Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a brilliant read, but not an easy one. Marcus called it To Himself.
It’s a journal, not a polished book. He jumps from topic to topic, then back to the same topic, with many repetitions.
What are the major themes? In future posts I’ll go into detail. For now I’ll say that I think of the topics in Meditations as being like a bicycle wheel.
The wheel is the universe – the whole, as it were. Nature is the hub of the wheel – nature as in the essential qualities or innate disposition of things. The relation of parts to the whole is a key theme.
Extending from the hub are various spokes, and reason is the second most important. Reason is the nature, or essential quality, of human beings. No other animal is capable of reason, and with reason we need not be slaves to our passions and can focus on the greater good.
Virtue, then, is the most important spoke because reason is a means to virtue.
Impermanence is also an important spoke. Understanding that our time on earth is but a second compared to all of existence can help us realize how trivial most of our concerns are.
Getting bogged down with petty concerns and failing to put things into perspective is a sure way to act destructively under the pretense of doing good. People who act destructively usually do so from ignorance – from their lack of perspective – rather than from malice.
Finally, death is related to impermanence. And Marcus reflects often on death. Maybe because he knew his time was growing short. But also because it helped him remember that none of his petty concerns would matter for long.
Both teach nonattachment, impermanence, and interconnectedness.
Both advise self-control, especially when strong emotions are involved.
Both teach that how we think about things determines how we experience life.
Both say that we create our own suffering by constantly yearning for more while failing to appreciate what we have.
And most of all, both place a strong emphasis on virtuous thoughts and actions.
But there are differences as well. Stoicism focuses on reason rather than mysticism. Concepts like Nirvana and rebirth are absent from Stoicism, as is the Buddhist practice of meditation.
The historical record is scant. I created this crude timeline to show the key interactions between Greek and Buddhist cultures:
You’ll notice that there is no known interactions between Buddhists and Stoics in ancient times. Stoicism grew out of Cynicism, however, and Cynic philosopher Onesicritus did interact with Indian ascetics after Alexander the Great reached the Indus River. We don’t know if these Indian ascetics were Buddhist, though they could have been. Besides, Cynicism had independently developed asceticism and non-attachment prior to contact with the East.
After Alexander’s empire split into smaller empires, Indo-Greek King Menander I became a Buddhist. And through trade routes it’s possible that some Buddhist ideas made their way back to Greece. And Caesar Augustus is known to have met with a Buddhist Indian king. A century and a half later the Stoic philosophy of Emperor Marcus Aurelius emphasized impermanence and interconnectedness.
But this is all circumstantial. It’s possible that Buddhist thought had an indirect influence on Stoicism, first through Cynic contact with the East and later through trades routes. But if so, it’s unlikely that Stoic philosophers knew the Buddhist origin of these influences.
If you attend well, you will find that whatever happens, happens justly. I don’t mean only in an exact order and destined connexion, but also according to justice, and from one who distributes according to merit. Go on in observing this, as you have begun: and whatever you do, do it so as you may still remain good, according to the intellectual and true notion of goodness. Observe this in all your actions.
This could be used to justify terrible things. Is every murder and rape in accord with justice and distributed by merit?
Such attitudes were common in ancient times, though. Elsewhere, Marcus says we should welcome whatever happens to us, even if it’s cruel, because it’s for the benefit of the universe (5.8).
His viewpoint is consistent with the ancient Stoic belief in Logos – that divine reason orders the universe, that it’s providential, and what follows from it is our fate.
In 1759 Voltaire made fun of the idea that everything is for the best in his short book Candide. Despite a series of tragedies, Dr. Pangloss comically denies reality and remains childishly optimistic. Before the movie Pollyanna, a naive person with rose colored glasses was called Pangloss.
Many modern Stoics don’t agree with Logos in the ancient sense. But this greatly alters Stoicism. No longer is the universe ruled by reason, though the exercise of reason is still a human ability that is central to Stoic philosophy.
