From Severus: ... to have conceived the idea of a balanced constitution, a commonwealth based on equality and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all the liberty of the subject... (1.14)
Marcus is giving props to his family and tutors, who shaped his personality and thinking. It's clear that from the beginning, the idea of personal and political freedom is a high priority for Marcus. It seems unusual that a Roman emperor would be interested in such democratic ideals, but make no mistake: Marcus believes in personal liberty, but within a hierarchy. The scala naturae, or the natural hierarchy of things in the universe, reinforces a belief that lower beings are meant to serve and obey those beings of a higher order.
You embarked, you set sail, you made port. Go ashore now. If it is to another life, nothing is empty of the gods, even on that shore: and if to insensibility, you will cease to suffer pains and pleasures, no longer in thrall to a bodily vessel which is a master as far inferior as its servant is superior. (3.3)
Marcus often speaks of death as something to be welcomed rather than feared, since its immediate effect is to free us of the things that held us back on earth. Note the language of slavery used in the metaphor of the soul and the body. For Marcus and other philosophers, there is a sharp divide between two, with the soul representing a purer, higher existence and the body an earthly, inferior one. Death sets right the unnatural relationship that exists on earth, where the inferior body is often the master of the soul.
... we would not commend the man who shows himself free from the need of them; if these things were truly 'goods,' a man who fails to press for his full share of any of them could not be a good man. But in fact the more a man deprives himself of these or suchlike, or tolerates others depriving him, the better a man he is. (5.15)
Marcus is talking about how essential it is for people to free themselves from dependence on things. Though earthly things (like wealth, prestige, etc.) are often considered "goods," they are not good for the liberty of a human being. The argument here is a bit circular: Marcus tells us that these things are not good because we believe that those who don't possess them are good. At any rate, he means to say that the theoretical value system may be right, even though we crave possessions and fame.
So this is true value: and if this is firmly held, you will not be set on acquiring any of the other things for yourself. Will you not then cease to value much else besides? Otherwise you will not be free or self-sufficient or devoid of passion: you will need to be envious and jealous, to suspect those who have the power to deprive you of these things, and to intrigue against people who possess what you value. (6.15.2)
Marcus wants to impress on himself the value of leaving behind the usual earthly desires and behaviors (like reacting to sense impressions, bowing to impulse, gathering goods) so that he can remain a disinterested and independent human being. If this is too abstract, think about this in modern terms: living without the newest iPhone or laptop, not being connected all the time—that would be good for Marcus. How does it make you feel when, suddenly, your electronics are gone? You know you feel withdrawal. Marcus is warning against just this kind of thing. We can't be free if we are dependent on ephemeral things and not on our inner principles.
Of itself, the directing mind is without needs, unless it creates a need for itself: in the same way it is untroubled and unhindered, unless it troubles or hinders itself (7.16)
The goal of Marcus's notes to himself, you could say, is to set him on the path to freedom and self-sufficiency. Sure, he's Emperor of Rome, but we can see that he's struggling with the same things that any human being might: the desire for a good reputation, tranquility, success. He has to remind himself that all these desires disturb the natural calm of the mind, which wants only to remain independent and happy inside its own little world. Marcus has to work hard to protect his inner freedom from "colonization" from worldly concerns.
The mind preserves its own serenity by withdrawal, and the directing reason is not impaired by pain. It is for the parts injured by the pain to protest if they can. (7.33)
Marcus highlights the little war going on between the internal and external as well as between the body and soul in each human being. If the mind is to survive and prosper, as it should, it needs to create a fortress—something to wall it off from the body and keep out the concerns that shouldn't be there. In this sense, the mind is abandoning the body to its own proper concerns, like whether or not it is in distress or feels pain. This is a core tenet of the Stoic philosophy.
Remember that your directing mind becomes invincible when it withdraws into its own self-sufficiency, not doing anything it does not wish to do, even if its position is unreasonable...That is why a mind free from passions is a fortress: people have no stronger place of retreat, and someone taking refuge here is then impregnable. (8.48)
Marcus and others make much out of the image of the mind as fortress or calming retreat. It's essential for a person to remain free from the concerns of the external world—otherwise, he or she will become shackled by things like expectation, concern for reputation, and desires for worldly things. When life becomes too overwhelming, Marcus tells himself that a vacation is nothing compared to the benefits of moving inward and examining all the good philosophical doctrines he has stored in his memory. Not our idea of a good time, but we can see the value in having a strong internal support system in place.
What are these principles? Those of good and evil—the belief that nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, self-controlled, brave and free: and nothing evil which does not make him the opposite of these. (8.1)
Marcus values freedom and independence above all things because he believes that humans were created at the very top of the earthly hierarchy of beings; therefore, they are closest to the gods in likeness. If you're going to have that kind of privilege, you've got to embrace it through your behavior. Behaving as a tyrant (a real threat in the life of an emperor) or acting like a hedonist degrades this dignity.
Remember that to change course or accept correction leaves you just as free as you were. The action is your own, driven by your own impulse and judgement, indeed your own intelligence. (8.16)
Though he is emperor, Marcus seems pretty intent on remaining humble and ever-willing to learn from those who have greater wisdom. He's a good student. In this case, he tells himself that he's not giving up power or shackling himself in any way if he can admit that he's wrong about something. It's also an act of will to choose to be corrected and to change your ways. And that's always a good thing, since every action of the mind should be focused and deliberate.
But you might say: 'The gods have put these things in my own power.' Is it not then better to use your own power in freedom rather than show a servile and supine concern for what you cannot control? And who told you that the gods do not help us even to the ends which lie within our own power? (9.40)
Marcus is refuting the idea that prayer is not effective and that the gods have no power or inclination to help humanity. In the passage above this one, Marcus also advises on what it is best to ask for when praying: freedom from things that will enslave the mind (like fear, dependence, regret). Taken together, we can see that Marcus is most interested in a healthy relationship with divinity—which includes knowing when to pray and what to ask for.
Think how worthless all this striving is: how much wiser to use the material given you to make yourself in all simplicity just, self-controlled, obedient to the gods. The pride that prides itself on freedom from pride is the hardest of all to bear. (12.27)
Keep your eyes open with this one, because Marcus is doing some mental gymnastics here. In this case, he says that all freedom isn't good. Men must always remember that there are rules to follow if they are going to be free. A paradox, we know. But the person who succumbs to prideful boasting of his or her freedom from the gods and the principles of philosophy, in Marcus's eyes, has become enslaved in sin.
What is death? Someone looking at death per se, and applying the analytical power of his mind to divest death of its associated images, will conclude then that it is nothing more than a function of nature—and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere child. And death is not only a function of nature, but also to her benefit. (2.12)
Marcus strips death bare of its frightening imagery to conclude, as he usually does with this exercise, that it is nothing at all. Without emotions involved, he can see that death is a necessary function of nature, just like growing up or growing old. Without it, the universe can't remain healthy: it needs to get back some of those compounds so it can recycle them into new life.
