I choose to do what is according to the nature of the rational and social animal
Marcus Aurelius was emperor from 161 AD to 180 AD, last of the so-called "Good" emperors. He was an skilled and vigorous defender of Roman law and of Roman borders. He also produced what is perhaps the most widely read Stoic text, his Meditations or To myself (claimed to be the more authentic title). Part of what makes Meditations so valuable is that rather than being a work of Stoic philosophy by a Stoic philosopher, it is an example of Stoic practice by a practising Stoic: a literal self-help book.
Some of Mediations was written at Aquincum, outside modern Budapest. Today the motorway is built on the ruins of the aqueduct, a rather literal example of letting the obstacle be the way.
He opens by giving thanks, acknowledging a series of intellectual or moral debts:
From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.and ways in which he has been fortunate:
I thank the gods....that when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories, or in the resolution of syllogisms, or occupy myself about the investigation of appearances in the heavens....Well, I clearly wasn't so fortunate! But Marcus is ready to educate me in the true business of philosophy: learning how to live well. Along the way, he refers to Socrates, Plato, Heraclitus, Homer, Hesiod, Euripedes and Epictetus (among others).
Much of the book is surprisingly relatable, given that it was written by a second-century Emperor. We have, for example, Marcus coaching himself out of bed:
In the morning when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world?And mentally preparing for dealing with other people:
Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.....I can neither be injured by any of them, for no man can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.Perhaps I am projecting, but I have a vision of a man preparing for a day of long, boring meetings with tedious people.
In any case, a section like that can be read two ways: standard motivational stuff or a serious philosophical statement. On the one hand, you can tell yourself, "I dread this, but it really isn't that bad -- it's not like anyone's going to draw knives and kill me!" And you'll probably feel better and you'll probably be right. That simple accessibility is no doubt part of Meditations enduring appeal. But, if one has some acquaintance with Stoicism, then this can also be read in a more specific way. According to Stoic logic, the only things that are truly good or bad are one's own decisions; other people can do unpleasant things, but they cannot make me bad: only I can do that to myself. It is in this technical, Stoic sense that Marcus says he cannot be "injured by any of them" and that "no man can fix on me what is ugly".
Death would appear to be never far from Marcus' mind, but I guess that's a defining aspect of the human condition. Here we see Stoic materialism:
Death is such as generation is, a mystery of nature; a composition out of the same elements, and a decomposition in to the same; and altogether not a thing of which any man should be ashamed, for it is not contrary to the nature of a reasonable animal...However there are more specific reasons for Marcus returning to this subject. Apart from the poor health he suffered from for much of his life, he experienced a recurring tragedy: of his thirteen children, eight pre-deceased him. Marcus sat at the very apex of his society, his children had access to the best housing, nutrition and medical care his society could offer; and yet they died.
It is a vulgar, but still useful help toward contempt of death, to pass in review those who have tenaciously stuck to life. What more then have they gained than those who have died early?....For look at the immensity of time behind you, and to the time which is before you, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?Another recurring and important theme is the Stoic conception of humanity as fundamentally social. A thought such as:
That which does no harm to the state does no harm to the citizen.might seem rather self-serving for one who is the physical embodiment of the state. But, as ever, this was written to himself; he goes on
....if the state is not harmed by this, neither am I harmed.Called to the frontier to beat back fellow humans who had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the Danube, perhaps Marcus felt he would rather be elsewhere. But he knew his role in society, and thus his place. And although the Stoic is sufficient to him/her-self, one should also:
Be not ashamed to be helped; for it is your business to do your duty like a soldier in the assault on a town.
Despite the repetition and recurring themes, Meditations covers considerable philosophical ground. Consider:
Are you angry with him whose armpits stink? Are you angry with him whose mouth smells foul?....by your rational faculty stir up his rational faculty; show him his error, admonish him. For if he listens, you will cure him, and there is no need of anger.No lengthy classifications of body odour, or speculation as to its ideal form, just practical advice. And if he won't listen? Well, is it really possible that there be no poorly groomed people in the world? The ruthlessly practical logic of Stoicism is deployed in the cause of patience:
When you are offended with any man's shameless conduct, immediately ask yourself, Is it possible, then, that shameless men should not be in the world? It is not possible. Do not, then, require what is impossible. For this man also is one of those shameless men who must of necessity be in the world.Every village needs its idiot: the one before you is just faithfully fulfilling his role. In any case, Stoicism is a fundamentally forgiving (and self-forgiving) philosophy:
If a man is mistaken, instruct him kindly and show him his error. But if you are not able, blame yourself, or blame not even yourself.The actions of others are outside our control. The only things we truly can control are our own opinions, words and deeds, so
The best way of avenging yourself is not to become like the wrong doer.and
Take care not to feel towards the inhuman as they feel towards men.a mantra I find myself repeating daily as I read up on Australian politics.
But the signature feature of the Stoic, at least in the popular imagination, is the determination to cope with the situation at hand.
If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgement about it....And even if you are pained because you are not doing some particular thing which seems to you to be right, why do you not rather act than complain? But some insuperable obstacle is in the way? Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on you. But it is not worth while to live, if this cannot be done? Take your departure then from life contentedly....Logic doesn't get more ruthlessly practical than that.
Severally on the occasion of everything that you do, pause and ask yourself, if death is a dreadful thing because it deprives you of this.When I read that I laughed aloud at its grim humour: if I die, at least I won't have to do this any more! But a friend pointed out the other side to this statement: if I die now, I won't finish this project. Like the dichotomy of control, then, it is a call both for action and for acceptance.
The first printed edition of Meditations appeared in 1558, but the manuscript it was prepared from disappeared soon afterwards, a terrifying reminder of the fragility of so much of our connection to the past. A further reminder appears in the Meditations itself, when Marcus advises us to:
Consider then what Crates says of Xenocrates himself.Indeed. Presumably he's talking about Crates the Cynic and Xenocrates the Academic, but what the former said of the latter is lost to posterity. But there are surprisingly few such obscurities. By contrast, the passage:
If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.is a message for our age. I see a variation on Jurassic Park where people rather than dinosaurs are resurrected from their DNA. He's coming for you, Donald.....
But I am wrenched from idle fantasy by a reminder of the true purpose of philosophy:
No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.
We are social cooperative organisms and we are rational. For Marcus, the secret to a good life lay in embracing those two facts of our biology.
....we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eye-lids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.Let me then finish as Marcus started: by giving thanks. From Marcus Aurelius I learned to be patient with my fellows, and to live according to nature.