Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)

“A little flesh, a little breath, and a Reason to rule all – that is myself”

This work by Marcus Aurelius is a personal one – it was labeled “To Myself”, and only given the title of “Meditations” after his death. The tome is divided into 12 books, and the sentiments of Book One left me feeling like a hysterical child in the bondage of every passion, not to mention like an overall shitty human being. He praises

“courtesy and serenity of temper”, “manliness without ostentation”, “piety and generosity”, “familiarity with philosophy”, avoidance of a “‘sophist’s enthusiasm’…rhetoric, poetry, and verbal conceits”, “kindliness”, “unselfish dignity”, “never displaying a sign of anger nor any kind of emotion”, “self-control”, a sense of duty, and a “willingness to listen to any project for the common good.” (Move over, Prince Eric!)

He is also, perhaps, the earliest spokesman against the social phenomenon that is grammar trolling: “People should not be sharply corrected for bad grammar, provincialisms, or mispronunciation; it is better to suggest the proper expression by tactfully introducing it oneself…”

He makes his adoptive father, emperor Antoninus Pius, out to be something of a divine Stoic saint, but acknowledges also the gods (luck) which provided him with such apparently admirable acquaintances, friends, and family – not to mention his own strength of constitution. Moreover, he thanks them for his submissive wife (we ALL want one of those, right?) and, “that with all my addiction to philosophy I was yet preserved from either falling a prey to some sophist or spending all my time at a desk poring over textbooks and rules of logic or grinding at natural science.” Ouch. I’m 0 for 3 here. (Although I do avoid pouring over rules of logic at all costs.)

Book Two stresses the importance of using the time granted to us wisely, and seeking the nature of the universe to which we belong. The guy likes piety and quiet and steadiness. This section in particular really forced me to reflect on the passion-driven culture we currently live in (Food! Sex! Noise! Color! Stimulation! More noise! Did I mention I’m in Mumbai?) – and it’s glorification, from national sensationalism (ahem) to fanatic football fans (guilty).  I can even imagine MA walking around Brooklyn (that’s still hip, right?) and shaking his divine, curly-haired head at all the hipsters in their brightly-colored, ass-suffocating jeans, fashion overstatements, and narcissistic, technological obsessions. He wouldn’t pass any judgment, though – that would distract him from ‘the deity within himself.’

Book Three centers on the mortality of the body, and its inferiority to the mind. It emphasizes the brevity of life and the importance of acknowledging this fleetingness. There is a repeating theme of the ‘web of the universe’ and each man’s single strand in a distant corner. In fact, there is a moment of almost-Spinozism; it’s a rhetorical similarity, though, and less a metaphysical identity: “When an object presents itself to your perception, make a mental definition or at least an outline of it so as to discern its essential character, to pierce beyond its separate attributes to a distinct view of the naked whole, and to identify for yourself both the object itself and the elements of which it is composed, and into which it will again be resolved” (emphasis mine). If you read my thesis, you can probably guess that I want to read ‘essential character’ like ‘essence in a complete sense’ which involves both the actual essence – a thing as it exists in nature, which is to say in a nexus of causes and affections – and formal essence – a thing as it exists in God, or as it exists sub specie aeternitatis. Depending on how we read ‘the naked whole’, we could also flip this around and call it Leibnizian: to see in each object the universe. In reality, though, I think MA is trying to get across something more along the lines of Pocahontas* or Mufasa: From the earth all things come, to the earth all things will return. It is not the life of the body that we must be concerned with.

Book Four is also concerned with man’s mortality and finding harmony with Nature. There is continued glorification of Reason, and MA urges his reader (himself?) not to seek a life of fame, or to live in order to be remembered. His goal is not to fear death nor to dwell on it, but rather to accept it. Indeed, he calls upon Epictetus to remind us that we are nothing but a ‘poor soul burdened with a corpse.’ Though I don’t think he is trying to give a coherent metaphysics, again his language becomes Spinozistic: “As a part, you inhere in the Whole…” … “Always think of the universe as one living organism, with a single substance and a single soul; and observe how all things are submitted to the single perceptivity of this one whole, all are moved by its single impulse, and all play their part in the causation of every event that happens.” I still think I’m going out on a limb to call him Spinozistic – this isn’t a predominantly metaphysical project – but one can read into the similarities.

Book Five** is concerned with social duty and accepting gladly that which is given to us. The importance of civic duty is made clear: “What is not harmful to the city cannot harm the citizen. In every fancied case of harm, apply the rule ‘If the city is not harmed, I am not harmed either.'” If I ever have some time to kill, I’m going to replace all the Tea Party and GOP volumes of Ayn Rand with this book. I need to see if Marx ever read this (seems likely). Also, here’s an unexpected dose of Parmenides: “The great river of Being flows on without a pause…” Book Six, again focusing on civic duty, is also about getting real: “When meat and other dainties are before you, you reflect: This is dead fish, or fowl, or pig; or: This Falernian is some of the juice from a bunch of grapes; my purple robe is sheep’s wool stained with a little gore from a shellfish; copulation is friction of the members and an ejaculatory discharge.” THANKS GRANDPA.

