Marcus Aurelius: Meditations on justice & providence

Marcus Aurelius claimed that everything that happens is just (4.10). This is so because divine providence determines everything (4.26). But his view is irrational because if everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Yet, if justice – the basis of all Stoic virtue (11.10) – is moot then Stoic virtue also is moot. Ancient Epicureans criticized Stoicism along similar lines.

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From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

All is just

“Everything that happens is right.” Look closely and you’ll see it’s true. Not just right overall, but just – as if someone had weighed it out with scales. Keep looking closely and embody it in your actions. Goodness defines a good person. Keep to it in everything you do (4.10).

Just as you hear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him,” say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. Here “prescribed” means something like “ordered to further his recovery.” What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny, for there is a single harmony (5.8, see also 10.5).

What we experience is part of human experience. The experience of the ox is part of the experience of oxen, as the vine’s is of the vine, and the stone’s what is proper to stones. Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural, and there’s no sense in complaining. Nature does not make us endure the unendurable (8.46).

There are two reasons to embrace what happens. One is that it’s happening to you. It was prescribed for you, and it pertains to you. The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all. The other reason is that what happens to an individual is a cause of wellbeing in what directs the world — of its wellbeing, its fulfillment, of its very existence even (5.8).

The whole is damaged if you cut away anything from its continuity and its coherence — anything at all. Not only its parts, but its purposes. And that’s what you’re doing when you complain: hacking and destroying (5.8).

I am a part of a world controlled by nature. And I have a relationship with other, similar parts. With that in mind I have no right, as a part, to complain about what is assigned me by the whole. Because what benefits the whole can’t harm the parts, and the whole does nothing that doesn’t benefit it (10.6).

Justice is the number one virtue

Nature is never inferior to art. Art imitates nature, not the reverse. In which case, universal nature itself cannot fall short of any artistic invention. Now, all the arts create the lower in the interests of the higher. Won’t universal nature do the same? This is the origin of justice, which is the source of all the other virtues. But how could we do what justice requires if we are distracted by things that don’t matter, if we are naive, gullible, or inconstant? (11.10)

To the best of my judgment, when I look at the human character I see no virtue that counters justice. But I see a virtue to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

To be drawn toward what is wrong and self-indulgent, toward anger and fear and pain, is to revolt against nature. And for the mind to complain about anything that happens is to desert its post. It was created to show reverence — respect for the divine — no less than to act justly. That too is kind of fellowship, and a prerequisite for justice (11.20).

Be sure your actions are not arbitrary or different from what justice would do (12.24). Justice – speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should — and as other people deserve. Don’t let anything deter you: other people’s misbehavior, your own misperceptions, what people will say, or the feelings of the body that covers you (12.1).

Injustice is blasphemy

Injustice is a kind of blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help, not harm one another, as they deserve. To transgress its will, then, is to blaspheme against the oldest of the gods. (9.1).

Be indifferent to external events, and commit to justice in your own acts. This means thought and action resulting in the common good – what you were born to do (9.31).

Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: to do only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the good of human beings in mind; and to reconsider your position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others and nothing else – not because it’s more appealing or more popular (4.12).

Do your best to convince others. But act on your own if justice requires it. If met with force then fall back on acceptance and peaceability. Use the setback to practice other virtues. Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances – you weren’t aiming to do the impossible. Aiming to do what, then? To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished (6.50).

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated, and to approach this thought with care so that nothing irrational creeps in (7.54).

You have to assemble your life yourself – action by action – and be satisfied if each one achieves its goal (as far as it can). No one can keep that from happening. “But there are external obstacles.” No obstacle, though, to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense (8.32).

Providence

What is divine is full of providence. Even chance is not divorced from nature, from the inweaving and enfolding of things governed by providence. Everything proceeds from it (2.3).

Teach yourself to be at one with those things ordained for you. And treat the people who share them with you with love – with real love (6.39).

Everything is here for a purpose, from horses to vine shoots. What’s surprising about that? Even the sun will tell you, “I have a purpose,” and the other gods as well. And why were you born? For pleasure? See if that answer will stand up to questioning (8.19).

Fate? Providence? Or random and undirected? If it’s fate, why resist? If it’s providence then try to be worthy of God’s help. If it’s confusion and anarchy then be grateful that on this raging sea you have a mind to guide you (12.14).

External events happen randomly or by design. You can’t complain about chance. You can’t argue with providence (12.24). And nature is indifferent to some things. That is, they happen impartially through cause and effect following from the ancient decree of providence. From this starting point it embarked on creation as we know it – laying down the principles of what was to come, and determining the forces of existence, change, and their successive stages (9.1).

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 (12.1).

Don’t be disturbed. Don’t overcomplicate things. Someone has done wrong – but to himself. Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning. Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present — thoughtfully, justly, with unrestrained moderation (4.26).

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening – the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us. They have placed within us everything we need to avoid real harm. If there were anything harmful on the other side of death they would have made sure we had the ability to avoid it (2.11).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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