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

___________________

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

___________________

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

___________________

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

___________________

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: 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.

img_1087
Phoenix, Arizona

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

___________________

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 and the soul

Ancient Stoic belief saw human beings as having a spark of the divine. Today that’s often seen as a metaphor for the human capacity for reason.

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Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Soul as a spark of the divine

“To live with the gods.” To do that is to show them that your soul accepts what it is given and does what that divinity requires — the fragment of himself Zeus gave each of us to lead and guide us, which is our mind, our logos (5.27).

A privilege God has granted to no other part of no other — He’s allowed us not to be broken off in the first place, and when we are he’s allowed us to return, to graft ourselves back on, and take up our old position once again as part of a whole (8.34).

Nowhere you can go is more peaceful — more free of interruptions — than your own soul (4.3).

Care of the soul

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).

What am I doing with my soul? Interrogate yourself, to find out what inhabits your so-called mind and what kind of soul you have now. A child’soul, an adolescent’s, a woman’s? A tyrant’s soul? The souof a predator—or its prey? (5.11)

To my soul: Are you ever going to achieve goodness? Ever going to be simple, whole, and naked—as plain to see as the body that contains you? Know what an affectionate and loving disposition would feel like? Ever be fulfilled, ever stop desiring — lusting and longing for people and things to enjoy? Or for more time to enjoy them? Or for some other place or country — “a more temperate clime”? Or for people easier to get along with? And instead be satisfied with what you have, and accept the present—all of it. And convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods, that things are good and always will be, whatever they decide and have in store for the preservation of that perfect entity — good and just and beautiful, creating all things, connecting and embracing them,and gathering in their separated fragments to create more like them. Will you ever take your stand as a fellow citizen with gods and human beings, blaming no one, deserving no one’s censure? (10.1)

Equilibrium & abscess

The soul as a sphere in equilibrium: Not grasping at things beyond it or retreating inward. Not fragmenting outward, not sinking back on itself, but ablaze with light and looking at the truth, without and within (11.12).

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).

Mind & soul

Things have no hold on the soul. They have no access to it, cannot move or direct it. It is moved and directed by itself alone. It takes the things before it and interprets them as it sees fit (5.19).

The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh—gentle and violent ones alike. Not mingling with them, but fencing itself off and keeping those feelings in their place. When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between mind and body, don’t try to resist the sensation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgments, calling it “good” or “bad” (5.26)

Body & Soul

Body, soul, mind: Sensations: the body. Desires: the soul. Reasoning: the mind. Make your mind your guide to what seems best. Even people who deny the gods do that. Even people who betray their country. 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 (3.16).

Three relationships: with the body you inhabit, with the divine (the cause of everything in all things), and with the people around you (8.27).

God sees all our souls freed from their fleshly containers,stripped clean of their bark, cleansed of their grime. He grasps with his intelligence alone what was poured and channeled from himself into them. If you learn to do the same, you can avoid a great deal of distress. When you see through the flesh that covers you, will you be unsettled by clothing, mansions, celebrity, the painted sets, the costume cupboard? (12.2)

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).

Disgraceful: for the soul to give up when the body is still going strong (6.29).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

___________________

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 and the gods

Stoicism is usually described as pantheistic. But Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics also refer to the gods, which sounds polytheistic. Modern Stoicism is more agnostic.

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Butcher Jones Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

God & Providence

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth (7.9).

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).

An individual’s mind is God and of God (12.26).

Trusting the gods

Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life — no one’s master and no one’s slave (4.31). Hand yourself over to Clotho voluntarily, and let her spin you into whatever she pleases (4.34).

Everywhere and at all times it’s up to you to honor God in contentment with your present circumstances: you have the option to accept each event with humility, to treat each person as he should be treated, to approach each thought with care so that nothing irrational creeps in (7.54, see also 12.11).

Of gods and men

The gods live forever and yet they don’t seem annoyed at having to put up with human beings and their behavior throughout eternity. And not only put up with but actively care for them. And you {Marcus is writing about himself} — on the verge of death — you still refuse to care for them, although you’re one of them yourself (7.70).

The gods are not to blame. They do nothing wrong, on purpose or by accident. Nor men either. They don’t do it on purpose. No one is to blame (12.12).

Do gods exist?

People ask, “Have you ever seen the gods you worship? How can you be sure they exist?” Answers: Just look around you. I’ve never seen my soul either. And yet I revere it. That’s how I know the gods exist and why I revere them — from having felt their power, over and over (12.28).

Either the gods have power or they don’t. If they don’t, why pray? If they do, then why not pray for something else instead of for things to happen or not to happen? Pray not to feel fear, or desire, or grief. If the gods can do anything, they can surely do that for us (9.40).

If the gods have made decisions about me and the things that happen to me, then they were good decisions. (It’s hard to picture a god who makes bad ones.) And why would they expend their energies on causing me harm? What good would it do them — or the world, which is their primary concern? And if they haven’t made decisions about me as an individual, they certainly have about the general welfare. And anything that follows from that is something I have to welcome and embrace.

And if they make no decisions, about anything (and it’s blasphemous even to think so because if so then let’s stop sacrificing, praying, swearing oaths, and doing all the other things we do, believing the whole time that the gods are right here with us) — if they decide nothing about our lives, I can still make decisions. I can still consider what it’s to my benefit to do. And what benefits anyone is to do what his own nature requires. And mine is rational. Rational and civic (6.44).

The gods and death

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).

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

___________________

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.