Further, accepting all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its own origin: and at all times awaiting death with the glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements of which every living creature is composed. (2.17.2)
Marcus again diffuses the terror of death by saying it's "just dissolution." We're merely being taken apart into our component parts, as though the gods were disassembling a gigantic Lego set and sorting the blocks by size and color in readiness for the next project. And that is essentially what Marcus is saying: we belong to the gods, right down to our elements, and we will return to that great recycling center in the sky for just treatment.
You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think. Now departure from the world of men is nothing to fear, if gods exist; because they would not involve you in any harm. If they do not exist, or if they have no care for humankind, then what is life to me in a world devoid of gods, or devoid of providence? (2.11.1)
You've heard this before, whether or not you've wanted to: keep your death in mind, 'cause it's gonna come sooner or later. Marcus is a huge advocate of this line of thought and sometimes pursues it to the edge of morbidity. In this case, he assures himself that no real harm can come to him from death, since it's ordained by the gods, who are completely benevolent. If they say it must be, then there's a good reason for it.
Alexander, Pompey, Julius Caesar annihilated whole cities time after time, and slaughtered tens of thousands of horse and foot in the field of battle, and yet the moment came for them too to depart this life. Heraclitus speculated long on the conflagration of the universe, but the water of dropsy filled his guts...Vermin were the death of Democritus, and vermin of another sort killed Socrates. (3.3)
Marcus loves a good ironic observation. In this case, he's chosen famously vigorous and cruel conquerors to point out that everyone is going to die, no matter how violent, strong, or glorious they are. Even philosophers who spent an entire lifetime trying to work through the universe's most difficult existential puzzles ended up food for worms. No matter how close they got or how big their brains were, the universe was not impressed. Everyone winds up in the same place.
...one man follows a friend's funeral and is then laid out himself, then another follows him—and all in a brief space of time. The conclusion of this? You should always look on human life as short and cheap. Yesterday sperm: tomorrow a mummy or ashes. (4.48.2)
Well, there it is. Marcus isn't sentimental about the value of human life, or even about the relationships or experiences that normally anchor a person to a love of life. He understands that the same things happen from one generation to the next, and there's no point in attaching value to something as transient and fragile as human life.
In all this murk and dirt, in all this flux of being, time, movement, things moved, I cannot begin to see what on earth there is to value or even to aim for. Rather the opposite: one should console oneself with the anticipation of natural release, not impatient of its delay... (5.10.2)
If you were looking for an elegiac tone or a fond reflection on a life well lived, you've come to the wrong place. Marcus's strategy for dealing with mortality is to devalue the body and the life it lives on earth. It is, perhaps, a case of sour grapes—he can't have immortality, so he might as well dis mortal life to make it seem less wonderful. Or it could be that his experience of earthly reality makes him want to die as soon as possible. It' s clearly part of his philosophical practice not to attach value to human existence, since human existence is flawed beyond reason.
No different from a single breath taken in and returned to the air, something which we do every moment, no different is the giving back of your whole power of breathing—acquired at your birth just yesterday or thereabouts—to that world from which you first drew it. (6.15)
Marcus illustrates the fragility and transience of life by using the image of breath—constant, numerous, easily drawn and given back. He highlights here also how very easy it is to die if you're willing enough to leave life behind.
Death is relief from reaction to the senses, from the puppet-strings of impulse, from the analytical mind, and from service to the flesh. (6.28)
Marcus makes death seem like a prescription for all that ails. But in this work, the ailments are problems of the soul and mind, not of the body. The body itself is a mere ball and chain, something that doesn't do much but torment the mind with desire for pleasure and fear of pain. Once it's gone, the mind will have perfect tranquility.
And there is the inscription you see on tombstones: 'The last of his line.' Just think of all the anxiety of previous generations to leave behind an heir, and then one has to be the last. Here again the death of a whole family. (8.31)
If you walk around an old graveyard, you'll very likely see an inscription just like this. And if you're not a Stoic, it will tug on your heartstrings. We all understand how important the idea of posterity is to most humans. But Marcus just sees the concern for futurity as yet another thing that encumbers the mind and causes distress. We have to imagine, however, that he knows a thing or two about this kind of distress, since he lost a lot of children, and he himself was adopted to ensure a smooth transition of imperial power.
He who fears death fears either unconsciousness or another sort of consciousness. Now if you will no longer be conscious you will not be conscious either of anything bad. If you are to take on a different consciousness, you will be a different being and life will not cease. (8.58)
Marcus kind of nails it here: death threatens us with total destruction. That's plenty to cause angst. But again, he strips these fears down to the bone (pardon the pun) so that we can see there is no reason to worry about unconsciousness (we'll be dead, anyway, and won't know the difference) or a change of consciousness (life continues; huzzah).
He does not realize that it is sufficient to concentrate solely on the divinity within himself and to give it true service. That service is to keep it uncontaminated by passion, triviality, or discontent at what is dealt by gods or men. What comes from the gods demands reverence for their goodness. (2.13)
Marcus is speaking here of the man who is always "out and about" looking for ways to figure out what his neighbors are thinking about him. Instead, this guy should be nurturing that little spark of divinity (reason) that has been give to him as a gift from the gods. If a person can live a life that cultivates the mind—rather than giving a flip about more earthly concerns—he makes a grateful return to the Whole for giving him rational capacity.
And see that you keep a cheerful demeanour, and retain your independence of outside help and the peace which others can give. Your duty is to stand straight—not held straight. (3.5)
Marcus is a big proponent of self-sufficiency. This is something that comes from within, since a person cannot remain independent from the chaos of earthly life unless he or she insulates his or her mind from it.
In one respect, man is something with the closest affinity to us, in that it is our duty to do good to men and tolerate them. (5.20)
Marcus is using the royal "we" here (or the royal "us") and speaks as though he's of a completely different race from those around him. In many ways, he does feel that other people are aliens—that he's the only one who actually received his bit of reason from the Whole. But here, Marcus acknowledges kinship with other people, and he admits that they have the same basic purpose in life: to see to the common good and have patience with others, since we all have a common origin.
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. Do I still then resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into the world? (5.1.1)
We all know what it's like to face Monday morning head on. Apparently, that's been a thing since ancient times. Marcus approaches his reluctance as an incentive for an attitude adjustment, since it's actually his duty as a human being to get up and at 'em. This is the most positive that Marcus ever really gets, understanding as he does his place in the universe and the purpose of his existence.
I do my own duty: the other things do not distract me. They are either inanimate or irrational, or have lost the road and are ignorant of the true way. (6.22)
The emperor is a single-minded guy—or at least he's talking a good game. Marcus speaks of being a kind of closed circuit at all times, retreating into the fortress of his mind to avoid the traps of earthly life. This isolation reaches into other aspects of his life as well. Though it's important for us to live for each other and to complete social acts that benefit the community, we must remain independent and totally focused on our purpose in life. Distractions might come in the form of quarrels, concerns about reputation or fame—even pleasure. If Marcus keeps his mind on the seriousness of his obligations and what he owes to the gods, he believes he has a better chance of getting it done.