And there is no providence. In my view, if Logos is even a useful concept in the modern world it must be brought in line with science. The laws of nature, as we currently understand them, follow from four forces of nature: the strong and weak nuclear forces, the gravitational force, and electromagnetism. Physicists are searching for a “theory of everything” that will bring these together to reveal the underlying principle of the universe.
But this will not be a conscious, providential principle like Logos. Instead, the universe is indifferent to our existence and is unaware of whether we suffer or not.
Natural disasters, then, are not unjust because there’s no intention behind it. Justice and injustice are human products, the result of the actions of billions of people. And this is where Stoicism is still relevant. The only thing one controls is one’s deliberate thoughts and opinions, and virtuous actions can only follow from virtuous thoughts and opinions. So everyone has a responsibility to contribute to justice and avoid injustice.
It’s an often heard lament, especially from children. But the sentiment usually doesn’t fade with age. Instead it becomes more specific. Why didn’t I get the promotion? Why won’t he call me?
Our desire for approval (and fear of disapproval) is really a desire for social status.
True harm is failing to respond ethically
Epictetus was born a slave who learned at a young age that social status wasn’t up to him – and maybe not all it’s cracked up to be. Though freed later he didn’t try to climb the social ladder.
In his handbook (24.1), Epictetus points out that we “cannot be in a bad state as a result of someone else’s actions.” Other people may cause us pain, but that’s their shame. Only a poor response on our part brings us shame.
Besides, we don’t control whether someone likes us, praises us, agrees to a date, or makes a job offer. We do have some influence, but the final outcome isn’t up to us.
Self-worth can’t be given or taken away
If our self-worth is based on external validation and can be destroyed by other people’s disapproval then it’s actually we who are the destroyer. We’re destroying our power over something that’s under our control – which self-worth based on the kind of person we choose to be.
Is it better to be an honest and nurturing person who is despised by others, or to be a destructive person who nonetheless is admired by many? The dynamics of political power and wealth create dilemmas like this.
Epictetus warns against blaming others or blaming circumstances – or even blaming ourselves. Shit happens. Shit happens to us. But we don’t control other people or external circumstances. We can’t change the past. The only thing we can do is choose how we think about the situation, and what we choose to do about it. And it’s here that we can act ethically or egotistically.
Peace of mind
And that’s Epictetus’s formula for peace of mind. Let go of external circumstances that are beyond our control, and ask ourselves – before we act – what’s the right thing to do knowing that ultimately I must live with myself?
Doing the right thing has made some people into outcasts. For others acting ethically has led to a loss of reputation, or a loss of material goods that others wanted and pretended to admire us to obtain. But what does it say about us if we desire the approval of people like that?
The bigger picture
This doesn’t mean we should despise others or point a finger at them. After all, disapproval from others most often takes the form of moralistic finger pointing, so we’d be acting no differently from them.
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius emphasizes our shared humanity. Other people wrong us because of their errors of judgment or ignorance, but most things are minor in the grand scheme of things. Only we can harm ourselves by responding in kind. The best way to overcome the disapproval of others is not retaliation, but setting a better example.
Epictetus was a former slave turned philosopher. From his students’ notes we have four discourses, a handbook, and a few fragments.
In the Enchiridion (or handbook) Epictetus wrote that external events are not up to us. And though we can exert varying degrees of influence, our desired outcome isn’t guaranteed. But our goals, values, and actions are up to us. It’s important to know the difference, and what to do about it.
If that sounds familiar it’s because someone cribbed it and called it the Serenity Prayer.
Epictetus’s discourses have a different flavor, though. The same themes are repeated. But Epictetus talks a lot about God in his discourses – to the point where it almost reads like a religious text.
Ancient Stoics (like almost everyone in the ancient world) believed in deities. Other Stoic philosophers, such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, were not atheists but didn’t place as much emphasis on God.
Stoicism today is neither explicitly theist nor atheist. Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion, and it can accommodate almost any personal faith or lack thereof.
