I’ve just finished reading the Gregory Hays edition of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and I would recommend it to anyone.
I will say, first of all, that I believe it’s a good idea to have at least two translations of this book. This is the second time I’ve read Meditations. The first was George Long’s translation, which I prefer in a sense, as it’s written in a "King James" style. However, there have arisen quirks between the usage of certain words then and in modern English that aren’t obvious, so you might think you understand the meaning of something while it’s saying nearly the opposite or something entirely different.
The Gregory Hays version is modern and excellent and provides clarity when combined with another translation.
For those who don’t know, Meditations is the common English title given to a set of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, who was the Roman Emperor from 161AD to 180AD. Why the title of "Meditations" was chosen, I don’t know. It currently gives the work a sheen of New Agey self-help garbage, while it isn’t at all.
The Medieval Greek title—Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, Things to One’s Self—would be more appropriate, as these writings were never intended for anyone other than the emperor himself. They were personal notes for the purpose of his own edification.
His philosophy is a very practical kind of Stoicism, the main point of which is to defeat logismoi—assaultive thoughts—and to acquire virtue. As such, I can’t say much about what the philosophical foundations of Stoicism actually are because they aren’t explained with any depth by Marcus Aurelius. I’m sure there are many nuances and definitions I’m completely ignorant of, especially as it relates to the concept of the logos.
Throughout the work, much attention is given to the logos and I know that in Greek philosophy that’s a loaded word. If I remember correctly, it might broadly be thought of as some combination of reason and cosmic order, the divine animating principle. But it is at the foundation of most of what Marcus Aurelius writes. He writes of aligning himself to the logos and living the logos and accepting the logos. I get the sense that if you want to understand the "whys" of Stoicism, you should look elsewhere, perhaps Epictetus or Seneca. But if you’re primarily concerned about the "hows" of Stoicism, this is the book for you.
It’s primarily about finding out your place in the universe and acting out your role. It’s about accepting what comes to you, not as obstacles, but as opportunities. The purpose of everything is to advance virtue, to make us closer to being good men.
Going into this reading, what I was most interested in was seeing where the wisdom of a pagan emperor and the wisdom of Christianity might overlap. This interest stemmed from both sides using the concept of logos. For the Stoic, it is the cosmic order and for the Christian it is essentially the same thing.
In John 1:1 we read:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Word, in this verse, is Jesus Christ. And in the original Greek it is λόγος—Logos. Jesus Christ is the Logos—the divine animating principle, the cosmic order, the source of order and knowledge—incarnated as a human being. The implications are fascinating.
Reading the Meditations through Christian eyes, Stoicism can easily have the appearance of being a more primitive, less refined, less detailed expression of Christian theology. Some definitions are different, but the aims are either the same or similar. I haven’t done any serious study on the relationship between Stoicism and the development of Christianity, but having read Meditations I’m more interested than ever.
The writing itself is short and to-the-point. It’s very meaty and very no-nonsense. The George Long version I read was more like a traditional book, just paragraphs of text. This Gregory Hays edition has the sections divided into numbered verses, making it a lazier read (in a good way). The verses are often a single line, never more than a few paragraphs, and each gives you plenty to think about and chew on.
I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those who are sick to death of the "rights and freedoms", "everything is victimhood" banners being taken to the absolute extreme these days. Meditations has one primary lesson, and everything is an elaboration, explanation, or instruction with regards to that lesson.
And that lesson is this: you cannot control others—what they believe, think, or do—but you can control yourself, you can control your own mind, you can aim for virtue and goodness.
It’s a call to never be a victim. Being a victim requires your consent, and those who never consent are never victims. Instead, the practical demands of stoicism is to treat everything that happens to you as a means to your virtuous end. They are opportunities. Your circumstances can be caused by things outside of your control, like nature or the actions of malevolent people, but they are never worth worrying about. Rather, what you should worry about is acting as if you are to blame for everything. It does no good for your life to wallow in victimhood, even if the most heinous evil has been perpetrated against you. Treat yourself as if you’re responsible and you’ll soon find actions to take that can alleviate suffering for both yourself and others.
Below I’m including the parts that stuck out most to me. The page numbers are taken from the Gregory Hays edition. Make sure you get a copy because it’s worth reading and re-reading.
Highlights and Notes on Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Gregory Hays Translation
The following translated passages are copyrighted by Modern Library and are presented for educational purposes. You can (and should) buy the full text here.
How to act: Never under compulsion, without forethought. Don’t gussy up your thoughts. (Don’t make them showy) No extra words or unnecessary actions. Let the spirit in you represent a man. Taking up his post like a soldier and patiently awaiting his recall from life. Cheerfulness without requiring help or serenity supplied by others. Stand up straight, not straightened
It would be wrong for anything to stand between you and attaining goodness (could be thought of as attaining sainthood). Anything at all: the applause of the crowd, high office, wealth, or self-indulgence. All of them might seem to be compatible with it, for a while. But suddenly they control us and sweep us away.
Never regard something as good that makes you: betray a trust, lose sense of shame, show hatred suspicion ill will or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors. These things can’t be good, Aurelius says.
