We might imagine Marcus as the Grumpy Cat of emperors: he pulls no punches and gives no quarter. He's not interested in his own comfort—or anyone else's, for that matter. When he has advice to give himself, he gives it either as straight-up exhortation (Get out of bed) or in a frank, imperative manner:
A bitter cucumber? Throw it away. Brambles in the path? Go round them. That is all you need, without going on to ask, 'So why are these things in the world anyway?' (8.50)
Marcus owes his speech to the "Quit yer whinin'" approach of Stoicism, which is all about seeing things only for what they are and not indulging in emotional drama of any sort.
Marcus's Meditations are not meant to be an original work of philosophy. What we actually get is Marcus himself working through philosophical principles as they pertain to the life of a philosopher-emperor.
Marcus is drawn to Stoicism, which holds as its highest ideals life in harmony with Nature (or reason) and an indifference to both the pleasure and pain that move human beings away from virtues (like courage, self-sufficiency, intelligence, self control, justice).
In the Meditations, you'll see Marcus commanding himself to make a fortress of his mind so that he might always be motivated by philosophical principles rather than less noble emotional responses.
Marcus himself didn't give a title to his collected writings. For one thing, he never intended his works to be copied and circulated—it was more like a personal journal he kept over the years. In fact, only one complete manuscript of the Meditations has survived (it lives in the Vatican Library). Modern editions are based on this manuscript and a now lost one, which is preserved in a printed edition from 1558. The current title was given to the work by scholars to describe the self-reflexive nature of Marcus's writings.
Marcus ends the Meditations with an envoy—a kind of postscript that bids farewell and sends the reader/writer out into the world. Since Marcus never intended his reflections to see the light of day, he's really just addressing himself when he opens the last chapter in this way:
Mortal man, you have lived as a citizen in this great city. (12.36)
Marcus uses the image of the city throughout his work to identify himself with something even greater than Rome. By using the image here, he's talking about his existence at both the macrocosmic level (he's citizen of the world and the universe) and the microcosmic (he's a resident of his own body). But now the universe is giving him his marching orders, and he will have no choice—despite his 50 years of residency—to give up his place in the city.
Marcus might be close to his death here, but he's certainly not on his deathbed. He's simply practicing some of his best philosophical principles when he focuses on his future death. In the process, we see in brief some of the ideals he laid out in the body of the Meditations.
Marcus uses the simile of life as a comedic play to remind himself that life may end at any time (a play can be over in three acts instead of five)—and that there's no fighting with the order to leave.
Marcus closes his reflections by focusing on a crucial tenet of Stoic philosophy: personal peace. He tells himself to be at peace with his coming death because it is man's nature to fade. Therefore, all is right with the world.
Since this is a work of philosophy, most of what is going on happens inside Marcus's head. We don't know very much about when or where these writings were composed, though Marcus does tell us something about location in Book 2 ("Written Among the Quadi on the River Gran") and Book 3 ("Written in Carnuntum").
In both cases, Marcus is writing his reflections while leading military campaigns against the rebellious northern parts of the empire. However, he does not address these locations any further in either of those two books.
Marcus's writing style is straightforward and frank. He pulls no rhetorical punches with you. But hey, it's philosophy. He's going to talk about cause and substance. He's going to name drop about a thousand philosophers you've never even heard of. Happily for you, Marcus circles back on his ideas time and again, so once you get the gist, you'll have a key to the rest of the text.
Marcus has no interest in being like his tutor, Fronto, who was a master rhetorician. Although Marcus is Emperor of Rome, he has a horror of becoming "Caesarified," which is the technical term for getting too big for your britches. He keeps his writing straightforward and as unadorned as possible. This is especially appropriate because he's often urging himself to do something:
So keep yourself simple, good, unpretentious, a friend of justice, god-fearing, kind, full of affection, strong for your proper work. Strive hard to remain the same man that philosophy wished to make you. (6.30)
However, Marcus is an educated man who knows perfectly well how to wield a metaphor or use rhetorical statements to his advantage. Still, he manages to do so without getting too carried away with his writing:
Mortal man, you have lived as a citizen in this great city. What matter if that life is five or fifty years? The laws of the city apply equally to all. So what is there to fear in your dismissal from the city? (12.36)
Marcus uses the metaphor of the citizen and the city to anchor human identity in its proper cosmic neighborhood. He shows that there's a kinship not only among all rational creatures, but also between rational created beings and their place of origin: the universe or Whole.
