Marcus Aurelius: Praise & criticism

Stoic advice not to value people’s praise or criticism doesn’t mean disdaining others.

Mohave Desert in western Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

What other people think is not your problem

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake — not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).

When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them (9.27). What are their minds like? What evokes their love and admiration? Imagine their souls stripped bare. And their vanity. It’s their conceit to suppose their disdain could harm anyone, or their praise help them (9.34). But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends (9.27).

Do you want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, or the approval of people who can’t please themselves? Is it a sign of self-respect to regret nearly everything you do? (8.53)

Listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? Bear in mind what sort of people they are — both at home and abroad, by night as well as day, and who they spend their time with. Care nothing for the praise of men who don’t even live up to their own standards (3.4).

Take the high road

Take Antoninus as your model: his steadiness in any situation, his sense of reverence, his calm expression, his gentleness, his modesty, the way he put up with unfair criticism without returning it; how he would not listen to gossip, was slow to criticize, immune to rumor and suspicion, devoid of pretense, and not prone to backbiting, cowardice, jealousy, or empty rhetoric (6.30).

Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision and your own mind (8.16).

___________________

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.

Marcus Aurelius: Pleasure & pain

Stoics and Epicureans have serious disagreements about pleasure and pain. Marcus Aurelius articulates why the Stoic view is best for human flourishing.

Balance rock, Lincolnville, Maine

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Don’t fear pain or seek pleasure

The human soul degrades itself when it is overpowered by pleasure or pain (2.16). To fear pain is to fear something that’s bound to happen. And with the world being what it is, that’s impious. If you pursue pleasure you can hardly avoid wrongdoing — which is manifestly impious (9.1).

Even pirates, perverts, parricides, and tyrants enjoy pleasure to the full (6.34). When I look at the human character I see no virtue placed there to counter justice. But I see one to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

Remorse is annoyance at having passed up something to your benefit. But if it’s to your benefit it must be something a virtuous person would be concerned about. But no virtuous person would feel remorse at passing up pleasure. So pleasure cannot make you more virtuous (8.10).

Watch out for desire

In comparing sins (the way people do), Theophrastus says the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger. Which is good philosophy. The angry man seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more self-indulgent, less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked to anger by pain. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire (2.10).

Keep it simple

You don’t need much to live happily. Just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others, and obeying God (7.67).

Non-attachment

Don’t dream of possessing what you don’t have. Reflect on the blessings of what you do have, and how much you’d miss them if they weren’t there. But be careful. Don’t become so dependent on this pleasure that it would upset you to lose them (7.27).

Character is most important

It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you inside or out (4.8). And 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 integrity, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it (2.17).

What’s truly harmful is compromising your character

For animate beings, “harmful” is whatever obstructs their senses, or the fulfillment of what they intend. So too for rational creatures. Anything that obstructs the mind is harmful. Apply this to yourself. Do pain and pleasure have their hooks in you? Let the senses deal with it. Are there obstacles to your action? That would harm you if you failed to recognize this possibility. But if you use common sense, you haven’t been harmed or even obstructed because no one can obstruct the operations of the mind (8.41).

Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. Then where is harm to be found? In your judgment of it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Keep the judging part of you quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone — bad and good alike — is neither good nor bad {i.e. it doesn’t affect your character unless you let it}. What happens in every life — lived naturally or not — is neither natural nor unnatural (4.39).

The existence of evil does not harm the world. And an individual act of evil does not harm the victim. Only the perpetrator is harmed by it — and he can stop being harmed as soon as he decides to (8.55).

To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice — it degrades you (9.4).

Think it through

It’s normal to feel pain in your hands and feet, if you’re using your feet as feet and your hands as hands. And for a human being to feel stress is normal — if he’s living a normal human life. And if it’s normal, how can it be bad? (6.33)

Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been (4.7, see also 7.14). Remove your judgments of anything that seems painful and you’ll remain completely unaffected. Don’t let reason be injured. If any other part of you is in trouble it can form its own judgments for itself (8.40).

