Study Guide

Meditations Book 4

By Marcus Aurelius

Book 4

  • Marcus explains that our "ruling power" (a.k.a. "directing mind") is highly adaptable—it takes circumstances in stride and turns them into something beneficial.
  • Marcus compares this ability to a fire that consumes whatever it is fed. The brighter the fire, the more hungry it is for fuel. And when it "overcomes" what comes its way, it grows brighter.
  • Marcus reminds himself that all actions should focus on a goal.
  • Marcus rebukes himself for needing to take a vacay now and then. If he were a true philosopher, he would remember that the best retreat is inside yourself.
  • This inner retreat is well stocked with philosophical doctrines, which should give you great comfort.
  • Marcus reminds himself that we are all born for the sake of the rest of humanity. This should make us tolerant and kind toward others. We shouldn't mind the wrongs done to us so much.
  • Marcus advocates withdrawing the powers of the mind from the "bodily spirit" in order to let go of the worldly things that bother you—and he reminds himself to be indifferent to pleasure and pain.
  • Marcus reminds himself not to bother with fame, since every mortal thing dies and is quickly forgotten.
  • Moreover, mortality is on both sides of the spectrum: there's oblivion before life begins and after it ends. We're only around for a minute in the cosmic scheme of things.
  • Everything about humanity is small: the earth a tiny pinprick in the Universe, our homes are little dots on that pinprick, and each person even smaller that that. Why worry about posterity?
  • But Marcus still wants to retreat into the even smaller, private territory of his inner landscape, which puts him out of touch with the rest of the world and helps him master himself.
  • How does this work? Well, inside the mind, stuff can't touch Marcus—and if he refrains from observing and placing a value judgment on the things that happen around him, he will be free.
  • Also, reason tells Marcus that all things are subject to change and dissolution. Why bother engaging with anything that might upset him and just not be there in the morning, anyway?
  • After much deductive reasoning, Marcus comes to the conclusion that all humans are the citizens of one community: the universe. That's a big neighborhood right there.
  • It's from the universe that every governing thing comes, including the "directing mind."
  • According to Marcus, the other parts of his being (earthy, watery, fiery, etc.) come from the elements (earth, water, fire, etc.), but the mind comes from the cosmos.
  • We get another rumination on death: it's part of the nature of every intelligent/rational human being. There's no reason to fear it.
  • Marcus seems to be having trouble with certain people ("such people") who don't share his level of education or his views on life—and this is unpleasant.
  • But Marcus pins the fault on himself for expecting ignorant people to behave in a way that is clearly outside their abilities.
  • Anyway, none of it matters, because all of these people will be dead very soon, Marcus included.
  • Marcus tells himself to let go of value judgments; this way, he won't feel injured by anyone.
  • If something doesn't disturb the inner divinity, no harm can be done to a person. External stuff has no real power to hurt.
  • Marcus challenges himself by saying that everything in the world is just. He urges himself to help authenticate this belief by being a good man in all his actions.
  • Marcus once again advocates stripping things down to their elements to see them as they are. In this case, he wants to assess the wrong someone has done him.
  • Marcus reminds himself that as emperor, he has the responsibility to behave in ways that benefit humanity.
  • Marcus also tells himself that he ought to change his mind, or his stance, if he has been corrected by a reasonable person and it is for the good of the community.
  • Marcus has a dialogue with his soul/mind here: "Why don't you use your reason? You'd be so much happier."
  • Marcus reminds himself that he is just a part to the larger cosmic Whole and that when he dies, he will be dissolved into his elemental bits and returned to the universe for recycling.
  • Marcus uses the analogy of the ash of sacrificial incense falling on the altar to explain his take on early death. Some ash falls first; some ash falls later. What difference does it make?
  • Marcus understands that he can't court popularity; rather, he must hold fast to his commitment to reason. People will come around to his point of view eventually.
  • Marcus urges himself to be the best he can be—right now—because life is short.
  • More advice for the emperor's soul: don't be concerned about your neighbors' actions or words. You only need to worry about yourself and do what is right.
  • Here is another reminder not to be concerned with fame: everybody who worships you will be dead soon. Not only that, but so will all their successors, and with it, their memory of how great you were.
  • Marcus reminds himself to stay free from the need for praise and get on with his work.
  • Marcus says that praise never actually improved the goodness of anyone or anything.
  • Things (or people) who are truly good or beautiful are totally self-sufficient and do not rely on either praise or censure.
  • Marcus lists some things of beauty (emeralds, gold, ivory) and points out that they don't lose their value if they aren't praised.
  • Marcus gets all academic and theological now. He begins by asking how the air can possibly fit all the souls of the dead, if indeed they continue to exist after death.
  • Marcus's answer is simple: the same way that the earth holds the bodies of all the dead that ever existed—i.e. decomposition.
  • Souls don't hang around in the air in one piece forever. They eventually break into their original element (fire) and get recycled back into the Whole.
  • In addition to all those bodies and souls, there is the problem of animal bodies that are eaten. How do they fit in the earth, for instance? Same principle. Breakdown.
  • Marcus tells us that he's figured this out through observation of the "material" (actual substance) and the "causal" (that which activates the material).
  • With these things sussed out, you can figure out the component parts and how they'll be recycled back into the universe.
  • Marcus tells himself to focus. He should do right and keep thoughts on that which is unchanging.
  • Marcus addresses the Universe and professes his absolute trust in the rightness of it. He accepts whatever happens because whatever happens is in accordance with the will of the Whole and of Reason.
  • Moreover, Marcus praises it all because Nature is all good, all the time. There are lots of religious overtones here, including a reference to the "city of Zeus."
  • Marcus refers to Democritus's injunction to "do little" in order to achieve happiness. Marcus thinks rather that people should do what they've got to do for the common good.
