do not take your whole life into your head at a time, nor burden yourself with the weight of the future. Neither what is past nor what is to come need afflict you, for you have only to deal with the present; and this is strangely lessened if you take it singly and by itself. Chide your fancy, therefore, if it grow faint.
Throw me into what climate or state your please, for all that I will keep my soul content. Is any misadventure big enough to ruffle my peace, or to make my mind mean, craving and servile? What is there that can justify such disorders?
Be not heavy in business, nor disturbed in conversation, nor rambling in thought. Do not burden yourself with too much employment. Do men curse you? This cannot prevent you from keeping a wise, temperature and upright mind. If a man standing by a lovely spring should rail at it, the water is none the worse for his foul language; and if he throw in dirt it will soon disappear and the fountain will be as wholesome as ever. How are you to keep your springs always running, that they may never stagnate into a pool? You must preserve in in the virtues of freedom, sincerity, moderation and good nature.
IX - OF MODERATION IN DEED AND WISH
DO not drudge like a galley-slave, nor do business in a laborious manner, as if you wish to be pitied or wondered at.
As virtue and vice consist in action, and not in the impressions of the senses, so it is not what they feel, but what they do, that makes mankind happy or miserable.
This man prays that he may gain such a woman; but do you rather pray that you may have no such inclination. Another invokes the gods to set him free from some troublesome circumstance; but let it be your petition that your mind may not be set upon such a wish. A third is devout in order to prevent the loss of his son; but I would have you pray rather against the fear of losing him. Let this be the rule for your devotions, and watch the event.
X - OF SINCERITY AND ITS REWARDS
O MY soul, are you ever to be rightly good, sincere and uniform, and made more visible to yourself than the body that hangs about you? Are you ever likely to relish good nature and general kindness as you ought? Will you ever be fully satisfied, rise above wanting and wishing, and never desire to obtain your pleasure out of anything foreign, either living or inanimate? Are you ever likely to be so happily qualified as to converse with the gods and men in such a manner as neither to complaint of them nor to be condemned by them?
Put it out of the power of all men to give you a bad name, and if anyone reports you not to be an honest or a good man let your practice give him the lie. This is quite feasible; for who can hinder you from being just and sincere?
There is no one so happy in his family and friends but that some of them, when they see him going, will rejoice at a good riddance. Let him be a person of never so much probity and prudence, yet someone will say at his grave:
Well, our man of order and gravity is gone; we shall be no more troubled with his discipline.' This is the best treatment a good man must expect.
XI - OF CALMNESS UNDER ILL USAGE
WHAT a brave soul it is that is always ready to depart from the body and is unconcerned as to whether she will be extinguished, scattered, or removed! But she must be prepared upon reasonable grounds, and not out of mere obstinacy like the Christians; her fortitude must have nothing of noise or of tragic ostentation, but must be grave and seemly.
How fulsome and hollow does that man seem who cries: 'I'm resolved to deal sincerely with you!' Hark you, friend, what need of all this flourish? Let your actions speak. Your face ought to vouch for you. I would have virtue look out of the eye no less apparently than love does. A man of integrity and good nature can never be concealed, for his character is wrought into his countenance.
Gentleness and good humour are invincible, provided they are of the right stamp and without hypocrisy. This is the way to disarm the most outrageous person - to continue kind and unmoved under ill usage and to strike in at the right opportunity with advice. But let all be done out of mere love and kindness.
XII - THE FORTITUDE THAT IS ROMAN
I HAVE often wondered how it is that everyone should love himself best and yet value his neighbour's opinion of him more than his own. If any man should be ordered to turn his inside outwards and publish every thought and fancy as fast as they came into his head, he would not submit to so much as a day of this discipline. Thus it is that we dread our neighbour's judgement more than our own.
What a mighty privilege man is born to, since it is in his power not to do anything but what God Almighty approves, and to be satisfied with all the distributions of providence!
Reflect upon those who have made the most glorious figure or have met with the greatest misfortunes. Where are they all now? They are vanished like a little smoke; they are nothing but ashes, and a tale - or not even a tale. Recollect likewise everything of this sort: what Fabius Catullinus did at his country seat; Lucius Lupus, in his garden; Stertinius, at Baiae; Tiberius, at Capreae; Rufus, at Velia: in short, the overweening importance attached to anything whatsoever. The prize is insignificant and the game not worth the candle. It is much more becoming to a philosopher to stand clear of affectation, to be honest and moderate upon all occasions and to follow cheerfully wherever the gods lead on, remembering that nothing is more scandalous than a man who is proud of his humility.
Listen, friend! You have been a burgher of this great city. What matter though you have lived in it fewer years or more? If you have kept the laws of the corporation, the length or shortness of the time makes no difference. Where is the hardship, then, if nature, that planted you here, orders your removal? You cannot say you are sent off by an unjust tyrant. No! You quit the stage as fairly as a player does who has his discharge from the master of the revels.
'But I have only gone through three acts, and not held out to the end of the fifth!'
True; but in life three acts may complete the play. He is the only judge of completeness who first ordered your entrance and now orders your exit; you are accountable for neither the one nor the other. Retire, therefore, in serenity, as He who dismisses you is serene.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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