Bear with us here.
Marcus builds this image on the idea that we all have reason in common, and so we understand what we should and should not do (this is called natural law). If that is so, Marcus says, then:
... we are citizens. If so, we share in a constitution. If so, the universe is a kind of community. In what else could one say that the whole human race shares a common constitution? From there, then, this common city, we take our very mind, our reason, our law—from where else? (4.4)
In this case, the common city is the Whole (or the universe), which provides the substance of our bodies and the "spark of divinity" that is our reason. But Marcus also uses the image of the city in a more mundane way, when he speaks of his own citizenship:
As Antoninus, my city and country is Rome: as a human being, it is the world. (6.44.2)
So the city reflects both macrocosm (the universe) and microcosm (Rome/Earth), and gives Marcus a starting point for his "social acts", as well as the starting point for his allegiance to the gods and reason. Since all rational creatures have a single citizenship, so to speak, Marcus owes his fellow citizens tolerance and compassion. Basically, the idea is that deep down, all rational creatures are the same.
As a subject of the universe, Marcus believes he has to do what is best for the Whole. That means following his fated path and accepting all that comes his way including death. In the end, Marcus knows that the good of the city (or the Whole) must always come first:
What is not harmful to the city does not harm the citizen either. (5.22)
As you can imagine, this is a pretty convenient philosophy for a ruler to have. Does it work for all kinds of people?
Perhaps you were unaware, but all the world's a stage, folks.
The first use of this metaphor occurs in Book 3, when Marcus imagines a man who has changed his wicked ways and is at peace with himself. Such a man, Marcus says, will not be unpleasantly surprised when the end of his life overtakes him:
Fate does not catch him with his life unfulfilled, as one might speak of an actor leaving the stage before his part is finished and the play is over. (3.8)
Marcus's point is that a man who creates an independent mind through the constant application of philosophical principles will have no fear that he hasn't "played his part" as a good citizen of the universe, no matter how short his life might be.
At the end of the work, Marcus does a nifty thing by keying right back into his earlier use of the theater metaphor. It's actually so similar to the earlier use that a rational being might suspect that both were written at the same time.
As Marcus pens his envoy—or farewell postscript—he brings back the acting metaphor to describe how he will be taken out of his "city" (i.e. called to his fated death):
It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. 'But I have not played my five acts, only three.' 'True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.' (12.36)
Marcus concocts this little scene to remind himself that the determination of a full life has nothing at all to do with his readiness for death. Like an actor, he must follow his script and obey the cues when they are given. He is not, in fact, the cosmic playwright, who will clearly retain creative control over all the exits and entries on this world stage. Marcus himself just has to go along with it.
Marcus uses metaphors of game and play to discuss life as a kind of contest—and one that is not easy to win. He assures himself that the practice of philosophy will help him to gain the advantage by making him focus his gaze inward rather than waste energy sizing up the competition:
So do not glance at the black characters either side, but run right on to the line: straight, not straggly. (4.18)
Life is a contest that demands endurance. It's not for the untrained.
Marcus has a preference for what kind of athlete a true philosopher should model himself after. It's not, as you might think, the bold gladiator willing to die a very horrible death. Instead, he chooses the wrestler (7.61) and the boxer (12.9) because they are entirely self-sufficient, capable of conquering with their bare hands. Just as these two athletes stand at the ready to overcome their opponents, so should all good people be ready to tackle the obstacles in their fated paths.
Marcus also finds the language of sport pretty handy when he's discussing other potential conflicts in life—and how to limit the harm that might come from them. He reflects that life can feel even more intense than a friendly game gone wrong, but we still shouldn't take it too far:
In the field of play an opponent scratches us with his nails, say, or gives us a butting blow with his head: but we do not 'mark' him for that, or take offence... Something similar should be the case in the other areas of life too: we have people who are 'opponents in the game,' and we should overlook much of what they do. (6.20)
In the game of life, Marcus has clearly learned that he who plays and backs away lives to play another day.
