Study Guide

Meditations Mortality

By Marcus Aurelius


Book 2

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.

Book 3

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.

Book 4 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.

Book 5

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.

Book 6

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.

Book 8

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).