Book Seven continues the theme of Oneness in an ontological sense and the superiority of reason in all things. This chapter sees several explicit references to Plato, regarding the uselessness of preoccupation with death. The Stoicism becomes even clearer; MA discusses the need to refrain from being a ‘puppet to passions’, and encourages understanding the evils of others from their cause: merely ignorance. Now I’m really going to be flippant: Book Eight is an illumination of man’s passions, and what is good and what is bad; basically it’s a shorter version of the Preface to Part IV of the Ethics, and does a similar job as Part IV in dealing with the psychology (i.e. passions) of man.

Book Nine continues to disparage the ‘infections of the mind’, and again stresses that fear of death does a man no good; fear itself is a sin. Change, as it has been, is praised and glorified – for no good comes without change (see Spinoza’s definition of Joy). Everything that happens is banal, it has happened before and will happen again – from your emotions to the erosion of rock and soil (this guy would NOT be popular with emo-narcissitic Tumblr royalty). Book Ten is about Nature herself, the abilities of the soul, and the change and capacity of the physical body and nature. “Eating, sleeping, copulating, excreting, and the like; what a crew they are! How pompous in their arrogance, how overbearing and tyrannical, how superciliously censorious of others!”

Book Eleven continues on the soul; specifically, MA describes the rational soul and its relation to its person (let’s not get into the ontology of this). “No soul ever willingly forgoes truth,” and the life of a man, to be consistent and uniform, must have a consistent and uniform aim. Book Twelve concludes by remarking, or perhaps reminding the reader, that all goodness and virtue are there, and only we keep ourselves from reaching it. As he quotes Socrates in the end of Book Eleven: ‘Which is it your will to have?’ Socrates would ask. ‘Souls of reasonable or unreasonable men?’ ‘Reasonable.’ ‘Reasonable men who are sound, or sick?’ ‘Sound.’ ‘Then why not go seek for them?’ ‘Because we already have them.’ ‘In that case, then, why all your strife and contention?’

Of course MA never speaks specifically of orphans, but he describes a sense of civic duty as a virtue all men ought to recognize: ‘what is no good for the hive is no good for the bee’.  I think it is safe to assume that the city with streets lined with beggars and orphans is not a virtuous or successful city; he emphasizes compassion and understanding, which would extend to these most vulnerable in society. Although I am uncomfortable with the general rigidness of Stoicism (I like food and “pleasure” and hiding under the covers*** too much), applying Marcus Aurelianism (can I patent this?) to political theory seems like a reasonable way to go. It may seem less so if you’re a war-mongering president, or a tyrant, or a Republican conservative, but in this case, bringing such a text to policy-making is as defensible (rather, infinitely more defensible) than relying on such kooks as Ayn Rand.

But this leaves us another problem, because MA also talks about accepting the lot given to you, and that nothing can be put on you by Fate that you do not have the capacity to endure (and if she does, oops, well, you’re probably too dead to read this). Certainly it is easy for the Emperor to say; but to suggest such a perspective to a starving child, alone on the street, seems fundamentally wrong (“In short, never forget that nothing can injure the true citizen if it does not injure the city itself, and nothing can injure the city unless it injures law”). However, it would do us well to note the degree to which this corresponds with the interpretation of Christian doctrines: God will not give you a greater load than you can carry. I don’t oppose the use of Christian virtues in the political sphere, unless they are being suggested merely because they are Christian. Indeed, Christian doctrines of charity and forgiveness seem useful in this way; it is the attempt to justify the use of such principles politically through appeals to divine revelation (or whatever) that is disturbing. Enacting something because it is good for the polity and the people ought to be the aim; that it corresponds with a particular religious principle is irrelevant. So our Marcus Aurelianism must be applied or approached with caution.

Please note that I’ve done some injustice to the Meditations. There are many things I skip over, and the Books are not so neatly divided by topic as I might make it appear. As always, such things should be read for oneself.

*Can we please ponder the hilarious picture that would be Marcus Aurelius singing this song? Also, John Smith and the British colonialists clearly knew nothing about living in the web of life.

**This Book also contains what is probably one of my favorite lines in a philosophical text ever: “Do unsavoury armpits and bad breath make you angry?” ‘Dudes, just get over it. That’s what mouths and armpits do.’ – paraphasing MA’s answer to his own question.

***”Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm?” YES. ESPECIALLY IF SOMEONE IS BRINGING ME BREAKFAST.

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