How long your body contains the soul that it inhabits it will cause you not a moment’s worry. If it’s time for you to go, leave willingly as you would to accomplish anything that can be done with grace and honor. And concentrate on this your whole life long.
Live as a preparation for death. As a Christian, live as a preparation for heaven.
Your ability to control your thoughts…is all that protects your mind from false perceptions…and makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.
Do the job in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience, free of distractions, and keeping the spirit inside you undamaged. Embrace without fear or expectation and find fulfillment in what you’re doing now. Then your life will be happy and no one can prevent that.
To experience sensations, even grazing beasts do that. To let your desires control you: even wild animals do that. To make your mind your guide to what seems best: even people who deny the gods do that. Even people who betray their country. Even people who do \<…> behind closed doors.
What is unique to the good man?
To welcome with affection what is sent by fate. Not to stain or disturb the spirit within him with a mess of false beliefs. Preserve the spirit faithfully, by calmly obeying God, saying nothing untrue, doing nothing unjust.
People try to get away from it all–to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.
By going within.
Nowhere you can go is more peaceful–more free of interruptions–than your own soul.
Look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us–how capricious they are, how arbitrary.
That sort of person is bound to do that. You might as well resent a fig tree for secreting juice. (Anyway, before very long you’ll both be dead–dead and soon forgotten.)
Choose not to be harmed–and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed–and you haven’t been. It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you, inside or out.
Every event is the right one. Everything that happens is weighed for a purpose. It’s what’s meant to happen to us now, so that we can be made into better men.
Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: the readiness to do only what the logos directs with the good of human beings in mind, that is readiness to do God’s will. And the readiness to reconsider your position when someone can set you straight or change your mind.
You have functioned as a part of something; you will vanish into what produced you. Or be restored, rather. To the logos from which all tings spring. By being changed.
Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able–be good.
The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say or think or do, only what you do. Not to be distracted by their darkness.
Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves… Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it?
The life of a good man: someone content with that nature assigns him. and satisfied with being just and kind himself.
Rebel: (n.) one who is rebellious, one who withdraws from the logos of Nature because he resents its workings.
A philosopher without clothes and one without books. "I have nothing to eat," says he, as he stands there half-naked, "but I subsist on the logos." And with nothing to read, I subsist on it too.
Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.
So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: "I have to go to work–as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for–the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?"
– But it’s nicer here…
So you were born to feel "nice"? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? What aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
– But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that–as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below quota.
You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for the money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.
Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort?
They don’t count their favors as debts to cash in on others. They just go on to something else, as the vine looks forward to bearing fruit again in season.
"Nature prescribed illness for him." Or blindness… There "prescribed" means something like ordered, so as to further his recovery. What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny.
"The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all."
Do not think of philosophy as your instructor, but as the sponge and egg white that relieve ophthalmia–as a soothing ointment, a warm lotion. Not showing off your obedience to the logos, but resting in it.
Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts. Color it with a run of thoughts like these: Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one; Things gravitate toward what they were intended for.
It is crazy to want what is impossible. And impossible for the wicked not to do so.
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
Matter: How tiny your share of it. Time: How brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate: How small a role you play in it.
To live with the gods is to show them that your soul accepts what is given and does what the spirit requires–the spirit God gave each of us to lead and guide us, a fragment of Himself. Which is our mind, our logos.
The one that knows the beginning and the end, and knows the logos that runs through all things and that assigns to all a place, each in its allotted span, through the whole of time.
Sensory objects are shifting and unstable; our sense dim and easily deceived.
Honor and revere the gods, treat human beings as they deserve, be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. Remember, nothing belongs to you but your flesh and blood—and nothing else is under your control.
True good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.
The best revenge is not to be like that.
It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.
I do what is mine to do; the rest doesn’t disturb me. The rest is inanimate, or has no logos, or it wanders at random and has lost the road.
When you deal with fellow human beings, behave as one. They share in the logos.
Implements, tools, equipment. If they do what they were designed for, then they work. Even if the person who designed them is miles away. But with naturally occurring things, the force that designed them is present within them and remains there. Which is why we owe it special reverence, with the recognition that if you live and act as it dictates, then everything in you is intelligently ordered. Just as everything in the world is.
If we limited "good" and "bad" to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.
All of us are working on the same project. Some consciously, with understanding; some without knowing it.
Those who sleep are also hard at work.
Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.
All those people who came into the world with me and have already left it.
How quickly it will all be erased by time. How much has been erased already.
What is outside my mind means nothing to it. Absorb that lesson and your feet stand firm.
…Our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.
So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone.
Forget the future. When and if it comes, you’ll have the same resources to draw on–the same logos.
To a being with logos, an unnatural action is one that conflicts with the logos.
Straight, not straightened.
[The mind] is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. Knows no obstructions, except those from within.
Well-being is good luck, or good character.
This part reminds me of the quote from Thomas Moore about how he can’t have enemies because either they will become Christian and they will live in eternal brotherhood, or they will not and they should be pitied.
Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion.
Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them.
The mind’s requirements are satisfied by doing what we should, and by the calm it brings us.
And why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice!
No chorus of lamentation, no hysterics.
…Observing life for forty years is as good as a thousand. Would you really see anything new?
To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony.
Look at who they really are, the people whose approval you long for, and what their minds are really like. Then you won’t blame the ones who make mistakes they can’t help, and you won’t feel a need for their approval. You will have seen the sources of both–their judgments and their actions.
"Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination." – Epictetus
Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense.
It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.
This is what you deserve. You could be good today. But instead you choose tomorrow.
You have to assemble your life yourself–action by action.
To accept it without arrogance, to let it go without indifference.
People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations To Come will be the same annoying people they know now. And just as mortal. What does it matter to you if they say x about you, or think y?
External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.
If there are insuperable obstacles Then it’s not a problem. The cause of your inaction lies outside you…Depart, with a good conscience, as if you’d done it, embracing the obstacles too.
And an individual act of evil does not harm the victim. Only one person is harmed by it–and he can stop being harmed as soon as he decides to.
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions–not outside.
A rock thrown in the air. It loses nothin by coming down, gained nothing by going up. (No external circumstances changed its nature or value. Whether up or down, it remains a rock. Nothing that happened in the air or on the ground stopped it from being a rock.)
When you face someone’s insults, hatred, whatever… look at his soul. Get inside him. Look at what sort of person he is. You’ll find you don’t need to strain to impress him. But you do have to wish him well. He’s your closest relative. The gods assist him just as they do you–by signs and dreams and every other way–to get the things he wants.
(Other people are loved by God as I am. We either have the same destiny of eternal brotherhood with God or else he will go to hell. In either case, I cannot return hatred for hatred. I must regard him as my "closest relative". He, also, is a center of the universe.)
The ones who reached old age have no advantage over the untimely dead.
Imagine their souls stripped bare. And their vanity. To suppose that their disdain could harm anyone–or their praise help them.
If they’ve injured you, then they’re the ones who suffer for it. But have they?
Either all things spring from one intelligent source and form a single body…or there are only atoms, joining and splitting forever, and nothing else.
Either the gods have power or they don’t. If they don’t, why pray? If they do, then why not pray for something else instead of for things to happen or not to happen? Pray not to feel fear. Or desire, or grief. If the gods can do anything, they can surely do that for us. – But those are things the gods left up to me. Then isn’t it better to do what’s up to you-like a freeman-than to be passively controlled by what isn’t, like a slave or beggar? And what makes you think the gods don’t care about what’s up to us.
Start praying like this and you’ll see. Not ‘some way to sleep with her’–but a way to stop wanting to. Not ‘some way to get rid of him’–but a way to stop trying. Not ‘some way to save my child’–but a way to lose your fear. Redirect your prayers like that, and watch what happens.
Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable… then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.
To follow the logos in all things is to be relaxed and energetic, joyful and serious at once.
To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.
Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges…
Each of us needs what nature gives us, when nature gives it.
…leaves that the wind drives earthward; such are the generations of men. Leaves applauding loyally and heaping praise upon you, or turning around and calling down curses, sneering and mocking from a safe distance. A glorious reputation handed down by leaves.
[The rational soul] knows that those who come after us will see nothing different, that those who came before us saw no more than we do, and that anyone with forty years behind him and eyes in his head has seen both past and future–both alike.
How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them.
There’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being–and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners.
If you don’t have a consistent goal in life, you can’t live it in a consistent way.
The town mouse and the country mouse. Distress and agitation of the town mouse.
Everything you’re trying to reach—by taking the long way round—you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice.
Reverence: so you’ll accept what you’re allotted. Nature intended it for you, and you for it. Justice: so that you’ll speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should—and as other people deserve.
It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us—or a wise human being, even—and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions—instead of our own.
The student as boxer, not fencer. The fencer’s weapon is picked up and put down again. The boxer’s is part of him. All he has to do is clench his fist.
The freedom to do only what God wants, and accept whatever God sends us.
Fatal necessity, and inescapable order. Or benevolent Providence. Or confusion—random and undirected.
If it’s an inescapable necessity, why resist it?
If it’s Providence, and admits to being worshipped, then try to be worth of God’s aid.
If it’s confusion and anarchy, then be grateful that on this raging sea you have a mind to guide you. And if the storm should carry you away, let it carry off flesh, breath, and all the rest, but not hte mind which can’t be swept away.
That before long you’ll be no one, and nowhere. Like all the things you see now. All the people now living.
The fraction of infinity, of that vast abyss of time, allotted to each of us. Absorbed in an instant into eternity.
The fraction of all substance, and all spirit.
The fraction of the whole earth you crawl about on.
Keep all that in mind, and don’t treat anything as important except doing what your nature demands, and accepting what Nature sends you.
How the mind conducts itself. It all depends on that. All the rest is within its power, or beyond its control—corpses and smoke.
You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred—what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction.
And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible?
Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor:
"But I’ve only gotten through three acts…!"
Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine.
So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.