Enduring pain

Either pain affects the body (which is the body’s problem) or it affects the soul. But the soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquillity. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them (8.28).

Unendurable pain carries us off. Chronic pain can be endured: the mind preserves its serenity by withdrawing from the body – reason is not impaired by pain. The parts injured by pain can protest if they can (7.33).

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then stop complaining and endure it. If it’s unendurable also stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. But remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable by treating it as in your interest or nature to do so (10.3).

Forgive

To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose (7.22).

Where’s the harm or surprise in ignorant people behaving ignorantly? Think about it. Shouldn’t you admonish yourself for failing to anticipate that they’d act this way? (9.42)

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake – not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).

In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don’t denounce them or get upset with them. We just keep an eye on them after that – but not out of hatred or suspicion, just keeping a friendly distance. We need to do that in other areas as well. We need to excuse what our sparring partners do, and just keep our distance without suspicion or hatred (6.20).

___________________

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.

Marcus Aurelius: Virtue, good, & evil

Reason and mindfulness must have a focus. That’s why virtue is Stoicism’s centerpiece. Virtue as the ultimate good, rather than being subordinate to pleasure,  is a key point of disagreement between Stoics and Epicureans.

South Mountain, Phoenix, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

What is good or bad?

Good or bad for rational and social beings lies not in feeling but in action. Virtue and vice show not in what you feel but in what you do (9.16).

You take things you don’t control and call them “good” or “bad.” So when “bad” things happen, or “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible — or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. 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 (6.41).

Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors (3.7).

When you have to deal with someone, ask yourself: What does he mean by good and bad? If he thinks this or that about pleasure and pain (and what produces them), about fame and disgrace, about death and life, then it shouldn’t shock or surprise you when he does this or that (8.14).

Suppose you take certain things as touchstones of goodness: prudence, self-control, justice, and courage. If you understand good in this sense then the saying, “Too much of a good thing” makes no sense (5.12).

Be realistic

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own. So none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry or hate them. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions. (2.1).

Justice is the cornerstone of virtue

Justice is the source of all the other virtues. For how could we do what justice requires if we’re distracted by things that don’t matter, if we are naive, gullible, or inconstant? (11.10)

To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice — it degrades you (9.4).

When I look at the human character I see no virtue placed there to counter justice. But I see one to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

Injustice is blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help, not harm, one another. To transgress its will is to blaspheme against the oldest of the gods. And to lie is to blasphemy too (even to lie without realizing it) because nature is synonymous with truth. And to pursue pleasure as good, and flee from pain as evil — that too is blasphemous. Those who do that are bound to find themselves constantly reproaching nature, complaining that it doesn’t treat the good and bad as they deserve. Moreover, to fear pain is to fear something that’s bound to happen, the world being what it is — and that again is blasphemy. If you pursue pleasure you can hardly avoid wrongdoing — which is manifestly blasphemous (9.1).

Characteristics of the rational soul: Affection for its neighbors, truthfulness, humility, not placing anything above itself — which is characteristic of law as well. No difference here between reason and justice (11.1).

Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense (7.69).

Just do it

Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one (10.16). No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good (7.15). If it’s not right, don’t do it. If it’s not true, don’t say (12.17). It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you, inside or out (4.8). Just do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter (6.2).

Practice the virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer beyond excuses like “can’t”? And yet you still settle for less (5.5).

You are much mistaken, my friend, if you think that any man worth his salt cares about the risk of death and doesn’t concentrate on this alone: whether what he’s doing is right or wrong, whether his behavior is that of a good man or a bad one (7.44).

No one but you can injure your character

No one can stop you from being honest or straightforward. The responsibility is all yours. Simply resolve not to go on living if you aren’t. It would be contrary to reason (10.32).

