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title = "Book review: Meditations, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus"
description = """
A short review of the personal journal of a Roman Emperor with a strongly Stoic
personal philosophy.
"""
slug="marcus-aurelius-meditations"
date = 2022-01-13
+++

## Introduction

Having recently decided to do some more (non-fictional) reading, I started by
picking up some literature already available to me, starting with _Meditations_.
My copy was translated and annotated by Martin Hammond, and published by Penguin
Classics.[^citation]

The _Meditations_ are the surviving writings of Marcus Aurelius, created later
in his life and not intended to be published. Nevertheless, it serves as an
interesting glimpse into the mind of a particularly interesting and (for his
time) important character. Most entries ("chapters") serve as reminders to
himself for how he should think or behave, or justify his beliefs with
rhetorical arguments.

Hammond's notes provide some helpful context, and regularly spares you from
jumping to your own research when Marcus brings up things you're unfamiliar with
\- though some have been lost to history. He also links related chapters
together, which is handy for jumping through Marcus' repeated explorations of
the same idea.

## Summary 

I'll summarise the ideas and themes that stood out in my reading of the
_Meditations_.

### A universal order

Marcus regularly talks about a universal order which he believes governs all
things. He refers to this order in various ways, including god / the gods,
_Nature_, and _the Whole_. He describes this order almost as if it were
conscious:

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 10, Chapter 6") %}
Nothing which benefits the Whole can be harmful to the part, and the Whole
contains nothing which is not to its benefit.
{% end %}

From this perspective he insists on the existence of the gods, and that the
order they bring about is inherently good:

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 6, Chapter 44") %}
Now if the gods took thought for me and for what must happen to me, they will
have taken thought for my good. It is not easy to conceive of a thoughtless god,
and what possible reason could they have had to be bent on my harm? What
advantage would there have been from that either for themselves or for the
common good, which is the main concern of their providence? If they did not take
individual thought for me, then certainly they took thought for the common good,
and since what happens to me is a consequential part of that, I should accept
and welcome it.
{% end %}

### The divinity of rationality

A quintessential idea of Stoicism is the importance of human logic and
rationality, and Marcus applies a religious fervour to this. He describes the
_directing mind_ as the "god within". While he also maintains the existence of
the actual gods (the "god without"), it is rather striking to deify rationality
itself.

He later applies this concept when discussing good and evil, combining it
with the universal order:

{% quote(source="Book 9, Chapter 4") %}
The sinner sins against himself: the wrongdoer wrongs himself, by making himself
morally bad.
{% end %}

Humans sin against the universal order and themselves when they act
irrationally, and when they do not accept - or contravene - things brought about
by Nature:

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 2, Chapter 16") %}
The soul of a man harms itself, first and foremost, when it becomes (as far as
it can) a separate growth, a sort of tumour on the universe: because to resent
anything that happens is to separate oneself in revolt from Nature, which holds
in collective embrace the particular natures of all other things. Secondly, when
it turns away from another human being, or is even carried so far in opposition
as to intend him harm - such is the case in the souls of those gripped by anger.
[...] Fourthly, whenever it dissimulates, doing or saying anything feigned or
false. [...] And the end for rational creatures is to follow the reason and the
rule of that most venerable archetype of a governing state - the Universe.
{% end %}

Marcus regularly argues to treat these sinners with patience, as they do not
understand their own actions. This serves mostly as a reminder to himself, and
he appears to have struggled in applying this throughout his life.

