Marcus’ Meditations read like what they are; the personal reflections of a thoughtful emperor/philosopher who was deeply concerned with living in accordance with his high ideals. However, they also read as an honest, unflinching attempt to appreciate and deal with the human condition. Meditations falls well short of a complete and rigorous exposition of the philosophical system the author adhered to, Stoicism, but this is forgivable because it was never intended as such.
More importantly, this criticism fails to diminish the value of Meditations in any way because in its pages we discover Stoicism as it was meant to be; not a logical set of principles to be learned and memorised but a practical guide for living well. Reading Meditations exposes us to something just as valuable as detailed texts outlining Stoic principles. It lays bare the mind and thoughts of the most powerful man in the Roman empire as he tries to live up to the ideals of Stoicism while fulfilling his professional duties, offering a rare glance into the honest and personal reflections of a genuine Stoic.
Marcus makes multiple references to life being short, cheap, repetitive, insignificant, meaningless, and even contemptible. He never seems to tire of observing how “shoddy” and pointless life is or how all things are temporary and constantly changing, even likening life to a wrestling match at one point in which we must stand ready for anything so that we can resist being caught off guard and thrown. Is this an overly depressing outlook? In some ways, yes, but I think to make this simplistic argument is to mistake Marcus’ philosophy.
There are two ways to understand this underlying tone in the emperor’s writings. One is to see them as ways of coping with the problems that life throws our way, thereby preserving our serenity and balance. Rather than getting upset over some event that is fundamentally outside our control, we can step back, put things in perspective and realise that so-and-so’s betrayal isn’t quite as life destroying as it seemed at first; in fact, we will probably have forgotten all about it in a reasonably short time, or things will change so that the betrayal no longer smarts so much, and in any case both so-and-so and I will be dead soon so there’s no point in dwelling on it.
The second way to read these themes in the Meditations is to see them as a brutally honest acceptance of the way things are which opens up a space within which the individual can relate to life authentically. We may not like the fact that our lives are nothing but a “brief and fleeting moment” in the whole of existence… but that doesn’t negate its truth. The bottom line is if we don’t accept the way things are we can’t even begin to engage with life in any meaningful way.
Marcus also talks a lot about death (much more than Epictetus ever did) but this is almost certainly because he was personally responsible for causing so much of it and would have literally been surrounded by so many dead and dying while on campaign that it would have been impossible for him to avoid. For those of us fortunate enough to have grown up in an era of relative peace and in relatively peaceful parts of the world, we can reasonably expect to go our whole lives without seeing a dead body. Such a luxury was unimaginable for any person living in the 2nd century CE and even more so for an emperor of that time.
So it would again be a mistake to dismiss this out of hand as a morbid or depressing mode of thinking on Marcus’ part. Death is inevitable and there are only two attitudes to take towards it. One is to avoid it and the other is to deal with it. Contrary to the opinion of modern society which will go to any length to avoid even the appearance of aging (going as far as to inject poison into our faces so we can all pretend we’re still young), that the only way to deal with death is to face it. It is uncomfortable (it should be!) but deferring thinking about it until some indefinite time in the future condemns us to something of a ‘lop-sided’ life.
Marcus’ central point, and the traditional Stoic view, regarding death is that it is something we ought not to fear. It is as natural as birth and ought to be something we bring ourselves to accept calmly and unflinchingly. He offers an impressive list of consolations to help us to this understanding including, but not limited to, the following:
1. A long life is no better than a short one. A thoughtful person will see the same things again and again over their lifetime; in this, thirty years is as useful as three hundred years.
2. Death is inevitable. We cannot avoid death so it is something we ought to come to terms with, whether it is something ‘cheerful’ or not.
3. Death is a release from a life that is often filled with struggles and difficulties, and almost certainly (for most of us non-Stoics, at least) constant reaction to the senses and the “puppet-strings of impulse”.
4. Death is either complete extinction or dispersal into the elements of the universe or a transferral to another life. Whichever it might be, there is nothing to fear from this.