Like a branch cut away from a tree, people cut themselves off from the whole community through hatred and rejection. But they don’t realize that they’re cutting themselves off from the community. Yet we have a gift given us by Zeus, who founded this community of ours, to reattach ourselves and rejoin the whole. But if the rupture is too often repeated it makes the severed part hard to reconnect (11.8).

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 (6.51).

When you wake up, ask yourself: Does it make any difference to you if other people blame you for doing what’s right? It makes no difference. Have you forgotten what people who are so vociferous in praise or blame of others are like as they sleep and eat? (10.13)

Let it go

So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine. What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do what my nature wishes for me (5.25).

Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicate yourself. Someone has done wrong — to himself. Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning (4.26).

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. 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. Is that so hard? (7.26)

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 them for their mistakes, and you won’t feel a need for their approval. You will have seen the sources of both their judgments and their actions (7.62).

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy (6.6).

How to treat other people

In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them. But when they obstruct our proper tasks they become indifferent to us — like sun, wind, or animals. They impede our actions, but they can’t impede our intentions or our dispositions because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts its purposes to the obstacle, and what stands in the way becomes the way (5.20).

When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself: Is a world without shamelessness possible? No. Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them. The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. But bear in mind the qualities nature has given us to counter that defect? As an antidote to unkindness it gave us kindness. And other qualities to balance other flaws (9.42).

Accept it without arrogance, let it go with indifference (8.33).

Leave other people’s mistakes where they lie (9.20). It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own (7.71).

How to act

We have the potential to lead a good life. Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference (11.16).

Epictetus said, “We need to master the art of acquiescence. We need to pay attention to our impulses, making sure they don’t go unmoderated, that they benefit others, that they’re worthy of us. We need to steer clear of desire in any form and not try to avoid what’s beyond our control” (11.37).

When you’ve done a good deed and someone has benefited, why do you look, like a fool, for credit in return? (7.73)

When you feel pain be sure it doesn’t disgrace you or degrade your intelligence — that it doesn’t keep you from acting rationally or unselfishly (7.64).

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake – not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).

Wash yourself clean with simplicity, humility, and indifference to everything but right and wrong. Care for other human beings. Follow God (7.31).

Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision and your own mind (8.16).

Have I done something for the common good? Then I share in the benefits. To stay centered on that (11.4).

Salvation is seeing each thing for what it is — its nature and its purpose. Doing only what is right, saying only what is true without holding back. (12.29).

___________________

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.

Marcus Aurelius: Mindfulness

Mindfulness is another overlap between Stoicism and Buddhism.

A Joshua tree in western Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

External things aren’t the problem

Don’t be driven this way and that, but always to behave with justice and see things as they are (4.22).

The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts (5.16).

The mind is roused and directed by itself. It makes of itself what it chooses (6.8). The mind has no needs except for those it creates. It is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. It knows no obstructions, except those from within (7.16). The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever (8.48).

It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them – and this you can erase immediately (8.47). Blot out your imagination. Turn your desire to stone. Quench your appetites. Keep your mind centered on itself (9.7).

Focus

Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man — on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. You can if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you (2.5).

If our mind starts to wander, we’ll still go on breathing, go on eating, imagining things, feeling urges and so on. But getting the most out of ourselves, understanding where our duty lies, analyzing what we hear and see, deciding whether it’s time to call it quits — all the things you need a healthy mind for — all those are gone (3.1).

Stick to what’s in front of you — idea, action, utterance (8.22). Focus on what is said when you speak, and the results from each action. Know what the one aims at, and what the other means (7.4).

You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious. You need to get used to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, “What are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or thinking that. And it would be obvious at once from your answer that your thoughts were straightforward and considerate ones — the thoughts of an unselfish person, one unconcerned with pleasure and with sensual indulgence generally, with squabbling, with slander and envy, or anything else you’d be ashamed to be caught thinking (3.4).