  • However, Marcus does agree that we often do many unnecessary things. He tells himself to pare it all down and do just what he thinks is in accordance with reason and addresses the needs of society.
  • Marcus also wants to apply a razor to his thoughts, dwelling only on what is necessary so that he can translate thought into action more efficiently.
  • Marcus reminds himself to be a good man by being content with what the Universe has sent him and what he is capable of doing.
  • This chapter is all about being serene: don't get tense because something bad has happened or a wrong has occurred.
  • Marcus reminds himself that whatever happens has been fated and is therefore totally fine. He needs only to focus on the present and chill out.
  • Marcus presents the current debate about the order of the Universe. Is it deliberately ordered by a governing power, or is it a random collection of atoms with some version of order?
  • Marcus says that the important thing is order: without cosmic order, there can be no order within humans. He feels that this is especially true since all parts of the Whole are connected to each other.
  • Marcus disapproves of bad moral characters—shady, unmanly, stubborn, bestial, stupid, vulgar, people. Who doesn't disapprove?
  • Marcus claims that in order to be in harmony with the universe, a person needs to recognize that "social principle" is crucial. You can't run away from your social duty, or you risk alienating yourself.
  • Marcus deploys his "tumour on the universe" metaphor for such a man again in order to illustrate how far away from his nature man will be if he divides himself from "common nature."
  • Marcus uses religious language to chastise himself for his lack of loyalty to philosophy.
  • Marcus notes that other, "faithful" philosophers lack the basic necessities of life, and yet he—who has everything—can't stick to his principles as he intends.
  • Marcus reminds himself to love philosophy and stay away from extremes: no tyranny and no servitude.
  • Marcus points out that time is cyclical and that there is a sameness in everything that humanity does from one age to the next. And in each age, everyone eventually dies.
  • The same thing is true of entire peoples—they strove for greatness, but they were extinguished completely, anyway.
  • Marcus wants to keep in mind that struggles against one's own nature makes for a person who doesn't feel that his or her lot in life is sufficient.
  • Marcus's antidote is to stay focused on that which is important and not waste time on anything of little importance.
  • Then comes a little semantic discussion. Marcus explains that just as the value of words changes—certain words or phrases become obsolete, for example—so too with people. Even really famous dudes like Scipio and Cato will fade from the memory of civilization. There is no such thing as lasting fame.
  • If this is the case—which, for Marcus, it is—what should he strive for? His answer is always the same: to be truthful, to work for the common good, to accept his lot in life.
  • Marcus tells himself to bend to the will of Clotho.
  • Marcus declares that memory is fleeting.
  • Marcus observes that change is a constant of the universe and that the primary goal is to change one thing into some other thing.
  • Marcus tries to use the concept of a seed to describe the passing on of creation—but then he backs away, since his idea of "seed" is very earthbound.
  • Marcus again warns himself: you're gonna die soon, and you aren't the good person that you want to be yet.
  • Marcus urges himself to observe the rational minds of the wise to learn how to behave.
  • Once again, Marcus tells himself that any wrongdoing he feels from others is really just a result of his own perception of their behavior. Stop judging, he tells himself.
  • In order to keep his mind clear, Marcus will have to divorce it from his body. Even if he's cut open, he tells himself, his inner mind should remain tranquil.
  • If whatever is happening to Marcus can happen to anybody—good or evil—then it is a completely ambivalent force and shouldn't be called evil.
  • Marcus muses on the unity of the universe. He believes it is a single consciousness that takes in everything and makes everything run harmoniously.
  • Marcus quotes Epictetus about the body/soul balance.
  • Marcus declares that change is an indifferent force.
  • Marcus compares creation to a river and time to a stream. The idea is that things are brought in and swept away quickly and continuously.
  • Marcus declares that there is nothing new under the sun. Everything that happens has happened before and will continue happening.
  • Marcus expounds on the idea of "affinity": everything is connected in a rational way, not just through succession.
  • Marcus cites Heraclitus, who says that the death of one element is the generation of another.
  • Marcus remembers, too, that Heraclitus spoke about how humans rebel against Reason and about how we should move and speak with purpose and challenge received knowledge rather than simply accept it.
  • Marcus reminds himself to place no value on a long life. To him, there should be no difference between one more day and ten thousand more years.
  • Marcus highlights the irony and inevitability of death by pointing out paradoxes: doctors who die after spending a lifetime worrying about patients, tyrants who destroy others, etc.
  • Cities pass away as quickly as humans. Marcus again focuses on the brevity of human life by telling himself to recall how many funerals he's been to. (Lots.)
  • The point: life is brief and shouldn't be valued.
  • Also, the little time Marcus has should be spent in harmony with reason—and then he should bow out gracefully and gratefully.
  • Marcus exhorts himself to be steadfast, no matter how hard things get. He coaches himself to turn his frown upside down and see his good luck in the worst of situations.
  • If a bad thing happens to Marcus, it is something that is allowed to happen to any human, and therefore it is totally in harmony with nature. So there's nothing to complain about.
  • There's also no reason to change who Marcus is in adversity. He needs to remain self-controlled and generally good, since it is consonant with human nature. If he does so, he will be able to embrace misfortune as an opportunity to be more fully human. And that, then, is good fortune.
  • We get more on death, this time anecdotal. Marcus compares those who have lived a long life to those who have died early. Did the long-livers gain much? Not really, since both groups of people are all dead now, anyway.
  • Moreover, since human life is just a dot in the vast spectrum of time, there's very little difference between dying early or dying late.
  • Marcus encourages himself to keep on the straight path of reason, since it is the easiest for humans—it keeps him from worrying about what other people think, for one thing.