{% quote(source="Book 7, Chapter 26") %}
When someone does you some wrong, you should consider
immediately what judgement of good or evil led him to wrong
you. When you see this, you will pity him, and not feel surprise
or anger. You yourself either still share his view of good, or
something like it, in which case you should understand and
forgive: if, on the other hand, you no longer judge such things
as either good or evil, it will be the easier for you to be patient
{% end %}

### Purpose

While Marcus is strongly theistic, and insists in the existence of the gods,
he doesn't tie purpose to them:

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 9, Chapter 28") %}
The Whole is either a god - then all is well: or if purposeless - some sort of
random arrangement of atoms or molecules - you should not be without purpose
yourself.
{% end %}

Humans are created for each other, and all inhabit the common _City of Zeus_.
Their purpose is thus to serve each other, and to contribute to the 'common
good' of all mankind:

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 6, Chapter 44") %}
Best for each is what suits his own condition and nature: and my nature is both
rational and social. As Antoninus, my city and country is Rome: as a human
being, it is the world. So what benefits these two cities is my only good.
{% end %}

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 7, Chapter 55") %}
Every creature must do what follows from its own constitution. The rest of
creation is constituted to serve rational beings (just as in everything else
the lower exists for the higher), but rational beings are here to serve each
other. So the main principle in man's constitution is the social.
{% end %}

As mankind's purpose is a social one, to separate oneself from society is
contrary to Nature. The same is true for actively harming each other through
words or actions.

### Accepting one's own lot

Given Marcus' establishment of a benevolent universal order, he concludes that
each person's position is as it should be, so one that accepts what life gives
them is in accordance with Nature:

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 12, Chapter 1") %}
All that you pray to reach at some point in the circuit of your life can be
yours now - if you are generous to yourself. That is, if you leave all the past
behind, entrust the future to Providence, and direct the present solely to
reverence and justice. To reverence, so that you come to love your given lot: it
was Nature that brought it to you and you to it.
{% end %}

Antoninus does not entirely ignore that his own lot in life differs
significantly from that of others:

{% quote(source="Book 11, Chapter 7") %}
How clearly it strikes you that there is no other walk of life so conducive to
the exercise of philosophy as this in which you now find yourself!
{% end %}

He does also believe that change to the status quo is required, particularly in
that which contradicts the natural order:

{% quote(source="Book 10, Chapter 9") %}
Farce, war, frenzy, torpor, slavery! Day by day those sacred doctrines of
yours will be wiped out, whenever you conceive and admit them untested by
natural philosophy.
{% end %}

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 9, Chapter 29") %}
Don't hope for Plato's Utopian republic, but be content with the smallest step
forward, and regard even that result as no mean achievement.
{% end %}

Perhaps his position is that one should accept the lot Nature gives you, but
should work against the unnatural acts by irrational people contravening the
Whole?

### Emotional control

As one's emotions inhibits one's rationality, they should be controlled to
not tarnish the divinity of the directing mind.

Marcus describes some sort of meditation as a method of control over one's mind
and body:

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 4, Chapter 3.4") %}
Finally, then, remember this retreat into your own little territory within
yourself. Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at
things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And here
are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that
things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only
come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will
change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more.
{% end %}

He also encourages mastery over both pleasure and pain:

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 3, Chapter 4.3") %}
He responds to the divinity seated within him, and this renders the man
unsullied by pleasures, unscathed by any pain, untouched by any wrong,
unconscious of any wickedness; a wrestler for the greatest prize of all, to
avoid being thrown by any passion [...]
{% end %}

Pain is something to be borne...

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 7, Chapter 64") %}
Whenever you suffer pain, have ready to hand the thought that pain is not a
moral evil and does not harm your governing intelligence: pain can do no damage
either to its rational or to its social nature.
{% end %}

While pleasure can draw us in and control us, preventing us from serving the
Whole:

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 3, Chapter 6.3") %}
Because it is not right that the rational and social good should be rivalled by
anything of a different order, for example the praise of the many, or power, or
wealth, or the enjoyment of pleasure. All these things may seem to suit for a
little while, but they can suddenly take control and carry you away.
{% end %}

Marcus applies an analytical reductionism to things in order to control his
reactions to them. Things that cause pleasure and pain are superficial, and
breaking them down provides a sober perspective - once these shallow things are
cast off, one can instead focus on the important.