Marcus harps a whole lot on transience—the inability of anything in this world to last for any length of time. He consistently urges himself not to get attached to the things of this world. Even children, he says, are like leaves on the wind, blown away as quickly as they blossom on the branch (10.34).
Marcus continues to use imagery from the natural world to talk about the insanely swift movement of created things through time:
There is a river of creation, and time is a violent stream. As soon as one thing comes into sight, it is swept past and another is carried down: it too will be taken on its way. (4.43)
This river moves from the great recycling center in the sky (basically, the cosmos), where the gods keep the "substance" used to form all created things. From there, the river and roars down throughout the earth, where it takes on the dimension of time. It's kind of a like a wicked water flume ride at a cosmic Six Flags, but, you know, more cosmic.
While this rushing river may be an efficient way of moving materials, it doesn't make the passengers feel secure. Marcus tells himself that the ride is too fast and short for him to be able to attach himself to anything that he sees dashing past him:
Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, its causes innumerable in their variety: scarcely anything stands still, even what is most immediate. (5.23)
This is Marcus's way of telling himself that the things of this world simply aren't worth any emotional investment, since they will inevitably be taken away sooner or later. And according to Marcus, if things don't last, they don't have value:
In this river, then, where there can be no foothold, what should anyone prize of all that races past him? (6.15)
It's a cold way of thinking, but that's Stoicism for you. For Marcus, who has lost children, parents, adoptive parents, his wife, and many friends and colleagues, it's a philosophy of survival. Understanding that the stream will also carry you away, too, makes the brevity of life at least sort of democratic and bearable. At least according to Marcus.
Marcus frequently uses the image of the scala naturae or "ladder of nature" to explain the relationship between all created things and their creator. It's pretty much equivalent to the Great Chain of Being you have heard about in your Shakespeare class.
Marcus brings the scala into his writing to flesh out the idea of community that is central to his thinking about humans' purpose on earth:
It has long been shown that we are born for community—or was it not clear that inferior creatures are made in the interest of the superior, and the superior in the interest of each other? But animate is superior to inanimate, and rational to the merely animate. (5.16)
So community for Marcus is not that warm, fuzzy sense of neighborhood that we have today. For him, it's a hierarchical structure that strictly defines who is under the thumb of whom in the great scheme of things.
Yet this structure makes it easy for Marcus to sketch out his duty and purpose in the universe. Since he is more kin to the gods than to, say, a rock, he understands that he must "do the work of a man," which is to be morally upright and concerned for the health of the "city" (which can also mean the "world" or "universe) where he lives.
Marcus also sees this kindred feeling working at the highest rungs of the ladder, in the realm of the gods:
Among yet higher things there exists sort of unity even at a distance, as with the stars. Thus the upper reaches of the scale of being can effect fellow-feeling even when members are far apart. (9.9.2)
But not all is well on the scala in Marcus's day. Our emperor grumbles about the lack of natural kinship between creatures of reason around him—perhaps because so many of his colleagues refuse to obey their directing minds. He worries that in the end, only the lower creatures will have it right—they can't help but show some natural love for all of their kind, since they're all suffering together.
As an admirer of Stoic philosophy, Marcus is all about having a peaceful mind that's indifferent to all things of the flesh: pain, pleasure, emotional response. What he prizes above all things is self-restraint and self-discipline, as well as total self-sufficiency. Marcus doesn't want to rely on anything external for fulfillment.
But this kind of independence isn't easy to achieve. Marcus continually warns himself to be aware when he's not being governed by his "directing mind": "... don't let this directing mind of yours be enslaved any longer—no more jerking to the strings of selfish impulse" (2.2).
While Marcus never tells us specifically what kind of naughty behavior he might be indulging in to bring on the puppet-strings comparison, it's clear that he's not pleased at his failure to become a real boy.