Directing Mind / Soul
In complete alignment with ancient Greek precedent, Marcus values our reasoning and intellectual capacities above all else. He dismisses the body and the “puppet-strings of impulse” as inconstant and largely beyond our control but our “directing mind” (or “soul” as he sometimes calls it) on the other hand, is the one thing which distinguishes us from lower animals and the only thing which lies wholly under our control. In a very Platonic analogy Marcus likens the body/mind relationship to that of pen and writer or whip and driver, the former in each case being merely an inanimate tool for the latter to use and control.
Given that the directing mind is the most important part of our being, it should naturally command our full attention. This attention should go towards keeping it pure and just, which for Marcus, meant uncontaminated by passion (emotions) or triviality and constantly aligned with our natures, i.e. directed towards rational and social ends (see “human nature” section below).
Judgement / Analysis
The principle tool for keeping our directing mind aligned with nature is judgement. Things in themselves; actions, people, circumstances, etc. cannot touch our minds; only our judgements of those actions, people, or circumstances have this power. We cannot be harmed unless we judge an occurrence bad – but we can always refuse to judge it so. What this means is that eliminating a problem is as easy as eliminating the negative (and erroneous) judgement which says that this (action, person or circumstance) is a problem. Removing the judgement, removes the thought; and removing the thought, removes the problem.
One way to do this is to subject everything presented to our minds to a rigorous analysis, in which we strip things down to their “essential nature” so we can see them for what they really are. We might desire expensive and exotic food for instance, but if we can remember that the meat on our plates is nothing but a dead pig or bird, we can find the strength to moderate our excesses.
Universe / Nature / Providence / Fate
One of the central ideas of Stoicism is that the universe is an ordered and harmonious totality with some overarching teleology over and above individual humans. It was no different for Marcus. He saw the Universe (or Nature) as a complex, interrelated Whole made up of individual threads all governed by a divinely-directed Providence. He even talks about the Universe as a living creature of one substance and with one soul. This is such an important idea that we need to spend a little time reviewing the consequences of holding it.
First, by virtue of the Whole being divinely-directed or divine itself (the Stoics, particularly the Roman Stoics, tended to hold to a blend of pantheism and polytheism), it is fundamentally rational in nature.
Second, the way these individual threads are woven into the Whole is therefore not random but rather emergent from the ordered totality, that is, “fated by the Whole from the beginning and spun for your own destiny.” This means that fate (or a word that gives it a less capricious feel, ‘providence’), as an inescapable future decided by a string of causes stretching back into infinity, is a key feature of reality.
Third, given the first two points, whatever happens must therefore be for the best and directed towards the purpose of maintaining harmony (on the Whole, not necessarily at the individual level of the parts). Since this is the case, we ought not to resist whatever happens because, even though we cannot see it from our limited, finite perspective, everything works for the advantage of the Whole.
Fourth, whatever benefits the Whole also benefits the individual parts. It was a typical ancient Greek idea that the State was more important than the individual citizens of which it was comprised and for Marcus, as emperor and groomed to be such from a young age, this idea must have put down particularly strong roots. But for Marcus, it wasn’t so much that the Whole was more important than the individuals, it was that their interests were irrevocably intertwined; what benefitted (or harmed) the one also benefitted (or harmed) the other.
A vital element in Marcus’ Stoicism is the idea that humans are naturally rational and social beings. Both of these follow on directly from Marcus’ account of the Whole; we are naturally rational because we are a part of a rational Universe, a part which, due to our directing mind, shares an affinity with the essential nature of the Whole. We are naturally social because we are not isolated entities; rather we are an interconnected part of a Whole whose welfare and well-being is directly tied into that Whole we are a part of. The greatest ‘sphere’ to which we belong is the Universe, but this principle can extend downwards through State, community, and family. No matter how we look at the situation, we find ourselves enmeshed in a whole greater than ourselves, and this is a principle derived from the universe as the Whole. (This is expanded on in the next section “other people”)
As an emperor, a large part of Marcus’ job would have involved dealing with people. This goes much of the way towards explaining the volume of material, particularly the less charitable sections, on the subject of other people in the Meditations.