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 3, Chapter 11.2") %}
Ask then, what is this which is now making its impression on me? What is it
composed of? How long in the nature of things will it last? What virtue is
needed to meet it - gentleness, for example, or courage, truthfulness, loyalty,
simplicity, self- sufficiency, and so on?
{% end %}

And he insists that 'all is as thinking makes it so' - the mind's reaction
produces these emotions, positive and negative. Control over one's thoughts
provides control over one's feelings.

{% quote(source="Book 12, Chapter 8") %}
Look at causation stripped bare of its covers; look at the ulterior reference
of any action. Consider, what is pain? What is pleasure? What is death? What
is fame? Who is not himself the cause of his own unrest? Reflect how no one is
hampered by any other; and that all is as thinking makes it so.
{% end %}

### Life and death

Two recurring themes are the ever-changing nature of the universe, and the idea
that same sorts of events occur repeatedly in cycles.

Marcus reminds us of the short amount of time we have, highlighting that we
should endeavour to use it to the best of our abilities - bettering ourselves
and serving the Whole.

{% quote(source="Extract from Book 2, Chapter 4") %}
It is high time now for you to understand the universe of which you are a part,
and the governor of that universe of whom you constitute an emanation: and that
there is a limit circumscribed to your time - if you do not use it to clear away
your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not
return.
{% end %}

On the other hand, the sameness of things appears to provide a comfort when
considering death, as past a certain point there will be nothing new.
Death is viewed as part of the natural order of things, and is therefore
something to be accepted rather than feared: 'it is nothing more than a function
of nature - and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere
child' (Book 2, Chapter 12).  
It is also viewed as something of a great equaliser - as all share the same
fate. Simultaneously, the ever-changing universe will quickly wash away most if
not all evidence of your life, therefore to be concerned with fame and legacy is
a foolish waste of time.

{% quote(source="Book 2, Chapter 14.2") %}
So always remember these two things. First, that all things have been of the
same kind from everlasting, coming round and round again, and it makes no
difference whether one will see the same things for a hundred years, or two
hundred years, or for an infinity of time. Second, that both the longest-lived
and the earliest to die suffer the same loss. It is only the present moment of
which either stands to be deprived: and if indeed this is all he has, he cannot
lose what he does not have.
{% end %}

## Personal thoughts

### Marcus' misanthropy

It is quite clear that Marcus held some contempt for his peers. Interspersed
with his regular reminders that 'all men are brothers' and that sinners act out
of ignorance are vague entries in which he criticises unnamed others:

{% quote(source="Book 4, Chapter 28") %}
A black character, an effeminate, unbending character, the character of a brute
or dumb animal: infantile, stupid, fraudulent, coarse, mercenary, despotic.
{% end %}

{% quote(source="Book 9, Chapter 24") %}
Children's tantrums and toys, 'tiny spirits carrying corpses' - the Underworld
in the Odyssey strikes more real!
{% end %}

The conflicting nature of these entries highlights the difficulties Marcus had
in practicing his own philosophy - of to loving and living for mankind. The
regularity in which such passages appear in the _Meditations_ suggest this
remained a problem throughout his life.

He recommends patience in dealing with 'sinners' and other flawed individuals,
but also reminds himself that sometimes his judgment maybe incorrect:

{% quote(source="Book 9, Chapter 24") %}
If he did wrong, the harm is to himself. But perhaps he did not do wrong.
{% end %}

It's rather interesting to see the combination of self-criticism and criticism
of others. Marcus appears was fully cognizant of his own failures in adhering to
his philosophical beliefs, showing some humility in the man who held one of the
most powerful positions of his time.

### Marcus' obsessive reductionism

While I can respect the criticism of giving in to emotion and allowing it to
affect your rationality, Marcus occasionally takes this to the extreme.

{% quote(source="Book 9, Chapter 24") %}
You will think little of the entertainment of song or dance or all-in wrestling
if you deconstruct the melodic line of a song into its individual notes and ask
yourself of each of them: 'Is this something that overpowers me?' You will
recoil from that admission. So too with a comparable analysis of dance by each
movement and each pose, and the same again with wrestling. Generally, then, with
the exception of virtue and its workings, remember to go straight to the
component parts of anything, and through that analysis come to despise the thing
itself. And the same method should be applied to the whole of life.
{% end %}

Here he applies his deconstruction to music and similar arts. This absolutism
strikes me as unhealthy - a balance can be struck between allowing yourself
enjoyment and indulging in them excessively. I expect most people would struggle
to maintain such an ideal, and have to wonder how it affected Marcus - whether
these words were a symptom of his misanthropy or a depression.

