I have finished reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – translated by Gregory Hays. This book was highly recommended by Shane Parrish (author of my favorite blog – FarnamStreet) as a read on stoicism.
This book lived up to the recommendation, and tops my list for most page-for-page wisdom.
In his introduction, Professor Gregory Hays lays out the context of this book, including its relation to stoicism:
Of the doctrines central to the Stoic worldview, perhaps the most important is the unwavering conviction that the world is organized in a rational and coherent way. More specifically, it is controlled and directed by an all-pervading force that the Stoics designated by the term logos. The term (from which English “logic” and the suffix “-logy” derive) has a semantic range so broad as to be almost untranslatable. At a basic level it designates rational, connected thought-whether envisioned as a characteristic (rationality, the ability to reason) or as the product of that characteristic (an intelligible utterance or a connected discourse Logos operates both in individuals and in the universe as a whole. In individuals it is the faculty of reason. On a cosmic level it is the rational principle that governs the organization of the universe.’ In this sense it is synonymous with “nature,” “Providence,” or “God.” (When the author of John’s Gospel tells us that “the Word”—logos—was with God and is to be identified with God, he is borrowing Stoic terminology.)
All events are determined by the logos, and follow in an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Stoicism is thus from the outset a deterministic system that appears to leave no room for human free will or moral responsibility. In reality the Stoics were reluctant to accept such an arrangement, and attempted to get around the difficulty by defining free will as a voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable. According to this theory, man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon. If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged. In the same way, humans are responsible for their choices and actions, even though these have been anticipated by the logos and form part of its plan. Even actions which appear to be—and indeed are—immoral or unjust advance the overall design, which taken as a whole is harmonious and good. They, too, are governed by the logos.
On the questions that the book addresses:
The questions that the Meditations tries to answer are primarily metaphysical and ethical ones: Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? How should we deal with pain and misfortune? How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist? It would be both pointless and impertinent to try to summarize Marcus’s responses; the influence of the Meditations on later readers springs in part from the clarity and insistence with which he addresses these questions. It may be worthwhile, however, to draw attention to one pattern of thought that is central to the philosophy of the Meditations (as well as to Epictetus), and that has been identified and documented in detail by Pierre Hadot. This is the doctrine of the three “disciplines”: the disciplines of perception, of action and of the will…Together, the three disciplines constitute a comprehensive approach to life, and in various combinations and reformulation they underlie a large number of the entries in the Meditations.
On the use of military parallels:
The Stoicism of the Meditations is fundamentally a defensive philosophy; it is noteworthy how many military images recur, from references to the soul as being “posted” or “stationed” to the famous image of the mind as an invulnerable fortress…For Marcus, life was a battle, and often it must have seemed—what in some sense it must always be—a losing battle.
Below are selected quotes from the book that very strongly resonated with me:
Then what can guide us? Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.
If all the rest is common coin, then 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. Instead, to preserve it faithfully, by calmly obeying God—saying nothing untrue, doing nothing unjust. And if the others don’t acknowledge it—this life lived with simplicity, humility, cheerfulness—he doesn’t resent them for it, and isn’t deterred from following the road where it leads: to the end of life. An end to be approached in purity, in serenity, in acceptance, in peaceful unity with what must be.
Then what should we work for? Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring.
Constant awareness that everything is born from change. The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to alter what exists and make new things like it. All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. You think the only seeds are the ones that make plants or children? Go deeper.
It’s unfortunate that this has happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it—not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate.? Can you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is. Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? 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.
What’s left for us to prize? I think it’s this: to do (and not do) what we were designed for. That’s the goal of all trades, all arts, and what each of them aims at: that the thing they create should do what it was designed to do. The nurseryman who cares for the vines, the horse trainer, the dog breeder—this is what they aim at. And teaching and education— what else are they trying to accomplish? So that’s what we should prize. Hold on to that, and you won’t be tempted to aim at anything else. And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free-free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. Plotting against those who have them-those things you prize. People who need those things are bound to 5 a mess—and bound to take out their frustrations on the gods. Whereas to respect your own mind—to prize it—will leave you satisfied with your own self, well integrated into your community and in mine with the gods as well—embracing what they allot you, and what they ordain.
Earth’s offspring back to earth But all that’s born of heaven To heaven returns again.” Either that or the cluster of atoms pulls apart and one way or another the insensible elements disperse.
When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that. When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position. Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize that they acted under compulsion (what else could they do.?). Or remove the compulsion, if you can.
An absolute must read!