If you are doing your proper duty let it not matter to you whether you are cold or warm, whether you are sleepy or well-slept, whether men speak badly or well of you, even whether you are at the point of death or doing something else... (6.2)
Marcus has a lot to say about our purpose on this earth. Clearly, our purpose is not linked to pleasure in any way, nor is it linked to any concern for reputation or physical well-being. For Marcus, it's all about behaving in a way that is "proper to man." In other words, you have to do the things that are expected of rational creatures. This might vary from one person to the next, depending on your fate or where your talent lies. But once you are following the path designated by his reason, it truly is your duty and purpose in life to continue down it.
Everywhere and all the time it is up to you to honour god in contentment with your present circumstance, to treat the men who are your present company with justice, and to lavish thought on every present impression in your mind, so that nothing slips in past your understanding. (7.54)
Marcus defines his obligations carefully here, and all in reference to the present moment. He's very clear throughout Meditations to lay claim only to the present—since the past and the future are out of our reach. For the present, then, Marcus vows to give his full attention to the gods, to other people, and to his own thoughts. That should keep him busy for a bit.
Remind yourself of your duty to be a good man and rehearse what man's nature demands: then do it straight and unswerving, or say what you best think right. Always, though, in kindness, integrity, and sincerity. (8.5)
Marcus is not interested in shenanigans of any sort. He knows what it means to be a good person—and he knows that to be good is his life's goal. The only way for him to reach that goal is to do what his principles demand, without further delay. And as vexed as he often gets with his fellow men, he's determined to treat them with kindness, since that shows a tranquility of mind and a respect for the gods who created them all.
Just as those who try to block your progress along the straight path of reason will not be able to divert you from principled action, so you must not let them knock you out of your good will towards them. (11.9)
Again, Marcus emphasizes the need for a kind and tranquil response to even the most annoying of people. A calm demeanor is the sign of a well-disciplined mind. Marcus also knows that as a man of philosophy, he has to balance his desire to make his way through life on his own terms with the need to act as a social being, always looking out for the common good.
It follows that the aim we should set ourselves is a social aim, the benefit of our fellow citizens. A man directing all his own impulses to this end will be consistent in all his actions, and therefore the same man throughout. (11.21)
If he's going to pick a purpose and aim in life, we think that Marcus has chosen the right one for his profession. As emperor, he is in a position to effect the most good for the largest number of people. It's also especially pressing for him as a leader to remain consistent in his behavior. To have such a goal allows him to funnel his focus and energy into an appropriate channel for his station in life.
What then can escort us on our way? One thing, and one thing only: philosophy. This consists in keeping the divinity within us inviolate and free from harm, master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others' action or failure to act. (2.17.2)
As you read Marcus's thoughts, it'll probably become clear to you that his philosophical principles are both totally necessary for his sanity and utterly challenging to follow. However, the payoff is big. If a person can cultivate that inner fortress of reason, there is nothing that can ever touch him or her again. This kind of fierce independence is the hallmark of Stoicism.
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. (2.16)
Marcus has one overriding goal as he moves through his life: to be more in tune with his nature, which comes to him from the nature of the Whole, the reason that creates and directs everything in the universe. This is trickle-down governance, something possible because Marcus's universe is strictly hierarchical, right down to the irrational creatures of the earth. Everything has its purpose, and to buck against that is to cut yourself off not just from other humans, but from the gods as well.
You should take no action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives. Do not dress your thoughts up in smart finery: do not be a gabbler or a meddler. (3.5)
Marcus wants to be a straight talker. From the beginning of his work, it's clear that he has no love for rhetoric, the art of talking real fancy. He doesn't want to lie in order to persuade, nor does he want to take any other crooked path to his goal. Simply put, he wants to be a good man. The only way to do that is to be transparently honest in all that he does, and to do all for the good of the community.
Always have these two principles in readiness. First, to do only what the reason inherent in kingly and judicial power prescribes for the benefit of mankind. Second, to change your ground, if in fact there is someone to correct and guide you away from some notion. (4.12)
Marcus is simultaneously imperial and humble in this passage. He constantly reminds himself to do what is in his nature—that which he was born to do, according to the workings of fate. But there is no need to be conceited about gods-given power. Marcus knows that he can make a mistake like anyone else, and he knows that it's crucial for him to accept correction when it comes from a reliable source. In other places, Marcus explains that this does not limit his power. In fact, it affirms his independence, since it shows that he can make up his own mind to accept help.
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 moral creature. (4.3.4)
Marcus reiterates the need to create an interior space for retreat and to decorate it with the finest doctrines of philosophy. We see you rolling your eyes. But hold up: the point of all this, according to Marcus, is so that when things get hot out there in the world, you can come into the shade and find a source of comfort without ever having to leave home. The ability to find everything you need within yourself to calm yourself and find perspective is a highly prized virtue. It means freedom from dependence on external, changeable things, like other people's opinions of you.
Don't let the impression of other people's grief carry you away indiscriminately. Help them, yes, as best you can and as the case deserves, even if their grief is for the loss of something indifferent: but do not imagine their loss as any real harm—that is the wrong way of thinking. (5.36)
Marcus voices a central tenet of Stoicism: keep the drama to a minimum. While empathy is important—especially when trying to figure out a person's motivations—it can go too far. It's never a good idea for you to indulge your emotions too far, whether in grief or happiness. Manic highs and lows, for Marcus, are a sign that you're not in control of your mind and are too susceptible to sense impressions. The further you can distance yourself from emotional response, the more divine you are.
So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? (5.5)
Marcus is feeling a little sorry for himself, since he wasn't born with any obvious talent. Essentially, he tells himself to quit whining, since he has virtues enough—if only he would display them. In the end, it's a failing of his own that he doesn't appear as accomplished as he is (he's emperor, after all). If he can follow his fine principles, someone will surely notice.
Take care not to be Caesarified, or dyed in purple: it happens. 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)
This principle goes along with Marcus's earlier bit about plain-speaking: basically, just don't be fancy. Purity and simplicity bring you closer to the gods and keep you from the influence of the external world. It also keeps you clear of dependence on unworthy (transient) things and keeps you focused on the eternal, the important. So no matter how imperial things get for Marcus, he's got to respond to the strictures of philosophy, which always tell him to keep it real.
Your principles are living things. How else could they be deadened, except by the extinction of the corresponding mental images? And the constant rekindling of these is up to you. (7.2)
Marcus even has principles about his principles. In this case, he realizes that he has to work hard to keep those philosophical ideals relevant and active in his life. If he loses mental focus, he'll forget what he's about. It's a lonely struggle, but it's also a little exciting to think that something abstract can be crucial to actions in daily life.
Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence. (7.69)
This is totally the most quoted bit of the Marcus's work. And why not? It's got that kind of in-your-face frankness that we prize, combined with useful self-help advice. But seriously, Marcus is big on keeping death in mind. In a way, death is the goal of life—all living things tend in that direction, and it's a release from all the cares of the world. Keeping death in mind seems like the definition of morbid, but in this sense, it symbolizes the biggest kinds of catastrophes that can happen to you. Marcus knows that if you can keep on an even emotional keel when thinking about your own death or the death of your loved ones, you've got everything else licked. Classic Stoic move.
Where then is [good] to be found? In doing what man's nature requires. And how is he to do this? By having principles to govern his impulses and actions. What are these principles? Those of good and evil—and the belief that nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, self-controlled, brave and free: and nothing evil which does not make him the opposite of these. (8.1)
Marcus sums up the purpose of keeping his philosophical principles alive: they provide a framework for him to figure out his purpose in life and how to achieve it. Marcus says here that his purpose is to be a good man, or one who is independent of anything contrary to human nature. It's a broad definition of good and evil, but it works for Marcus, who is primarily interested in becoming more human, according to the intention of the Universe.
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. (2.16)
This graphic statement emphasizes Marcus's belief that humans are social in nature: we're born for each other and commanded by the universe to undertake social acts to benefit the community. To cut yourself off from the community of the universe is a grave sin, but not one without recourse. Marcus later speaks about how a person can "re-graft" him- or herself back onto society—but that things are never the same once he or she has broken away. Hey, the emperor is a law-and-order kind of guy. The concept of revolt strikes him with a horror that even death can't equal.
How all things quickly vanish, our bodies themselves lost in the physical world, the memories of them lost in time; the nature of all objects of the senses—especially those which allure us with pleasure, frighten us with pain, or enjoy the applause of vanity—how cheap they are, how contemptible, how shoddy, perishable, and dead... (2.12)
Marcus is not shy about discussing the temporary nature of human life and all the trappings that go along with it. He makes a strong point here about the valueless nature of worldly things, including the desire for fame and praise. Marcus piles on the doom and gloom to make a point: these are not the things we should spend our energy gathering or even thinking about. To do so will take away from life, not increase its value.
The works of Fortune are not independent of Nature or the spinning and weaving together of the threads governed by Providence. All things flow from that world: and further factors are necessity and benefit of the whole universe, of which you are part. (2.3)
Marcus is a huge fan of unity. In this case, it's the unity of divine agents that rule human life and keep the universe ticking away. Some of these forces may seem frightening (like the Fates that measure, weave, and clip the thread of individual lives), but they all exist to nurture the health of the Whole. Individual human lives are part of this, but they can't be valued above the eternal action of the universe.
Sure, life is a small thing, and small the cranny of the earth in which we live it: small too even the longest fame thereafter, which is itself subject to a succession of little men who will quickly die, and have no knowledge even of themselves, let alone those long dead. (3.10)
Marcus just loves to talk about how tiny we are. He insists that he keep this smallness of existence constantly in mind so that he doesn't ever value his individual life too much or place too much value on transient things like fame or reputation. This is a kind of reality check that's meant to keep the emperor focused on the things that matter, like doing social acts to benefit the common good.
Look at the speed of universal oblivion, the gulf of immeasurable time both before and after, the vacuity of applause, the indiscriminate fickleness of your apparent supporters, the tiny room in which all this is confined. The whole earth is a mere point in space: what a minute cranny within this is your own habitations... (4.3.3)
Marcus telescopes out to see the earth and human life as it really is: super tiny, completely insignificant. He doesn't do this to depress himself, though it seems like this would fit the bill. He wants to keep perspective on himself and the world he lives in. Remember that he's always addressing himself in these chapters, so when he exhorts (i.e. "Look...") he's telling himself what he has to do to maintain his philosophical principles.
You have subsisted as a part of the Whole. You will vanish into that which gave you birth: or rather you will be changed, taken up into the generative principle of the universe. (4.14)
Marcus speaks of the dissolution of death in terms of a great recycling program. It isn't as though he will be going somewhere foreign or scary, but he will be heading for change. As soon as those component parts are broken up, the Whole will figure out what he'll be next. For Marcus, there are two basic principles of life: life is change, and the individual life is part of a larger system. While dissolution sounds like a bad deal for the individual, it's really a mere rendering back to the universe what it let you borrow for a while.
... and so welcome all that happens to you, even if it seems rather cruel, because its purpose leads to the health of the universe and the prosperity and success of Zeus. He would not bring this on anyone, if it did not also bring advantage to the Whole: no more than any given natural principle brings anything inappropriate to what it governs. (5.8.4)
Marcus knows there's no crying in the game of life. He believes that part of man's duty is to take his lot in life—no matter how crummy—and leave off whining about it. However bad it is, the gods must have had a reason for your misery. It's all part of a larger plan that is somehow invisible to the poor shmoe suffering through it. You've heard all this before. But here's the added bonus: human suffering is not purposeless. In some way, it has something to do with keeping the universe on an even keel. Marcus does not say exactly what that is (he doesn't actually know). But then again, he was an emperor. It doesn't get much more privileged than that.
Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, it causes innumerable in their variety: scarcely anything stands still, even what is most immediate. (5.23)
The image of the life as a river flowing endlessly on seems clichéd to us today (and to be honest, it really was already in Marcus's time, too). But it's also particularly apt. Marcus uses the image not only to explain the constant motion of time, but also to explain the movement of things and people through time. As we ride down that river, the objects of life flow by so quickly that we can hardly get a read on things before they disappear. Transience is the hallmark of earthly existence. It teaches Marcus not to put too much value either on things of beauty or on the things that make him miserable.
All things are meshed together, and a sacred bond unites them. Hardly a single thing is alien to the rest: ordered together in their places they together make up the one order of the universe. There is one universe out of all things, one god pervading all things, one substance, one law, one common reason in all intelligent beings, and one truth... (7.9)
Unity is way important to Marcus's conception of the universe. Without it, there is unending chaos and very little purpose for existence. He often debates this with himself (is the universe a pile of atoms and random chance, or is it an ordered, unified system?); he chooses to believe that humanity is part of a larger Whole, a magnificent structure that is mirrored in a flawed way by human institutions on earth. Divinity has a hand in creating this structure, the first cause of all created things. God sets all things in motion and keeps everything working through his benevolent reason, which he places in small amounts in each human being.
Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation. Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you. (12.36)
This is from Marcus's envoy, the final farewell chapter in his Meditations. As with most envoys, this one gives instructions for departing—in this case, from life itself. Ever the philosopher, Marcus goes back to causes: the human life cycle has come full circle, with the creator of life calling back what he had set in motion. Marcus emphasizes the peacefulness of this exercise. No drama is necessary, since everything in the act of dying is just, right, and natural.