Avoid misperceptions

Discard your misperceptions. Stop being jerked like a puppet. Limit yourself to the present. Understand what happens — to you, to others. Analyze what exists, break it all down material and cause. Anticipate your final hours. Other people’s mistakes? Leave them to their makers (7.29).

A healthy pair of eyes should see everything and not say, “No! Too bright!” A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent. So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. Worries such as, “Are my children all right?” or “Everyone must approve of me” are like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush (10.35).

Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them: Thoughts that are unnecessary, destructive to those around you, saying something you don’t really believe, and allowing self-indulgence to override the more divine part of you (11.19).

If you set yourself to the present task in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience; if you keep yourself free from distractions, and keep the spirit inside you standing strong (as if you might have to give it back at any moment); if you can embrace this without fear or expectation — content with each action as nature intended, with heroic truthfulness in all you say and mean — then you will lead a good life. No one can prevent that (3.12).

Keep calm and carry on

If someone asked you how to write your name, would you clench your teeth and spit out the letters one by one? Or would you just spell out the individual letters? Remember that your responsibilities can be broken down into individual parts as well. Concentrate on those, and finish the job methodically, without getting stirred up or meeting anger with anger (6.26).

Things that happen to the body are meaningless. It cannot discriminate among them. Nothing has meaning to my mind except its own actions, which are within its own control. And it’s only the immediate ones that matter. Its past and future actions too are meaningless (6.32).

Don’t worry about what other people think

Don’t pay attention to other people’s minds. Look straight ahead, where nature is leading you (7.55). No one ever came to grief from ignoring what goes on in other people’s souls. But you’ll be unhappy if you don’t keep track of your own soul’s doing (2.8).

Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people — unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, what they’re saying, what they’re thinking, what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind (3.4).

Nothing is more pathetic than people who run around in circles, “delving into the things that lie beneath,” and conducting investigations into the minds of other people, never realizing that all you have to do is to be attentive to the power inside you and give it true service. This keeps it from being muddied with passion, triviality, or being discontented with nature (2.13).

If you can cut your mind free of what other people do and say, of what you’ve said or done, of the things that you’re afraid will happen, the impositions of the body that contains you and the breath within, and what the whirling chaos sweeps in from outside, so that the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity, and lives life on its own recognizance — doing what’s right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth. If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past — then you can spend the time you have left in tranquillity and kindness, at peace with the spirit within you (12.3).

They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses. But how is that relevant to self-control — keeping your mind clear, sane, and just? It’s like a man standing by a spring of clear sweet water and cursing it while the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud or dung into it, but the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, and remain unstained. How can you secure not a cistern but a perpetual spring? By keeping yourself intent on freedom at all times, and staying kind, simple, and decent (8.51).

Self-control

Resist your body’s urges. Things driven by reason and thought have the capacity for detachment — to resist impulses and sensations, both of which are merely corporeal. Thought seeks to be their master, not their subject. Avoid rashness and credulity. (7.55).

No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. Don’t let your mind settle into depression or elation. Allow some leisure in your life (8.51).

Do external things distract you? Then make time to learn something worthwhile. Stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct their thoughts and impulses are wasting their time, even when hard at work (2.7).

An undisciplined mind is degrading

The human soul degrades itself when it becomes an abscess, a kind of detached growth on the world:

  • To be disgruntled at anything that happens is a revolt against nature (the nature of all things).
  • When it turns its back on another person or sets out to do it harm, as the souls of the angry do.
  • When it is overpowered by pleasure or pain.
  • When it puts on a mask and does or says something artificial or false.
  • When it allows its action and impulse to be without purpose, to be random and disconnected. Even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal. But the goal of rational beings is to follow the rule and law of the most ancient of communities and states (2.16).

How to act: Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, or with misgivings. Don’t dress up your thoughts — no surplus words or unnecessary actions. Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier patiently awaiting his recall from life, needing no oath or witness. Keep a cheerful demeanor without requiring other people’s help for serenity. Stand up straight — not held straightened (3.5).