We have already seen that Marcus considers it fundamental to our nature that we are social beings but we haven’t seen the full extent to which he goes regarding this. This topic is in fact, one of the things he discusses most in the Meditations, namely, how we have a natural kinship with other people. This kinship is apparent in two ways; first, rational:- the fact that we all have thinking minds and second, social:- we are all connected together as parts of a whole greater than any individual one of us. But this fact of kinship doesn’t merely impose a duty on us to be good to each other; it demands that we love each other, and that we do so sincerely.
It is hypocritical then that just as much as we hear Marcus directing us to love our fellow human beings, we also hear him condemning the people around him as “ants toiling and carrying… [or] puppets dancing on their strings” and constantly encouraging himself in the face of their foolishness and ignorance. Or at least, you might think this is hypocritical, but is it?
Is it hypocritical to recommend love in our dealings with other people while at the same time considering them mistaken in their attitudes or beliefs, easily swayed by their emotions, or somewhat less than virtuous? Of course not. Loving others doesn’t mean deluding ourselves that they are better than they really are. It is also worth mentioning at this juncture that as emperor, Marcus almost certainly had to deal with a lot of very unsavoury characters, so his assessment of them and frequent exhortations to himself to understand and continue to love them despite their flaws, doesn’t undermine his character in any way. In fact, it is a testament to him, that despite having to deal with all of these characters, he still recommended we treat them with love, kindness and friendship.
He doesn’t console himself with thoughts of them getting their ‘just desserts’ (either in this life or one that might follow). Rather, he recommends that we teach them, if possible, so they can see the error of their ways. He also recommends responding to their action with the opposing virtue (“What can the most aggressive man do to you if you continue to be kind to him?”).
Does he get this attitude from the capricious words of one of the Roman or Greek gods? Hardly. He comes to his noble sensibilities from the idea that we are social beings, intimately connected and immersed in an ordered Whole. It naturally follows from this that what benefits one person, benefits everyone else too, i.e. that we are all in this together, working towards the same goal, even though some of us are doing so unconsciously.
When it comes to morality, or good and evil, Marcus doesn’t deviate much from the standard Stoic line. The terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ apply only to things that fall within our control, everything else we ought to be indifferent towards, and the only thing that falls within our control is our directing mind. In what is essentially an equivalent phrasing, Marcus also says that the good can only be found in living in accordance with nature, i.e. the nature of the Whole (ordered, rational, accepting of circumstances, etc.) and your nature as a human being (rational and social).
But what happened to ‘good’ meaning being kind and generous and all those things your parents hopefully taught you when you were young? Who are these Stoics to change the meaning of our moral lexicon? Is that even valid? Here’s the thing. Asserting that the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ only apply to our directing mind doesn’t mean that we forfeit our modern understanding of morality; on the contrary, it allows us to expand it.
If I said helping someone in need is a good thing, you would probably agree, and so would Marcus. If I said kicking someone who is waiting for the bus is a bad thing, we would all agree that that is bad. Perhaps you appeal to the Ten Commandments, or the Buddhist idea that we are all one, or just your good old fashioned humanistic sensibilities to come to your conclusion. Fair enough. Marcus would appeal to our social nature and equality in the Whole, or the virtue of kindness, or the fact that what benefits one person benefits everyone.
But what if a person kicks you while you are waiting for the bus? Is that bad? Whatever moral system you are using, you will probably come to the conclusion that it is, and what’s more, you’ll hold that it is objectively bad, i.e. the act itself is bad, irrespective of whose perspective you take. Giving acts themselves moral status takes humans out of the equation and essentially means that they affect everybody in the same way, i.e. a bad act is bad for everybody; a good act, good for everybody.
Returning to our example, this means that you are negatively impacted by this ‘bad’ act just as much as the doer of the act. Not just in the sense that your body perhaps topples over, but you might also get angry at your aggressor, you might start a fight (he has injured your pride after all, if not your body), certainly you will suffer some form of mental or emotional distress and there is nothing you can do about this because these emotions/states follow directly from your beliefs about good and evil. What he did was bad and because that act was bad, naturally you suffer from it. This is where Marcus’ morality (and the Stoics in general) diverges from the ‘norm’.
