Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations

I don’t know why I waited so long to read this book.  It is one of the best beginner books in philosophy and maybe one of the most useful. It is straightforward and deals with matters with which most people struggle.  

In book 1 Marcus lists what he learned from each of his teachers.  The reader sees a list of manliness (the ambiguity in that term will become clearer later), directness, and lack of guile.  He urges the reader to live simply and positively.  Being positive, though, is not mere self-help fluff.  It is painful.  It requires emotional sacrifices.  For example,

“Not to say to anyone…that I have no leisure [to write to them]….by alleging urgent occupations” (I.10).  I’ll admit it.  I do this every day.

Elsewhere he says “freedom of will” is associated with “steadiness of purpose.”  This is a profound insight.  Regardless of what we may believe about “libertarian free will” or “determinism” (neither of which enter into the calculus of any decision we make), it is true that if we do not have a steady character, we won’t be in full control of our decisions.  Don’t you remember those times when you were tossed about by circumstances, and you worried over which decisions you had to make?  Remember how it felt?  You didn’t feel in control.  Could you really say that your will was 100% free in those circumstances?  Probably not.

Of course, as a Stoic he does hold to necessity. He notes that fortune is from providence, but there is an “interweaving involution with which the things are ordered” (II.3).

Book II ends with the fleetingness of human life.  Much of it echoes Ecclesiastes.  “Of human life the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux….and the soul a whirl” (II.17).  When we remember that Ecclesiastes 1 should be translated as “vapor” rather than vanity, we gain a new appreciation for Marcus’s words.

One of the reasons it is difficult to pin down his metaphysics and epistemology is that they aren’t easily separable.  That might account for Stoicism’s power as a way of life.  He writes, “If thou findest in human life anything better than justice, truth, temperance….anything better than thy own mind’s self-satisfaction in the things which it enables thee to do according to right reason” (III.6).  I don’t think he is saying right reason = truth et al.  Rather, right reason functions as an accessing-relation to those entities.  You can’t experience them without the mind participating in right reason.

Regarding opinion, opinion isn’t a lower degree of reality, as perhaps in some Platonic accounts.  To be sure, it doesn’t have the same epistemic force as knowledge, but neither is it worthless.  He writes, “Reverence the faculty which produces opinion.  On this faculty it entirely depends whether there shall exist in thy ruling part any opinion consistent with nature” (III.9).  This is similar to the later English concept of “sentiment.”  Opinions, like sentiments, need to be purified and well-ordered, not done away with.

In a way anticipating modern business management, he argues for something like a “mission statement.”  “Make for thyself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to thee, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance” (262). Of course, the immediate goal is something like an analysis of a substance, but the emphasis on proper definition shouldn’t be ignored.  Good business models tacitly apply this same rigor to their vision.

Anthropology: “to the body belongs sensations, to the soul appetites, to the intelligence principles” (III.16).  At death these departed souls float into the air; afterwards, they become fire and are absorbed back into the Cosmic Mind (IV.21).

Metaphysics: “The universe is transformation” (IV.3). It is a living being, having one substance and one soul (IV.40). It won’t do to say that this is pantheism.  He isn’t saying A = B.  Rather, A is part of B.  He elsewhere likens it to a river (V.23).  The universe functions as a unity is probably the best way to say it.  The wise man meditates on this connection (not dissimilar from St Maximus saying we should perceive the logoi of things).

Catchy quotes:

“Tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind” (IV.3).

Stoicism is worth studying because it was one of the first philosophical systems in dialogue with Christianity.  It’s strange that so many Christians became Platonists rather than Stoics.  The New Testament was far more interested in Stoicism.  Of course, we can’t simply baptize Stoicism.  Much of the system is unworkable for Christians.


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