Now every part of nature benefits from that which is brought by the nature of the Whole and all which preserves that nature: and the order of the universe is preserved equally by the changes in the elements and the changes in their compounds. Let this be enough for you, and your constant doctrine. (2.3)
Marcus tells us that the universe is controlled by two conflicting principles: change and order. In this case, the structure and preservation of the universe is dependent on the change that constantly reshuffles the distribution of substance. While the maturing and decay of human life is exactly the thing that turns Marcus off to a life in the body, it's also the thing that keeps the universe ever new: the recycling of elements makes it possible for new things to be born all the time.
In man's life his time is a mere instant, his existence a flux, his perception fogged, his whole bodily composition rotting, his mind a whirligig, his fortune unpredictable, his fame unclear. To put it shortly: all things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusion; life is warfare, and a visit in a strange land; the only lasting fame is oblivion. (2.17.1)
Here's your cheerful thought for the day: humans are rotting, inconstant heaps o' atoms. Marcus strings together a line of metaphors to make sure we understand the transient nature of human existence. Of special interest here is the comparison of human on earth to strangers in a strange, hostile land. Though Marcus does not speak of an afterlife in detailed terms, this phrase hints that he imagines his true home to be elsewhere—perhaps as part of the universal Whole. Though the universe itself is a place of constant change, there's an inevitability and purpose to such transformation. On earth, change means brevity and decay.
... all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement. (4.3.4)
Marcus often uses the metaphor of existence as a river to convey how quickly individual people and other living things are swept through life and disappear. The speed of this turnover convinces him not to value anything that lives on earth, since all earthly life is so impermanent. There is no bitterness in his observations: life is change, he says, so get used to it.
All things fade and quickly turn to myth: quickly too utter oblivion drowns them. And I am talking of those who shone with some wonderful brilliance: the rest, once they have breathed their last, are immediately 'beyond sight, beyond knowledge.' (4.33)
The impermanence of fame is an appropriate theme for the Emperor of Rome to harp on, especially if he's trying to keep perspective on his role in the world. In his acknowledgment of the ephemeral nature of fame and memory, Marcus also acknowledges that he is among the privileged few: as emperor, his fame will last longer than that of the everyday worker. (He had no idea just how long that fame would actually last.)
All is ephemeral, both memory and the object of memory (4.35)
You may sense a theme by now: stuff doesn't last. Everything changes and decays. But in this little phrase, Marcus hits on something else: the utter oblivion of things that live only in memory. He's been clear up to this point about the transient nature of the flesh, but now Marcus acknowledges that the memory of a person's fame is equally fragile. It's because, of course, that memory resides in the minds of others, who will also fade and fall.
So every part of me will be assigned its changed place in some part of the universe, and that will change again into another part of the universe, and so on to infinity. A similar sequence of change brought me into existence, and my parents before me, and so back in another infinity of regression. (5.13)
Marcus finds comfort—or at least neutrality—in the constant movement of substance through the universe. It's all like a great recycling center in the sky. That movement is the origin of everything—and its final destination as well. Whether this creeps you out or not, Marcus believes that he's just walking a path that everyone else who has ever lived (or who will ever live) has to walk. Dissolution is democratic in nature and necessary for the health of the world.
Flows and changes are constantly renewing the world, just as the ceaseless passage of time makes eternity ever young. In this river, then, where there can be no foothold, what should anyone prize of all that races past him? (6.15)
Marcus finds a moderately positive aspect to the ever-changing nature of life in our universe: it keeps everything new. On the other hand, it makes no sense to get attached to any of it, since creation is so short lived. It's a real problem for Marcus, who, despite his general disgust at the things of this world, has to remind himself constantly not to value the world.
Is someone afraid of change? Well, what can ever come to be without change? Or what is dearer or closer to the nature of the Whole than change? Can you yourself take your bath, if the wood that heats it is not changed...Can any of the benefits of life be achieved without change? Do you not see then that for you to be changed is equal, and equally necessary to the nature of the Whole? (7.18)
While change can make things unpleasant for us (everything is so ephemeral), it's just a part of life that we all have to accept. And on some level, change is a positive thing. Children can't mature without change, and the universe can't be renewed without it. Moreover, change is a part of life for all things—the Whole doesn't pick and choose who decays. Everybody has to participate in the ebb and flow of the cosmos, like it or not.
The work of universal nature is to translate this reality to another, to change things, to take them from here and carry them there. All things are mutations, but there is equality too in their distribution. All is familiar: no cause then for fear of anything new. (8.6)
Marcus is feeling either more positive or more resigned to the concept of change in the universe here. He's a mutation, but that's okay: everyone is. He means to say that we are all in a constant state of flux: maturing, dying, being translated into another form at the order of the universe. But it's all good: it's what living things do. It's always been this way, and it'll be this way for the rest of eternity. Knowing that he's participating in something that's natural for human beings makes the idea of mutation and translation somewhat comforting to Marcus.
So what is there left to keep us here, if the objects of sense are ever changeable and unstable, if our senses themselves are blurred and easily smudged like wax, if our very soul is a mere exhalation of blood, if success in such a world is vacuous? (5.33)
In his 13th-century Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri promises his guide, Virgil, that he'll make his brain like wax so that he can receive and retain the stamp of impressions from his experiences. He chooses wax as a surface of permanence, something that will help him remember. Yeah, well, Marcus Aurelius doesn't feel the same way about wax. In this passage, he uses the image of wax as an impermanent substance, suitably reflective of human experience. He's actually pretty irritated by the transient nature of everything related to human experience, and he questions the value of human life in the face of it.
But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil is what is wrong; And I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own—not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. (2.1)
Marcus has a pretty straightforward understanding of good and evil, as we see here. But what comes next is a bit unexpected: he says that the person who does him wrong is not different from himself. Marcus understands that all people are essentially the same in two ways: 1) everyone commits sins or does wrong at some point, and 2) everyone has reason. If Marcus is applying his philosophical principles properly, he will never be angry with a person who does him wrong, for these reasons. Marcus also knows that his mind is properly insulated from the actions of the external world, so he can never be injured by the works of another human.
Yes, death and life, fame and ignominy, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty—all these come to good and bad alike, but they are not in themselves either right or wrong: neither then are they inherent good or evil. (2.11.4)
Marcus's goal in practicing his philosophy is to see things for what they truly are, so that he can value them properly—or not at all—according their natures. It's also important for him to see life with disinterested eyes, never placing value judgments on anything that happens, so that he can keep his mind pure. His waffling about these conditions of life reflects a similar attitude. Seen as objective principles, none of these things holds a particular moral valence.
'All's right that happens in the world.' Examine this saying carefully, and you will find it true. I do not mean 'right' simply in the context of cause and effect, but in the sense of 'just'—as if some adjudicator were assigning dues. (4.10)
Though much of what Marcus says makes sense, this one is a bit more challenging. Marcus is using the term "just" way differently from the way we would use it. In this passage, it means that everything that can happen in the world is meant to happen. Um, how does this dude know this? Because it happens, and the gods would not allow anything inherently harmful to the universe to happen. This doesn't mean that injustice doesn't exist: it just means that the injustice that does exist doesn't destroy things completely. It's also probably part of the grand scheme of things, cooked up by divinity and unknowable to the human mind.