Similar deconstruction of sexual matters, combined with his thankfulness at
having left sex to his later years, marks him as a rather asexual individual.
This interpretation could be entirely misjudged, considering he had 14 children.
He doesn't go into much detail when discussing his own sexual activities, but we
can assume he'd be strongly in favour of controlling one's lust.

### An emperor accepting his own lot

Marcus' arguments for 'accepting one's own lot' didn't sit right with me when
considering that they were written by an emperor. Certainly his position gave
him liberties and comforts few others possessed, so it is easy to scoff at
an emperor telling himself to accept what life has given him.

This emperor, however, seems to regard his royal status with disdain quite often
\- 'Let nobody any more hear you blaming palace life: don't hear yourself
blaming it.' (Book 8, Chapter 9). He comments on the conflicts between his
ideals of virtue and the behaviour commonly attributed to those who have shared
his station. On the other hand, he also sees that he can exercise his virtues
particularly effectively in his walk of life (see earlier quotation of Book 11,
Chapter 7).

Marcus does give the impression of a man striving to be a good king according to
his own ideals, and shows some vision for a better future. Though he spent most
of his rule in military campaigns, he apparently spent some of his time dealing
with legal matters involving freeing slaves and managing guardianship, and
respected the Senate more than other Roman dictators before and after him.

Perhaps this philosophy is just his version of _Divine Right_, with which he
justifies his position - Roman emperors were deified after all. Or perhaps that
is being too harsh, and as Marcus quotes: 'A king's lot: to do good and be
damned'. Accepting one's lot in life does appear to be a common Stoic teaching,
so it's not entirely fair to complain of Marcus applying it to his own life. 

### Emotions are natural but must be controlled

For someone who worships Nature, arguing for mankind to exert control over their
emotions strikes me as a strange contradiction. Surely pleasure and pain, which
are natural and instinctual parts of us, are not inherently bad? The conflict
here appears to be between nature and rationality, both things which Marcus
worships in a way. Does the divinity of rationality supersede the divinity of
Nature? This seems to be an implicit conclusion in his writing. Perhaps the
justification is that emotions are more animalistic than rationality. Despite
both having come about naturally, logic developed later as we evolved
intelligence, so the latter should stay in control.

## Conclusion

The _Meditations_ are a curiosity, but I must admit I didn't find it the most
pleasant or smoothest of journeys. It took significantly longer to read through
compared to my average book, and I had to digest it small pieces at a time.
This may be partly due to the dryness of the subjects - no, I don't read much
philosophy - but also the nature of a personal journal. Antoninus used his
writings to convince himself of things, so ideas, arguments, and beliefs
are repeatedly mentioned and reformulated in different ways. I recommend jumping
between the translated text and notes to get additional context while the
chapters are still fresh your mind.

The text doesn't serve as the best introduction into Stoicism - it being the
opinions of just one man who is considered to be a member of the school of
thought. A better overview might be gained from a combination of multiple
perspectives, exploring how Stoicism is applied in practice, how it has
developed over time. On top of that, the religious flavour Marcus applies in his
philosophy certainly doesn't suit me.

If you're particularly enamoured with ancient Roman history, you may find it
interesting to delve into the minds of one of its significant figures. However,
if you're interested in the emperor recounting and discussing contemporary
events, you'll be left disappointed.

Some of Marcus Aurelius' ideas are timeless, but you can probably explore them
better elsewhere.

[^citation]: _Meditations_, Marcus Aurelius, Diskin Clay (Introducer), Martin
	Hammond (Translator), Penguin Classics, 2006, ISBN 978-0140449334