Let philosophy guide you

People try to get away from it all — to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. Which is unphilosophic: 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 mind (4.3).

Human life:
Duration: momentary.
Nature: changeable.
Perception: dim.
Condition of Body: decaying.
Soul: spinning around.
Fortune: unpredictable.
Lasting Fame: uncertain.
Summary: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion (2.17).

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 integrity, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure to accept what happens and what 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 then why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil (2.17, see also 4.2 & 12.20).

___________________

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.

Marcus Aurelius: Reason & the mind

Marcus Aurelius on reason and the mind: “It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them – and this you can erase immediately” (8.47). 

Flagstaff, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

You are what you think

“All is as thinking makes it so” – Monimus the Cynic (2.15). The mind has no needs except for those it creates. It is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. It knows no obstructions, except those from within (7.16). It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with your judgments at will (12.22).

Respect your ability to control your thoughts – it’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions (3.9). The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts (5.16).

Disciplining your mind

Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them: Thoughts that are unnecessary, destructive to those around you, saying something you don’t really believe, and allowing self-indulgence to override the more divine part of you (11.19).

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).

When you feel pain be sure it doesn’t disgrace you or degrade your intelligence — that it doesn’t keep you from acting rationally or unselfishly (7.64).

Remove your judgement of anything that seems painful and you’ll remain completely unaffected. Don’t let reason be injured. If any other part of you has a problem then it can form that judgement for itself (8.40).

It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them — and this you can erase immediately. If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight? And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it? “But there are insurmountable obstacles.” Then it’s not a problem. The cause of your inaction lies outside you (8.47).

Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference (11.16). The cucumber is bitter? Throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Go around them. That’s all you need to know, nothing more. Don’t demand to know why such things exist (8.50).

Reason has no obstacles outside of yourself

Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it — turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself — so too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal (8.35).

Mind and reason have the power, by their nature and their will, to move through every obstacle. Remember the easy capacity for reason to carry through all things, and stop looking for anything more (10.33).

Our inward power, when it obeys nature, accommodates itself to what it faces, to what is possible. It pursues its aims as circumstances allow. It turns obstacles into fuel (4.1).

Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when it has you in its spell (6.13).

Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds (6.53).

Reason is aligned with nature

To a rational being, an action that conflicts with reason is unnatural (7.11). The right path for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or obscure impressions, to direct its impulses toward social action, and to direct its desires and aversions only to things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it (8.7).

A healthy pair of eyes should see everything and not say, “No! Too bright!” A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent. So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. Worries such as, “Are my children all right?” or “Everyone must approve of me” are like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush (10.35).

To erase false perceptions, tell yourself: I have it in me to keep my soul from evil, lust and all confusion. To see things as they are and treat them as they deserve. Don’t overlook this innate ability (8.29).

All is in order whenever something can be done in accordance with reason, which is shared by gods and men. There’s the possibility of benefit when things move in step with nature, so there’s nothing to fear (7.53).

Reason & our shared humanity

All rational things are related, and to care for all human beings is part of being human. Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinions. We should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? Bear in mind what sort of people they are. Care nothing for their praise if they can’t even meet their own standards (3.4). Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say (5.3).

If thought is something we share, then so is reason — what makes us reasoning beings. If so, then the reason that tells us what to do and what not to do is also shared. And if so, we share a common law and thus are fellow citizens — fellow citizens of something. In that case, our state must be the world. What other entity could all of humanity belong to (4.4).

What is rational in different beings is related like the individual limbs of a single being, and meant to function as a unit.This will be clearer to you if you remind yourself: I am a single limb of a larger rational body (7.13).

Reason is like sunlight

The sun’s light extends extends in a straight line, striking any object that stands in its way, but not the space beyond it. It stays there without vanishing or falling away. That’s what the universal mind is like — not an exhaustible stream but a constant radiation. There’s nothing forceful or violent about its impact, nor does it fall away. Rather, it illuminates whatever receives it. Anything unreflective will deprive itself of that light (8.57).