For Marcus, you will recall, the categories ‘good’ and ‘bad’ only apply to our own minds/thoughts. The consequence of this is that the act itself remains morally neutral, i.e. just an act, not a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ act, in itself. The only way to assess the moral value of an action is to connect it to an individual. So, the aggressor’s act is bad for him because it reflects directly on him, his character, his mind, his being. Your character, your being is untouched. In general, no one’s actions can have moral implications for someone else, that is, be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for him or her as a moral agent, because only people can be moral agents.
(Of course the act can be considered ‘bad’ for us in the non-moral sense that it is simply something we didn’t wish to have happen to us. The solution to this lies in Marcus’ views about the ordered, rational universe we are a part of. Everything that happens, happens for the best and we therefore ought to accept everything willingly or we are essentially revolting against nature)
The consequences of this shift in thinking are enormous. First of all, we can only suffer harm when we do wrong. If we are cruel, this is ‘bad’ for us, not our victim. Second, we are in complete control over our own well-being; other people can’t affect our mental ‘purity’, our directing mind; they can call us names, lie to us, push us, hit us; none of it is ‘bad’ because the only thing of importance is our directing mind and they can’t touch this. Third, people are bad only through ignorance. They do wrong because they mistakenly think they will receive some kind of benefit. If they can be re-educated, they will change their ways. Fourth, the notion of revenge goes out the window. Why would you want to ‘get back’ at anyone? What do you have to ‘get back’ for? You haven’t been harmed. In addition, if you did decide to take action, then you would be harming yourself, essentially responding to someone else harming him or herself by harming yourself.
It also follows that we ought to treat all ‘externals’ (a term Marcus doesn’t use that often but which means anything outside our minds), logic, wealth, glory, indulgence, fame (he spends a lot of time devaluing fame as worthless), etc., as indifferent. Now this doesn’t mean they are bad and to be avoided (obviously Marcus wasn’t poor and he certainly didn’t lack either fame or glory), it means they are neither good nor bad. If you have them, okay; if you don’t, also okay. But if you have to compromise your values to get them, not okay. If it comes to a choice between integrity and getting on the senate, you choose your integrity every time.
This means that things we typically think of as goods (children, family, friends, etc.) all make it to the list of externals as well. Again, this doesn’t mean we ought to ignore or devalue them. On the contrary; as rational, social beings we have a specific “proper duty” towards them that we must fulfil. However, their actions cannot affect us in the broader Stoic moral sense of being good or bad for us. Their actions only affect their own characters, their own states of mind, their own moral value; not ours.
Marcus was highly concerned with virtue and doing his “proper duty” in accordance with nature. As we have seen this is an unadulterated good and clearly the most important thing to Marcus. Some of the virtues he specifically mentions in Meditations include; goodness, purity, seriousness, unpretentiousness, affection, integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity, and of course the four classical Greek virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. I think it is difficult to argue with any of this, irrespective of your particular brand of morality.
After all of this, we are in a position to identify the sole goal and purpose of life as Marcus sees it, which is to realise and manifest a directing mind perfectly aligned with nature; being both the nature of the Whole (ordered, rational, accepting of circumstances, etc.) and your nature as a human being (rational and social).
I think it is fair to say that Marcus was fixated on this objective and valued virtue (which he saw as basically identical to living according to nature) above everything else, constantly reminding himself to keep his attention riveted on this goal.
Everything changes, everything deteriorates, life is mere repetition, life is a struggle. These are themes that wind through the Meditations. However, we shouldn’t overlook the note ringing counterpoint to this on every page, in which Marcus reminds us that we are a part of an interconnected whole, the human is indeed a social animal with duties of kinship to his or her fellow human beings, and that we ought to strive to align ourselves with virtue and live our lives in harmony with nature.
It may not be the pie in the sky ‘wish-mongering’ of religion or the boundless optimism of science and progress that undergirds modernity, but it is a call to action nonetheless. It won’t yield an eternity singing with angels or more technological devices that further distract us from the business of living, but it will grant you equanimity in the face of sometimes stormy seas and ultimately help you to “be a man [or woman] worthy of the universe that gave you birth” and in the end, is there any worthier goal we could strive for?