Another does wrong. What is that to me? Let him see to it: he has his own disposition, his own action. I have now what universal nature wishes me to have now, and I do what my own nature wishes me to do now. (5.25)
The perception of wrong or evil disturbs the mind and causes unhappiness. Marcus is all about walling off of the mind from external things so that it doesn't judge anything to be good or bad. This clears the way for him to see the thing or event for what it truly is, unclouded by emotion. Marcus is also further comforted with this principle: mind your own beeswax. He knows that each person has his or her own "directing mind" and therefore has a fair chance of responding with reason. If someone doesn't respond with reason, that's his or her own problem. Marcus has to deal with all the stuff on his own philosophical plate.
If you set up as good or evil any of the things beyond your control, it necessarily follows that in the occurrence of that evil or the frustration of that good you blame the gods and hate the men who are the real or suspected causes of that occurrence or that frustration...But if we determine that only what lies in our own power is good or evil, there is no reason left us either to charge a god or to take a hostile stance to man. (6.41)
This is another "thinking makes it so" moment. Marcus is determined that nothing should be out of the control of his mind, since self-sufficiency based on reason is of prime concern for him. It is also important for him to keep tabs on his emotions when his goals are thwarted. Lashing out against the gods is a totally antisocial act, one that would cut him off from the universal Whole that is his spiritual and physical home. That would never do.
All things come from that other world, taking their start from that universal governing reason, or in consequence of it. So even the lion's gaping jaws, poison, every kind of mischief are, like thorns or bogs, consequential products of that which is noble and lovely. (6.36)
There's a strange paradox in Marcus' philosophy: you have to accept the horrors of the world as things emanating from the Whole, which somehow has the welfare of the universe as its sole purpose. So while Christians really do need to be persecuted (hence the "lion's gaping jaws") for the greater good of the Roman community, Marcus sees the chaos of violence as the necessary and grisly byproduct of the maintenance of order and calm.
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. (7.64)
Marcus believes that pain has the ability to enslave a man of reason, since the distress of the body can overpower the mind. More distress is added if man thinks that pain is being inflicted on him for some other reason—as a punishment or as part of a wrong inflicted by someone else. But Marcus's view is that pain has no inherent power to damage. It lies with the person who is experiencing it to cordon it off and keep it from the mind, which can make value judgments about it. If he can keep pain in the body, where it properly belongs, then the mind will be free and pure.
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. (7.26)
Marcus says a lot in his Meditations about wrongdoing and the proper response to it. This is, perhaps, the most surprising response. Marcus is all about a kind of empathy with the person who has wronged you. He believes that you have to understand the source of the other person's ignorance and try to remedy it if things are really going to change. So it's all about rehabilitation rather than retaliation and revenge for this emperor.
What are these principles? Those of good and evil—the belief that nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, self-controlled, brave and free: and nothing evil which does not make him the opposite of these. (8.1)
Marcus has a pretty simple definition of his principles and paints his concept of good and evil with a very broad brush. Evil, in essence, doesn't exist by itself. Rather, it is the opposite of that which is good: truth, justice, restraint—all the things that make men free and strong of mind.
In short, the good and honest man should have the same effect as the unwashed—anyone close by as he passes detects the aura, willy-nilly at once. (11.15)
Marcus chooses a strange example to illustrate the transparency that belongs to the truly honest man. And while we may disagree that an honest man is like a stinky one, we take the point. Virtue should never be hidden (or shown off); it should be something we can detect simply by looking at a person.
Wanting the bad man not to do wrong is like wanting the fig-tree not to produce rennet in its figs, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh, or any other inevitable fact of nature. What else can he do with a state of mind like this? So if you are really keen, cure his state. (12.16)
Here's an interesting interpretation of human behavior. Marcus puts the fault on himself for any pain he might experience at the hands of bad people. He should have known it was coming, since a person who is bad cannot possibly be up to good. If he wants to see something better from a person with a bad nature, that person has to be changed. The good thing is that Marcus thinks this is possible—and the responsibility for this type of person's reformation lies in the hands of those who are good.
It follows that the longest and the shortest lives are brought to the same state. The present moment is equal for all; so what is passing is equal also; the loss therefore turns out to be the merest fragment of time. No one can lose either the past or the future—how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess? (2.14.1)
Marcus is able to keep away from emotional drama and existential angst by observing that all life is the same—no matter how long or short it is in duration. He also emphasizes the importance of the present for all human beings, since it's the only place in time that we can influence or own. Everything else is swallowed by the gulf of time, on either side.
Remind yourself too that each of us lives only in the present moment, a mere fragment of time: the rest is life past or uncertain future. (3.10)
Marcus is sounding more and more like a modern motivational speaker here: Live in the present! Seize the day! Kidding aside, Marcus has a point: we can only control and affect the present moment. No one is guaranteed a tomorrow, and we have no real access to the past.
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)
Marcus uses the metaphor of time as a rushing stream to illustrate how short-lived human experience really is. The metaphor is particularly apt here, since it conveys the swiftness of time as well as the movement of all created things through it.
One who is all in a flutter over his subsequent fame fails to imagine that all those who remember him will very soon be dead—and he too. Then the same will be true of all successors, until the whole memory of him will be extinguished in a sequence of lamps lit and snuffed out. But suppose immortality in those who will remember you, and everlasting memory. Even so, what is that to you? (4.19)
Marcus's purpose here is to kill the desire for fame or to have a good and lasting reputation. He speaks elsewhere of how concern for these things often turn men away from their humanity. By using the image of extinguishing lamps, Marcus faces up to reality: everyone is going to die, including the person seeking fame—and all that person's friends and admirers. Memory itself is fragile and transient.
Look behind you at the huge gulf of time, and another infinity ahead. In this perspective what is the difference between an infant of three days and a Nestor of three generations? (4.50)
With the loss of so many of his own children, it's easy to see why Marcus spends so much time on the idea that the quantity of life is insignificant. He links this idea to that of the sameness of existence: if you've been around for 40 years, you've seen it all. Stuff is just going to start repeating itself, so there's no real need to hang around and experience more.
Reflect too on the yawning gulf of past and future time, in which all things vanish. So in all this is must be folly for anyone to be puffed with ambition, racked in struggle, or indignant at his lot—as if this was anything lasting or likely to trouble him for long. (5.23)
Marcus learns many lessons from observing the swift movement of time. This one is a favorite: why value anything of this earth, since it is so ephemeral? He reflects on the stupidity of struggling to gain fame or fussing about his fate when it's all over so soon. On the one hand, life is too short to sweat the small stuff. On the other, life is short, and he'll be dead soon. None of the drama will matter then.