Knowing what is and isn’t ours.
Epictetus advises us to turn unfortunate circumstances to our advantage. Lust is an opportunity to cultivate temperance. Pain can help us improve our endurance. And verbal abuse is a chance to develop a thick skin and learn patience.
The key, Epictetus says, is knowing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. Things that don’t belong to us are other people, wealth, power, and even our reputations. The danger is that wanting what someone else has means letting that person control us.
But how we think about our impressions of the world and what we choose to do about it are ours.
What can really harm us.
Most of us expect harm or benefit from external things, but wise people expect harm or benefit from themselves. The Stoic virtues of being just, temperate, and self-controlled are central to human excellence.
When people criticize us it’s often because they think they have a moral responsibility to do so – but usually they’re just projecting an internal psychodrama. But don’t confront them. Instead, we should remind ourselves that their opinion has no value.
Progress means less blaming and praising of others, being less defensive, and not being so swayed by flattery.
On the other hand, anxiety is caused by wanting something that’s not within our control. Nothing lasts forever. If we lose something, we should willfully surrender it.
Epictetus adds that life is like a banquet. If something is offered, accept it – but don’t be greedy. And it’s okay to refuse what is offered. But if it doesn’t come our way, forget about it.
Reason is a skill. Cultivate it.
Tying all this together is the Stoic view that reason separates humans from lower animals. As such, Epictetus advises us to learn to desire what we have, not what we don’t have. Expect the unexpected, even if it’s undesirable, so we can be prepared. Focus on our sphere of control – our values, choices, and actions.
He says life are like dice, which indifferently fall where they will. But making skillful use of where they fall isn’t indifferent. We should train ourselves to avoid vice and endure the things that peeve us the most.
Meditations is a disjointed book. It’s the personal journal of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180), which he called “To Himself.” He didn’t intend for it to be published, so he didn’t bother to do much polishing.
Aurelius’s journal rambles a bit. But his perspective comes down to the notion that, “All is as thinking makes it – and you control your thinking. Remove your judgments and there is calm” (12.22).
Life is Like a River
Many of his musings are metaphysical speculation. Today’s scientific knowledge renders some of it moot. The rest parallels Buddhism in some ways. The Buddha lived many centuries before Aurelius. So who knows, maybe some Buddhist ideas had already made their way West by the second century A.D.
Aurelius likes the analogy of a river (5.23-24 & 6.15). The universe is a constant succession of change. Things that exist or which are coming into existence are quickly swept away in the ceaseless flow of time. Even some aspects of what is still coming into being have already been extinguished.
All things vanish into the past. We cannot gain a foothold but must go with the flow and not worry when some things race past us. So ambition or indignation at our lot in life is folly. Considering all of existence, we are but the tiniest part. And we’ve been assigned only a brief and fleeting moment of it.
Everything is Connected
Depressing? Not really. Everything in the universe is interwoven, so we are all connected and stand in relation to all things. We can think of others as part of a large extended family. And that’s the common spirit, the unity of all being (6.38).
Being in relationship to the whole, we should not resent any part of it or do anything anti-social. We should be happy with whatever happens to us because the whole contains nothing that doesn’t benefit it (10.6). All is right in the world in the sense of being just (4.10).
I find that last part hard to swallow. Being tortured or catching a nasty disease and dying a painful death are things I should be happy about because it benefits the whole? How does it benefit the whole? Certainly it sucks for me.
Aurelius’s psychology says nothing external can touch the mind. If something external causes us distress then it’s not the thing itself but rather our internal judgments of it. Reducing anxiety is a matter of correcting our misjudgments (4.4 & 8.47).
And we shouldn’t be concerned about other people slighting us because this mostly stems from ignorance, not maliciousness. Identifying someone’s flawed sense of what good or bad, right or wrong, can help us put other people’s negative judgments of us into perspective without getting angry (6.20 & 7.26).