Reason and spiritual growth

Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as the capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare — as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name — the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return (3.11).

Just as those who try block your progress along the straight path of reason can’t keep you from doing what’s right, so too you must not lose your good will toward them (11.9).

The rational soul

The rational soul is capable of self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants. It reaps its own harvest and reaches its intended goal no matter where the limit of its life is set. It delves into the endlessness of time to extend its grasp and comprehension of the periodic births and rebirths that the world goes through (11.1).

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. It has affection for its neighbors, truthfulness, and humility. It doesn’t place anything above itself — which is characteristic of law as well. There’s difference between the logos of rationality and that of justice (11.1).

___________________

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.

Marcus Aurelius: Death

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius seems preoccupied with death. But context matters. Infant mortality was high in the ancient world, and plague (which Marcus contracted but survived) was a constant threat. Marcus also spent much of his reign on the battlefield. 

South Mountain, Phoenix, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Death is no loss

Death: something like birth, a natural mystery, elements that split and recombine. Not an embarrassing thing. Not an offense to reason, or our nature (4.5). Death: The end of sense-perception, of being controlled by our emotions, of mental activity, of enslavement to our bodies (6.28).

Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow or the day after. Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t make a fuss about which day it was — what difference would it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small (4.47).

You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. 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? (2.11)

Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years or ten times that, remember that you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another life other than the one you’re losing. The longest and the shortest lives end the same way. And the present is the same for everyone. Its loss is the same for everyone. So it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. You can’t lose the past or the future because you can’t lose what you don’t have (2.14, see also 12.36).

The person who comes to the end of the line has no cause for complaint. The time and stopping point are set by nature — our own nature. In some cases death from old age. Or nature as a whole, whose parts, shifting and changing, constantly renew the world and keep it on schedule (12.23).

Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already or is impossible to see. The span we live is small (3.11).

Don’t fear death

Fear of death is fear of what we may experience. Nothing at all, or something quite new. But if we experience nothing then we experience nothing bad. And if our experience changes then our existence will change with it. Change, but not cease (8.58).

Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore? (10.29) Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature. Like youth and old age. Like growth and maturity. Like a new set of teeth, a beard, the first gray hair. Like sex and pregnancy and childbirth. Like all the other physical changes at each stage of life, our dissolution is no different. So this is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that happen to us (9.3).

Think of the people you’ll no longer be mixed up with. But there’s no need to feel resentment toward them — in fact, you should look out for their well-being and be gentle with them. But keep in mind that everything you believe is meaningless to those you leave behind (9.3).

When we cease from activity, or follow a thought to its conclusion, it’s a kind of death. And it doesn’t harm us. Think about your life: childhood, youth, old age. Every transformation a kind of dying. Was that so terrible?Then neither will the close of your life be — its ending and transformation (9.21).

An incentive to treat death as unimportant: even people who see pleasure as a good and pain as an evil still think nothing of death (12.34).

Life is trivial

Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen, tomorrow embalming fluid or ash (4.48). A trite but effective tactic against the fear of death: think of the list of people who had to be pried away from life. What did they gain by dying old? In the end, they all sleep six feet under. Our lifetime is so brief. And to live it out in these circumstances, among these people, in this body? Nothing to get excited about. Consider the abyss of time past, the infinite future. Three days of life or three generations: what’s the difference? (4.50)

Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most — and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, and trivial. Dogs snarling at each other. Quarreling children — laughing and then bursting into tears a moment later (5.33).

Keep this constantly in mind: that all sorts of people have
died — all professions, all nationalities. The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t (6.47).

Marcus reproaches himself

On the verge of dying and still weighed down, still turbulent, still convinced external things can harm you, still rude to other people, still not acknowledging the truth: that wisdom is justice (4.37). Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly (7.56, see also 10.15). Don’t live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. Be good while you’re alive and able (4.17).