Reflect on how many separate events, both bodily and mental, are taking place in each one of us in the same tiny fragment of time: and then you will not be surprised if many more events, indeed all that comes to pass, subsist together in the one and the whole, which we call the Universe. (6.25)
This is quite a different and interesting take on time (here, it's not about transience or death). Marcus reflects on the vast array of things happening in human time at any given moment and uses this to extrapolate out to the universe. In this way, he imagines how the Whole encompasses all things and all times at once, ready to parcel it out as it deems wise.
Look back over the past—all those many changes of dynasties. And you can foresee the future too: it will be completely alike, incapable of deviating from the rhythm of the present. So for the study of human life forty years are as good as ten thousand: what more will you see? (7.49)
Here's some more wisdom on the cyclical nature of human experience. All things change; all things stay the same. This is the paradox of time. Marcus repeats this idea frequently, with a kind of weariness that seems proper to an emperor looking back on the fates and behaviors of former imperial dynasties. Marcus's conclusion is the same every time: you don't have to live very long to see every combination of what can possibly happen.
Look, make yourself a gift of this present time. Those who are more incline to pursue fame hereafter fail to reckon that the next generation will have people just like those they dislike now: and they too will die. (8.44)
Marcus's dry humor surfaces here. Along with his usual observations about present time (it's the only thing we own, so live it), he tells us that investing in future fame is futile, since life is cyclical. In this case, all those horrible people that you hate now (and who hate you) have doppelgängers in the future. There's no hope for positive posterity.
All things are the same: familiar in experience, transient in time, sordid in substance. Everything now is as it was in the days of those we buried. (9.14)
This is Marcus on a Monday, feeling very badly about human existence. The swiftness and monotony of time leaves the emperor feeling that it's just not worth getting out of bed. Everything that will happen today has happened a million times in the past, and what good did it do our ancestors? They're all dead now, anyway. It's kind of a bad attitude, but Marcus isn't interested in sugarcoating anything. In this way, he hopes to see things for what they truly are and value things properly.
'All is as thinking makes it so.' The retort made to Monimus the Cynic is clear enough: but clear too is the value of his saying, if one takes the kernel of it, as far as it is true. (2.15)
This is a foundational concept for Marcus. It helps him to define his understanding of the more problematic things in life: pain, wrongdoing, and hindrances. He sees that these problems exist in the world, but that each man can take away the sting by getting his mind in the right place. Instead of passing judgments on the things that happen—thereby assigning them negative values—he can remain disinterested and analytical, seeing the wrong for what it really is. This allows him to turn each hindrance to good use, since his reason is not muddled with emotion.
Harm to you cannot subsist in another's directing mind, nor indeed in any turn or change of circumstance. Where, then? In that part of you which judges harm. So no such judgement, and all is well. (4.39)
This is part of Marcus's "thinking makes it so" campaign. Wrongdoing is entirely subjective: it can only work on a person if that person feels wronged. Think of it this way: if the ax of the wrongdoer cuts down a tree in the forest and nobody is there to hear it fall, nothing bad has ever happened to that tree. Right? But seriously, Marcus reminds himself time and again that it is up to him to retreat into the "fortress" of his mind rather than respond emotionally to unpleasant things that may be happening.
Everything in any way beautiful has its beauty of itself, inherent and self-sufficient: praise is no part of it. At any rate, praise does not make anything better or worse...Does an emerald lose its quality if not praised? And what of gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a dagger, a flower, a bush? (4.20)
Marcus remarks on the supreme indifference of the empirical world. You can't make a beautiful gem anything but what it is by talking smack about it. The same is true of people. This is a part of reality that isn't negotiable: virtues are what they are—no further judgments necessary.
Realities are wrapped in such a veil (as it were) that several philosophers of distinction have thought them altogether beyond comprehension, while even the Stoics think them hard to comprehend. And every assent we may give to our perceptions is fallible: the infallible man does not exist. (5.10)
Marcus is totally echoing Plato's concept of ideal forms. Plato talks about the difficulty of knowing what is real. Is what we are perceiving at any given time real? Or is what we are perceiving just a shadow or echo of the real, which is reserved only for the sight of the gods? One thing is for sure: our interpretation of what we see and experience is certainly imperfect enough to have us second-guessing ourselves at every turn. Marcus understands this and easily concedes that there is no man alive who can escape his faulty interpretations of the world around him.
Whenever you imagine you have been harmed, apply this criterion: if the city is not harmed by this, then I have not been harmed either. (5.22)
Marcus often talks about "the city"—which is the world—and its citizens when he thinks about the purpose of the universe. His theory of personal harm is governed by his understanding of the structure and purpose of the universe. While bad things may be allowed to happen to individual people, everything that happens is for the good of the Whole. And if it's good for the Whole—whether it's the universe or the city—it has to be good for the individual in the long run. We don't run into major problems unless the Whole or the city is damaged, since those are the structures that sustain all life.
How good it is, when you have roast meat or suchlike foods before you, to impress on your mind that this is the dead body of a fish, this the dead body of a bird or pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is the mere juice of grapes, and your purple-edged robe simply the hair of sheep soaked in shellfish blood! (6.13)
Although he's emperor, Marcus likes to keep himself humble. The best way to do that is to regard the luxuries around him with an X-ray eye: what are these luxuries really, without the fancy names? Once he takes each thing down to its component parts, Marcus realizes that they are kind of gross—and certainly not eternal. This is a true reality check, helping Marcus to realize that these trappings are not valuable or important.
Appearances: to the jaundiced honey seems bitter, to those bitten by rabid dogs water is a terror, to little boys a ball is a joy. Why then am I angry? Or do you think that false representation has less effect than bile in the jaundiced or poison in the hydrophobic? (6.57)
Marcus realizes that the state of the mind can affect the way it experiences reality, which reinforces the concept that reality itself is subjective or negotiable. He's also working on his anger response here, presumably because he has been lied to or duped by someone or something false. He addresses his own response—because that's what he can actually control—to get himself right again, calling "false representation" a poison no less potent than a biological agent.
Let any external thing that so wishes happen to those parts of me which can be affected by its happening—and they, if they wish, can complain. I myself am not yet harmed, unless I judge this occurrence something bad: and I can refuse to do so. (7.14)
Marcus is speaking here of partitioning his mind off from externals so that it isn't harmed by the things happening to the body. This dude's not very loyal to his poor body, which he considers inferior, like a millstone around his figurative neck. Here, he basically says that the body will have to fend for itself. If it's irritated or in pain, it can protest all it wants—if it can. (Which it can't, without the mind to help it.)
Remember, though, that you are by nature born to bear all that your own judgement can decide bearable, or tolerate in action, if you represent it to yourself as benefit or duty. (10.3)
Marcus tells himself that people are never given more than they can bear (you've heard that one before, right?). He means it in the most literal of senses: if he's given more than he can handle, he'll simply drop dead. That's comfort, Stoic style. But there's another side to that truism: you can bear anything you decide to bear. Marcus talks about refraining from judgment—from deciding whether or not you've been injured or wronged—so that the mind can think clearly and not have an emotional response. If the rational mind gets a chance to take over, it will be able to turn the wrong into something usable, thereby changing its evaluation of what has happened.