Besides, why should we desire praise from someone who has a negative view of life? (8.53)
Dangers of Hedonism
Negativity is often the result of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Bad people often enjoy pleasure while good people suffer. Nature is indifferent, so expecting the world to be different only leads to resentment. And avoiding pain leads to fear of what might happen in the future, while pursuing pleasure can lead to taking advantage of others for one’s personal gain (9.3-4).
It’s better for us, like Nature, to be indifferent – in the sense of impartial to cause and effect, which is the inevitable result of fate (9.4-5). After all, healthy eyes don’t want to see only one color. A healthy nose can handle any odor, not just pleasant ones. So a healthy mind is ready for anything life might throw at it (10.35).
Aurelius repeatedly says that the ultimate is to be indifferent even to death. We’re all going to die one day anyway.
His determinism is also a hard to swallow. Is it really possible to be indifferent? It seems that would require having no sensation at all. Maybe accepting external events (even if it’s a bummer) is a more realistic goal.
Reason is Humanity’s Strength
But Aurelius is right that we control nothing outside of ourselves (though we can have degrees of influence in some situations). Aurelius says that reason – which we all possess – is like sunlight: a steady, inexhaustible stream that flows in all directions. Its path is straight. Sunlight settles on an object and doesn’t slip off. But it doesn’t do so forcefully. Sunlight isn’t violent. Rather, it illuminates whatever it settles on (8.57).
Anger, however, is not reasonable. Anger just causes more grief. And anger is a sign of weakness and pain. There’s strength in keeping your cool (11.18.8).
Kindness is invincible if it’s without pretence or fawning. Kindness can diffuse aggression because in the face of kindness the other person will have no cause for further aggression. This doesn’t mean being a pushover, but rather correcting his vice by living rather than preaching virtue (11.18.9).
Stoicism has a bad reputation. I’ve criticized it in the past. But my misunderstandings were based on the colloquial sense of stoic in contrast to Stoicism as a philosophy.
And Stoicism’s core idea is a good one: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest.
The problem with suppressed passions is that they come back to bite us in the ass. Besides, emotional detachment isn’t self-control. It’s cheating, like painting the exterior of your house without renovating the interior. It looks good until you peek inside.
But Stoicism isn’t about emotional detachment. It’s about how to deal with intense emotions. Don’t lose your cool. Think clearly. Keep a level head.
Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Perhaps the closest modern equivalent is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – solution based psychotherapy focused on becoming more aware of how our thinking influences emotions and behavior. After all, emotions happen. We can’t stop that. But we can control our reactions. Marcus’s claim that, “very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking,” is CBT in a nutshell.
Or as Zeno of Citium put it, “Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” Zeno taught from a painted porch (stoa in ancient Greek) in the third century B.C. The serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous is taken directly from Stoicism – change the things you can, accept the things you can’t change, and be smart enough to know the difference.
You can do what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.
Stoicism is about:
Doing what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.
Being honest with yourself about how you feel even when it’s uncomfortable. But don’t suck others into your psychodramas. Instead, you should advocate for your needs in a calm, matter of fact way that takes personal responsibility rather than blaming others.
Cooperation being your first move. Don’t retaliate if someone fails to reciprocate, but instead keep that person at a distance or simply walk away. Even self-defense should be limited to whatever is minimally necessary to contain the situation.
Not playing into someone’s self-pity or enabling others by trying to save them from their self-destructive behaviors. Instead, put the ball in their court by asking them what outcome they want and how they plan to achieve that.
Non-aggressively confronting someone who crosses your boundaries and holding them accountable. This means not telling other people what to do. And if someone tries to impose themselves on you, making it clear that it’s your choice to make, and you don’t accept their demand.
Non-aggressive communication means approaching with empathy and keeping defensiveness in check. Speaking in the first person and taking responsibility (“My understanding is…” or “What I want to see happen is…”). It means not making it personal. Refraining from accusations, judgements, or psychoanalyzing others, and instead asking someone to further explain their viewpoint.