Death isn’t the end

What dies doesn’t vanish. It stays here in the world, transformed, dissolved, as parts of the world, and of you. Which are transformed in turn — without grumbling (8.18).

How is it that the gods arranged everything with such skill, such care for our well-being, and somehow overlooked one thing: that certain people — in fact, the best of them, the gods’ own partners, the ones whose piety and good works brought them closest to the divine — that these people, when they die, should cease to exist forever? Utterly vanished (12.5).

___________________

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.

Marcus Aurelius: Impermanence

Impermanence is usually associated with Buddhism. But it’s important in Stoicism too.

Phoenix, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Existence is like a river

Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish – so that new things can be born (12.21).

Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone (4.43).

Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us — a chasm whose depths we cannot see. It would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either — as if the things that irritate us lasted (5.23).

Life is like smoke

See human life for what it is. Smoke. Nothing. Especially when you recall that once things they are no more for all eternity. Then why such turmoil? To live your brief life rightly, isn’t that enough? (10.31)

Before long everything will be transformed, to rise like smoke or be dispersed in fragments (6.4). All substance is soon absorbed into nature, all that animates it soon restored to the logos, all trace of them soon covered over by time (7.10).

All that you see will soon have vanished, and those who see it vanish will vanish themselves, and the ones who reach old age have no advantage over the untimely dead (9.33).

Everything that exists is already fraying at the edges and in transition, subject to fragmentation and decay. Everything was born to die (10.18).

Nature is like a sculptor

Nature takes substance and makes a horse, like a sculptor with wax. And then melts it down and uses the material for a tree. Then for a person. Then for something else. Each existing only briefly. It does the container no harm to be put together, and none to be taken apart (7.23).

Grapes. Unripe. Ripened. Then raisins. Constant transitions (11.35). Everything in flux. And you too will alter in the whirl and perish, and the world as well (9.19).

Have 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 (4.36).

Acquire the ability to see how all things change into one another. Apply it constantly. Use it to train yourself. Nothing is as conducive to spiritual growth (10.11).

This too shall pass

The speed with which all things vanish — the objects in the world, and the memory of them in time. Especially those that entice us with pleasure or frighten us with pain or are loudly trumpeted by pride. (2.12)

To understand those things — how stupid, contemptible, grimy, decaying, and dead they are — that’s what our intellectual powers are for. And to understand what those people really amount to, whose opinions and voices constitute fame. And what dying is — that if you look at it in the abstract and break down your imaginary ideas of it by logical analysis, you realize that it’s nothing but a process of nature, which only children can be afraid of (2.12).

Don’t fear change

Frightened of change? What can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you eat food without transforming it? (7.18) There is nothing bad in undergoing change — or good in emerging from it (4.42). What follows is always in affinity with what went before. Not a random collection of things, but harmonious and interconnected (4.45).

Think of the whole of existence, of which you’re the tiniest part, how brief and fleeting your appointed time is, and how small a role you play in universal fate (5.24). By contemplating this you can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind — things that exist only there — and clear out space for yourself (9.32, see also 12.32).

What goes around comes around

Constantly bear in mind that all of this has happened before and will happen again — the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging (10.27).

The world’s cycles never change — up and down, from age to age. Either the world’s intelligence wills each thing (if so, accept its will), or it exercised that will once and for all and all else follows as a consequence (and if so, why worry?). The waves of change and alteration, endlessly breaking – see our brief mortality for what it is (9.28).

So give yourself a gift: the present moment. 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 what they say or think? (8.44)

Human life in perspective

Human life:
Duration: momentary.
Nature: changeable.
Perception: dim.
Condition of Body: decaying.
Soul: spinning around.
Fortune: unpredictable.
Lasting Fame: uncertain.
Summary: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion (2.17).

I am made up of substance and what animates it, and neither one can vanish into nothing, any more than it emerged from nothing. Every portion of me will be reassigned as another portion of the world, and that in turn transformed into another. Ad infinitum (5.13).

___________________

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.