... if you were suddenly lifted up to a great height and could look down on human activity and see all its variety, you would despise it, because your view would take in also the great surrounding host of spirits who populate the air and sky; and that, however many times you were lifted up, you would see the same things—monotony and transience. (12.24)
Marcus does this exercise to challenge his perception of reality by literally lifting himself up out of the craziness of daily life. The emperor is neither the first nor the last person to suggest doing this. To be lifted out of normal mortal existence means not just gaining perspective on the littleness and chaos of human existence; it also allows a view of the ethereal, a higher level on the ladder of existence.
Further, let the god that is within you be the champion of the being you are—a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler: one who has taken his post like a soldier waiting for the Retreat from life to sound, and ready to depart, past the need for any loyal oath or human witness. (3.5)
Marcus makes a philosophical exercise of defining who he is. Note that he doesn't put particular emphasis on his state position; he gives equal billing to his citizenship and to his profession. He's just a regular guy, really, trying to do the right thing in his life until it is time to die. Which, by the way, he will do without ceremony. In this way, the Meditations is a remarkable piece of work. We have the leader of one of the mightiest empires on earth insisting on a generic human identity so that he can stay in harmony with his role as a citizen of the global city.
Similarly the ears of corn nodding down to the ground, the lion's puckered brow, the foam gushing from the boar's mouth, and much else besides—looked at in isolation these things are far from lovely, but their consequence on the processes of Nature enhances them and gives them attraction. So any man with a feeling and deeper insight for the workings of the whole will find some pleasure in almost every aspect of their disposition, including the incidental consequences. (3.2.2-3)
Marcus uses his philosophy as a platform to define himself and to learn what type of person he is. In this passage, he also shows the value of being able to really look at the things and people around us—and to find the value in each thing. His choice to focus on "unlovely" things illustrates Marcus's desire to get down to the substance of the things around him, without making value judgments on what he sees. To be able to do this with other people allows him more readily to do this in an assessment of himself.
He is a fugitive if he runs away from social principle; blind, if he shuts the eye of the mind; a beggar, if he needs for life; a tumour on the universe, if he stands aside and separates himself from the principle of our common nature in disaffection with his lot...a social splinter, if he splits his own soul away from the soul of all rational beings, which is a unity. (4.29)
Marcus sees humans as essentially social creatures who must participate in the life of their communities and of the universe if they is to fulfill their designated roles. To kick against fate, to blame the gods or to separate yourself from other people is to deny your humanity and to turn yourself into something monstrous (like a tumor). It's a denial of rational nature, and it's something that Marcus will later speak of as a sin against both the self and the gods.
I am made up of the causal and the material. Neither of these will disappear into nothing. So every part of me will be assigned its changed place in some part of the universe, and that will change again into another part of the universe, and so on to infinity. (5.13)
Marcus speaks rather coldly of his future dissolution into his component parts. This is the thing that keeps him steady in the contemplation of his mortality and helps him to accept his role in the grand scheme of the universe. While there's no mention of a preservation of self in this scheme, Marcus does not seem too disturbed. There's still a chance that consciousness will be preserved, so to play a role in the renewal of the universe is part of human nature that we shouldn't fear.
Things of themselves cannot touch the soul at all. They have no entry to the soul, and cannot turn or move it. The soul alone turns and moves itself, making all externals presented to it cohere with the judgements it thinks worthy of itself. (5.19)
Marcus speaks of the mind and soul as closed systems, things that are not necessarily responsive to external concerns. This may sound antisocial, but Marcus points out the necessity of this isolation to the preservation of personal freedom. If you can keep your mind and soul walled off from the hubbub of the outside world, you'll never become dependent on the things of this world (wealth, fame, emotional drama). This will allow you to be more authentically yourself, the being created by the Whole for a specific purpose in the universe.
And do not think, just because you have given up hope of becoming a philosopher or a scientist, you should therefore despair of a free spirit, integrity, social conscience, obedience to god. It is wholly possible to become a 'divine man' without anybody's recognition. (7.67)
Marcus is clearly having a struggle with his identity and role in life. He's born to be a leader and live an active life, but he's drawn to a contemplative life of study. This, unfortunately, cannot be. Marcus finds himself in the position that many of us in the modern world understand: how can he balance all the parts of his life and personality? How can he run the Roman Empire and plumb the depths of philosophical truths? Marcus decides that on the most basic level, philosophy is about a life well lived, according to one's principles. He's pretty sure he can swing that, even while fighting off hostile tribes on the frontier.
Every living organism is fulfilled when it follows the right path for its own nature. For a rational nature the right path is to withhold assent to anything false or obscure in the impressions made on the mind, to direct its impulses solely to social action, to reserve its desires and aversions to what lies in our power, and to welcome all that is assigned to it by universal nature. (8.7)
Marcus is big on following nature, since nature is the thing that defines your mind and your purpose in life. Because we're all given a rational mind, the goal is to live according to the precepts of reason. And the first rule of reason is to live life as a social being, working always for the common good. It's just an inescapable part of human identity, and one that must be accepted if we're is to live life in accordance with the plans of the universe.
But as things are you see how wearisome it is to live out of tune with your fellows, so that you say: 'Come quickly, death, or I too may forget myself.' (9.3.2)
Although everyone is given the same spark of divinity (reason), Marcus can't help feeling like the odd man out in his society. Perhaps it's because he's the emperor—that would certainly set him apart. It could also be because he's working hard to live a life according to principles that others don't value, or it could be because others have chosen to ignore their duty to live life in a rational manner. Either way, Marcus is having a hard time sticking to his philosophical regime in a world full of yahoos. He also fears that these fools may begin to change him (not for the better) before he can make it to the end of his life.
Remember that what pulls the strings is that part of us hidden inside: that is the power to act, that is the principle of life, that, one could say, is the man himself. (10.38)
Marcus talks about the rational soul here (which overlaps in many ways with the "directing mind") as the thing that gives life and purpose to our motion in the world. It's what we might simply call the soul these days—the vital power in us that we can't see or touch but that may endure separately from the body. It's also the thing that houses our personality—"the man himself"—the part that defines us as individuals. For all his talk about the commonality of human purpose and experience, Marcus is a strong believer in self-definition, without reference to the outside world.
If, then, when you finally come close to your exit, you have left all else behind and value only your directing mind and the divinity within you, if your fear is not that you will cease to live, but that you never started a life in accordance with nature, then you will be a man worthy of the universe that gave you birth. You will no longer be a stranger in your own country... (12.2)
Marcus has spoken before about being a "stranger in a strange land." He especially feels this when he's confronted with things like the transience of human existence. At the very end of this work, he's found the antidote for this feeling of alienation: becoming what the gods intend, by acknowledging what we have in common with them. In this case, it's reason. If Marcus can live his life in accordance with his principles, he will become more himself—more in tune with the true nature of a man.