To be subject to impulses—responses that come from sensual experience—is to degrade his rational mind, since a "... response to the puppet strings of impulse is shared with wild beasts..." (3.16).
It's clearly a constant battle for Marcus to retreat into his mind far enough to avoid the impulses that pull him away from his philosophical principles. By Book 12 (which was written toward the end of his life), Marcus is still struggling to break free of his strings and gain the autonomy he knows he should have by now:
Realize at long last that you have within you something stronger and more numinous than those agents of emotion which make you a mere puppet on their strings. (12.19)
Get a load of the weariness in the emperor's tone here. It seems that for some good practices, things are easier said than done.
When an emperor who writes his philosophical reflections in Greek brings in the image of a thread or web, there's no way to escape the connection to the most infamous of all mythological thread-bearers: the Moirai, or three Fates. We don't actually have to second-guess this, since Marcus tells us straight up that he's got these ladies on his mind:
Gladly surrender yourself to Clotho: let her spin your thread into whatever web she wills. (4.34)
Marcus is talking about the Fate sister who spins the thread of life for each human being and determines when he or she will be born. She's the one who takes the substance of the universe and turns it into the material of destiny. Pretty cool, huh?
Now, Marcus speaks of Clotho not just as a spinner but also as a weaver. He takes the opportunity to extend the fabric metaphor to suit his own purposes, which is ultimately to talk more about how each human life is connected not only to every other human life, but also to the entire cosmos.
The web is made up of all these "threads of destiny" coming together, creating a community to which everyone is bound—until Atropos (that's sister #3) cuts the thread and ends your participation in the fabric of life. But the substance of the thread really has no ending—just as it has no definite beginning.
That's because all substance—the stuff that creation is made of—is constantly cycling and recycling through the universe. Just as a web of life exists to form a human community, there is another kind of web bringing everything together to create destiny on a macrocosmic level. So, when something unfortunate happens, Marcus tells himself that it's all good, since it's part of a larger pattern:
... the mesh of causes was ever spinning from eternity both of your existence and the incidence of this particular happening. (10.5)
The thread binds us, then, not only to each other, but also to that "mesh of causes"—the impulse that sets creation in motion—in order to continuously create and renew the universe we are all a part of.
Marcus spends a lot of time talking about humans' place in the universe and how each rational being is related to one another. He reminds himself time and again that a person who is true to his or her nature is by definition a social being.
When Marcus says you should be a social being, he not saying that you should be interesting at cocktail parties or that you should enjoy chatting up your colleagues at the water cooler. It means you understand your purpose is to know your place in the world and your duty the gods, and it means you understand you should always work for the common good.
Whew. That's a lot to keep in mind—and a lot of ways to go wrong. Marcus sees antisocial behavior all around him, and he often remarks on how this kind of behavior mars the fabric of life, and not just on a local level. Yes, we're talking about macrocosm again—and the gods are not happy:
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... (2.16)
Interestingly enough, Marcus talks about the damage here strictly in terms of the person who is perpetrating the wrong. It's his soul that suffers. But Marcus, by calling the rebellious man a "tumor," implies that the entire social fabric of the universe is at stake. It's a gross metaphor, but it's effective. There's no mistaking who's going to suffer in this scenario.
The emperor knows that in the end, the universe is gonna make it—the gods will see to that. The warning in this imagery is for the individual who kicks against fate and duty and separates him- or herself from the natural order of things. Because just like a tumor, he or she can and will be cut off to maintain the health of the Whole.
Marcus writes the Meditations as a personal journal in which he addresses himself. This self- address can take the form of exhortation, which is a kind of command generally in the second person. It looks like this:
At the break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: 'I am getting up for a man's work...' (5.1)
At other times, Marcus writes a first-person narrative to convey biographical information, as in the opening book:
That whenever I wanted to help someone in poverty or some other need I was never told that there was no source of affordable money: and that I never myself fell into similar want of financial assistance from another. (1.8)
And still again, Marcus sometimes mixes first-person and second-person styles together in order to represent his self-reflexive mode:
To what use, then, am I now putting my soul? Ask yourself this question on every occasion. Examine yourself. (5.11)